Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chinese Incursions into Indian Territory: Seeking an Explanation

It all began in mid-July with a TV story on Chinese incursions in the Finger Tip area of North Sikkim. This was the first of a series of press reports that continue to emphasize the conflict element of Sino-Indian relations. The public response has also been in sharp contrast to the ‘all is well’ that normally permeates the External Affairs officialdom. In an unprecedented coverage of China in the Indian media, we saw an article by an Indian defense expert on how a ‘nervous’ China would attack India by 2012, another article, this time by a Chinese defense expert speculated how the Indian federation can be broken up if the Chinese concentrate on supporting the various secessionist movements. But the most potent was saved for the last, in the past month we have been witnessing a series of media reports about the Chinese violations of Indian territory in many sectors of the Sino-Indian border.

The slew of such news pointing towards an aggressively intent China set the local rumor mills rolling. For instance, the information that the Indian army was moving tanks up to the Chinese border for which the National Highway 31A would be closed for 3 days was only denied by the authorities after it had swirled and even engulfed the neighboring Darjeeling district, where as a friend mentioned, the rumor went around that the tourist season in Darjeeling was looking good as the Indian army had occupied all the hotels in Sikkim!

The more fascinating aspect of the various incursions by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into disputed and even into non-disputed areas has a peculiarity which has so far never been verified. These are not the first instances that such reports are finding their way into the mainstream press; they have been highlighted in the past years as well. The Home Ministry reports that there were around 270 ‘violations’ by China on India’s western, middle and eastern sectors in 2008, while 60 such incidents have been reported so far this year. Sources are invariably unnamed and predictably the Government of India downplays these Chinese forays into Indian territory. Even this time around, the Minister of External Affairs suggested that the Sino-Indian border was one of the most peaceful of India’s borders and that there are mechanisms in place to resolve any violation. The reasons for the incursions are not difficult to fathom in the disputed or the undisputed areas as there is no exact demarcation of the mountainous border. Any logical extrapolation would also suggest that the Indian military also perhaps violates the Chinese/ Tibetan borders and that any violation is based on the respective interpretation of the border.

In such circumstances, how is one to make sense of the profusion of these reports (mostly delayed, some of these incursions date back to January 2009) on one hand and the mild-mannered response of the Indian establishment on the other? It sets the stage for conspiracy theories and for the more rational-minded, an exercise in myriad and competing interpretations. The essay you are reading purports to be of the latter category.

An interpretation that is frequently cited in explanation of the selective highlighting of the border violations is that the armed forces do so, for their organizational interests which can be interpreted as seeking a bigger pie in the defense budget or winning some turf battle against the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) or other services. It is important to keep in mind that the military has a monopoly on information from the border areas since these areas can be accessed by civilians or journalists only with their support. Any disagreement or divergence from the army’s point of view and the journalist will find his access cut. Another interpretation which came from an informed journalist and a friend was that these leakages were part of the Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW), the external intelligence agency, turf battle against the super-cession of seven of their officers which is being interpreted as the first step towards the merger of the RAW with the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

As one has already suggested, there can be many informed interpretations of an event and it is the work of the trained to predict the most likely set of circumstances linked together by cause and effect. The predictions are not meant to be literal but merely plausible and the interpretations can be used singularly or as an assortment to explain an event. One line of thought runs along the following lines.

There is no doubt that Sino-Indian relations runs into potholes in the security sector. There are a number of reasons for this, among which the respective nations self perception as future great powers is a key variable. There is also little doubt that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has hardened its stand in the border talks to resolve the disputed territory, from the simple basket approach to now insisting on the centrality of entire Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory occupied by India. The basket approach, first broached during the first phase of the border flare up in the 1950’s, was a suggestion from Chou En Lai that China keeps what it occupies, Aksai Chin, while India keeps what it occupies, Arunachal Pradesh. Nehru disagreed with this political approach to take on a more legal approach of insisting on the sanctity of the borders as drawn by McMahon.

In the mid-1990’s, when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited Beijing, there were efforts to freeze the border dispute and move the relationship forward on other areas. It was also decided that in order to build trust and confidence, the border dispute be examined through the lens of Mutual Understanding and Mutual Accommodation. Over the various summit level meetings in the past decade and despite a 2005 agreement on the Guiding Principles to resolve the border issue, we are now witnessing a Chinese approach that appears to be suggesting that ‘Arunachal Pradesh is ours and Aksai Chin is also ours’. The contentious border issue coupled with the Chindia discourse is also reminiscent of the 1950’s when the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai phase was at its peak and within a few years it unraveled due to the occupation of Tibet by China and the subsequent border dispute resulting in the short war of 1962.

