India emerges as a roadblock in China’s march to Persian Gulf - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 21 May 2021 0 Comment

Tell-tale Signs from the Past


The Doklam stand-off and subsequent violent activities by the PLA in Ladakh have been cited by some observers as signs of China’s growing arrogance in its quest to show the world that India remains a pushover militarily. What is evident to all is that China is trying to take advantage of a border that remains undemarcated. It is taken for granted that transgressions can occur in the absence of a mutually defined Line of Actual Control. However, Beijing’s role over the decades in keeping the border issues alive is one long tale of deception staged by Chinese authorities at the highest level: a short history of it is worth repeating here.


In 1979 visiting Indian Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was told by none other than   Chairman Deng Xiaoping to set aside the border dispute for the next generation while working to improve China-India relations. Deng’s blatantly disingenuous proposal was dished out again to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his 1988 visit to China, when Deng used the formulation “work hard to create a favorable climate and conditions for a fair and reasonable settlement of the boundary question, while seeking a mutually acceptable solution to this question” (India-China Relations—an introspection: Ambassador Saurabh Kumar: Centre for China Analysis & Strategy: Sept 2014).


In essence, Deng told the Indian leaders: ‘Thank you, but a border solution is not on our radar screen.’ Why was he saying that? He wanted to ensure that India would drop its guard and allow China to make fresh inroads inside the non-demarcated borders, keeping open the option to eat up bits and pieces of Indian territory in its westward march.


Deng’s tactic to keep India unsuspecting of China’s real intent was on exhibit again in 2005 when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India and  proposed the “Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question” to accompany the announcement of a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership.” Those announcements produced euphoria among a section of Indian policy analysts. Some even declared that China was ready, set, go to drop their claims in the Eastern sector (covering Arunachal Pradesh) as part of a package deal involving India’s concessions in the Western sector (Aksai Chin) and a mutually acceptable settlement of the border dispute.


What followed was a fresh dose of reality. In 2006, hardly a year after Wen’s crowd-pleasing bait and on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit to New Delhi, Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi was heard publicly asserting China’s claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. What that meant, Ambassador Saurabh Kumar, a Mandarin-speaking Indian diplomat who served as Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India in Beijing, pointed out at the time, was that China was not interested in marginal adjustments of the disputed border but wanted to negotiate a large chunk of Indian territory in the entire border area. It was yet another act of bad faith guided from the top since the days of Deng Xiaoping, and pursued to date by Xi Jinping with an exclusive agenda to undermine India’s sovereignty.


Not only did the promise of a “strategic and cooperative partnership” turned out to be a non-starter, at least two dozen rounds of talks have taken place since, ostensibly to resolve the border dispute that have led to nowhere and resulted in what India encountered in Ladakh in 2020. There was no way for the border talks to progress because the Chinese refused to produce maps which could justify their claims. The reality is that China does not have a map, but it has no dearth of territorial claims. What New Delhi must accept is that Beijing was never interested in resolving the border dispute or any part of it, because that would end its justification for claiming additional territories. That would end Beijing’s present policy, which is to set up PLA enclaves within Indian territories, claiming it belongs to China. 


What Prompts China to Be Aggressive in Eastern Ladakh


In Ladakh, China tried the same tactic in the Pangong Tso area, southeast of Depsang Plains, but Indian border forces pushed them back. A formal disengagement took place in this area. On Feb. 11, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told the Parliament that India and China will remove forward deployments in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner.” A day earlier China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that both sides had started a “synchronized and organized” disengagement. What has come across so far, however, is a “temporary moratorium on military activities” on the lake’s northern bank. “Patrolling will be resumed only when both sides reach an agreement in diplomatic and military talks that would be held subsequently,” Rajnath Singh said (India, China begin troop withdrawal from contested border: Aijaz Hussain: Associated Press, Feb 11 2021).


As of this writing, no such agreement has been reached in the Depsang Plains area, where India claims the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin plateau as part of Ladakh. According to India, the control line is 3,488 kilometers (2,167 miles) long; China says it is considerably shorter.


