India-China: Striking Ties On The Mountains

NAZIA HUSSAIN

Research Assistant, Centre for Development & Peace Studies

Five decades after India and China went to war on the Himalayan heights, India now is finally starting to gear up, hoping to match the dominating Chinese presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In mid-July, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in New Delhi approved the creation of a Mountain Strike Force (MSF) along the border with China, India’s first corps dedicated solely for offensive mountain warfare. The CCS, chaired by Prime-Minister Manmohan Singh, has allocated Rs. 64,000 crore for the formation of this China-specific force to be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal, with more than 40,000 troops and about 3000 officers.

Following the 1962 war between the two Asian neighbors, along what India now calls the Arunachal Pradesh sector, relations between the two countries has been marked by hostility and mutual distrust. Although China withdrew from Arunachal Pradesh after a decisive advance into Indian territory in 1962, it still claims 90,000 square kilometers of land in the state. After the war in 1962, no major armed confrontation has occurred between the two sides but there still remains an uneasy calm across the border areas spanning 3,225 kms. This is because by the time India had woken up in the late 90s to slowly increase its military presence along the border, China was already way ahead with modern infrastructure along the LAC that can facilitate a quick movement of its rapidly modernizing military to the frontier.

Now after all these years of blow hot blow cold relations with China, India finally has this grand plan for a Mountain Strike Force. Does India really believe that creation of a MSF will lead to an impenetrable defense of its border, a deterrent that could help resolve the border dispute with China once and for all? It could well be possible that India seeks to be at a level playing field with China so that it can stop being on the defensive and come to call the shots. As it is, the Opposition Party keeps blaming the Centre for weak reactions to repeated Chinese intrusions like the ones in April this year when Indian authorities spotted Chinese troops pitching tents in Ladakh, resulting in a three-week standoff on the disputed border. Soon after this incident, around 50 Chinese soldiers riding on horses and ponies intruded into the Indian territory of Chumar in Ladakh on July 16 staking their claim over the area. This intrusion took place on the day when India gave approval to the creation of a Mountain Strike Corps along the border with China. Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese Studies at the New-Delhi based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said transgressions by patrolling Chinese soldiers have become more frequent in recent years, increasing to nearly one a day, a signal of heightened border activity by India’s neighbour. If indeed it is a part of India’s offensive posturing plan to balance out Chinese designs, it may take years for the dividends to yield because the MSF is on the drawing board stage at the moment. China has at least five fully-operational airbases, an extensive rail network and over 58,000-km of roads along the Indian border. This would allow China to move over 30 divisions — each with over 15,000 soldiers — to the LAC, outnumbering Indian forces by at least 3:1 in the stretch. China has deployed 13 border defence regiments with around 300,000 PLA troops close to Indian border.

If India had not done much in the last many years to counter the Chinese military presence along the border, why has it suddenly adopted the proposal of a MSF which had been kept hanging due to financial constraints? Is it preparation for a potential war with China which makes India take the trouble to undertake such an ambitious and costly project? A war may be unlikely, but, what is significant or coincidental is that the Cabinet Committee on Security’s clearance to a China-centric strike corps came alongside the PM’s push for “critical” rail projects aimed to improve inter-state coordination in the Northeast for which the Centre cleared additional funds of Rs. 600 crore on July 18th.

Despite the constant border intrusions and tensions, analysts believe that bilateral trade between the two countries is too crucial for sustaining growth, and, therefore the question of a potential war does not arise. It is more than likely that border dispute will eventually take a backseat, and trade between the two Asian giants is going to dictate bilateral relations and be the cornerstone of government-to-government dialogue between the two nations. India has expanded economic ties with Beijing, its largest trading partner. Bilateral trade has grown to $68 billion and the two countries hope to boost it to $100 billion by 2015. According to statistics with India’s Ministry of Commerce, India runs a large trade deficit of $40 billion with China, up from just $1 billion in 2002.

Yet, New Delhi has become increasingly concerned with Chinese efforts at friendship and influence in neighbouring countries, particularly of being encircled by China’s “String of Pearls”- Chinese investments in naval bases and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal- which could create a heavily adverse situation for India.

What emerged in the recent Bhutan elections is a fine display of how India tries to contain Chinese influence in the region. India has a long history of good relations with Bhutan—the tiny Himalayan nation had been the biggest recipient of Indian aid. However, India's decision end June to cut subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene to Bhutan was a major election issue, with media reports saying India cut the subsidies to show its unhappiness over the then Bhutanese prime minister's cozying up to rival China. The Opposition Party won, criticized the government for a recent deterioration of ties with India, while assuring that that the new government would be committed to strengthening relations with India. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately assured the winning party of India's "steadfast and unflinching support" and promising to strengthen ties. Singh said he had already instructed officials to prepare for discussions on India's planned assistance to Bhutan. New Delhi also has said it would review the decision to cut the subsidies and work out a solution once India finalizes its financial aid to Bhutan for the next five years.

India is a huge democracy, set to overtake China as the world’s most populated country by 2026. It should actually get over its China fixation and try to perform in so far as improving infrastructure along the frontier so that it could engage with China on a level playing field. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have grown and should continue with frequent high level exchanges. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India in May, and India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony travelled to China a month later, the first such visit in seven years. External affairs minister Salman Khurshid stressed on the significance of good relations. “Not only are we neighbours we are two very important countries whose convergence in terms of perceptions, positions and attitudes can make a world of difference globally and most certainly in Asia,” Khurshid has said. His position was echoed by the new Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, Lt Gen. (retd) Nirbhay Sharma, “Our border with China should be sealed in totality. Yet it should be filtered in such a way that development work on both sides continues unhindered. The ‘China is our enemy number one’ syndrome has to go. After all, good relationships between China, India and Bangladesh are vital for the entire northeastern region.”

(courtesy: The Assam Tribune,published on 26 July 2013, web link: http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/epaper.asp?id=jul2613/Page6)

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