Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beijing Games

Things are not all that quiet on the India-China border despite the laboured bonhomie between the two Asian powers. For the first time after the Sumdorong Chu incident in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987, which almost led to a war, a face-off on the western sector of the vexed boundary in Ladakh has sent shockwaves across the diplomatic and security establishments of the country.
Recently, a major confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China was averted by the timely intervention of senior officers from an Indian patrol team.
The incident took place on May 16 inside the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the western sector of India-China boundary at Demchok, northeast of Ladakh.
Insiders say PLA soldiers chased away Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) personnel, who were verifying claims of Chinese intrusions near the Chardung-Nillung junction on the LAC.
The IB team was accompanied by the army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police soldiers, who were closely engaged and followed by the Chinese patrols in three vehicles.
Chinese soldiers, say sources, even hurled abuses and shouted, “Indians go back.” They assumed position to fire at the Indians near the Chardung nullah.

PLA taking positionsThe Chinese then called another patrol party and chased the Indian groups. This border drama, which could have escalated into a clash with dangerous diplomatic consequences, unfolded at a time when the relationship between the two countries was passing through a ‘blow hot, blow cold’ phase.
The seriousness of this border skirmish can be judged from the fact that in 1967, it was an accidental firing at Nathula that led to a war between the two neighbours.
“The Chinese provoked our soldiers. They even shouted at us, followed us, and then took position to fire at our men. We have sent a report to the officials concerned,” says a Home Ministry official.
Indian officials say that by asking Indian soldiers to vacate their own territory, Chinese troops have violated all norms. Under the broad understanding reached by the two sides, even if there is proximity during patrolling, they are not supposed to engage each other.
The Chinese intrusion was against the diplomatic mechanism that had been set up to avoid such incidents.
The two countries had agreed to maintain peace on the LAC through an agreement in 1993, followed by an agreement on confidence building measures along the border to prevent conflict-like situations.
The present face-off is a clear violation of the treaty.
Sources say that the confidential report on the incident reveals that the Chinese troops had written abuses directed at Indians on trees in the region. (See graphic: Dragon fire)
“How can the Government say there is no tension on the India-China boundary? Such incidents can escalate into a conflict situation. It needs to be taken seriously and tackled by holding more border level meetings and then taking it to a political level,” says former army chief General V.P. Malik.
Last year, India Today first reported the Chinese intrusions into Indian territory in Sikkim. Close to 400 such incidents have occurred in the last three years. And things have not improved.
Despite India’s diplomatic protests, the Chinese intrusions have only increased. This year alone, 90 intrusions have been reported to the Government by various security and border agencies. India has been repeatedly complaining to Beijing.
In some cases, the intrusions were extremely provocative. In April this year, Chinese troops came 12 kilometres inside Maja in Arunachal Pradesh.
“We don’t know about this incident, but most of this area is no man’s land and there is no clear demarcation, so such incidents occur. But we are trying to resolve the issue through a border talks mechanism,” a Chinese diplomat told India Today.
Sources say that the intelligence agencies reported the matter to the Foreign Office, which has maintained silence over the issue, though such cases are a violation of the agreement between the two nuclear powers.
While government sources did not want to officially comment on the incident, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee raised the issue, also citing the intrusions in Sikkim, at the official meeting in Beijing.
Line of conflict
The incident is a violation of the 1993 India-China agreement on peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control.
Ninety incidents of intrusions by Chinese soldiers have been reported this year alone.
The dispute between the two countries involves the longest contested boundary in the world.
The Chinese leadership, however, responded with the lame excuse that both countries held differing perceptions on the boundaries.
Still, the question is: why did Mukherjee, who had met his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi only a month ago at a trilateral meeting, go to Beijing without a substantive agenda?
The Chinese, who are known as protocol perfectionists, gave a cold welcome to Mukherjee. The Indian minister was not given an audience with President Hu Jintao.
Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled his talks with Mukherjee, saying he had to make an urgent visit to earthquake-affected areas, even though the meeting was fixed much in advance.
Mukherjee’s meeting with Vice-President Xi Jinping, who, it is believed, is being groomed to take over from Hu in 2012, was the only saving grace.
The Indian minister was not just snubbed. He was denied an opportunity to raise the intrusion issue with the highest levels of Chinese leadership, given the fact that he had already discussed it with his Chinese counterpart Jiechi when they had met on the sidelines of the trilateral meeting.
Even before Mukherjee had left Delhi, the governor of the quake-hit Sichuan province backed out after agreeing to be in the capital with the Indian external affairs minister to receive relief materials.
Instead, the vice-governor, who is much junior according to protocol, was deputed by the Chinese Government to accept relief materials from Mukherjee.
“All these incidents are a part of growing muscle-flexing by the Chinese against India,” says strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney. The last two years have seen the Chinese in a belligerent position. “Going by the series of high level visits by Indian leaders, we seem overzealous to please the Chinese,” Chellaney adds.
The dispute between the two countries involves the longest contested boundary in the world. China claims 92,000 sq km of Indian territory.
On the other hand, the Indian contention is that China is in possession of approximately 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in Jammu & Kashmir under the so-called China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of 1963. Pakistan also illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China.
The two sides held about a dozen rounds of boundary negotiations but the talks made little progress. The big question is: why would China want to resort to such offensive tactics at a time when the country needs India’s support most?
The Beijing Olympics, scheduled to be held next month, are already mired in a controversy as the host country faces flak for its oppressive activities in Tibet.
According to analysts, the first reason is the Chinese assessment that there is a weak leadership in India, incapable of taking important diplomatic decisions.
Beijing wants the border dispute to linger on and is bullying India. It also thinks that Delhi is busy cosying up to Washington. With Delhi going on a backfoot on various issues such as Tibet, and not being able to leverage its relationship with Taiwan, China now believes that it has got what it wanted from India. So there is little left for India to bargain with China.
Such brinkmanships help China militarily. With no demarcation of the border, over three lakh Indian soldiers remain tied down to the India-China border, which is also a drain on India’s economic capabilities.
It affects India’s efforts to project itself as a military power in the region.
To keep the friendship intact, China should respect India’s territorial integrity and India, on its part, needs to raise the issue at the highest levels of Chinese leadership. Small sparks on the border can lead to a big fire that the two neighbours may find very difficult to contain.