For two years, India has been grappling with a heightened threat perception on its borders with China. VK Shashikumar on the complex preparations for a war that may not happen
The Ring of the Dragon
HOW CHINA IS FLEXING ITS MUSCLES
CHINESE PREMIER Wen Jiabao is to visit New Delhi in the middle of December. His visit would mark 60 years of a tense diplomatic relationship, one where India’s elephantine firmness is increasingly matching China’s assertive dominance. In November, India’s foreign minister SM Krishna informed Parliament that the government is keeping “a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security and is taking all necessary measures to safeguard it”.
China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is over and its new ‘assertiveness’ is bothering diplomats, politicians and military strategists. “The Chinese have incrementally taken over ground in the Western Sector near the Pangong Tso in Ladakh,” says Bhaskar Roy, accomplished China-watcher and analyst, and a recently retired RAW officer. “Indian Army cartographers have informed the government that the Chinese are claiming more territory. India will have to strengthen its defences.”
Nobody in the government will admit it, but the fact is that two years ago India’s armed forces upgraded the threat perception from China from low to medium. Officially, China’s defence budget is $70 billion, but Pentagon believes it is $150 billion. In comparison, India’s defence spending is a fifth of the Pentagon estimates. Despite such colossal spending, however, it is not likely that nuclear India and China will go to war because neither would like to lose an opportunity to lead the world in the 21st century. There is too much at stake. Yet, Beijing and New Delhi are engaging in military posturing and preparing for a war they are not likely to fight in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh) and Western Sector (Ladakh).
The border region in Ladakh resembles an inverted palm. Over the past four decades, China has occupied three of the finger points. “They (the PLA, People’s Liberation Army of China) are advancing towards the fourth finger area, called the Trigonometric Heights or Trig Heights. Most PLA transgressions happen at Trig Heights,” says Srikanth Kondapalli, a rare Mandarin-speaking academic privy to restricted information. Kondapalli is chairman, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
TRIG HEIGHTS is south of the Chipchap River, comprising Points 5495 and 5459 (called Manshen Hill by the PLA). Southeast of Trig Heights is the Depsang Ridge, which it is trying to take under its domination. What Roy and Kondapalli say is important because South Block often seeks their inputs into policy-making.
For reasons best known to it, the UPA 2 government has not come clean on the extent of Chinese incursions in Ladakh, consistently playing them down. In September 2009, New Delhi and Srinagar were alarmed by reports of Chinese incursions in Zulung La in Chumar sector in the east of Leh, located at the junction of Ladakh, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet. While Chinese claims on Arunachal grab news space, it is in the Western Sector that Indian and Chinese troops are endlessly trying to outwit each other.
India has deployed elements of the Vikas Regiment of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) in the Ladakh part of the Western Sector. The secretive SFF reports to the Cabinet Secretariat. This regiment was formed by recruiting and training Tibetan settlers in India. They operate in an area where “not even a blade of grass grows” as Jawaharlal Nehru famously said. There is no habitation, only nomadic shepherds. China has used this to gradually advance on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“Two-thirds of Pangong Tso is in their control. There are reports that the Chinese have brought in the artillery and fast patrol boats. They are aggressively patrolling the lake, which is believed to be 50 to 300 metres deep in most parts. There are even reports in the Chinese media about the induction of a submarine,” says Kondapalli. The Indian armed forces are outnumbered because there is no way they can effectively dominate the third of the lake under their control. “We cannot frequently go on patrols because our forces don’t have patrol boats on the lake.”
The PLA is gradually strengthening its claim over the Samar Lungpa area in the Western Sector. According to the Chinese, the LAC is south of Samar Lungpa, an area wedged between the Karakoram Pass and the Chipchap River. But it is business-as-usual when it comes to the official version. RK Bhatia, director-general of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), addressed the media in the first week of November. “We have no report of any intrusion along the borders. The borders are peaceful,” he said. What Bhatia didn’t mention was that the ITBP sends out area domination patrols across the LAC north of Samar Lungpa, while the force is stationed south of it. This is just a minor instance of how successive governments in New Delhi have categorised even the most trivial China-related information as classified.
