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Chinese Standoff: ‘SOFT’ DELHI NEEDS TO ACT TOUGH By Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva (Retd), 8 May, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 8 May 2013

Chinese Standoff


By Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva (Retd)


Notwithstanding, the Chinese troops withdrawal which ended the standoff in Ladakh, the Sino-Indian boundary dispute cannot be put behind. It is expected to loom larger in the upcoming bilateral engagement during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit than it would have ordinarily done. The face-off, which had kept the two countries on tenterhooks for three weeks, ended on May 5, following Indian and Chinese deciding to pull back from their respective campsites in Depsang plains in eastern Ladakh.

The sudden withdrawal was completed by 7:30 pm, following tough high-level negotiations between the two sides and the fourth Brigadier level flag meeting at Chusul a day earlier.  The pullback came following another round of discussions between local military commanders. However, the stubborn refusal by the officials to even confirm what on the face appears to be a victory for Indian diplomacy gives rise to suspicions on the terms of agreement.

The concessions may involve Indian troops pulling back from their forward positions in some sectors close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The withdrawal leaves unanswered key questions: What Chinese demands did India accept? Has the People’s Liberation Army platoon retreated to its side of the LAC? Why has India withdrawn troops from its own areas?

As Chinese troops returned to their pre-April 15 position, Indian troops from Army’s Ladakh Scouts and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), too, returned to their base camps. The closest ITBP camp at Burtse is 15 km from the face-off site at Raki Nalla, which is a dry riverbed running parallel to the LAC. 

The campsite is 40 km south east of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), a World War II airstrip reactivated by the Indian Air Force in 2008 as part of India’s strategy to bolster border defence. Beijing has reportedly objected to new constructions at the DBO, which lies just 10 km from the LAC and 80 km south of the Siachen glacier.

With the exception of Siachen, DBO is India’s northernmost military post, from which India can keep an eye on the strategically vital 15,937 ft high Karakoram pass. Close on the other side of the LAC are at least four known Chinese border defence regiment posts, two of which are at Chip-Chap (25 km from the LAC) and Sundo (40 km from the LAC).

Unfortunately, India’s acceptance to remove some of the structures is only a “face saver” to enable Chinese troop to withdraw to their pre-April 15 positions. This shows that Depsang Bulge, a tabletop plateau of 750 sq km area in northern Ladakh: an area roughly half the size of Delhi becomes a disputed area and is considered to be a ‘no mans’ land’. The face-off site is just about 35km south of the strategic Karakoram Pass, which is at the tri-junction of China-Pakistan-India borders, and overlooks the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge to the west and the Indian observation post in the Chumar sector to the east.

Anxiously, Indian foreign policy towards China has been tested now, with PLA intrusion into Indian Territory and when India was in ‘catch 22 situation’. Though the diplomacy partially succeeded, New Delhi, however, should have acted tough with Beijing. Clearly, it was not a localised action as was made out in the initial stages. How can India dismantle infrastructure on its side of LAC and stop development of the border areas when China has already made highways and airstrips in Aksai Chin area claimed by India.

Sources in the security establishment familiar with the negotiations and the local topography noted that the 21-day confrontation on Ladakh's desolate Depsang plains ended only after the Indian Army agreed to demolish bunkers it had built in the region of Chumar near the LAC, to keep an eye on the Karokram Highway. The Chinese, close to what India considers its current border and part of the proactive measures, had objected to these.

But, in future, New Delhi needs to realise that only a hardline policy pays dividends, when dealing with China, especially with incidents of territorial violations of such a serious nature. This is borne out by the fact that the 1986-87 Sumdorung Chu episodes, when the Indian and Chinese troops were in a similar face-off against each other, was resolved through an Indian show of force at the tactical level. If the Ministry of External Affairs was solely allowed to manage the crisis, the chaos perhaps would have been unimaginable. Fortunately, the Indian Army had good field level commanders who acted as they deemed fit which saved the day in the Sumdorung Chu episode.

Evidently no other Government agency, apart from the Army and the ITBP, really knows the layout of the land; but their local commanders are not allowed autonomy to act instantaneously and instead have to await instructions from the MEA mandarins. The problem is that the Ministry bosses are not familiar with the terrain, which proves a major handicap in their decision-making during crises of a territorial nature.

If New Delhi needs to adopt a hardline policy, how does it translate on the ground? Well, it should act tough with Beijing by suspension of trade ties, however small it may be, which is bound to impact China. Why does New Delhi have to bend backwards and be worried or overly sensitive about Beijing’s sentiments? It is high time that it speaks tough and not projects a meek face and ‘we-are-desperate-to-be-friendly with you’ attitude.

The only way out of such an impasse is to jolt relations with China and convey clearly to Zhongnanhai — the seat of Chinese government, that South Block means business and India is strong in political, military and economic terms. Any other policy approach would amount to appeasement and convey the wrong signal to Beijing.

For some strange reasons, LAC on DBO side is patrolled by the ITBP – a force of 5,000 and beefed up but without matching teeth by which the Chinese hold this sector. Further, it has been handed over to the Home Ministry, whereas the ITBP and BSF, along the borders should be under the command of the Army for operational purposes.

The Government is so short-sighted that after being slaves for centuries, it has no shame in losing border territories, making police, customs and bureaucrats superior to the military every one way or the other, degrading it at every corner.

The Defence Secretary is responsible for the defence of India as per the Rules of Business of Government of India. Strangely, there is a National Security Adviser (NSA) who is responsible for total security of India and the three Service Chiefs report to him. Both of them should have been shown the door by now.  

Is this hold of the bureaucracy because of the fear of the Army take over? The Government in the name of democracy and rule of the law has sadly been humiliating and degrading the Armed Forces since Independence. It is high time that it make all efforts to modernise the Armed Forces to safeguard national integrity and sovereignty and involve them in decision-making, rather leaving it to Defence Secretary and NSA, who have no clue of defence strategies. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and  Feature Alliance)

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