Making sense of China’s border incursions
by G B Reddy on 05 Oct 2017 2 Comments

The Indian media’s, particularly visual media’s, sensationalism and ‘chest thumping’ over China’s border incursions/transgressions betrays strategic myopia. Freedom of speech and of the press is used by editors, anchors, panelists and columnists - critics, skeptics and supporters - to indulge in a cacophony of the worst order, depending on their political leanings and party polarisation on divisive lines. 


Generally, opposition party spokespersons and loyalists voice pessimistic, fatalistic, negative, cynical, and despairing views decrying the ruling party ‘spinelessness’ in countering the cross-border threats from the People’s Liberation Army. Disgruntled rebels from the ruling party join their chorus. 


Against them are arraigned those claiming to be strategic analysts. Some among them indulge in jingoists and war-like rhetoric. Naturally, ruling party spokespersons, who may be privy to the policies and strategy, maintain somber postures but aggressively intervene to counter opposition views.


The know-all editors/anchors, mostly elitist leftists and liberals, claiming to be champions of unbiased and unprejudiced coverage of news, indulge in unrelenting damning and demonization of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party with utter disregard to its external and internal fallout. In doing so, the liberal media perpetuates political bias so forcefully and unrelentingly that it is responsible for lowering its own image and promoting internal divides against external threats.


The Doklam crisis is not a one-off border intrusion by China’s troops. This was not the first and is unlikely to be the last confrontation. They will happen in “disputed areas” in all sectors: Ladakh; Uttarakhand; Sikkim; Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.


Instead of media cacophony obfuscating real strategic contingencies, it would have been worthwhile to identify, develop and concretize strategies and plans to counter Chinese coercive threats in the near-term and midterm contexts in all fields – political, diplomatic, military and even economic fields to deter PLA coercion.


The PLA has been employing coercive tactics on regular basis due to the excellent communication infrastructure in Tibet that runs parallel to the Line of Actual Control. In contrast, many places on the LAC remain inaccessible due to lack of communication infrastructure and the high snowbound altitudes. Records of PLA past border incursions /transgressions available in public domain include: 228 in 2010; 213 in 2011; 426 in 2012; 411 in 2013-411; and 334 till August in 2014.


This article examines the pattern of PLA activities, particularly the trend of confrontations following signing of Treaties like the 1993 India-China agreement for Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC and the Agreement and Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LAC in November 1996.


-        In Feb 1997, after President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India in November 1996, the PLA intruded 6 kms into Himachal Pradesh.

-        In June 2003, when Prime Minister Vajpayee was on an official visit to Beijing, the PLA intruded in the Asaphila region of the upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, and abducted 10 Indian soldiers.

-        In April 2005, the India-China Protocol on “Modalities for the Implementation of CBMs in the Military Field along the LAC in India-China Border Areas” was signed during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. In May 2005, Chinese troops intruded into Asaphila again.

-        In November 2006, prior to then President Hu Jintao’s visit to India, the ambassador to India Sun Yuxi affirmed that “the whole of the so-called state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that”. Between 2006 and 2011, China had made about 37 incursion attempts in the Barahoti region.

-        In 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry protested then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh.

-        In December 2010, Beijing denied visa to India’s Northern Army Commander and began issuing stapled visas to residents of J&K prior to then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India.

-        In April 2012, PLA troops intruded nearly 10 km deep inside Raki Nala-Depsang Valley south of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Chusul sector. Also, Chinese Foreign Ministry protested the visit to Arunachal Pradesh by the Indian Defense Minister.

-        In 2013, Chinese Foreign Ministry protested the visit to Arunachal Pradesh by then President Pranab Mukherjee. In April-May 2013, prior to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first visit to India (19-21 May 2013), Chinese intruded in DBO and Depsang plains (19 kms deep) in Ladakh. The PLA also intruded in Chaglagam area in Arunachal Pradesh. 

-        In June 2014, coinciding with Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China, the PRC published a map showing the entire Arunachal Pradesh and large chunks of J&K as Chinese territory. Also, the PLA intruded into Pangong Lake, Ladakh; Chinese troops made a 6-km deep incursion. Also in August 2014, Chinese troops intruded 25 to 30 km deep in Burtse area in Ladakh.