We can see a similar process at work under the veneer of Sino-Indian cooperation on multilateral issues and on the economic front. Trade figures have grown exponentially and in greater value than the figure predicted by the two governments and amounts to almost U$ 50 billion despite the economic recession. But the occasional troughs of the relationship remind us of the uncertainty of International Politics. As a caveat, it should be mentioned that this essay is not trying to imply that China is a threat or harbors aggressive intentions or that the incursions are a means to test the response of the Indian government, we are purely ascertaining the status of much bandied about facts.

The South West frontier of China, which is the Indian border, is perhaps the most sensitive for the Chinese government for many reasons. It is the only border along with the Sino-Bhutanese border which remains unsettled; it is the only border which has a robust nation-state similar to China with similar civilisational roots and on the trajectory to a powerful economic and military status. Lastly and most saliently, this is the border along which the Chinese state faces its persistent challenge by the self determination demands of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs in Sinkiang province.

Owing to a multiplicity of factors like the border dispute, the Tibetan government in exile’s residence in India, the global search for natural resources to power their economic engines, the strategic competition towards a more expansionist presence and the mutual self image of both India and China as great powers, that play into Sino-Indian relations, there is a high likelihood of a Sino-Indian conflict. However, it needs to be stressed that the distrust and differing perceptions need an immediate cause to ignite and facts suggest otherwise. In the context of the flare up in Tibet last year around the Olympics Games and the anti-Han Chinese riots in Sinkiang, it would be foolhardy on part of the Chinese military to test this frontier. Apart from facing an able and professional Indian army, the Chinese run the risk of a secessionist struggle in its restive provinces. Many analysts cite the Tibetan and Uyghur unrest as the very reasons for which the Chinese state might look for adventures abroad in order to divert attention and to unify the Han Chinese. However, in the opinion of this writer, if that were to happen it would not occur when Tibet and Sinkiang are restive, as the Chinese would not risk fighting with a soft underbelly.

A second plausible line of thought suggests that the press hullaballoo is an orchestrated affair and that the Indian government appears to be behaving innocuously to maintain the façade of being helpless while approving of the media reports to shore up a public opinion for an important event in November. In November, the Dalai Lama is going to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Last year, around the same time, due to Chinese pressure, the Indian government did not permit His Holiness to visit Tawang, but for public consumption it was suggested that the Dalai Lama had dropped his plans due to the impending Lok Sabha elections. It appears the Government of India does not want to be taken in by Chinese pressure and is preparing to fight off Chinese requests by citing public opinion, a useful tool in the best of circumstances especially in a democratic country.

The Dalai Lama’s itinerary is not known yet, but it looks likely that he is going to visit Tawang where he will inaugurate a multi-specialty hospital. The Tibetan leader’s visit to Arunachal assumes importance as it was through the Tawang region that the exiled leader made his way to India from Tibet in 1959 and for the more important fact that Tawang remains central to the border dispute between China and India. The status of Tawang also assumes significance as it has its origins to the Simla Accord in 1914 when the Tibetan Government, the British Indian government and the Chinese representative agreed to the McMahon Line that recognized Tawang as a part of British India. The line is named after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary for the British-run Government of India and the chief British negotiator of the convention. Although its legal status is disputed, the McMahon line remains the effective boundary. The Chinese representative later renounced the Accord as being forced on him and China rejects the Simla Accord, contending that the Tibetan government was not sovereign and therefore did not have the power to conclude treaties.

And therein lies the significance for both India and the Tibetan Government in exile, as it supports their respective claims, for the Indians, claim over Arunachal Pradesh and for the Tibetans, the fact that they were an independent nation, one of the attributes of which is to enter into treaty relations with sovereign countries and the Simla Accord is an oft cited example. For China, this is exactly the problem and its consistent stance has been to debunk claims of Tibetan sovereignty, past or present, and to lay claim to the entire Tibetan region among which Tawang occupies an exalted space as it is an important centre for Tibetan Buddhists as also the birth place of one of the Dalai Lama's. Thus, the status of Tawang intricately ties up all the three parties.

The visit of the Dalai Lama also assumes significance because the stance of the Tibetan Government in Exile has been that Tawang is a part of India, an assertion that knocks Chinese monopolistic claims over Tibet and Tibetan history. It should be mentioned that this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal Pradesh or the Tawang region, he has been to Arunachal Pradesh six times and to Tawang five times in the past. As suggested before the Chinese have hardened their stance on Tawang owing to various reasons, one of which is the Chinese insecurity with regard to its hold over Tibet and the Indian Government perhaps is looking to assert itself this time around. It remains to be seen though when November comes, whether the Government of India lets the Dalai Lama proceed with his planned visit despite incurring Beijing’s disapproval.

The piece was published on 15th September in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.

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