Setting aside the nitty-gritty of where the exact control line is, one major reason why China chose to act aggressively in the northern part of Eastern Ladakh and is putting up myriad arguments against reaching an agreement is because that part of Ladakh has strategic geographical significance. It acts as a sharp wedge between Gilgit-Baltistan in the west (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir), where China has positioned its security personnel as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and Aksai Chin in the east (China’s Adventurism in Eastern Ladakh - A Strategic Miscalculation:  Lt. General VK Ahluwalia: Wilson Center:  July 20, 2020).


According to Sarosh Bana, writing from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), China’s adventurism in Eastern Ladakh might be explained by its pique at Delhi’s completion last year of the 255 kilometer-long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) road, which improved India’s connectivity along the 1,147-kilometer LAC in Eastern Ladakh. That road leads to the world’s highest airstrip and to India’s military base at DBO, which is just 12 kilometers south of the strategic Karakoram Pass. A mere seven kilometers north is the post of Shenxianwan, considered the toughest PLA posting in China (India Has Few Options to Thwart Chinese Aggression: Sarosh Bana: BESA: Oct 12 2020).


According to Henry Boyd and Meia Nouwens of Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, the PLA has three border defense companies based close to the areas in question in Aksai Chin. In addition to the border forces, the PLA has mobilized conventional combat forces, most likely from the 6th Mechanized Division. This formation is based far to the northwest, on the southern boundary of the Taklamakan Desert, but constitutes the Southern Xinjiang Military District’s primary operational reserve. In the 2017 Doklam confrontation, PLA force dispositions seemed to follow a similar pattern, with border forces on the frontline, but with regular manoeuver formations deployed further back as a reserve (Understanding the military build-up on the China–India border: Henry Boyd and Meia Nouwens: IISS: June 18 2020).


China Acting to Serve Its Ally, Pakistan


Beyond the determined pursuit to expand its security perimeter, there is another factor that runs through China’s activity. That is the Pakistan factor. Historically, China maintained a balanced approach to India-Pakistan security crises and has routinely advocated de-escalation of tension and diplomatic negotiations. But that was apparently a diplomatic posture that disguised China’s longstanding in-place geostrategic plan to shield and protect Pakistan - the anchor of its balancing strategy on the subcontinent - and thereby secure open access to that country. The policy has largely worked.


China has invested heavily in Pakistan, and only a small part of that investment can be judged in terms of dollars and pounds. The real importance of Pakistan to China is long-term and geostrategic. Pakistan’s willingness, if not eagerness, to allow China use its land to access Afghanistan and beyond into West Asia was music in China’s ears. This is exactly what Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative was designed for. From the outset, while India was unwilling to boost China’s connectivity projects, Pakistan, by contrast, was enthusiastic; and plans for an economic corridor between Pakistan and China were announced in the summer of 2013, when then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing.


This project, later named the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was eventually launched in 2015. China’s stated aim in the CPEC was to expand its trade links and influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia. These goals blend seamlessly into China’s much broader Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2016. In 2017 Beijing and Islamabad re-visited the CPEC project plan and drew up a “Long Term Plan,” which extended China’s timeline for implementation to 2030. The original projected cost US$46 billion was hiked to US$ 62 billion. The CPEC had been widely covered in the media, and the geo-economic and geostrategic significance of the Gwadar port to China cannot be overestimated.


Once a small fishing village, Gwadar is now part of Beijing’s grandiose CPEC hub to link up China’s western Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea, east of the Strait of Hormuz. When completed, it will have three 200-meter-long berths and one Ro-Ro (roll on-roll off) facility. The port is being developed by the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), to which it was leased by the Pakistan government for 40 years in April 2017. The final expansion of the port and ancillary systems will be undertaken by the Chinese.


China wants to make Gwadar a corridor port - a port through which goods will transit between China, Asia, Europe and Africa more quickly and more easily than currently. Gwadar port is a crucial part of China’s BRI and the main feature of the CPEC. Gwadar port will provide an alternative shipping route to the Malacca Strait, which is frequently patrolled by the United States. The shipping route from the Middle East to China, via the strait, is about 12,000 km long; by comparison, the route via Gwadar is XXXX km (A Study on Gwadar Port International Competitiveness using Porter’s Diamond Model: AiMin Deng, Alassane Yeo, LiHui Du: World Journal of Innovative Research (WJIR) Volume-4, Issue-1, January 2018).


(To be continued…)

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