-        Ahead of, during and beyond President Xi Jinping’s visit to India (17-19 Sep. 2014), 1000 PLA troops intruded 3-kms inside Chumar area of Ladakh. Intrusion by Chinese civilians at Demchok along the LAC also took place. 

-        In January 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry protested Japanese minister’s recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as part of India. In February 2015, China protested Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh; Chinese Vice Foreign Minister summoned Indian envoy to protest; Chinese Foreign Ministry and embassy in New Delhi also protested. In March 2015, the PLA intruded in Burtse and Depsang in northern Ladakh.

-        In June 2016, PLA troops intruded from four different border points – Shakar Tikri, Thang La, Mera Gap and Yanki-1 - on the LAC of Yangtse area in Arunachal Pradesh. In September 2016, troops entered Indian Territory in the Plum sector by crossing the LAC in Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh.

-        In March 2017, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials protested vehemently against Dalai Lama’s fortnight long tour of Arunachal Pradesh. In June 2017, PLA helicopters made their fourth incursion since March 2017 over Barahoti region of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. In July 2017, around 50 Chinese soldiers breached the LAC in Barahoti, Chamoli, and retreated after they were halted by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).


Based on Chinese activities at the tactical level, it is fairly easy to interpret and assess Chinese intentions. One, China’s intrusions have extended since the mid-1980s (after Deng Xiaoping’s clean exchange offer – Aksai Chin in return for Arunachal Pradesh) to new areas to include Thagla, Sumdorong Chu, Yangshi, Asaphila and  Madan ridge (Arunachal Pradesh); Chumar, Pangong, Daulat Beg Oldi, Depsang, Trig Heights and  Yakla  (Ladakh) and Barahoti (Uttarkhand).


The majority of intrusions have happened during or close to visits by high level dignitaries of India and China. China’s intent is quite obvious - to assert its border claims on such important occasions at political and diplomatic level.


After 2012, 90 per cent of Chinese intrusions have happened in the western sector and doubled thereafter. The strategic reasons are simple. The key western highway connecting Xinjiang and Tibet falls in this area, as does the road linking Aksai Chin with Gilgit-Baltistan (POK) where the Chinese military is engaged in construction activities. The latest China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) reinforces the strategic significance to gain access to Gwadar Port. There is also the less known agenda to lay claim to Ladakh as part of Tibet.


Finally, the continuing intrusions reflect China’s nonchalant attitude towards peace and confidence building measures used to gain diplomatic leverage.


Geopolitically, China wants to regain its “Middle Kingdom” status. It is an emerging super power attempting to consolidate regional power status and hegemony over nations falling in its “area of influence” - all nations with common land and sea borders. China especially wants hegemony over South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region in pursuance of its national security interests covering South East Asia, West Asia and Africa.


Both countries suffer from siege mentality. Analysts say the Chinese people suspect India is using US and Japan to contain China and Indians believe China is restraining India through moves in the Indian Ocean and building of ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. China also opposes India’s nuclear policy. Then, India’s “Act East Policy” and its strategic ties with Japan and Vietnam, two China-wary nations besides the US-Japan-India strategic partnership initiatives, are viewed as adversarial by China.


Professor Zhang Li (South Asia Research Center, Sichuan University) opines that the support of Washington “led to a hardening of India’s position on disputed border with China like that in Aksai Chin, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh”.  


The PLA’s executing strategy of “Creeping Incrementalism and Extended Coercion” is termed as “Salami Slicing” by Indian military authorities. In the East and South China Seas, Beijing is aggressively challenging the United States and ASEAN nations.


Economically, China needs uninterrupted oil flows from the West Asian nations and Africa, and markets to export of its ever expanding industrial products.


Going by the manner of border intrusions before high profile visits, some analysts argue that the PLA influences China’s foreign policy. But the Apex Body of the Politburo and the Central Military Commission are headed by President Xi Jinping, who exercises full control over the military. The PLA actions follow a deliberately crafted course to gain political and diplomatic advantage. China wants to keep the “pot of border disputes” churning in all sectors to be decided when the situation turns in its favor.


Thus, the Indian media needs to cover Chinese PLA intrusions maturely, rather than by maligning ruling parties for alleged failures to gain a TRP edge over rival media houses.

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