“None of the official documents related to China are in the public domain. Go and ask for a China-related document at the National Archives and all you get is silence,” says Kondapalli. Under Indian law, restricted official documents can be declassified after 50 years, but documents related to China have not been declassified since 1914. These documents are from the 1914 Shimla Convention when representatives of Britain, China and Tibet met to resolve Tibet’s status. During this convention, the McMahon Line was drawn delineating the India-China border. However, China does not accept this border.
Roy says the PLA’s incursions and its incremental encroachment in Ladakh are designed to show that Beijing has shifted its stance on the Kashmir issue. “In the 1980s, the Chinese described the Kashmir issue as a bilateral dispute. Jammu & Kashmir was described as Indian-held Kashmir and the area held by Pakistan was described as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Now they say Indian-held Kashmir is a disputed territory and that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is Pakistan’s sovereign territory.” Kondapalli agrees there is “definitely a shift” in China’s Kashmir policy. “The critical period was 2009 October-November when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Arunachal. This was followed by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang. These were massive heartburns for the Chinese.”
This is a cloak-and-dagger game that requires fine understanding. “The Chinese don’t speak directly,” says Roy. But New Delhi is reading Beijing’s language intently. China’s dramatic shift on Kashmir was announced in a typically understated and indirect manner when it began issuing stapled visas on separate sheets to applicants from J&K and Arunachal. “There is no record of stapled visa to Kashmiris residing in PoK and Northern Areas. So this is a key signal of what Beijing wants India to know. That the areas of Kashmir under Pakistani control are not disputed anymore,” says Kondapalli. In a back-handed way, therefore, the Chinese leadership has conveyed to India that it considers J&K a disputed territory.
IN AUGUST, the Chinese denied visa to Lt General BS Jaswal, Commander of the Northern Command, for an official visit. Beijing suggested that another General, presumably someone posted outside J&K and Arunachal, could be nominated in Jaswal’s place instead of cancelling the visit. New Delhi promptly rejected the offer. This was followed by a report in The New York Times in September revealing the deployment of 11,000 Chinese soldiers in Gilgit and Baltistan in PoK. Then, China’s foreign ministry recently declared that the Northern Areas, Gilgit and Baltistan are Pakistan’s sovereign territories. India says they are part of undivided J&K.
China experts and official sources, who wish to remain unnamed, point out that China is legitimising its new Kashmir policy by heavily investing in infrastructure projects in PoK and the Northern Areas. Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), told Xinhua in a 2009 interview that he was very happy with the ongoing infrastructure projects China has undertaken in PoK. According to Chinese protocol, Hu is the ‘paramount’ leader and is ranked higher than Premier Wen. Hu’s statement, according to Kondapalli, was an indication that something is cooking.
Media reports in Pakistan and elsewhere peg the Chinese investment in hydro projects and road and railway construction at $30.14 billion. An important strategic project the Chinese have undertaken in PoK is the construction of a rail line between Khunjerab (4,693 metres), on the border of Xinjiang province, and the Northern Areas all the way to Havelian in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The plan is to extend this line to Gwadar port, which the Chinese are building. “The Chinese want to keep India and Pakistan permanently divided and the Pakistani Army is happy with this,” says Kondapalli.
Curiously, in the ongoing winter session of Parliament, Krishna toned it down. “The government remains vigilant to all developments having a bearing on India’s national interest and takes all necessary measures to safeguard it. The Chinese side expressed their inability to accept the visit of GOC-in-C Northern Command (Jaswal) to China as ‘he commands a sensitive area and people from that region come with a special type of visa’. The government has taken up this matter with the Chinese side and has clearly conveyed that J&K is an integral part of India and that there should be no discrimination against visa applicants of Indian nationality on grounds of domicile and ethnicity. Visas issued on a separate sheet of paper stapled to passports are not considered valid for travel out of the country.”
