India has three important lessons to learn from the recent war hysteria created in the media about Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control at several points. These reported incidents took place in August–September 2009 and the media reaction created a near war hysteria. While the suggestions made here may be old wine in a new bottle, they are still worth repeating.
First, China is a strategic competitor and cannot be a partner, however hard we try. Second, our own reactions to the incursions and the media follow up showed just how unfocused we are as far as military operations and the media are concerned. This means that like in the past, the Government chooses not to speak in one voice to the public and this creates more confusion. And third, it starkly demonstrates the nature of Chinese intentions. Let us examine each aspect and then draw some long term conclusions.
That the intrusions across the LAC from the Chinese side have been a regular feature is well known. What is not clear is the Indian posture.
It is well known that the growth of the Chinese economy in the past decade, and its potential for strong growth in the foreseeable future, is something that Beijing has consciously striven for. While it is prudent to view Chinese economic growth in terms of competition for trade and investment opportunities with other developing economies and a major cause of structural adjustments in the advanced industrialized economies, it is also worth noting that economic growth gives China leverages that makes it easier for it to make inroads into the global system. With the present global economic recession hitting the world economy, China remains a key player with its expanding economy and precious forex reserves. Therefore, the issue of whether China can maintain a relatively fast pace of economic growth is of importance.
China’s growth process is a combination of economic progress with stability. In fact, for Beijing maintaining stability overrides any other issue, including growth. Therefore, as China looks ahead, the crucial factor is going to be stability. Economic progress is one part of that larger rubric. If there is any disruption to political stability, then one could see ripples disturbing that trend and leading to conflict with an overland neighbour.
The second aspect is the reaction of the media and the Indian Government. As far as the media is concerned, it is clear that they overreacted to an old story without verifying the facts. It is well known that both sides regularly engage in aggressive patrolling. That the intrusions across the LAC from the Chinese side have been a regular feature is well known. What is not clear is the Indian posture.
We have had in the past instances of the uninformed reactions of many personalities in the Indian Government. What a series of unnecessary comments on a serious strategic matter like bilateral relations with China can do is quite remarkable. We had the ITBP be quoted on the incursions and then withdrawing their remarks. Such is the life of a hack. Get the story and then have it denied.
During the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force regularly trained its pilots to land on highways to simulate war like conditions when airfields are not in service.
But more seriously, is this is not something that the media advisor to the PM should be monitoring? After all, if a story then appears the next day, there should be a media briefing in the MEA or by the MoD denying such allegations if so required. But it has to come from a single source. India cannot afford the luxury of having ministers and bureaucrats speaking out of turn, especially on relations with China. A unified voice in the Government is needed if we are to actually turn the page on relations with China. That is a crucial lesson to be learnt from recent incidents.
The last and final issue that requires analysis, and perhaps for India the most important one is the ability to read Chinese intentions. After all, defeated and humiliated, the one lesson 1962 taught us was our inability to read China’s intentions. We must not repeat that mistake. Therefore, if one were to read a meaning into the recent or one can say series of chronological incidents involving the incursion of Chinese troops across the Line of Actual Control, it does not mean the two nations are going to war.
The issue is that we have an unsettled border with China. But there is in place an agreement on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates both sides by which we are agreed that we will not disturb the status quo and yet as the records show, both sides have carried out aggressive patrolling from time to time to test their defensive and offensive capabilities. This therefore, requires a closer look at the record of Chinese incursions or intrusions across the LAC from 1993 onwards and in what area. That would give us a sense of why the Chinese are testing certain Indian defences and why they choose to ignore other areas. Obviously, if one were to dig deep, the two sectors of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh would come up as frontrunners for the maximum incursions. Even assuming this to be a generalization that could be corrected, one is willing to state that this once in a while sparring across the LAC is really a test of wills.
It has been reported in the Indian media that in 2007 alone China made 146 incursions across the LAC. In one case the Chinese prevented locals from going up to regions where they had been taking their animals for grazing in Arunachal Pradesh. And “cartographic aggression”, in which Arunachal Pradesh is shown as Chinese territory, continues. And a look at the statistics for 2008 and 2009 will reveal a similar if not greater level of intrusions. Therefore, that is not the issue at hand.
It needs to be kept in mind that Chinese military and logistic capabilities and the rapid reaction facilities they possess against India in Tibet are very good. China’s handling of the events in March 2008 show that within 48 hours of the start of the riots in Lhasa, they were able to deploy T-90/89 armored personnel carriers and T-92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles as the 149th Division of the No. 13 Group Army under the Chengdu Military Region was sent to Lhasa.
The issue is how does one respond to this graduated incursion across the LAC? We have seen from the 1959–62 experience of gradual encroachment.
This rapid troop deployment indicates that with the completion of the Qinghai–Tibet railroad, the rapid reaction capability of the Chinese armed forces in the Tibet region, particularly the ability to quickly maneuver heavy equipment, has been greatly enhanced. In fact, road communication networks right up to the LAC give the Chinese much better logistic and military capability against India.
China has established a long distance rail link between Beijing and Lhasa and this service is later to be extended to Xigaze, south of Lhasa, and then to Yatung, near Nathu La. Further, Lhasa would be connected to Nyingchi, just north of Arunachal Pradesh, and the rail network would then run along the Brahmaputra River and the Sino–Indian border to Kunming in Yunnan. Therefore, this network is expanding all the time. It can therefore safely be presumed that China will at the same time expand logistic capabilities to sustain longer campaigns over longer distances.
It is also a signal of the Chinese capabilities and their efforts to constantly augment them on the Tibetan side. A case in point is the recent Stride 2009 military exercise which involved upwards of 50,000 troops and roughly one army division from each of the military commands of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou. Of note is the fact that the Chinese chose not to activate the Chengdu military region which borders India on the Tibetan side. But the Lanzhou military area does touch Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. Therefore, it may be possible to look at the intrusion of helicopters in Ladakh in September 2009 as straying of Chinese military personnel on training.
The point is that over the last decade, Chinese road and rail linkages in Tibet and Xinjiang have improved tremendously and are of dual use in nature. So if civilian traffic can use these roads and rail, so can troops of the PLA. Let us illustrate this point with an analogy from a different part of the world. During the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force regularly trained its pilots to land on highways to simulate war like conditions when airfields are not in service. These short runways are still used today for training, landing and taking off with Gripen combat aircraft and Hercules as preparation for international operations under adverse conditions. There is no reason for the Chinese genius not to be able to do this, in addition to the large number of airfields that are currently available on the Tibetan plateau. In addition, Chinese airlift capabilities have also gone up. And therefore a logical aim of Stride 2009 is for the PLA to improve its capacity of long-range projection.