Bottomline | Red Wall

Chinese presence in POK further limits India’s options in Kashmir

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The biggest external threat to India, it appears is neither from Pakistan nor China, but from the government itself in New Delhi, which appears intent to take its non-confrontationist China policy to a suicidal end. Both the Indian Army, with an excellent human-intelligence network in Pakistan, and United States intelligence have independently confirmed the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). According to the New York Times, there are about 11,000 Chinese troops in POK. The GOC-in-C, Northern Command, Lt General K.T. Parnaik (who would know his beans) while expressing anxiety on the physical collusion between the strategic partners, has, during a recent seminar held in Jammu, urged the strategic community to ponder over the implications of Chinese presence close to the Line of Control (LC). Following this, the army chief, General V.K. Singh (an old Kashmir and China hand, he was chief of staff in 15 Corps in Srinagar, and GOC-in-C, Eastern Command) flew to Leh (14 corps responsible for Ladakh) to get first-hand assessment from field commanders. It is obvious that he would have tried to give the army’s assessment on the Chinese presence in POK to whoever would listen to him in the government. But, who is listening to the army is the crux of the matter.

FORCE has since 2008 followed the position of various national security stakeholders on this subject. The three defence services that publicly swear by ‘jointness’, have different perspectives on the Chinese military threat.

The Indian Navy is focussed on the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) growing footprints in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Air Force reflects on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) strategic capabilities.

Neither has mulled over the truism that themilitary threat from China comes from the disputed land border and now the increased blurring of the military held lines (the Line of Actual Control with China and the Line of Control with Pakistan) in POK by the two adversaries. The Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) has never written a combined document on the Chinese threat for consideration of the Union defence minister; each service has given its individual written threat assessment. This subject has holistically not been presented by the defence services to any higher ups including the National Security Advisor, and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by the Prime Minister. Interestingly, they have never been asked to do so. After the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the three services chiefs on 29 November 2008 on the need for punitive action and a possible war between India and Pakistan, two intertwined subjects were not discussed: use of nuclear weapons, and Chinese role in the confrontation. The Prime Minister was reluctant to militarily engage Pakistan as this would jeopardise India’s upward economic trajectory.

It was the army’s regular badgering on the Chinese land threat that led to the defence ministry viewing the issue seriously. Consequently, A.K. Antony issued his five-yearly operational directive in 2010 stating that the defence services should be prepared for a two-front war. This was a stark departure from all earlier operational directives where the military was told to handle the Pakistani threat; the unsaid directive was that the Chinese threat would be taken care of by diplomacy. Thus, on the one hand, on Antony’s urging, the CCS cleared new army raisings (first accretions since the raising of 29 Infantry Division in 1983), a total of four divisions (50,000 troops) over 11th and 12th defence plans (till 2017). On the other hand, no inter-ministerial review of imperatives leading to the need for the two-front war has been done between the defence and external affairs ministries.

At the policy level, this has served well to obfuscate matters. For example, when recently asked by the media about the presence of Chinese troops in POK, foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao said that they had asked the defence ministry for details on the matter. This when India’s ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar had reportedly met Chinese senior vice-minister, Zhang Zhijum in September 2010 on this issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had spoken about this with his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao during his Delhi visit in November 2010, and foreign minister, S.M. Krishna has publicly aired his concern on this. On another question on Chinese repeated incursions into Indian territories on the LAC, Rao, calling them transgressions, said that, owing to differing perceptions about how the LAC runs on ground, these were not uncommon by both sides. This is not true. Indian patrols have instructions not to venture till the perceived LAC; how the LAC should run is decided by the CCS in consultation with external affairs ministry with little inputs from the defence services. This is not all. Rao took pride in announcing at the same media interaction that China had agreed to review its stapled visa policy for Kashmir residents. Given the sequence of events, this is not surprising.

China adopted the stapled visa policy for Indian Kashmir residents towards end 2007. Slowly this issue started getting media attention until it was usurped by a more drastic Chinese move in 2010 to unilateral cut its disputed border length with India (LAC) by half; from 4, 000km, it became 2,000km. The POK, which China hitherto considered a dispute between India and Pakistan, was declared a part of Pakistan. There was a reason for doing this: Pakistan Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had decided to involve China as a stakeholder in Kashmir.

An improvement over the Musharraf four-point Kashmir resolution plan, this was a master-stroke in adjusting to geo-strategic realities. Given the turbulent history of US-Pakistan relations, and the facts that the US was perceived to be getting close to India and the Pakistan Army could not abandon its terror-sponsoring policy, Kayani invited the trusted ally, China to POK to build the land corridor from Kashmir to Karachi for trade. Kayani could trust China more than the US for a favourable Kashmir resolution. Sensing ground realities, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq became the first Kashmiri Separatists leader to publicly accept China as a stakeholder in Kashmir during his Friday sermon in December 2009. Mirwaiz was immediately invited by a Chinese NGO (could not have happened without Beijing’s approval), but this move was blocked by New Delhi on the plea that Mirwaiz could only travel to China on a proper visa and not the stapled one. It is evident that sooner rather than later China will retract its stapled visa policy; it is pleased with India’s acquiescence to its unilateral reduction of the LAC.