BUT NOTHING in this mild rebuke betrays the anger within India’s security establishment. According to Roy, China is trying to make J&K a tripartite issue. “They will keep pushing in the Western Sector.” This adds another layer to the already complex Kashmir issue. China has quietly changed the geo-political dimension, irrespective of India’s position, and in spite of US President Barack Obama describing Kashmir as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. China’s new online mapping service unveiled in the last week of October, and billed as a rival to Google Maps, shows Arunachal and Aksai Chin (a part of Ladakh) as Chinese territories.
The political landscape of the Himalayan region is unravelling in the 21st century, and the past is a good indicator in discerning patterns of change in the future. In the 19th century, there were five Himalayan Kingdoms, Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. Things have changed in the 20th century. Ladakh and Sikkim merged with India. Bhutan and Nepal became independent. Though Bhutan chose to become a ‘protectorate’ of India, Nepal defined its relationship with India through the 1950 friendship treaty. Tibet came under Chinese control as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). “Twenty percent of 19th-century Kashmir land is with China and so technically it is part of the dispute. But Kashmiri separatists do not have the guts to ask Chinese to return the land because their Pakistani mentors won’t allow them to,” says Kondapalli.
In the mid-1950s, an Indian Army patrol sent to the uninhabited 38,000 sq km Aksai Chin, an area as large as Switzerland in the eastern-most part of J&K, discovered a Chinese-built road and Chinese activity in the region. This was one of the several escalatory reasons leading to the 1962 war. A year later, Pakistan ceded 5,189 sq km of the Shaksgam valley in the Northern Areas, which is part of PoK. The Chinese eventually built a 10-metre wide road linking Kashgar to Abbottabad. This road, popularly known as the Karakoram Highway (China’s National Highway 219), is of tremendous strategic importance to China because it connects the Uyghur Muslim-dominated region of Xinjiang to Tibet. Now, under a bilateral agreement, China is widening the Karakoram Highway by 30 metres. “You can move military assets much more easily and smoothly. This will facilitate even the movement of trailermounted missiles,” says Bharat Verma, strategic affairs analyst and editor of Indian Defence Review.
Experts say China is legitimising its new Kashmir policy by heavily investing in infrastructure projects in PoK and the Northern Areas
So, 63 years after the birth of the Kashmir problem, China has quietly nudged itself in as the ‘Third Party’ and has made it a trilateral issue. During the mid-November meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China in Wuhan, a city in central China, Krishna engaged in uncharacteristic plainspeak with his counterpart Yang Jiechi. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told journalists that Krishna “expressed the hope that China would be sensitive to J&K just as we have been to TAR and Taiwan”. “This is definitely a departure from the past. It is the first time it’s been said,” says former foreign minister K Natwar Singh.
But such Indian hard talk cannot gloss over Chinese diplomatic doublespeak. On the one hand, Chinese foreign minister Yang reiterated that dialogue and negotiation between Pakistan and India is the only way to resolve the Kashmir problem.
Thirteen rounds of consultations and discussions have taken place between India and China to resolve the boundary disputes. “But the Western and Eastern sector maps have not been exchanged,” says Roy. “Even in the middle sector, officially we have not exchanged maps. We have shown our version of maps. The Chinese have not,” adds Kondapalli.
“Indian governments have been reluctant to put out China-related documentation in the public domain. Why can’t we release it? I have written an insider account in my book, My China Diary 1956-88, published last year. The Chinese have always refused to share their boundary maps with us. Zhou Enlai told Nehru that the Chinese maps are old ones and of no use. Since then, the Chinese have always cited some reason or the other to avoid handing over their boundary maps,” says Natwar Singh.
IN BORDER disputes, exchange of maps is crucial to determine ownership. “If maps are exchanged, it is understood that India and China have placed their versions on record. For easier understanding, let us suppose that there is a property dispute between us. Both have property deeds. The judge decides the ownership by studying the property deeds and finding whose claim is stronger,” says Kondapalli. Military Intelligence (MI) sources have confirmed to TEHELKA that India might be taken by surprise if China decides to officially exchange maps during Wen’s visit.
