The Chinese intrusion into the area of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) on 15th April 2013, reportedly about 15 to 18 KMs South of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), once again brought into public debate the issue of Indian response and military preparedness in Ladakh Region; particularly in Depsang Valley. While Chinese patrols often cross into Indian territory South of LAC, what is significant and unusual about the present incident is the depth of intrusion and the fact that Chinese troops of about a platoon strength are still camping inside with no signs of pulling back. In response to Indian protests, the Chinese Government maintained that it had not provoked the border row. Hua Chunying, the spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters at a regular briefing that, “With the boundary not demarcated yet, it is inevitable for problems to creep up in border areas”.
The DBO incident perhaps is an expression of Chinese displeasure and flexing of muscle in the wake of recent Indian efforts at building infrastructure in Ladakh Sector which has long been delayed.
Various motives for the present intrusion were assigned ranging from Chinese new assertiveness in the region to their security concerns in the South China Sea and ASEAN region, and speculatively to intra party conflicts. While these may be relevant and perhaps are interrelated, one factor that comes out with a degree of certainty is that the Chinese decisions and actions are deliberate and the present incident cannot be termed as inadvertent trespassing into India due to un-demarcated boundary. Since decades, the troops on both sides had their unwritten understanding of the LAC and had generally respected the same. Perhaps, the reasons may be attributed to Chinese sensitivity to any build up of border infrastructure by India, particularly in areas adjacent to Aksai Chin through which the Western Highway in Tibet passes.
The DBO incident perhaps is an expression of Chinese displeasure and flexing of muscle in the wake of recent Indian efforts at building infrastructure in Ladakh Sector which has long been delayed. For the present, both countries had shown maturity and restraint and resolved to localise and not to further escalate the conflict. Both believe that the issue will be settled peacefully using the existing border management mechanisms and CBMs which were put in place. China’s selection of DBO for intrusion is deliberate and foresighted due to the area’s strategic importance.
DBO is the Easternmost point of the Karakoram Range located about 8 KMs South of Chinese border and 9 KMs North West of Aksai Chin LAC. The Karakoram Pass lies to the North West of DBO at a distance of approximately 17 to 18 KMs. This area is contiguous to Pak Occupied Kashmir (POK) and adjacent to the portion of POK comprising Shaksgam Valley which was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963 through a border agreement between the two. The Highway linking Gilgit (later extended up to Skardu) in POK with Sinkiang Province in China passes through this area. Though this highway is generally called as Karakoram Highway, it does not pass through Karakoram Pass but through Khunjerab Pass lying further North of Karakoram Pass.
In strategic terms, this highway provides greater security to POK; particularly the Baltistan area, and to Sinkiang Province of China which is a restive province with predominantly Muslim population. When viewed in this perspective, the area between Karakorum Range and Kunlun Range including the area of Aksai Chin is very vital to China. Chinese mostly view Aksai Chin as part of Sinkiang Province and not of Tibet signifying its importance. Though some analysts including
In Chinese centric view, with respect to their overall strategy relating to Sino-Indian border, the Western Sector comprising Aksai Chin perhaps assumes greater strategic importance vis-a-vis the Eastern Sector opposite Arunachal Pradesh.
Mr T.S.Murty in his book on “India China Boundary” had down played the importance of Aksai Chin to China stating that many possible parallel road alignments linking Tibet with Sinkiang are available and need not necessarily pass through Aksai Chin, the importance of Aksai Chin to China in the present geostrategic context cannot be diluted. This aspect was aptly summed up by John W. Graver when he stated that “it ( Aksai Chin ) is essential to Chinese control of Western Tibet and very important to its control of all Tibet”.
