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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 40, September 19, 2009

Dealing with China on the Border

Monday 21 September 2009, by Chandra Sen


Regardless of the statements by the Ministry of External Affairs, including the assertions of External Affairs S.M. Krishna, that the situation on the Sino-Indian border was “peaceful”, the fact is that recent Chinese postures on the border are a matter of concern for the average Indian. This concern springs from the ground reality that perhaps for the first time in many years Chinese incursions have been reported from all sectors around the same time and there is much strength in the observation of strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney that since the 1986-87 border skirmishes, China has opened pressure points against India all along the Himalayan frontier. So it is pointless to rely on the MEA’s argument that there is nothing new in the Chinese incursions as these happen practically every year.

In this context what well-known former diplomat G. Parthasarathy has said on the issue is doubtless noteworthy. According to him,

It is well known that the LAC is not clearly defined but the Foreign Ministry is only acting as an apologist for China by saying so. Isn’t China responsible for the delay in clarifying the exact LAC position? Incursions have been reported even from settled areas like Ladakh. India is pretending there is no problem when it does exist.

There are several experts on China, both Indian and in the West, who tend to agree with the MEA’s contention. It is true that ever since the 1986-87 skirmishes (heightened by the incident at Sumdorongchu in the Tawang area—which is still under Chinese occupation—in 1986) peace and tranquillity have been prevailing on the Sino-Indian border (that is, the Line of Actual Control as Beijing persistently refuses to acknowledge the McMahon Line demarcating the territories of the two countries), and the agreement on that score concluded during former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing in 1993 (considered “historic” and ”path-breaking” by even the sharpest international critics of India’s China policy on the border dispute) has not been technically violated till date. (Of course, that is, if we accept the official denial from the South Block on September 15 of media reports that a fortnight ago two jawans of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were injured in firing by Chinese soldiers from across the LAC in northern Sikkim; subsequently on its part the ITBP too has refuted these reports.) Nevertheless what is irrefutable is that aggressive patrolling by the Chinese on the border have lately increased—while incidents of border violations on the part of the Chinese in all the three sectors were 270 in 2008 (and the figure this year is 60 till now), incidents of aggressive border patrolling by the Chinese were 2285 in 2008 (and are 413 this year). In early September itself there were reports of Chinese soldiers having entered the Ladakh sector (in a region where the border is clearly demarcated) and even inscribed their country’s name on a rock. Such actions do cause legitimate anxiety in the average Indian mind given the indelible memories of the 1962 aggression from the north we had to endure and this cannot be removed by routine denials from officialdom on either side.

China has been officially blowing hot and cold over these developments. In one of the latest responses to questions from the media on the subject, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that Sino-Indian relations being stable and in the light of the fact that the “mutual trust is growing”, the time was actually favourable to resolve the vexed border problem once and for all. But its spokesmen employed a different language not so long ago. One expert of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that additional Indian armed forces deployed in the border regions could engender “regional tension”. In a report in Global Times (a sister publication of the government mouthpiece People’s Daily) a Chinese military expert was quoted charging India with spying on Beijing’s military strength by detaining in Kolkata a UAE plane carrying arms to China. And who does not know of the ominous forecast made in a Chinese blog in the recent past—that India would break up into 20 different pieces thereby implying that one must work towards that end? So Beijing has been whipping up tension in Sino-Indian relations by exploiting to its advantage the intractable border dispute (which acts as the proverbial thorn in the flesh of improved ties between the two states).

At the same time its unrelenting attacks on the Dalai Lama continue. It has declared its categoric opposition to the Dalai Lama’s impending visit to Tawang which has a special place in the Tibetans’ heart (that is precisely why the Chinese are visibly angry and have not hesitated to indulge in flagrant interference in India’s internal affairs). Such outbursts betray a sense of insecurity on Beijing’s part stemming from the incessant ethnic unrest in both Tibet and Xinjiang that threaten the edifice of Chinese ‘national unity’ based on Han chauvinism.

Against this backdrop the polite but firm diplomatic rebuff from the MEA (in fact from the External Affairs Minister himself) to such a loud opposition was both dignified and timely. It is this kind of resolute adherence to principles India has held dear since the dawn of independence that must be demonstrated time and again if only to underscore that New Delhi won’t succumb to Beijing’s unjustified demands. Likewise India’s belated decision to build roads and other infrastructure in areas close to the Sino-Indian border to facilitate transportation and communications, to locate an Air Force squadron in the eastern sector and also to raise two Army squadrons to strengthen our defence preparedness there is most welcome as it is based on a realistic assessment of the prevailing situation.

The MEA needs to avoid diplomatic excess so as not to appear as an “apologist” for China as some analysts have aptly underlined. Of course adopting a confrontationist stand at the official level should also be avoided by all means. One must not minimise the far-reaching importance of the positive features of Sino-Indian ties—the similarity of views on several global issues as well as the mutual benefit accruing from the burgeoning India-China trade; rather, whatever is feasible must be done to reinforce and sustain them. It is further imperative to conduct the border negotiations with tenacity and patience while pressurising China to reach an amicable settlement of the dispute acceptable to both sides within a reasonable time-frame. But to accuse the media of engaging in hawkish rhetoric is to underestimate the anxieties in the Indian public mind vis-a-vis Chinese intentions. While doing everything possible to further Sino-Indian coope-ration in diverse areas, one must never lose sight of the actual state of affairs on the India-China frontier (as well as Beijing’s propensity to undermine New Delhi’s emergence as a power in the international arena in its own right).

It is necessary to remain ever vigilant while dealing with as inscrutable a neighbour as that in the north.

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