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Chinese choppers violate Indian airspace in Uttarakhand: Not snooping, here's why the Dragon did it

In one of the great paradoxes that define the India-China relationship, the violation of Indian airspace by Chinese choppers on Saturday is, all at once, important and inconsequential. This is not a logical impossibility but the truest representation of the current state of affairs between the two countries.

Representational Image. Reuters.

Representational Image. Reuters.

It is a 'minor incident' because this is the fourth Chinese airspace incursion since March, yet it is crucial because this is the first time China has entered Indian airspace through Uttarakhand.

It is significant because it keeps alive the border dispute and is intended to send a message: That we cannot take Chinese compliance with Line of Actual Control for granted. It is China's way of telling us that among all other things that remain unresolved in bilateral ties, boundary dispute features pretty high up the order.

Yet, it is insignificant in the larger scheme of things because both countries have a robust mechanism in place to deal with one of the major irritants.

The interesting thing about the latest incursion, as always with China, is the timing. Consider carefully and it gives us a clue why China deployed two Zhiba series of attack helicopters to  violate Indian airspace in the Badahoti area of Uttarakhand's Chamoli district on Saturday morning.

Both choppers reportedly hovered between three to five minutes before flying back, raising apprehensions among Indian security establishment that these were on a possible a reconnaissance mission to capture troop formation.

Now Badahoti, an 80-kilometre sloping pasture, is officially listed as a disputed area since 1958. Indian jawans, under a unilateral decision taken by the Centre in 2000, patrol in civilian outfits and do not carry weapons.

According to a report in The Indian Express, Chinese troops did not enter the 545-kilometre 'middle sector' (under which Badahoti falls) even during the 1962 war. During intense negotiations on India-China border dispute, India unilaterally offered not to carry arms to three posts: Badahoti, Kauril and Shipki in Himachal Pradesh.

Security experts are apprehensive that China, by violating the 'middle sector' which they didn't transgress even during the war, is testing India's tolerance and seeking to alter ground realities through its time-tested strategy of incrementalism. This isn't anything new. Beijing engaged Islamabad in a joint patrol of Chinese-Pakistani troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) last year in a blatant violation of One India policy.

Indrani Bagchi pointed out in The Times of India that this was part of China's plan, consistent with its strategy in South China Sea and PoK to "inch forward, but altering the ground situation irrevocably on the way. In fact, the PLA’s frequent incursions/ transgressions (whatever you will) also have the same aim of marking territory. China is using both infrastructure and political tools to make Pakistan “own” PoK."

China has been, for decades, trying to modify the Himalayan frontier and increase its sphere of influence. The question is: Why now? For answers, we need to examine  what happened on Friday, a day before the reported Chinese incursion took place.

In Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was making the case for an inter-connected and inter-dependent world during his speech at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum while sharing the stage with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Answering a question as to why India abstained from joining China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Modi pointed out that the project violates India's sovereignty but stressed equally that despite some disputes, both India and China are mature enough not to focus on discord and are rapidly increasing areas of collaboration for a mutually beneficial relationship.

"It is true that we have a border dispute with China. But in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of it," said the prime minister, according to a report in The Times of India. The comment made instant headlines in Indian media.

A few hours after Modi's speech indicating that the India-China border dispute is not a deterrent to better bilateral ties, China sent two attack helicopters to the 'middle sector' transgressing the Line of Actual Control through Uttarakhand. The timing of the incursion leave little room for doubt that instead of a reconnaissance mission, the choppers were on a political mission: Sending the message that the border dispute remains alive and India can never take it for granted.

We saw the same manipulation in September 2014, when Chinese president Xi Jinping sat on a swing with a newly elected Indian prime minister in Ahmedabad while PLA troops advanced into the Chumar sector in eastern Ladakh and stayed put for more than a fortnight despite India lodging a strong protest.

The reason behind China's apparently dichotomous behaviour is explained aptly by former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy. "China wished to emphasise to the new Indian prime minister its military dominance and ability to embarrass India on the border; that it was not so preoccupied by its troubles with Japan and Vietnam in the East and South China Seas as to need to make concessions to India; and that peace on the border is fragile, and China should not be taken for granted. In other words, the third explanation is that the PLA movements were an early attempt to establish psychological dominance over a new Indian government."

In keeping with this behaviour, China's foreign ministry spokesperson on Monday praised Modi's speech in St Petersburg, saying "we welcome that".

This juxtaposition of alternate realities is the cornerstone of China's foreign policy. The incursion in Uttarakhand, an unprecedented foray into the middle sector, therefore, is both important and inconsequential.

China is telling us it is dangerous to make assumptions when it comes to border dispute — a signal it must have read in Modi's well-intentioned encomium in Russia — and yet through a coordinated foreign ministry statement, appeared to allay any fears of escalation in conflict.

China is aware, as much as India is, that any military action on either side is counterproductive to both nations' interest, ambition and trajectory of growth.

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2017 17:18 PM

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