Breathing Fire

China has always kept India on tenterhooks

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

The 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan was the second turning point in Sino-Indian relations; the first was the 1962 war which left an indelible scar on the collective psyche of India’s political and military leadership: To both, since then, the Chinese soldier has appeared seven feet tall. In the first instance, China emerged as a determined regional power seeking an Asian role. In the second, China was propelled onto the global stage by the new strategic partnership with the US. What came to the fore in both instances was that the Chinese revel in a show of strength, are past masters at propaganda termed psychological operations in military parlance, and consider appeasement as a sign of weakness which they exploit further. This is because the PLA remains an important component of Chinese highest decisionmaking bodies. For this reason, negotiations with China must always follow a credible military muscle. Unfortunately, this basic fact has been glossed over by India’s establishment.

The memorial at Nathu la commemorates the Indian soldiers who died in the 1967 unprovoked firing by the Chinese

Pakistan understood China quite early. On 24 April 1959, Pakistan President Ayub Khan offered a plan for joint-defence with India against China and the Soviet Union. He reasoned that China’s occupation of Tibet, and the Soviet Union influence in Afghanistan had made both India and Pakistan vulnerable. He arrived in Delhi on 1 September 1959 to discuss joint-defence with Prime Minister Nehru, oblivious of the fact that there were deep fissures within India’s political and military leadership over China and that the army chief, Gen. K.S. Thimayya had tendered his resignation to Nehru the previous evening. The Indian reaction to Khan’s plan was noncommittal. However, alarmed by Pakistan’s move, and equally ignorant of the politicomilitary divide in India, China, in 1959 and 1960 offered a border resolution package to Nehru which he refused. The rest is history. After India’s ignominious defeat in the 1962 war, Pakistan and China have diligently worked together to ensure that India remains a sub-regional power, and that its army is tied down on two-fronts.

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To mark the first anniversary of FORCE in August 2004, we decided to turn east. FORCE visited Sikkim in July 2004, an area with the highest concentration of troops in the world. In the week that we spent there, FORCE travelled to both Nathu la and North Sikkim. The result was this comprehensive cover story, spanning past, present and the future. Read on

Even as China was negotiating with Pakistan for territory in occupied Jammu and Kashmir in 1963, India and China were engaged in building defence works on the Sikkim border. The next two years saw China sending umpteen protest notes and warnings to India for transgressing its territory. Meanwhile, the PLA started concentrating troops in the Chumbi Valley. India’s constant response was that it had not crossed into Chinese territory in Tibet. Moreover, Delhi was willing for verification by a neutral observer, which China declined. It later transpired that the Chinese defence preparations in Sikkim and regular protestations were meant to ensure that Indian troops remained tied down on two fronts, with Pakistan and China. This was to assist Pakistan, even if psychologically, during the 1965 war. During the height of the Indo-Pakistan war, China sent a bizarre ultimatum to India on 16 September 1965. In addition to the pending complaint of defence works in Chinese territory, India was to return four Chinese border inhabitants, 800 sheep and 59 yaks which had been seized by Indian troops on the China-Sikkim border.

Immediately after the 1965 war, China commenced activities on various fronts in Sikkim. Construction work started on the motorable Yatung-Chumbithang-Nathu la road, shell-proof living bunkers, communication trenches and gun positions were built at Nathu la, Jelap la and even Cho la. Importantly, the PLA put up big loudspeakers at all these places which blared roundthe- clock. The PLA started reminding Indian troops of their defeat in the 1962 war, and chastised India’s military leadership for placing innocent troops in harm’s way. The die was finally cast on 11 September 1967. The PLA opened fire on unarmed Indian soldiers who were laying a barbed wire along the boundary at Nathu la inflicting heavy casualties. The fire was returned which resulted in artillery exchanges by both sides. India lost 67 soldiers, while the PLA dead were less. Within days, the PLA repeated its action at Cho la, where both sides again suffered casualties. The unique thing, however, about these firings was that they remained localised, and despite the burden of 1962 events, Indian troops stood their ground. What followed was an uneasy lull, until the morning of 23 April 1969 when the PLA once again repeated threatening broadcasts. Nothing happened. Peace has prevailed since then and the barbed wiring remains intact at Nathu la. Diplomatic relations between India and China were finally restored in 1976 after the 1962 war.

Once Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, the army chief, Gen. K.V. Krishna Rao presented a strategic military plan, called Operation Falcon, to her which was accepted without delay. Operation Falcon envisaged converting the patchy forward presence against China into a heavy forward deployment on the arc from Turtok (Ladakh) and Shyok, all the way to the India-Tibet-Myanmar trijunction. Arunachal Pradesh, North Sikkim and the Trans-Ladakh range were to get special attention. The heavy deployment would be undertaken step-by-step over a 15-year period in which forward build-up would keep pace with infrastructure development along with viable lines of communication for operational logistics. Regarding the operational stance to be adopted with Operation Falcon, the military leadership felt that army divisions should be sited after having learnt the lessons of the 1962 war at great cost. Instead of going through the sterile debate over holding the Sela line or the Bomdila line in strength which exercised the minds of operational commanders from 1958 onwards, the whole mass was to be pushed forward with Towang as the centre for Kameng district and Walong for Lohit district. That would leave Subansari and Siang districts with a minimalist posture. The army chief, Gen. K. Sundarji was to adopt this operationalstance during the 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis with China.

