Bottomline | Army on the Back Foot

China believes in setting its own agenda

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

It is universally acknowledged that the rise of China is inevitable. All major powers appreciate this phenomenon and pay special attention to their China policy. Writing in the (November-December 2007) Foreign Affairs journal, US Presidential aspirant, Hillary Clinton indicated that: ‘Our (US) relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world this century.’ Considering that India is the only country in the world that has a disputed land border with China (the other exception is Bhutan with whom India has special defence ties), it should seek to settle it earliest before Beijing does so on its terms. Unfortunately, New Delhi believes that to become a major power, the unequal bilateral relationship with the United States is more important than seeking equal bilateral ties with China. This is a mistake especially when China believes in setting its own agenda. Beijing continues to proliferate nuclear and missiles technologies to Pakistan, and refuses to settle the border dispute. The 4,056km long border, called the Line of Actual Control, is neither accepted on the map, nor is agreed on the ground, and hence is prone to alterations by military force. Backed by excellent border management and enhanced capability for rapid troops build-up in Tibet, the People’s Liberation Army has been regularly intruding into India’s territory especially since the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. According to recent media reports the PLA did 107 intrusions in 2007 alone, which no self-respecting nation should accept silently. Beijing has already gobbled India’s Aksai Chin in Ladakh, has still not formally accepted Sikkim as a part of India, and continues to claim the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Instead of formulating a China policy that is acceptable to all major political parties, our response is simply bizarre. With the exception of Mrs Indira Gandhi, all political parties in power have sought appeasement (Chinese view appeasement as a sign of weakness) rather than mutual accommodation with China; the same parties in opposition have criticised New Delhi’s kowtowing towards China. To show goodwill following the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visit to China, New Delhi abandoned the 15-year military infrastructure plan for better border management (Operation Falcon) against China that was sanctioned by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1981. The 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) re-named the entire 4,056km disputed border as the Line of Actual Control. Earlier the LAC was a mere 320km in the western sector (Ladakh); the remaining was called the MacMahon Line by India. Moreover, with PLA’s increased capability for troops’ build-up in Tibet, the central premise of ‘mutual and equal security’ in the BPTA has become irrelevant. The Vajpayee government in 2003 formally accepted Tibet as part of China with little in return. And the present Manmohan Singh has accepted the Chinese agenda of building overall relationship (read, trade) with little movement on the border dispute. The 11 rounds of Special Representative Talks for border resolution have yielded no results, and India has quietly accepted the Chinese premise that a mutual agreement on the LAC is not possible. What this implies is that both sides have their own perception of how the LAC runs on the ground. Here, then is the problem. While the PLA regularly patrols till its perception of the LAC (which are intrusions for Indian security forces), and continues to push further into Indian Territory, the Indian security forces including the army have their hands tied behind the back. New Delhi has issued instructions to its security forces not to enter into any altercation with the PLA. Consequently, instead of patrolling till its perception of the LAC, Indian forces are humiliated and forced to accept the PLA version. There is no instance of the Indian Army having patrolled in Chinese territory. It is demeaning for troops to be told to guard its border, yet also to fall back if the adversary claims Indian territory as its own. Instead of restoring the dignity of own troops, the faceless bureaucrats and the BJP’s Jaswant Singh have recently sought to gag the army chief, General Deepak Kapoor.

I was present at the media interaction where when asked about the Chinese intrusions, the general said that intrusions happen as both sides patrol to their perception of the LAC. Nothing wrong with this, except that, this may not be entirely correct. By not saying that the PLA alone does these transgressions, the chief was indeed bailing out the political leadership that has failed to both accord priority to an agreement on how the LAC runs, and to match Chinese superior border management. Criticising General Kapoor, Jaswant Singh said that ‘borders were not a matter of perception but determination.’ Just in case most people did not understand what Singh meant, there is simply no case for worry. This is what former US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who had numerous meetings with Singh following the 1998 nuclear tests had to say about Singh. ‘He was a master of public statements that made up in panache what they lacked in content and sometimes even in discerning meaning.’ On a more serious note, it was Singh’s job when in office to ‘determine’ the border with China. He failed. Now, Singh’s meaningless tirade has put General Kapoor, who was commenting on operational and not policy matter, as has been made out by ignorant bureaucrats, on the back foot. This will only help China.


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