“The MI says they are surprised at developments since the 1980s. One way of demonstrating proof of property ownership and legal entitlement is to show payment of land taxes. If one can show collections of land tax and revenue tax from remote areas, then it can be established that whosoever is collecting taxes is legally entitled to ownership of that land,” says Kondapalli.
“There are reports that MI has indeed told the government that since the 1980s the PLA has been collecting such documents from areas around the LAC. There are reports that people have migrated to the Chinese side taking with them their land documents. Even indirect tax is being collected and recorded by the PLA from nomadic shepherds,” he adds.
This could explain the repeated incursions by small PLA teams in the Western and Eastern sectors over the past two decades, to collect land-related documents, and collect land and revenue tax. This also explains why the Chinese have been reluctant to display maps showing their version of the LAC. Over 20 years, China has been gradually building a convincing case for its claim over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. “Reports suggest the PLA has marched 11 km beyond the 1962 occupation. They have been collecting land records,” says Kondapalli.
As China and Pakistan gang up against India on Kashmir, new layers will be added to the issue of unsettled borders left by the British colonial rulers. Chinese and Indian understanding of the border along Uttarakhand and Sikkim is settled and is aligned with the McMahon Line. The British colonial government drew the McMahon Line with a margin of error of 10 km on either side of the thick blob of ink delineating the border between Britishruled India and Tibet.
China is trying to make J&K a tripartite issue. ‘They’ll keep pushing in the western sector,’ says analyst Roy. This will add another layer to the complex dispute
Historically the Chinese have refused to accept the McMahon Line. Their claim on the approximately 90,000 sq km Arunachal (called Zangnan by the Chinese) has been unwavering. If India and China go to war, it will be over Chinese land grab in Ladakh and Arunachal. A face-off between two of the largest military forces in the world, like the 1987 build-up in the Sumdorong Chu river valley (called Sangduoluo in Chinese), could spark a war. The then Indian Army Chief, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, planned Operation Falcon in 1986-87 to thwart a PLA incursion.
Roy agrees with several Indian foreign policy experts that “Chinese aggression will not cross the border because there is too much at stake.” In fact, Army Chief General VK Singh stressed “there is going to be no 1962.” He was referring to the capitulation of the Indian Army as the Chinese army marched deep into Arunachal Pradesh in 1962, eight years after signing ‘The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ drafted by Nehru.
Says Bharat Verma, “China would attack India between now and 2012. After that the window of opportunity will start closing and after 2015 it will be almost impossible for any Chinese military adventure. Three imperatives for China to attack India are: a) Pakistan is descending into chaos, disintegrating and imploding. The Chinese have made heavy investments in Pakistan and PoK. To save Pakistan and unite the forces tearing it apart, China will attack India. b) From the Chinese point of view, the annexation of Tibet cannot be complete without taking over Arunachal. As long as Tawang (in Arunachal) is detached from Tibet, it will always keep Chinese insecure. c) India’s defence forces are rapidly modernising under a five-year plan. By 2015 the Indian military machine would be state-of-the-art and would force China to think several times before contemplating an attack.”
China is upgrading its military infrastructure along the 4,000 km LAC, by building roads and rail lines for fast and efficient mobilisation of troops. The Lhasa rail line is being extended to Xigaze on the China-Nepal border and would eventually link up with Kathmandu. More importantly, the Chinese are linking Lhasa to Nyingchi close to the Arunachal border. Beijing claims Arunachal is part of the Nyingchi prefecture. It is here on the Great Bend, where the mighty Brahmaputra turns its course into India, that the Chinese are building the world’s largest dam.
Commenting on the flurry on building activities on the Chinese side of the LAC, General Singh said: “China is doing a great amount of infrastructure development, which it says is for locals of the area. But our problem is we are not very sure about the intentions.” Taking a cue from the statement, former defence minister and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav raised the issue of an impending Chinese attack on India in Parliament.
“China is an unreliable country and its design has always been to usurp territories from Ladakh to Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim to Arunachal. China is fully prepared but here in India, no instructions have been given to the army. I have been a defence minister and I know their intentions. I know their state of preparedness and that is why I ordered building of roads in the border areas. Our borders are not secure,” Yadav told TEHELKA.