Besides approving Operation Falcon, Indira Gandhi is credited with another development regarding border management with China. An inter-ministerial group called the China Study Group (CSG) was set up in November 1975 under K.R. Narayanan (later the President of India) with a twin purpose. It was to keep under review the situation on the Sino-Indian border, and was to assist in preparations for negotiations with China on the border question. Once Narayanan was appointed India’s ambassador to China in 1976, the chairmanship of the CSG was upgraded to foreign secretary with the vice-chief of army staff as a member amongst others.

Deng Xiaoping was impressed by her firm handling of events

Therefore, when Sumdorong Chu happened, China was aware that Operation Falcon was in its sixth year, and that India’s defence posture was not weak. Sumdorong Chu is in the Thagla Ridge area of Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh from where the 1962 war started. After the Chinese unilateral withdrawal in 1962 they had warned India not to enter certain areas evacuated by them. The routine of the small Indian Intelligence Bureau detachment at Sumdorong Chu that left the post for overnight collection of salaries and rations was monitored by the Chinese. One day in June 1986, when the Indians got back to the post after collecting supplies from a point near Nymjang Chu, the main river in North Kameng, they found it taken over by a PLA detachment which used helicopter support. This minor incident triggered off what came to be known as the Sumdorong Chu crisis between India and China.

At the peak of the Sumdorong Chu crisis in 1987, three mountain divisions of 4 corps headquarters were pushed to the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. Two divisions were deployed in Kameng district to defend Towang, and a better part of the third division was in Lohit district to defend Walong. Towang was designated as the corps vital area, which had to be defended at all costs. Extremely strong artillery elements were placed in support of the troops. Gen. Sundarji ordered airlifting of artillery ammunition estimated at hundreds of million rupees to be stocked in the forward areas. The artillery units deployed near Towang commanded the complete zone over which Chinese re-enforcements would come in case of a crisis. By the spring of 1987, a PLA field army, 63rd Field Army from Chengdu Military Region (now called Group Army) was facing two Indian mountain divisions deployed in a holding role to secure Towang. Headquarters 4 corps deployed a total of three divisions on the line with formations of Headquarters 3 corps acting asreserves. To cater for an escalation of hostilities, vital areas and vital points which form the framework of a border conflict with China received heavy to very heavy deployments catering for the entire border length, especially in North Sikkim. However, sensible people in Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing reckoned that nothing worthwhile would come out of the conflict, and the situation was eased. Yet, a clear message had gone to China: India had the political will and the military muscle to defend itself. Therefore, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, he was holding strong cards which were evident from the now famous handshake he had with Deng Xiaoping.

However, after Sumdorong Chu, it was downhill for India. The Nineties witnessed massive defence budget cuts, which resulted in the degrading of existing defences. This and a desire for warm relations with China resulted in two things: Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ordered the abandonment of Operation Falcon, and he signed the 1993 Treaty with China which benefited the latter immensely. On the other hand, China, in the decade of Nineties settled its disputed borders with all countries except India and Burma, continued building its military sinews in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and its national modernisation programmes were in full swing. Moreover, China’s four-pronged strategy for India was already blossoming. It included the need to diffuse the core border issue, to permit no political or diplomatic concessions, to ensure through its strategic partnership with Pakistan that India remains a subregional power, and to utilise the peace so obtained to build national power including military power. India’s subservient attitude towards China despite its blatant proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missiles to Pakistan did not go unnoticed in the region. Soon the ASEAN countries adopted a deferential posture towards China where it was necessary to take Beijing’s viewpoint into account before taking decisions. Japan panicked and entered into an enhanced strategic cooperation with the US. China had indeed emerged as an important Asian power by 1998.

The inside view of the conference hall at Nathu la where opposing sector commanders meet annually

The 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan brought the US closer to China, and by implication onto the world stage. It was Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan who drafted the UN Security Council resolution 1172 of June 1998 which demanded that both India and Pakistan roll back their nuclear weapons programme and sign the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. The US President Bill Clinton spent unprecedented two-weeks in China in July 1998 where he sought China’s support for stability in South Asia. For the first time, the US and China signed a pledge not to target strategic nuclear weapons at each other. This action implied that after the demise of the Soviet Union, China had emerged as the US’ rival. In its new-found status, China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council which still refuses to discuss nuclear weapons issues with India, and insists that it dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. Meanwhile, the PLA, since 1998 commenced building infrastructure furtively in TAR to support its offensive patrolling, a euphemism for transgressing the LAC. India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh travelled to China in June 1999 to declare that China was not a threat to India. And, defence minister, George Fernandes ate a humble pie. After a supposed spot assessment in October 2000, he dismissed repeated charges made by Mukut Mithi, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, that China had made incursions into his state territory. Instead, he said that India’s borders with China were safe.

