This map does not reflect India's claims or actual holding, but accurately represents the area
by Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 4th May 13
Even for the most intrepid helicopter pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF), flying a sortie to the desolate outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, has always meant pushing the limits. Wing Commander Abdul Hanfee, who had won a Vir Chakra for his devil-may-care flying in Siachen, would take off from the Siachen Base Camp with his Mi-17 helicopter loaded with rations and fuel and set course for Saser La, the towering 17,753-foot pass on the Karakoram range. With the helicopter rotors shuddering as they clawed through the thin air, Hanfee would look down from his cockpit as he flew over the pass, still littered with the bones of camels, ponies and human wayfarers --- the detritus of a bygone era when arbitrary frontiers had not disrupted centuries-old patterns of trade and connectivity.
This was the Old Silk Route that connected Ladakh and Kashmir with Xinjiang --- now, like Tibet, an “autonomous region” of China. Well into the 20th century, camel caravans laden with silk, jade and hemp would set out from Yarkand and Khotan in East Turkestan, and travel to Leh and Kashmir from where they would bring back Pashmina wool, Kashmiri zafran (saffron), tea and calligraphy. After crossing the Karakoram Pass into India, the traders would leave their camels at what is now Daulat Beg Oldi, and transfer their goods onto pack ponies for the cruel journey over the Saser La into the more hospitable Shyok river valley that led on to Leh, Turtok or Srinagar. For the merchants and pilgrims who carried considerable sums in gold and silver, the treacherous Karakoram was far less hazardous than the robber bands and insecurity on the other route to Central Asia through Punjab and Afghanistan.
This isolation has defeated even the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has laboured for over a decade, so far unsuccessfully, to build an all-weather road over Saser La that will connect Daulat Beg Oldi (or DBO, in military phraseology) with Leh, Partapur and Kargil. The BRO has failed equally in bringing another road northwards to DBO from the Pangong Tso Lake, along the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Without road links to the rest of Ladakh, DBO remains an isolated enclave across the Karakoram and Ladakh ranges, dependent upon the IAF for food, fuel, ammunition and quick troop replenishments. Going there on foot involves an exhausting five-day march at altitudes that would exhaust an ibex. The military calls this enclave Sub-Sector North (SSN) and regards it as crucial for the defence of Siachen and Leh.
According to Lt Gen Kamleshwar Davar, a former commander of 3 Infantry Division under which this area comes, “SSN has major strategic value for India. If the Chinese were to come up to Saser La, our control over the Siachen Glacier would be seriously compromised since Saser La overlooks that area. SSN provides a protective buffer to the Siachen sector and also provides depth to the northeastern approaches to Leh. Furthermore, SSN is our land access to Central Asia, along the Old Silk Route through the Karakoram Pass.”
Now, India’s control over SSN is being challenged by the increasingly assertive presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On Apr 15 the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), which holds and patrols SSN, discovered four Chinese tents pitched on a flat area called the Depsang Plain, with 30-40 uniformed Chinese personnel in the camp well inside the Indian side of the LAC. New Delhi was informed and the MEA contacted the Chinese Foreign Minister to activate a joint consultative mechanism that was set up in 2011 to resolve border incidents like this one. On Apr 18, the Chinese ambassador to India was called to the MEA and conveyed India’s concerns. But to little avail; in three flag meetings held on Apr 18, 23 and 30, the PLA has conveyed a simple message: its patrol has not violated the LAC; but it will withdraw if the Indian Army dismantles bunkers that it has built in two places near Chushul, in southeastern Ladakh.
“The PLA has carefully chosen its spot. Along the entire 4,057 kilometres of the LAC, India is most isolated at DBO, being entirely reliant on airlift. In contrast, the PLA can bring an entire motorized division to the area within a day, driving along a first-rate highway,” says Major General Sheru Thapliyal, also a former 3 Division commander.
Beijing has made it clear that it has demands that must be met before it withdraws. On Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, declared: “the relevant negotiation mechanism is conducive to solving the relevant issue quickly… China and India are talking about the issue for a complete and appropriate settlement.” (emphasis ours)
Army sources protest that the Indian bunkers that China wants dismantled are deep on our side of the LAC, on the western bank side of the Indus, an area that China has never claimed even at its most acquisitive. Driving out the Chinese incursion at DBO would hardly be a problem, say top Indian commanders; a battalion, with adequate fire support could do this within minutes. But the Chinese were better placed for a build-up and would retaliate strongly. Besides, military action would dramatically escalate tensions all along the LAC, which has remained uniformly peaceful since the two countries signed the “Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity” in 1993. A series of tit-for-tat incursions all across the LAC would create a second active border for India to man around the year.
On Tuesday, Defence Minister AK Antony talked tough, suggesting that force would be employed if needed to safeguard Indian territories. Antony said, “There should not be any doubt that the country remains unanimous in its commitment to take every possible step, at all levels, to safeguard our interests.”
Brave words, but New Delhi’s top national security policymakers are not inclined to initiate a military confrontation with China, howsoever limited. That leaves the government with little choice other than diplomatic negotiations during two forthcoming high-level political meetings: foreign minister Salman Khurshid will visit Beijing on Thursday, while China’s new premier, Li Keqiang, is scheduled to visit New Delhi later this month.
Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert in the Jawaharlal Nehru University believes that China is under pressure to resolve the crisis during Mr Khurshid’s visit to Beijing, since it needs a conducive atmosphere for Premier Li Keqiang’s visit. “The India polity is angry about China’s incursion and the opposition wants our foreign minister to cancel his visit to Beijing. If the issue festers, it would have negative implications for Premier Li Keqiang’s visit. Beijing remembers that President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006 had been vitiated after China’s ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, had declared before the visit that the whole of Arunachal Pradesh was a disputed region,” says Kondapalli.
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At the root of the crisis is obvious unease in the Chinese security establishment at India’s border build-up, especially the surge in military deployment and infrastructure over the last 5-7 years. Like earlier occasions when the Indian Army enhanced its presence on the border, this time too China is making its disapproval felt.
New Delhi first became conscious in the 1950s of the need to establish a military presence along India’s claim lines in Ladakh and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh). The trigger was Beijing rejection of the legitimacy of India’s consulate in Lhasa and our trade agencies in Yatung and Gyantse (in Tibet). Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered a high-powered committee, presided over by Deputy Defence Minister, Major General MS Himmatsinghji, to study the problems created by China’s occupation of Tibet. The “North and North East Border Defence Committee” made the crucial (and still ignored) recommendation that military posts should move forward to India’s claim lines in tandem with the simultaneous development of administration, road communications and local infrastructure.
Instead, after belatedly discovering in 1957 that China’s newly built Western Highway from Tibet to Xinjiang ran for nearly 200 kilometres through the India-claimed Aksai Chin, a high altitude desolation that DBO is an extension of, New Delhi threw troops pell-mell into these unknown areas in what was known as the “Forward Policy”. Beijing’s insecurities, already inflamed by a massive Tibetan rebellion, were exacerbated by the suspicion that India was backing the uprising. Apprehension turned into animosity when New Delhi granted the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees asylum in India in 1959. The Indian move forward thus degenerated into war by 1962. A much better prepared and equipped PLA easily overran Indian territory right down to the plains of Assam.
It took a traumatized India twenty years to decide to reoccupy the China border again. In 1975, General KV Krishna Rao submitted an “Experts Committee” report recommending military posture and border defences for the next 25 years. It called for a larger number of troops to defend the borders and for better roads to support their logistics. As the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from 1981-83, Rao persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that twenty years of fearful holding back had to end. In 1983, the army moved forward again, deploying in strength in Tawang and Chushul.
This led to trouble again, with the Chinese aggrieved over India’s move forward. In 1986, a Chinese patrol pitched up tents in a disputed area called Wangdung, north of Tawang. A furious retaliatory build up by the Indian Army almost ended in actual hostilities, but tensions were resolved. Diplomatic engagement led to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China. During Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing in 1993, the two countries signed an “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Area,” which has led to the largely peaceful border of today.
The current crisis is triggered by India’s third border buildup. Starting from the mid-2000s, New Delhi sanctioned two Indian mountain divisions to defend Arunachal Pradesh; and the IAF activated three Sukhoi-30 fighter bases in Assam along with several units of Akash air defence batteries. Eight Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) have been refurbished, permitting forward replenishment and heliborne operations. In the works is an even greater capability in the northeast, with an armoured brigade and a mountain strike corps scheduled to take the field by 2017.
Of apparently greater concern to Beijing is the growing Indian capability in Ladakh. India has moved at least two additional infantry brigades into southeastern Ladakh and an armoured brigade will become operational by 2017. ALGs have been activated in Nyoma, Fukche and DBO, with AN-32 transport aircraft now flying supplies and replenishments to these isolated outposts.
China’s discomfort will all this was conveyed last month when Beijing handed New Delhi a draft proposal to freeze troop levels and defences on the LAC, institutionalizing India’s disadvantage. While such an agreement would cap the Indian buildup, the intrusion at DBO seems to be a trial balloon for dealing with troublesome Indian positions that already exist. The intrusion has created “facts on the ground,” which can be bartered for Indian concessions around Chushul. And if this work, this method can be invoked in other sectors as well.
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Like many armies through the ages, the Indian Army finds its operational options constrained by logistics. China has understood that a comprehensive road network is the final arbiter of power in high altitude mountainous terrain. India has more troops on the border but, without a road network, the rugged Himalayas reduce those impressive divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. P Stodan, a former Indian ambassador who is from Ladakh points out, “Around Ladakh, the Chinese can move troops at 400 kilometres a day. We can do a leisurely 150-200 kilometres if we’re lucky.”
In case diplomatic negotiations do not resolve the problem this month, the next watershed in this crisis will be the onset of winter. Since the bitter conditions at DBO make it difficult for the Chinese to winter there in tents, they would have to build more weatherproof accommodation. Furthermore they would have to stock food, fuel and ammunition, for which they would need to move vehicles or helicopters. It remains to be seen if this would force India to react militarily.