The UPA government has a new and unaccounted challenge on the foreign policy front in this election year: China upping the ante on the issue of Sino-Indian border dispute. The Congress-led UPA government will do well in thinking and acting ahead of China in the ongoing political chess game because its failure to do so would inevitably cost it dearly in the domestic politics.
The danger of a future Chinese incursion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is far from over and no one can guarantee that future Chinese incursions will not result in an ugly situation on the unsettled Sino-Indian border.
This is the pithy but accurate description of the Sino-Indian border row. Interlocutors on the Indian side cannot vouch for exactly how the ongoing border dispute between Asia’s largest neighbours is going to play out in the near future. China is in the driver’s seat. It is China who will decide the agenda of the Sino-Indian border dispute negotiations as India has little to offer to influence the process.
This, in a nutshell is the current picture of the Sino-Indian border dispute, even as the two sides’ Special Representatives are staying engaged to find a solution to the vexed problem.
The situation is all the more worrisome as Indian government sources have admitted that troops of India and China did have a “face-to-face” situation in the Chumar sector of Ladakh after Chinese troops transgressed into the Indian side on 17 June due to “differing perceptions” of the boundary.
The admission tells two significant things. One, the new Chinese dispensation is continuing to pile up pressure on India to settle the boundary dispute at the earliest. Two, the Indian attitude is no longer diffident. The Indians have started to pay back the Chinese in the same coin and are no longer averse to engaging them in a face-off.
This is the second time in the space of two months when the Indian troops have dared China and stood their ground, refusing to let the Chinese troops dictate their terms to the Indians. The 17 June episode is the second in a matter of about two months after the first incident of a three-week-long 19-km-deep incursion in Daulat Beg Oldi in the same sector, triggered on 15 April.
The Chinese behaviour in the second incident of 17 June is worth examining. This incident took place some three weeks before Indian defence minister AK Antony undertook his visit to China (4th to 7th July). Antony went ahead with his China visit nonetheless, the first China visit by an Indian defence minister in seven years. The Chinese forces returned to their normal positions after the face-to-face in this instance.
The first Chinese incursion incident of 15 April reached its denouement three weeks later, days before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was to visit India and that visit too eventually did take place.
Here too the Indian troops engaged their Chinese counterparts in virtually eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The result was the eventual vacation of the Indian territory by the Chinese, though only after the Chinese extracted their pound of flesh and ensured that the Indians brought down some military constructions which the Chinese found offensive.
In the second incursion episode of 17 June, the Indian compromises are said to be even more graphic. The Chinese troops vandalized the Indian military structures on the LAC in Chumar, cut the wires and destroyed the prying cameras recently installed by the Indian side.
In both these incidents, it was China that crudely read the rule book to the Indians. It was the Chinese who had the last laugh in both these incidents and went back after causing some military attrition to the Indians – negotiated in the 15 April incident and forced in the 17 June day-long episode.
And yet the Chinese cannot be grinning from ear to ear for the simple reason that in both these incidents the Indian military stood its ground and challenged them in face-off situations, though without a single shot being fired from either side.
The Indian government has explained the two episodes in a routine manner: that the LAC is undemarcated and that there are sensitivities involved due to differing perceptions of the LAC.
But the fact remains that the new Chinese government is doing just the same as the previous Chinese dispensation. But there is one important difference and a sense of timing in the Chinese tactics.
India is in the midst of a political transition and general elections are round the corner, unlike the once-in-a-decade political transition in China which was duly and peacefully completed in March this year.
China is known to carefully choose its timings for its major steps. Recent history is a testimony to the fact that China floats a trial balloon with its neighbours when they are in the midst of a political transition and thus the targeted government is weak, if not lame duck, for obvious reasons.
The Chinese initiative Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) is one such trial balloon. Through the recent two incursions in the same areas in Ladakh, China is hectoring India and putting pressure on New Delhi to resolve the boundary dispute in double quick time, knowing full well that a weak government won’t be able to do this.
India has to avoid the Chinese trap. The Chinese are obviously cheesed off with the proposed Indian plans to raise a China-specific Mountain Strike Corps. The proposed force of additional 90,000 military personnel at a whopping expenditure of $ 15 billion will be the last thing that China would want to have from its most potent military adversary.
Though the Indian officials may maintain that keeping peace and tranquility on the boundary is “a work in progress” and that “it is not for any other country to tell us” what to do on the issue of Indian national security (read Mountain Strike Corps move), there is a wide gap between saying and doing.
Ironically, any further Chinese provocation on the LAC may push the poll-bound UPA government into hastening a decision on the Mountain Strike Corps which is presently at the last stage of clearance – the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
China must realize that when a cat is cornered and is hounded the agile animal invariably pounces on the face of the aggressor.
The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.