In Arunachal, while the Chinese side of the LAC offers relatively easier access, the Indian side is densely forested and mountainous. The Himalayan ranges along the northern borders are criss-crossed with mountain ranges running north-south. The state’s topographical features have imposed geographical isolation by splitting it into five river valleys — Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Lohit and Tirap. India’s official strategy, though no one will admit, was to preserve this isolation.
Officials who want to remain anonymous have told TEHELKA that “till 2008 the strategic wisdom in North and South Block was that border areas in the East must not be developed. The Army shared this perception”. Haunted by the humiliating withdrawal of 1962, India’s military stalled plans for developing infrastructure fearing the Chinese would use the facilities in the event of war.
If India finds itself vulnerable now, successive governments and their military planners must be blamed for lack of foresight and strategic planning. Highly placed security officials say PLA patrols are regularly moving in and out of “areas beyond the McMahon Line”. Three Chinese spies have been arrested in the past six months in Arunachal.
Only two years ago, the government finally decided to reverse its policy of geographical isolation of border areas. In 2008, the government began ground surveys for construction of high-altitude strategic border roads. Detailed Project Reports and statutory environmental clearances were obtained. Finally, it seems the government would begin connecting India’s border areas along the LAC.
A 10 November press release issued by Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran stated the “government has decided to undertake phasewise construction of 27 roads totalling 804 km in the border areas along the India-China border in the states of J&K, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal to be constructed by the ministry for operational purposes of the ITBP.” In the past two years, the government has spent Rs. 384 crore on road building near the LAC.
India has also increased its troop levels in the Northeast to more than 1,00,000 by raising two additional army mountain divisions. The Indian Air Force is stationing two squadrons of the newly acquired Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters in Tezpur. Three Airborne Warning and Control Systems complement this new deployment. India’s Strategic Forces Command has deployed Agni-III missiles in the Northeast with a range of 3,500 km. Early next year, the highly road-mobile Agni-V, capable of striking Harbin, China’s northernmost city, will be test fired.
The IAF has re-operationalised three forward landing airstrips on the LAC, including the world’s highest airfield Daulat Beg Oldie (16,200 ft) on the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range just 9 km northwest of Aksai Chin, Fuk Che and Nyoma. The US is providing India strategic airlift capability by supplying C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. According to the aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the IAF requirement is for “special mission roles, precision low-level flying, airdrops, and landing in blackout conditions”.
PLA patrols are regularly moving out of areas beyond the McMahon Line. Three Chinese spies were arrested in the past six months in Arunachal
Clearly, the Americans are encouraging India to assume the role of a countervailing power to China. Obama’s recent visit to India generated the momentum for the opening up of the Indian defence market for American companies, from artillery guns and missiles, to military transport aircrafts and fighter jets.
INDIAN STRATEGIC planners are realising they can’t merely respond to Chinese assertiveness. The Chinese naval strategy is also bothersome. On 18 November, Sri Lanka inaugurated the Chinese-built Hambantota port. China is also enhancing the capacity of the Colombo port and building the Gwadar port in Pakistan. The Chinese navy has set up listening posts in Burma’s Coco islands. It is furiously building a massive submarine fleet, which is intended to be the largest in the world. It is also setting up port facilities in Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh.
In response, India has announced plans to commission a fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines by 2020.
It is only in the past two decades that RAW has developed the capacity to gather electronic intelligence and monitor Chinese activities. “Now we have intelligence officers and diplomats who can speak Chinese,” says Roy. Even India’s National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, is fluent in Mandarin. At the moment there are two scores of highly proficient Chinese speakers in RAW who are reportedly doing a fine job of sourcing information for policy-making. But until India’s economy resizes to match that of China, its security will remain imperiled.
