Saturday, July 18, 2009
Sino-Indian Border Tensions: Implications
After years of reports of China upgrading its combat capabilities in Tibet, New Delhi has finally begun to react. The recent decision (June 8, 2009) by the Government of India to deploy two additional army divisions and two air force squadrons near its border with China sparked new tensions between the two countries, with Beijing reiterating yet again that a large stretch of the state of Arunachal Pradesh belongs to them.
With this new deployment in Assam, India’s troop strength in the region will cross more than one hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced that it will deploy two squadrons of advanced Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft in Tezpur, Assam. Though only four fighters are deployed now, there are plans to increase it to its full complement in a gradual manner. Additionally, India has acquired three Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), which also potentially has uses on the Eastern border. In addition, India is also undertaking upgradation of airstrips and advanced landing stations along the Northeast, including at Tezpur (Assam), Chabua (Assam), Jorhat (Assam), Panagarh (West Bengal), and Purnea (Bihar). If the AWACS are deployed to the northeast, it could be significant as it is a potent force multiplier capable of monitoring the movement and activities of troops and aircraft on the Chinese side. The state of Arunachal Pradesh is also planning to raise a 5,000-strong force, comprising of local populace, to supplement Indian Army efforts during a crisis. This is being modeled on Ladakh Scouts that proved useful during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan. The Indian moves have clearly irked the Beijing leadership as reflected in several editorials in the PLA mouthpiece People’s Daily. One editorial said that “China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India.” The question is whether this anger stop with these editorials or whether they translate into a more serious problem on the border.
For more than five years now, China’s anti-India rhetoric has been going up significantly, not just among officials, but also in the academic and think-tank circles. Earlier, Professor Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a government think-tank, had argued that India should “return” Tawang, a sacred place for Tibetan Buddhists in Arunachal Pradesh, to China for resolving the vexed border issue, as Beijing could then be “magnanimous” in settling the border in the Western and Middle Sectors of the disputed boundary. In April 2009, a provocative article titled, ‘A Warning to the Indian Government: Don’t Be Evil!’ China has sent a strong message to India. The author compared the present India-China situation to that of 1962 when, the author claims, India provoked a war with China. He noted that China today is better prepared in terms of its military presence in Tibet and nearby regions, besides possessing nuclear weapons. He also contended that China believes that India has been in an aggressive mood as evident in its stationing of more troops on the border, conduct of military exercises with countries, and massive arms acquisitions with China as the target. He concluded by accusing the Indian government of “walking today along the old road of resisting China,” advising India “not to requite kindness with ingratitude.”
Similar has been the voice from the Chinese officialdom. In November 2006, just before the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to India, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, made a claim on the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, Chinese have protested at the Indian troop movements in Sikkim, as well as against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in January 2008. In May 2007, the Chinese government refused visa to an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from Arunachal Pradesh to visit China, stating that Arunachal Pradesh was part of Chinese territory. In August 2007, the Chinese demanded that India remove two bunkers on the Sino-Indian border close to the tri-junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, raising doubts about earlier China’s acceptance that Sikkim is part of India. More recently China has objected to a loan proposal by the Asian Development Bank because part of the loan would be used in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims. China had also opposed the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) waiver to India last year for international nuclear commerce with India and has objected repeatedly to Indian proposals to add names of Pakistan-based terrorists to the UN terror list.
Lately, China has been trying to activate the Sikkim card as a bargain for its larger claim on the state of Arunachal Pradesh, and more particularly Tawang. For instance, in May 2008, China began to make fresh claims on Sikkim, otherwise a peaceful sector on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides India and China. Sikkim is a state in the north-eastern part of India, bordering China, which acceded to India in 1975. China lays claims to the northernmost tip of Sikkim that appears on the map like a protruding finger and thus termed Finger Area. It contains some stone cairns or heaps of stones that demarcate the India-China border. However, China has continued to state that it will demolish those cairns as the current mapping is not entirely correct and is based on the 1924 Survey of India. The current border controversy started last year when PLA troops began frequenting the area and constructed a road that crossed the Finger Area. Although India protested such moves in February 2008, the Chinese have continued assert their claims and have succeeded in introducing the issue as an agenda in the boundary talks between the two countries.
