By Rajeev Sharma
Just when India-China bilateral engagement is peaking up, to and fro highest level visits are being planned and a calendar for the next round of Special Representatives’ level talks on the boundary issue is being prepared by the two sides, suddenly there is a flash in the pan. China has come up with perhaps the most ambitious, brazen and evidently well thought out incursion into the Indian territory.
On 15 April, 2013, several dozen soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered as deep as ten kilometers inside the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Daulat Beg in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) and set up a camp there. The audacity of the Chinese operation is reflected from the fact that their ground troops were given cover and logistic help by two helicopters to enable them to set up a camp on the Indian territory.
Mercifully, the Indian response this time is neither meek nor knee jerk. Within two days of the Chinese putting up a camp in Daulat Beg, the Indian Army dispatched the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts which set up its own camp barely 500 meters away from the Chinese camp.
The latest update available on the Daulat Beg situation on Saturday evening is that the Chinese troops are still there. The Indian troops are also there.
The upshot is that not a shot has been fired from either side but the India-China border can hardly be described as “tranquil”.
Why Daulat Beg?
Why did the Chinese choose Daulat Beg? Does this hitherto-unknown place hold any strategic significance?
The Chinese have not forgotten that it was at this place where the Indians had set up its landing strip during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. India reopened this strip and operationalized it five years ago. If a war were to break out between India and China, Daulat Beg would be a key frontline airstrip to launch air strikes against the Chinese. China knows that Daulat Beg is a strategic asset for India as this 16,700 feet airstrip in Aksai Chin area is the world’s highest airstrip and is very close to the China border. The Indian Air Force operated Packet aircraft from this strip between 1962 and 1965.
The Indian Response
There has been no formal response from the UPA government on the continuing standoff and it is not likely also. China is not Pakistan. The Ministry of External Affairs handles China with utmost sensitivity. Whether this approach is right or wrong is another matter but this is a factual position.
Government sources, however, gave a fairly elaborate reaction to the latest Chinese provocation as follows:
“This is an area where there have been differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control. Incidents do occur and are resolved peacefully on the basis of bilateral agreements which exist and mechanisms provided for in these agreements.
“Both sides are in touch on this availing the Working mechanism for consultation and coordination on India-China border Affairs which is headed by the Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Director General Border Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We are confident that the current incident too will also be peacefully resolved on this basis.”
Reading the Chinese Tea Leaves
Trying to comprehend the Chinese tactics (whether ‘art of war’ or ‘art of peace’) is like reading the Chinese tea leaves.
The Chinese are pastmasters in the art of dodging and playing shoot-and-scoot diplomacy, mixing it well with lot of defence posturing. The Daulat Beg provocation has come when senior Indian officials discussed ways to collaborate on international forums more proactively and just three days before the two sides held their first-ever bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan.
The two sides have resumed their military dialogue as well as military-to-military exchanges. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is preparing to visit China sometime in June this year. The new Chinese Premier or President too is likely to visit Idnia around that time.
And yet the Chinese choreographed this provocation! Confused? Well, by now the Indians are well versed in the art of reading the Chinese tea leaves. The Chinese are no longer an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. The Daulat Beg incursion is aimed at only one thing: to demonstrate to the Indian leadership that the boundary dispute is still alive and needs to be sorted out expeditiously no matter the two sides are looking at $ 100 billion bilateral trade in a year or two.
Though China knows it is not dealing with an India of 1962, the difference between the defence might between the two nuclear-armed neighbours still remains like the difference between day and night. The Chinese are still way ahead of the Indians in every respect, though they know it well that in case of another military conflict this time they will be given a bloody nose.
The Daulat Beg incursion is just a posturing from the Chinese which is meant to be sorted out in a few days after it has served its diplomatic purpose and rationale. However, China committed a mistake by hoisting a war on India in 1962 over the territory issue. The 1962 war virtually formalized and sanctified the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eyes of the world just as Pakistan’s misadventure in imposing the Kargil War on India in 1999 virtually sanctified the Line of Control (LoC) before the international community.
The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at email@example.com.