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India has to be wary of Chinese Intrusions

Dr. Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile
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  • October 19, 2007

    China's demand for the removal of two Indian Army bunkers from its outpost at Batang La near the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction in August 2007 can be seen from two angles. Firstly, the entire episode can be dismissed as a case of highhandedness of a few Chinese border officials who entered Indian territory inadvertently and came face to face with these Indian bunkers. Oblivious of where their actual position on the ground is, these officials then raised objections about the bunkers. This scenario seems probable because, according to the Indian Army, these bunkers were constructed two years ago and there were no protests from the Chinese side till now.

    At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the other probable explanation, namely that these Chinese incursions were committed intentionally to assert a claim over the area. This view has to be seen in the light of reports that the Chinese military has been gradually pushing southwards along the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China for the past eight to ten years in a bid to redraw the boundary in this area. In this section of the Sino-Indian boundary, India wants the international boundary to run along Batang La, but China wants it along the Torsa Nala. The Chinese desire to redraw the border and demands for dismantling Indian bunkers can be viewed as a strategy to gain tactical strength, since at present they are in a disadvantageous position in the adjoining Chumbi Valley.

    Interestingly, on October 10, 2007, a day after New Delhi categorically rejected the demand for the removal of the two bunkers, China accused India of violating the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace along the border by building "facilities" on the Indian side of the border. China's tactics of increasing the heat along the Sikkim border should not come as a surprise to the Indian security establishment, since it has in the past tried to probe Indian defences in this sector, which resulted in two short border skirmishes in 1967. These incidents are also referred to as the "Nathu La incident" and the "Cho La incident", in which the PLA was repulsed. These skirmishes happened despite the fact that there is no dispute along this section of the border. The Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890 had defined the border between Sikkim and Tibet, which has been accepted by Beijing. Agreement on this alignment was reiterated in the 2003 Sino-Indian agreement to promote trade between Sikkim and Tibet via Nathu La. China has also formally recognized Sikkim as an integral part of India.

    Recent reports of Chinese intrusion into Bhutan further strengthen the view that the PLA is looking for more elbow room in the strategically important area of the Chumbi Valley. Bhutan shares a 470 km long border with China, which is also disputed. Some of the disputed areas along the border are on the western side adjoining the Chumbi valley. Both Bhutan and China have been engaged in talks since 1984 to solve their border dispute. During the tenth round of Sino-Bhutan border talks in 1996, China had proposed the exchange of 495 sq km of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in central Bhutan for a 269 sq km tract comprising Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhtoe in north-west Bhutan. It is important to note that Sinchulumpa borders Sikkim. Although Bhutan has accepted the proposal in principle, no concrete solution has been arrived at as yet. Chinese intrusions into Bhutan can be seen as a tactic to force Thimpu to accept the Chinese proposal and end the border dispute.

    Coming on the heels of its claims over Arunachal Pradesh and its decision to deny visa to an Indian official from that state, recent Chinese actions along the Indian and Bhutanese borders assume added significance. As is known, India and China have a long standing border dispute and are presently engaged in negotiations to arrive at a "mutually acceptable" solution to the problem. Negotiations for resolving the border dispute initiated in 1981 have undergone three phases of reinvigoration. During the first phase, seven rounds of talks took place between Indian and Chinese officials till it was discontinued following the Sumdurung Chu incident in 1986-1987. Talks were revived following the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988. A Joint Working Group comprising military and technical experts was constituted to discuss in detail the finer aspects of the border dispute. In 2003, India and China agreed to find a political solution to the border dispute and appointed a Special Representative each to carry on with negotiations. 11 rounds of talks have been held since 2003 between the two Special Representatives, the last being on September 26, 2007 in Beijing. However, there are no indications that a solution is likely to be reached in the near future. Lack of sincerity and political will on the part of China and India, respectively, are the main reasons for the festering dispute. It is generally believed that the Chinese leadership has a vested interest in keeping the border dispute alive, since this would not only tie down Indian defence forces but would also keep the political leadership in Delhi on tenterhooks due to uncertainty over Chinese intentions.

    The resolution of the border problem between India and China also seems difficult due to the twin issues of Tibet and Tawang. As long as the Dalai Lama resides in India and the Tibetan government in exile continues to function out of Dharamsala, China would remain suspicious of India's intentions regarding Tibet. To maintain control over Tibet, it has recently introduced a law making it mandatory for the future reincarnation of the Dalai Lama to obtain the approval of Chinese officials. It has also intensified its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, especially Tawang, because the consent of the Tawang Monastery is considered crucial in the selection of the future Dalai Lama. India, on its part, has stated that the issue of Tawang is non-negotiable. Moreover, Article VII of the Sino-Indian "Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles" states that while settling the border dispute, the interests of settled populations would be taken into consideration.

    India has to be extremely cautious towards China pending a final solution to the border problem. Because, the latest Chinese military doctrine states that unresolved border disputes would be one reason for going to war and has identified China's south-west border as a potential theatre of war. In addition, there are also growing voices in China that goad the government to take a hard line towards India on the border issue. Keeping all this in mind, China is gradually strengthening its position along the borders, especially in Tibet, by constructing roads, railways, airports, telecommunication lines, etc. The Qinghai-Lhasa railway line, along with other military infrastructure projects, has provided China an edge over India in military terms. In response, India has also embarked upon a massive project of building roads and other infrastructure along its northern border, though a lot more needs to be done to be able to deal with potentially aggressive Chinese military moves in future.

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