The truth was that between 1998 and 2000, Chinese activities, both in the western and eastern sectors, continued to be aimed at asserting their claims up to their perception of the LAC irrespective of the mutually agreed ‘disputed pockets’ where both sides should be exercising equal levels of jurisdiction. For example, during the eighth meeting of the Joint Working Group held in August 1995, the two sides had identified eight ‘pockets of dispute’ where both have differing perceptions on the alignment of the LAC. These are, Trig Heights and Demchok in the Western Sector, Barahoti in the Middle Sector and Namka Chu, Sumdorong Chu, Chantze, Asaphila and Longju in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh). However, in 1998, the Chinese adopted an offensive posture in the Trig Height area by constructing a road approximately five km deep inside Indian territory. This has been used by Chinese patrols frequently to demonstrate presence in the disputed area. This unprecedented movement is an indication of Chinese intention of asserting their claim, as part of a welldesigned nibbling action. Violations inside Indian territory by the Chinese has become routine. Between January and August 2000, the army reported 96 incidents of violation of LAC in Trig Height area, as compared to 120 incidents of violations in 1999.

Worse, though Pangong Tso in the western sector is not an ‘agreed disputed area’, since 1998 the Chinese have been patrolling on the lake surface in powerful boats. In 1999, they constructed a motorable gravel track from their post at Spanggur up to the southern bank of the lake. The Chinese have indicated to local Indian commanders that their LAC runs about six km inside Indian territory here. There have also been increased Chinese activities in Rechin la, Siri Jap and Demchok in the western sector. The Chinese, since 1998, have been slowly upgrading their infrastructure, and at places have moved up to their 1960 claim line in the western sector.

As the PLA remains an important component of Chinese highest decision-making bodies, negotiations with China must always follow a credible military muscle. Unfortunately, this basic fact has been glossed over by India’s establishment

In the eastern sector where Indian presence is strong, the Chinese have repeatedly attempted to push their grazers inter-mixed with soldiers. Such incidents happened in Chantze in July 1999 and a number of times in Asaphila and Dichu areas in 1999 and 2000. All these and numerous minor standoff have been reported by local commanders to the government through proper channels. China, in essence, has been trying to assert its claims or seek bargains on the basis of de-facto possession of pockets that are being grabbed through intrusions. It is hardly a coincidence that Chinese heightened activities along the Sino-India border in 1999 happened when India was fighting a war with Pakistan in Kargil.

Moreover, even as China maintained a fairly neutral posture during the 1999 Kargil war, it had sent the PLA director of the Department of Armament to Islamabad to help Pakistan with its critical deficiencies in conventional armament, ammunition and equipment. Similarly, during Operation Parakram, the 10-month-long military stand-off between India and Pakistan, the PLA maintained pressure, especially in the eastern sector, to ensure that India found it difficult to divert more forces from the eastern front towards Pakistan.

The borders on the east are no doubt silent at the moment and the Indian Army has replaced weapons with paperwork, but the fact remains, that with each passing day China is increasingly becoming a big threat. If the political leadership in India refuses to see it now, China is likely to spring an unpleasant surprise.

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Blow Hot Blow Cold

Sikkim resists the chilly winds blowing from China

Baggage of History

Through the centuries, Sikkim has attracted nibblers

Seal of Trouble

The 1993 agreement adds to woes of the Indian Army

The Red March

While PLA builds capabilities in Tibet, India watches on the sidelines

Matching Steps with PLA

India should focus on improving its border management against Tibet

I Want Sikkim to Remain an Oasis of Peace

Chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling is an icon in Sikkim. He peers down from street hoardings, his face smiles from the front pages of the local newspapers and his name is reverentially invoked in conversation by the local population. Given that he is currently running his third term in a row since his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) came to power in 1994, his popularity is on an all-time high. As usually happens with icons, innumerable stories about him float around in the mint fresh air of Sikkim. A famous one goes that when he was a member of the legislative assembly in 1993 he raised his hand in the house to make a point. However, the Speaker, under the influence of the then chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, disallowed him from speaking. Chamling took out a candle from his pocket and went around the house as if searching for something in candlelight. He ended his search by coming to the well of the House and saying in a clear voice, “I am looking for democracy in this House. Since it is not here, perhaps it is in the pockets of the chief minister.” A direct consequence of this cry for democracy was that his one-year-old party, SDF, swept the polls in 1994 and has been in power since. Born in 1950, to Nepalese-speaking parents, Chamling has authored a number of books, both in verse and prose. Apart from that, a few volumes of his collected speeches are also available. A recipient of a number of awards, including Chintan Puraskaar in 1987 for poetry, Bharat Shiromani in 1996 for national integration, public welfare and strengthening democracy and the Greenest Chief Minister of India in 1998, Chamling has successfully created an image of a visionary that elevates him from the status of a mere politician. He spoke to FORCE about the opening of the trade route and other issues related to the development of this border state.


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