In August this year, China ran past Japan as the second largest economy in the world after the US. China’s booming economy is dependent on exports. The Chinese consume 30 percent of what they produce and export the rest to all parts of the world through the Indian Ocean routes. Besides, 80 percent of its annual 200 million tonnes of oil requirement is brought through the Strait of Malacca. “India’s integrated command base in the Andamans controls access to the Strait of Malacca. The Chinese are worried that in the event of a war, the Indian Navy can interdict and sink Chinese oil tankers. This could impair the export-driven economy of China,” says Kondapalli.
THIS SCENARIO is making the Chinese deeply anxious. Its leadership is trying to find ways to maintain the economic surge to take it beyond the present $1.33 trillion economic output. The Chinese are desperate to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. With a $2 trillion treasure trove of foreign exchange reserves, opaque and globally unknown state-owned or state-backed Chinese firms are on an acquisition spree in America, Europe, Australia and Africa.
A globalised one-world economy is finding itself unable to resist the lure of cashdown Chinese takeovers. So the iconic Swedish Volvo, owned by US company Ford Motors, is now a proud possession of Geely Automobile Holdings Limited, a Chinese carmaker backed by cheap credit lines offered by Beijing. The collapse of Detroit as the car manufacturing capital and the bankruptcy or stinging losses of car manufacturers General Motors and Toyota have enabled unknown Chinese entrepreneurs like Li Shufu straddle the global stage with giant money rescue acts.
All of this adds to the mystique and mystery of hardcore communist entrepreneurs peddling unbelievable stories of their rags-to-riches billionaire status.
The Indian government believes that ZTE and Huawei, both Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers and vendors, are a threat to national security. Mobile telephony operators in India prefer lowcost Huawei products and services. China’s low salaries, high investment in research and development, skilled, tech-savvy workforce and easy credit offered by its financial institutions have enabled firms like Huawei to edge out vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks from emerging markets like India.
The Indian security establishment believes it is possible for governmentbacked firms like Huawei to embed electronic eavesdropping technology in the telecom equipment it supplies to Indian companies. Founded 22 years ago by Ren Zhengfei, a former PLA officer, the discomfiture among China watchers over Huawei is overwhelming. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, a public-sector unit, was instructed by the Department of Telecommunications last year to refrain from procuring Chinese equipment.
Indian suspicion of Chinese telecom companies has grown over the past three years because Beijing has relentlessly pursued a strategy of electronic dominance over India. Last year, heavy imports of cheap Chinese mobile handsets without International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers had raised the hackles of security agencies. The fear was that terrorists could use such phones and evade electronic surveillance and tracking. Eventually the government banned the import of non-IMEI handsets. Between 2008 and 2009 Chinese cyber warriors hacked into the computers of the previous NSA (MK Narayanan), the Ministry of External Affairs and several Indian embassies. India is under a relentless 24/7 attack by Chinese hackers as they try to pry open sensitive databases. During the recent Commonwealth Games, they tried to immobilise ticketing operations, which could have led to a serious breach of security.
Indian suspicion of Chinese telecom firms has grown over the past three years because Beijing has pursued a strategy of electronic dominance
Irrespective of security anxieties, China’s technological and manufacturing leap has numbed India. Its “call centre” low-tech economy, despite the inspiring charge towards 9 percent economic growth, appears doomed. It is already showing up in the trade imbalance figures. This year, the bilateral trade may zoom past Rs. 2.71 lakh crore from Rs. 1.63 lakh crore in 2008-2009. But what is worrying is the Rs. 72,288 crore trade deficit India has with China.
Wen will visit India riding on the confidence of his country’s phenomenal economic growth. But it will be very un-Chinese for Wen to miss one fine detail. A month ahead of his visit, the Indian Army has inducted its first ‘sons of the soil’ Arunachal Scouts battalion. “The raising of Arunachal Scouts will help the country in defending its border,” said Arunachal CM Dorjeee Khandu.
This 5,000-strong battalion drawn from ethnic Arunachalis will be trained for high-altitude combat. But will Wen checkmate India’s grand counter-strategy by producing land records and taxation documents to justify Chinese claims over Aksai Chin and Arunachal? That’s a surprise Delhi would not be looking forward to.