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Op-ed: China eyeing Sikkim again

June 26, 2008

Ashok K. Mehta, columnist
The Pioneer (India)
June 24, 2008

India, like others, follows a 'One China' policy but deals with two
Chinas. The "peacefully rising China", which "understands and
supports India's aspirations to play a greater role in international
affairs" but merely lip services it, actually regulates a
relationship on its own terms. This is the China which Indian leaders
want to emulate economically and frequently make believe there is
space for both to rise and prosper. This China will soon overtake the
US as India's largest trading partner.

The other China is the one that inflicted a humiliating defeat over
the boundary dispute in 1962 and has kept bullying and needling India
without diplomatic grace and sophistication. It is opposed to India's
permanent membership of the UN Security Council, entry into the Asian
economic and security structures and recognition as a state with
nuclear weapons. Its blatant use of Pakistan and other negative
strategies ensures India is kept confined to South Asia courtesy its
strategic encirclement: 'String of Pearls', a chain of naval bases
designed to undermine India's pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region.

China's military modernisation is moving at a frenetic pace. Defence
spending has registered an annual increase of 17 per cent, officially
amounting to $ 70 billion, though Western analysts say it is double
that amount. The upgrade in military infrastructure in Tibet has
trebled the operational and logistics capabilities of the PLA. Its
strategic programmes are on the rise too.

The boundary dispute, which hurts India, has for all intents and
purposes remained on the back burner, periodically subjected to the
charade of political and cartographic mechanisms for its resolution.
It is a zero sum game. Cleverly, the Chinese have raised the
political cost of any settlement to unacceptably high levels even
raking up boundary dispute on the settled Sikkim border.

Dealing with the two Chinas are officials in foreign office who
believe relations with Beijing have never been better and military
commanders who assert that there is a serious disconnect between our
perception of Chinese intent and capabilities. But they are being
advised to underplay, even underreport, border incidents.

The Chief of Army Staff, Gen Deepak Kapoor's recent television
interview on the frequency of alleged intrusions by the PLA was
unprecedented for its candour and content. He emphasised that both
Armies were patrolling up to the Line of Actual Control of their
perception and transgressing each other's imagined red lines. He
dismissed the aggressive behaviour of the PLA in dismantling military
structures on the Dolam Plateau near the trijunction of Bhutan as a
matter for Bhutan to sort out with China. It is no secret that India
is committed to the defence of Bhutan and coordinates its border
talks with China.

Article III of the 1996 CBM Treaty, which outlines several
de-escalating measures, cannot be implemented as a mutually
acceptable LAC has defied definition and demarcation.

The most recent and sustained fingering by PLA on the border has been
in North Sikkim is Gyangyong area. The border with Sikkim was settled
in 1890 as per Anglo-Chinese convention along the watershed between
the Sikkim Teesta and the Tibetan Mochu rivers. The boundary though
has not been jointly demarcated. In 2003 during Prime Minister Atal
Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China, Sikkim was recognised as a State of
the Indian Union after India parroted for the nth time that Tibet was
an Autonomous Region of China.

On June 16, a vehicle-mounted PLA patrol came one kilometre into the
Finger Area making it the 65th intrusion this year in the same area.
On one occasion, Indian soldiers formed a human chain to block the
entry of the PLA. In 1967, similar Indian tactics at Nathu La blew up
into a major border skirmish.

Sikkim's geo-strategic importance is recognised beyond doubt. Its
eastern shoulder descends into the Chumbi valley to the point near
the trijunction with Bhutan which is disputed. North Sikkim is the
only area in the East from where any meaningful ground offensive into
Tibet can be mounted. During Operation Falcon, following the
Sumdorong Chu standoff in Wangdung, heavy tanks, artillery and
mechanised vehicles were inducted into North Sikkim in 1987. As
matching infrastructure lagged behind and slowed down to zero after
the 1993 and 1996 peace accords, the military deterrent capability
also withered away. So twice, once after 1962 and again in 1987,
infrastructure development plans were aborted.

Only this year, singed by Chinese accusations of a prime ministerial
trespass of Arunachal Pradesh was a retired Army Chief despatched as
Governor of the State and a development package funded. No Indian
Prime Minister has ever visited Tawang which, the Chinese say, has an
inalienable connection with Tibet.

The intrusions in Sikkim have provoked the standard official
response: From "not yielding an inch of ground" to "integral part of
India" to "the matter will be taken up at the appropriate highest
level". For at least three days after the June 16 trespass in Sikkim,
the media went berserk, painting the incident as a serious breach of
faith by the Chinese. Mr Mao Swe, the Chinese Consul General in
Kolkata, defused the crisis by publicly reaffirming Beijing's
recognition of Sikkim as part of India. He added that these were not
incursions but differences of perception. For good measure, he said,
"The border dispute between India and China won't be settled soon."

The message is loud and clear. Regardless of the method and level of
negotiation, the boundary dispute will not be resolved anytime soon.
Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei has injected a strategic dimension to
the India-China relationship, whatever that means for conflict resolution.

Why has the PLA become proactive? Why the needling in north Sikkim
and why now? Until this year, the Sikkim boundary was a settled
issue. Only the status of Arunachal Pradesh was periodically
questioned. China, raising the ante on the boundary issue and thus
India's discomfiture, has in part to do with India's strategic
partnership with the US, improving its bargaining position on the
boundary question and delaying its full and final settlement.

The PLA's posturing on the border is risk laden. Indian Army and Air
Force do not have an adequate deterrent capability in the East. A
counter offensive Corps has remained on paper since 1987. Belatedly
two new Mountain Divisions have been sanctioned for the East. We are
20 years behind the Chinese in operational capability and infrastructure.

The Chinese have raised not just the political, but also the military
cost by undisguisedly dragging the border dispute. Two companies of
the PLA will shortly arrive in Punjab for counter-terrorism exercises
with 11 Corps, ostensibly augmenting strategic ties! For soldiers in
north Sikkim and elsewhere on the LAC, the contradictions in policy
and statement are not easy to comprehend. Managing differences on the
LAC is easier in South Block than in Finger Area, especially when
China intends to prolong the war of nerves.
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