The aggressive posture that the Chinese have adopted along the otherwise relatively tranquil Line of Actual Control (LOAC) has come under a lot of analytical examination by Indian Sinologists. They have advanced a number of explanations for the Chinese actions, all of which have a ring of truth about them.
Chinese activities on the LOAC this year can be broadly categorized into two types. The first are the ‘Perceived Intrusions’ by the Chinese, which have been taking place from the 1960s regularly every year. These intrusions, no doubt of Indian territory as per our claim, are the result of differing Chinese and Indian perceptions of the status of the border as existed before the 1962 India-China war and the unmarked LOAC that came into existence following the withdrawal of Chinese troops from most of the Indian territory at the end of the war. Chinese patrols repeatedly enter every year the Demilitarized Zone between the LOAC and the pre-1962 India-China border, or the border as per Chinese claims. These incursions are more of pinpricks and represent Chinese attempts to continue to assert their control over Indian territory that they temporarily occupied during the 1962 war and later on vacated, without abandoning their claims over it.
In the second category are such Chinese actions that have occurred this year and which are different from the usual ritualistic ‘Perceived Intrusions’ and are more aggressive in content. In this category would come Chinese intrusions in such areas as had not been under any dispute so far, like the Chumar sector on the tri-junction of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Tibet; or the violation of the Indian airspace by Chinese helicopters (in Ladakh sector) and reported violations by Chinese Sukhoi jets in the Eastern Sector; the entry of Chinese mounted patrols in the central sector at Barahoti (where almost all intrusions so far had been by foot-patrols); and reported firing on Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP) jawans in the Sikkim sector (since officially denied by the ITBP and the concerned Ministries).
It is undisputed that such closely choreographed Chinese actions are the result of some long-term assessment of the evolving situation and formulation of a suitable strategy by the Chinese leadership to deal with that situation. Recent articles on India in officially controlled Chinese research journals, their activities on the borders with India, along with their attempts to ring India with military bases or presence from Myanmar to Pakistan and build up Pakistan’s military, nuclear and missile capabilities have all been viewed, with much merit, as “signals meant to assert China’s growing political and military stature as well as means to test India’s resolve”. Therefore, it has been contended that given India’s “gradual emergence as a powerful military and economic power in Asia, China is unlikely to be keen on settling the border issue till such time India slumps into a period of weakness”. In conclusion, it is opined that “for the foreseeable future, the India-China border is likely to be characterised by tensions, incursions and skirmishes, interspersed with endless border negotiations.” (What do Chinese intrusions across the Line of Actual Control Tell India?, IDSA Strategic Comment, September 10, 2009).
This is a fair assessment of Chinese long-term intentions towards India. However, border incidents this year seem to suggest an intent to raise temperatures with India in a calibrated manner over a short-term period. This can be caused either by a direct or indirect major assault on Chinese interests by India, or a fast evolving regional or international situation that could directly or indirectly impact adversely on Chinese interests, if allowed to drift on its own. The recent bursting into the open of the simmering ethno-religious tensions in China’s Xinjiang province through clashes between local Muslim Uighurs and the Chinese Han settlers could fall under the first scenario. However, India does not seem to have any relevance in that context, since it is neither contiguous to Xinjiang nor has had any links with Uighur nationalists. The answer to Chinese actions, therefore, has to be located in the evolving regional situation.
Afghanistan might be raising some concerns for the Chinese. However, they seem to be waiting for the outcome of current US-led efforts to pacify Afghanistan with the hope that their client Pakistan may have a major role to play in the post-conflict period. There is nothing to suggest that because of some developments connected with Afghanistan, the Chinese have decided to up the ante with India. Then can the developing situation in Pakistan be behind the present Chinese aggressiveness towards India?
Pakistan’s deeply etched ethno-sectarian fault-lines, papered over since the inception of the country, had been deepening for the last few years and now seem to have become a yawning chasm almost impossible to bridge. These tensions may not lead to a break-up or ‘Balkanization’ of Pakistan, but its ‘Lebanonization’ under pressure from Islamic radicals of Wahabi/Deobandi variety, looks to be a distinct possibility. The Chinese, who have a significant and major presence in Pakistan from Khunjerab Pass to Gwadar Port, may have picked up these signals and decided to initiate measures to guard their direct and indirect interests against the backdrop of the evolving situation in Pakistan.
A Pakistan, whose major portion is going to be either controlled or closely influenced by Wahabi/Deobandi Taliban and their cohorts, like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba for instance, would have a direct bearing on Xinjiang’s Uighur Islamists. The Chinese could be expected to try and prevent this from happening. They have a substantial presence in Gilgit for the maintenance of the Karakoram Highway and undertaking various hydroelectric projects. Most of these Chinese workers are stated to be from the construction units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Should Taliban threaten to take over the NWFP, including Chitral and its adjoining areas, then the Chinese could be expected to tighten their hold on Gilgit region, with or without the consent of the Pakistan Government.
But how does the tension on the India-China border figure in all this? They are aimed at forestalling an Indian intervention in Gilgit area in the wake of any possible Chinese entry into this region. Another possible explanation for Chinese actions towards India could be to prevent the latter from interfering in Pakistan in the event of a severe erosion in the Pakistan establishment’s capability to control things within. By increasing tension along the borders with India, China might be trying to keep the Indian military tied down thus making it impossible for it to either alter the LOC with Pakistan, or ‘settle’ issues like Sir Creek. China may also be hoping to prevent India from emerging as a major factor in the new developing/developed situation in Pakistan.
However, in the most immediate scenario, Chinese actions could also be a result of a Pakistani request to heighten military tensions with India so that it is not able to take advantage of any significant planned redeployment of Pakistani troops from the Indo-Pak border to FATA and other areas of NWFP where Taliban and their allies seem set to upset Pakistani territorial integrity and the Chinese (Xinjiang situation) applecart. It may be noted that the Pakistanis have deployed nearly 100,000 troops in FATA by pulling out available reserves and without depleting their strength on the Indo-Pak border. However, the expanding Taliban activities would now appear to be necessitating a larger withdrawal from the Indo-Pak border. In such a situation they might have sought Chinese military assurance vis-a-vis India. A confirmation of this scenario might come shortly, if there are reports of changes in the usual Chinese deployments in Tibet, particularly close to the India-China border.
What should India be doing in this situation? Apart from reacting with controlled response to Chinese actions, India should try and engage China in a discussion on the developing situation in Pakistan to try and build some commonalities in their mutual objectives (like keeping the Islamic radicals at bay and strengthening non-sectarian forces in Pakistan) and, may be, evolve common strategies.