China has been trying to adopt various measures to put pressure on India so as to get leverage from India on the boundary issue. For instance, the Chinese border incursions have been on an increase. There were nearly 200 border intrusions in all three sectors in 2007, 270 in 2008 and 60 so far in 2009, although most of the intrusions took place in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Border incursions into Sikkim have also gone up significantly. While the numbers may not critical, it still demonstrates the changed Chinese attitude towards India. The Chinese incursions are also getting deeper into Indian territory than before. Nevertheless, the Indian establishment continues to maintain that these are minor issues and that India and China being responsible powers will not stumble into a military clash. Despite India’s stationing of more than 40,000 troops in the state of Sikkim, its policy and posturing have continued to be, by and large, defensive.
On the other hand, despite the assertion that India is not a challenge, it continues to irk China to see India’s rising politico-strategic and military profile, especially in the Asia-Pacific. India’s Look East policy has been highly criticized. In fact, China’s concerns are reflected in an internal study undertaken at the behest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mohan Malik, a noted China-watcher, in a recent essay analysed this internal study undertaken in 2005, which recommended that China undertake measures to maintain the current lead and strategic leverage in terms of territory, P-5 membership, or the Nuclear Club; hold on to diplomatic advantages through its special relationship particularly with India’s neighbouring countries; as also maintain the economic lead over India. India’s role and stand on Tibet may also be irksome to the Chinese leadership.
The Chinese are firmly convinced that increasing rhetoric along with increased incursions on the eastern sector will pressurise India to agree to major compromises on the border and territorial issue. China also believes that it should be in no hurry to resolve the border issue with India, but should be patient.
Lastly, will the Chinese anger result in a limited conflict on the border? If so, how are the two sides placed for such a conflict? In the past few years, the infrastructural developments that China has undertaken in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as well as on the India-China border provide the potential to the PLA Army to mobilise forces and equipment in a much shorter span of time. It would enable China to quickly mobilise large forces by train and by road onto Indian borders. Earlier this exercise not only took a long time but also was impossible during periods of snow. The new rail line into Tibet, and expressways, have changed the scenario totally. It is believed that China has about 160,000 troops in Tibet, and with improved infrastructure, it will be able to amass another 100,000 troops from the central reserve in a span of six weeks. Indian military planners have also noted that China has vastly improved its air force capability in the region, with multiple air bases and forward airstrips near the border. The PLA Air Force is also believed to have improved its command and control structures. China can also deploy heavy-lift planes in Tibet, though they may not be able to land and take-off fully loaded because of altitude restrictions. Besides the positioning of intermediate range ballistic missiles such as DF-4 and DF-21 in Tibet, it is reported that they could also deploy DF-31 ICBMs in bases such as at Delingha, near Tibet. This may mean that even a limited conflict between India and China has the potential to spiral out of control to become a dangerous nuclear flashpoint.
The infrastructure on the Indian side is quite deplorable. Indian military and political establishment appears to have believed for a long time that if it undertakes major infrastructure development, it would actually enhance the Chinese ability to move into Indian territory. However, the Indian government has recognised, of late, the need to upgrade the general infrastructure in the region. In June 2006, the Indian Cabinet sanctioned a series of infrastructure projects along the border. These projects include the building of 72 roads, three airstrips and several bridges in the border areas along the undefined LAC that would enable the Indian military to move troops quickly into the region. China may not perceive these developments favourably, even though these developments are on the Indian side of the border.
However, in terms of forces, India has about twelve mountain divisions capable of swift offensive operations in the mountainous areas. Two of these were reportedly created in February 2008, specifically for combat in Arunachal Pradesh. Two additional such divisions are estimated to become operational by 2015-16, at a cost of around INR 14 billion (USD 358 million). These will be reinforced by air power, including possibly, AWACS, and fighter jets. There have also been reports of India’s plans to procure 140 ultra-light 155mm artillery pieces, as also a large number of heavy lift and combat ready helicopters, all of which would have special utility in mountain warfare. Although India has tested a number of intermediate-range missiles, including the Agni-3 capable of hitting both Beijing and Shanghai, these missiles are still not operational.
Despite such rhetoric, China may not be in a mood to engage in a border conflict with India, as it would affect the growth trajectory of China quite adversely. Second, while Beijing may like to intensify its pressure on India, it recognizes that India is not the same that it defeated in 1962. India’s upgraded military capabilities, specifically air power if used in combat, will significantly alter the outcome of a conflict.