Thursday, May 16, 2013

What India should watch out for during Chinese Prime Minister's visit

By Pravin Sawhney

We now know from the horse’s mouth why the Chinese border guards trooped in, pitched tents on Indian land in Ladakh, and left suddenly in 20 days. Their objective of getting Indian commitment to hold its capacity (infrastructure) and capability (troops and equipment) building below the threshold of military activism had been achieved. Encapsulated in the Defence Border Cooperation Agreement (DBCA) which was handed over to foreign minister Salman Khurshid during his recent Beijing visit, China is determined to operationalise a dormant clause of the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) on its terms for a quieter border.

Speaking recently with select Indian journalists, Qin Gang, director general, external publicity in the Chinese embassy in Delhi, gave two Chinese takeaways from the recent tension. One, ‘both sides did not allow it (intrusion) to contaminate other spheres of cooperation’. Translated, this means that Beijing is happy that India disregarded its core-interest of border resolution by focussing instead on overall bilateral relations. And two, ‘the incident should spur both sides to make greater efforts for a quieter border’. Explained, India should abandon its plans for more troops (proposed mountain strike corps, about 40,000 troops), equipment, airfields and advanced landing grounds, ballistic missile silos, and border infrastructure along the 4,056km Line of Actual Control (LAC). These issues will be discussed under the DBCA.

Unlike India, China does not have regular troops on the LAC. Instead, it has awesome air lift capability, a preponderance of accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, formidable Special Forces, world class space and cyber capabilities, and a flat Tibetan plateau to fight a border war. Above all, it has the psychological advantage of having vanquished Indian political leadership in the 1962 war. Given all this, India, under pressure of the 20-day Ladakh stand-off, should not have agreed to discuss the DBCA which fundamentally calls for reduced Indian military presence on the border.

To be sure, the DBCA will set the stage for bilateral relations under the fifth generation Chinese leadership, beginning with Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit on May 19. Beijing had been uneasy since 2008 when in a bottom-up approach, the Indian defence ministry had given the go-ahead to the army and the air force to build capacity and capability along the Western (Ladakh) and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors of the LAC which is neither demarcated (identified on ground) or delimited (agreed on maps). In the classified ministerial directive issued to the defence services in February 2009, defence minister, A.K. Antony had instructed them to prepare capabilities for a two-front (Pakistan and China) threat. To China’s discomfiture, the tussle between the activist military seeking means to defend the disputed border and the pacifist foreign ministry mandarins who since the 1988 visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China had accepted that the border dispute was not India’s core-interest had to be settled.

Chinese reasoned that burgeoning Indian military activism would not only impede its grand strategy of strategic encirclement of India from land and sea, but could also cross path with China’s core-interest of Tibet. For instance, after the passing away of the Dalai Lama, China is certain to ask India to ban the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala. And the means to exert pressure would be the disputed border with imbalanced capacity and capability for a border war. Thus, by relenting on Chinese terms to discuss and settle the DBCA, India is likely to deprive itself of the muscle for meaningful and serious diplomacy, which must involve a give and take. Considering that the foreign ministry has taken credit for resolving the 20-day Ladakh crisis, its policy of appeasement is expected to prevail.

This will please China, accustomed to signing advantageous treaties with India since 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. Gandhi accepted Deng’s terms for building bilateral relations. The border dispute was not discussed by them and emphasis was placed on developing overall relationship. Worse, in a unilateral goodwill gesture, the 15-year border infrastructure and military build-up plan which was started in 1980 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and General K.V. Krishna Rao was abandoned. India decided to take-on the Chinese challenge by diplomacy alone.

The September 1993 BPTA signed during Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s China visit re-named the entire disputed border as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India’s sense of agreeing to this was that instead of resolving the entire border as one whole, both sides could now do so progressively in three parts (Western, Middle and Eastern) and make it peaceful. In reality, it worked to Chinese advantage. With the entire border being called the LAC, intrusions and border skirmishes increased, as Chinese with more gumption kept pushing the border envelopment. Thus, while between 1962 and 1993, there were only two border incidents in 1967 at Nathu La and the 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis, thereafter, border intrusions rose steadily with each year.

Now, China wants to activate a generic sentiment listed in the BPTA which seeks less troops on the border; something that Delhi has agreed to work upon. However, having accepted to discuss DBCA, Delhi should not agree to any more Chinese conditions for a quieter border, for these will put Indian military at a disadvantageous position.