More Separatists are joining the Mirwaiz bandwagon. The President of the Muslim Conference and a member of the Hurriyat, Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat is a prominent one to do so. I met him during my recent visit to Kashmir, and wondered why I had not met this knowledgeable person before. Bhat’s argument is that the resolution and stability of Kashmir and Afghanistan are linked. Besides India and Pakistan, it will require a global effort, in which China should be there, to bring this about. “Once China is involved in Kashmir, tensions will decrease,” he said. When I asked him ‘tensions’ between whom, he gave an intricate explanation: China and Pakistan have a special relationship, and India and China have competition. Thus, there is the need for the three to get involved. Without saying so, Bhat had diminished the US role in Kashmir resolution, something that Kayani is determined to do.

The Chinese have entered POK and Gilgit-Baltistan (erstwhile Northern Areas) in a big way since 2009 and are involved in 17 confirmed projects there. These include mobile connectivity, power projects, highways and rail links. FORCE team saw Chinese working on the Lower Neelam Valley Road (LNVR) across Tithwal, which connects Muzaffarabad and the northern POK areas close to the LC. Their targets are to convert the LNVR into two-lane highway, and to make the Karakoram highway, about 40km to the north, into an all weather road. Chinese engineers are also working overtime to complete the Neelam-Jhelum hydro-power project with 969MW capacity ahead of the Indian hydro-electric 330MW project on Kishanganga river. While the Chinese have admitted to their civilian working on these projects, they have denied regular troops being in POK. Assuming that cogent reports of PLA in POK are incorrect, is there indeed a need for PLA soldiers to physically live in POK? Is it not enough that alongside the infrastructure being built, they come dressed as civilians for military reconnaissance for operations from POK when needed?

The military implications of PLA soldiers in POK and Gilgit-Baltistan are that it will deny Indian military the comfort window in a two-front war strategy. The Army Headquarters has assessed that chances of China declaring war on India are extremely low. Was this to happen, Pakistan would certainly open the second front making the two-front war real. A more plausible scenario, however, would be another 26/11 type incident where India will be forced (more by public opinion) to carry out punitive action which would escalate into a war between India and Pakistan. Between the 26/11 incident and the mobilisation of the Indian Army for war, China is expected to do aggressive military posturing on the LAC. This, senior army officials say, will be of a low nature, as China is unlikely to open the second war front with India. This will provide the comfort window in the two-front war scenario, where the Indian Army will be able to move up to three (already acclimatised for mountain operations) divisions from the Chinese front (LAC) to fight Pakistan (on LC). After the end of the 12th defence plan (2017), when the Indian Army would have raised the sanctioned (in 2009) four divisions against China, the Indian Army will be able to shift the marked three divisions from east to west without unease as the new raised forces would easily cater for PLA’s military posturing.

There is yet another war scenario which has probably not been considered. According to the Indian Army, PLA’s Rapid Reaction Forces (RRFs) can be brought to bear for a low-level war (five to six divisions) in less than three weeks; for the short, medium level war (eight to 10 divisions) in less than for four weeks; while a high level threat (about 32 divisions) would require more time. This mobilisation is for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) which runs along the 4,000km LAC from Ladakh in the north to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. Unlike the Indian Army whose four army commands will be involved for these operations, TAR, for the PLA, is a single operational theatre under a single unified commander. Given that requisite infrastructure for troops’ rapid movement (all weather, two-lane roads) are available in POK, and the PLA is familiar with the terrain, what stops the POK from becoming an extension of TAR for operational purposes?

Given this, consider the scenario where Chinese civilians in POK get killed by Indian Army shelling or Indian Air Force sorties as part of punitive strikes in retaliation for Pakistan’s 26/11 type incidence. If Chinese get killed, as is its wont, China will retaliate in so-called ‘self defence’. This will lead to more than mere military posturing that has been assessed by the Indian Army. One, the comfort level of moving troops from LAC to LC will not be available. Two, the Indian Army brigade worth troops on Siachen glacier would be shelled from both sides leading to an extremely difficult situation; with air-maintained operational logistics, it will be suicidal for Indian soldiers to fight on the glacier. This is probably what the Northern Army Commander meant when he spoke about low comfort level with Chinese troops close to the LC. Worse, once hostilities stop, China will emerge as a more powerful stakeholder for Kashmir resolution. Early indicators of all this happening are there for all to see.



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