In Chinese centric view, with respect to their overall strategy relating to Sino-Indian border, the Western Sector comprising Aksai Chin perhaps assumes greater strategic importance vis-a-vis the Eastern Sector opposite Arunachal Pradesh. Since 1960, first Chou en – lai and subsequently many Chinese voices have been making swap offers that they will give up their claim to Arunachal in return for Indian recognition of Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin. This may be the result of inter-se priorities they assign to these two sectors or may be due to their realistic realisation that considering the geographical, physical and emotional integration of Arunachal with India, it may not be possible to annex it. This offer in effect would mean that India would give up what she lost to retain what she still has in possession. This swap arrangement was never considered seriously by either side. The above stated inter-se priorities of sectors though relevant to China, from the Indian perspective, the defence of Eastern Sector comprising Chumbi Valley and Arunachal is vital. Any loss or even a serious threat to these may seriously endanger the security of Siliguri Corridor and complete Brahmaputra Valley surrounded by Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam.
In macro terms, a plausible deduction that emerges is the Indian priorities in terms of a strong defensive posture in the East and use of Ladakh Sector as potential launching pad for counter offensive when required. The Chinese sensitivity and vulnerability in the Western Sector is obvious considering the proximity of Tibetan Western Highway to Indian line and the terrain configuration of areas adjoining Loma, Nyoma and Demchock which lend themselves to offensive operations including limited mechanised operations.
As stated earlier, the area of DBO and Depsang is strategically important to both China and India from the perspective of both defensive and offensive operations. The greatest military threat to Ladakh, particularly to areas North and East of Ladakh Range including Siachen Glacier emanates from Northern Aksai Chin, DBO and Depsang plains as the area offers options for a credible collusive Sino-Pak military effort against India. An offensive by China through Depsang plains into Shyok and Nubra valleys across Saser La (Saser Pass) and a determined effort by Pak from West towards Thoise and Pratapur will envelop all areas North and East of Kardungla including Siachen. Such a course can certainly not be ruled out either for the present or in future. India should be extremely cautious about such a course and put in place a strong defence network in the area towards thwarting such an eventuality. Apart from a strong defensive perspective, the Dapsang valley should also be viewed by India as a launching pad for ingress into China. The Chinese are equally sensitive to any Indian thrust through Depsang area towards Karakoram Pass, Northern Aksai Chin and Sinkiang; the only opening available to India to Central Asia and Pamirs.
Apart from a strong defensive perspective, the Dapsang valley should also be viewed by India as a launching pad for ingress into China.
It is in this context, that India must work her strategy and responses both for the present to resolve the stand-off in DBO and as well for the future in long term perspective. Chinese continued presence in Depsang is not in India’s interests and sovereignty, and cannot be put in limbo. This is the first incident of this type after Somdurong Chu (Wangdung) intrusion of 1986-87 in Arunachal Pradesh, and seems to bear similar pattern as experienced in Wangdung. In formulating her response to DBO stand-off, India needs to take a closer look at the sequence of events and lessons learnt from the Wangdung incident. Initial Indian response to Wangdung intrusion which was detected in June 1986 was to localise the situation and defuse it through diplomacy.
When diplomacy did not succeed and China resorted to escalation of conflict with troop accretions from 40 to more than 200 in the area of intrusion, movement of 20,000 troops with guns and helicopters into the sector and mobilisation of additional 8 divisions into Eastern Tibet by April 1987, India adopted a graded response in terms of troops build up and deployment. Between the period from Sept-Oct 1986 to April 1987, India initially airlifted and deployed a brigade from 5 Mountain Division in Zimithang on the ridges overlooking Wangdung area and followed it up with movement of 3 additional divisions into positions around Wangdung by early April 1987. India also carried out a massive air-land exercise titled “Chequerboard” which involved 10 divisions of the Indian Army and several squadrons of IAF, and redeployment of troops in several areas of the North East. Following troops build up, there were hectic diplomatic parlays between the two countries to defuse the situation. Indian External Affairs Minister made a visit to China in May 1987 and reaffirmed India’s desire to continue with border talks and reduce tension. In Aug, the local commanders of both sides met and decided to pull the troops apart.
