Photographs: (courtesy Ajai Shukla)
1. Top Left: At the Bum La border, in Arunachal Pradesh, with the Commanding Officer of the Rajputana Rifles (Indian Army) battalion which holds the pass.
2. Centre Left: The Indian and Chinese flags fly astride the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Bum La.
3. Bottom Left: The local dog, adopted by the Indian post at Nathu La Pass, in Sikkim, surveys the Chumbi Valley in Tibet.
4. Bottom: The Indian and Chinese commanders at Nathu La pose together.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 25th Mar 2008
As a young captain in the Indian Army, I experienced first hand the dynamics of a Chinese power play. One autumn day in 1987, near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, almost exactly where the 1962 war sparked off, a group of Chinese soldiers crossed the rugged Line of Actual Control (LAC) and sat themselves down in a grazing ground called Wangdung. For days, while India launched diplomatic protests, more Chinese soldiers trickled across; before long, a 100-man company from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had established itself in Wangdung.
The Chinese expected little more; but the Indian Army had long buried the ghost of 1962. With diplomacy scorned, New Delhi ordered Operation Chequerboard, a massive mobilisation that quickly concentrated 100,000 soldiers around Tawang. As the Indian stance grew harder, the Chinese positioned softened. In a similar face-off in 1967 that Beijing would have remembered, Indian jawans had killed over 200 PLA soldiers in Nathu La, in six days of pitched fighting. While China still holds Wangdung, India’s robust reaction forestalled further Chinese encroachments.
Should New Delhi also flash steel in its reactions over the ethnic uprising in Tibet? Chinese statements make it clear that Tibet is seen as no more than a potential embarrassment during China’s “coming out party” at the Olympic Games. Beijing believes that New Delhi’s foreign policy conservatism will ensure that it continues to toe the line on Tibet. But would Indian interests be better served by reminding China that it has painful pressure points at Dharamshala that can be activated.
Contrary to public perception, India has not been entirely pliant when it comes to dealing with the Middle Kingdom. Next year it will be half a century since the Dalai Lama was given refuge in India. Tibetan volunteers, committed to freeing their homeland from the Chinese yoke, form several battalions of India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), which frequently operates on the northern border. China believes they often cross the LAC for special missions deep inside Tibet. The Indian Army, as its chief, General Deepak Kapoor said, crosses the LAC into “China” as often as the PLA crosses into “India”. The reason, as he clarified, was that neither India, nor China, agree where the LAC lies.
Neither have India’s responses to events in Tibet been free of ambiguity. Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, has met the Dalai Lama recently; New Delhi has a formal consultative arrangement with His Holiness. The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, met the Dalai Lama and issued a strong statement. It was just the kind of adverse pre-Olympics publicity that Beijing does not want. The police halted the “March to Lhasa”, mounted by the Dalai Lama’s followers, but it garnered headlines nevertheless. And could Tibetan demonstrators have stormed the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi without the tacit complicity of the Government of India?
The big question, of course, is: has New Delhi embarked on a rash course of confrontation? Or is a habitually timid India underplaying its hand?
The backdrop to India’s dilemma is the paradox in its relationship with China. On the one hand, as members of the international state system, both countries share an interest in maintaining the status quo. China’s vulnerabilities in Tibet and Xinjiang are mirrored by India’s concerns in J&K and the northeastern states. But China has never let that shared interest with India hold it back from developing and using the levers of influence. Beijing has skilfully played the insurgency card in Nagaland and Manipur; Naga leader Thuingaleng Muivah admits to training and equipping his forces in China. In helping Pakistan obtain a nuclear arsenal, China has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Missile Technology Control Regime. And, in the last couple of years --- as the US began viewing Beijing as a possible ally against a resurgent Russia --- China has hardened its rhetoric on the border dispute with India.
India must decide whether its long-term leverage with China lies in multilateral relationships like the US-India relationship. In the recent past, that has been the case; in 2005, when New Delhi and Washington seemed ready to sign both a defence agreement and the nuclear deal, China agreed to a set of “Political Principles” that would form the framework of an eventual border agreement. This agreement noticeably favoured India; China has recently distanced itself from it.
But if multilateral levers are fickle and subject to change, then are there levers that India could create? India’s policy on Tibetan independence cannot radically change. India cannot support the redrawing of borders, and the Dalai Lama himself asks for no more than real autonomy for Tibet. New Delhi, however, does have options even without going back on its recognition of Tibet as an “autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China.” Without repudiating that long-held stand, India can fuel the debate on Tibet’s autonomy. The Tibetan government-in-exile, located in Dharamshala, will respond enthusiastically to the slightest signal from New Delhi.
For that, India would need to break a Pavlovian behaviour pattern that China has induced. Senior Indian diplomats increasingly realise that Beijing’s rhetoric on the warmth of its relations with New Delhi have imposed on Indian diplomats a certain decorum of behaviour that obscures the underlying adversarial relationship between the two countries. That artificial decorum also makes New Delhi reluctant to play the role of a countervailing power to China. This could be the moment when New Delhi recognises Sino-Indian relations for what they really are as opposed to what Beijing says they are.