Eighth round of border talks were held in Nov 87 during which it was decided to end the military confrontation and laid down the groundwork for disengagement and pulling back of militaries of both. China extended an invitation to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit China. Throughout the incident, India displayed a great sense of maturity, firmness and resolve. China might have realised the futility of an armed conflict with a well determined and well prepared India. According to Keshav Misra, “Overt display of military power had effectively neutralised any adventurist step” by China.
It seems that the present stand-off at DBO is unlikely to end soon. Drawing lessons from Wangdung incident in which the Indians displayed adroit diplomacy and military resolve, India needs to carefully calibrate her responses, both diplomatic and military, with restraint and firmness and not be inhibited to project force or to engage in a military confrontation should it become necessary and the stand-off continues. Enough options are available to India in Western Sector to threaten areas which are sensitive to China.
Since 1962, our thinking and actions were defensive and reactive. It is time we shed our inhibitions and think & act big.
In long term perspective, the real concern for India should be how to prevent reoccurrence of such incidents in future and what should be her strategy in relation to Sino-Indian border given the fact that the negotiations to settle the border are moving at a snail’s pace and any permanent solution is unlikely to emerge in the near future. Apart from some voids in equipment and force structure, a major weakness of India is paucity of infrastructure in border areas for undertaking and sustaining military operations. Unfortunately, the DBO sector was not strengthened since 1962 and no major infrastructural works were undertaken except for the gravel airstrip for landing of AN-32 aircraft in 2008.
As per reports, a road project linking DBO with Leh roughly following Shyok alignment was planned in 2001 but could not be executed. Till date, the Post is maintained mostly by air posing a serious constraint on the strength that can be positioned. Lack of infrastructure is not akin to DBO alone but extends to many more areas along the border. Sooner than later, India needs to address the issue of development of infrastructure which is long overdue in terms of construction of roads, airfields/ airstrips, ALGs, storage areas and dumps, staging areas, troop shelters/ accommodation and defence works conforming to its long term strategy both for defensive and offensive operations. These works must be undertaken on emergent basis in a phased manner and completed in the shortest possible time. Combined with this is the aspect of matching force levels commensurate with the overall strategy evolved. Raising of four mountain divisions including two for offensive operations is a welcome step.
The best of intentions can change overnight but building up of capabilities and infrastructure require very long time and cannot be done overnight. Better be prepared for that day.
Since 1962, our thinking and actions were defensive and reactive. It is time we shed our inhibitions and think & act big. Instead of resorting to kneejerk reactions every time the Chinese intrude into our area, we should per se deter such attempts with a credible force posture and capabilities for a tit-for-tat in areas sensitive to them. The strength of a nation lies in its capabilities to proactively act and steer independently without outside interference and pinpricks. A strong Indian military posture coupled with capabilities and determination may also force China to expedite border settlement which they have been dillydallying since long.
The above will no doubt call for a huge financial outlay and demands many sacrifices. National sovereignty cannot be measured in terms of costs. A strong national will, resolve and determination can overcome any such obstacles and it is time that we demonstrate these. Presently India and China have been having very cordial relations. The Sino-Indian border has been peaceful since 1962 barring a couple of incidents. There is a sincere urge on the part of leadership of both the countries to work towards improvement of relations and rapprochement. As one recalls, in international relations there are no permanent friends or foes; the only constant factor is one’s national interests. The best of intentions can change overnight but building up of capabilities and infrastructure require very long time and cannot be done overnight. Better be prepared for that day.
- “India China Boundary” by TS Murty, published by ABC Publishing House, New Delhi in 1987.
- “Paths of Peace” by TS Murty, published by ABC Publishing House, New Delhi in 1983.
- Article titled “ The Sumdorong Chu Incident” by V Natarajan, Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Volume 3 (3) Nov-Dec 2000.
- Article titled “Lessons from an Unsettled Boundary” by Manoj Joshi – The Hindu dated 27 April 2013.