Tibet is the palm of a hand with five fingers—Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Nefa (now Arunachal)—that need to be liberated and brought into China.
This declaration—A long-term objective in reality—by China’s Chairman Mao Tse Tung has always stayed in the minds of his successors. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops are once again engaged in tactics that could be aimed at achieving this goal. Their aggressive posturing at many places along the 2,000-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) straddling the Himalayas between India and China ought to send alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. But, like in the run-up to the Chinese attack in 1962, this time, too, India is not only downplaying the PLA incursions, but also pretending that China harbours no designs on India.
Could it be that a pacifist New Delhi is about to commit a second Himalayan blunder?
Contrary to mild admissions by the Ministry of External Affairs of recent incursions by PLA troops into Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the reality is that the frequency of these intrusions have increased since the beginning of this year. Most alarmingly, there have been at least five incidents of firing by PLA troops in recent months. “This has never happened before,” says a top Army officer who would not be named since he’s not authorised to share such details with the media. Senior officers of the Tezpur-based 4 Corps, which has Arunachal Pradesh in its operational area of command, admit to Open that the nature of incursions has also changed. “The PLA troops have become aggressive. Earlier, small teams would come into our side of the LAC and leave telltale evidence like empty packets of their cigarette and biscuits or cans of energy drinks. They would come in, roam around for some time and then leave. But over the past few months, they’ve been demolishing border pillars at many places, leaving empty bullet casings, and surveying, mapping and photographing areas they’re intruding into,” says the officer at the Corps headquarters, which has sent a report detailing six sightings of PLA incursions into Arunachal Pradesh in as many months to the Army headquarters. “We know of only six such incursions since they (PLA soldiers) were sighted. But we suspect many more such incursions have taken place of late,” this officer adds. “There have been a couple of incidents of firing by PLA troops when they’ve been spotted by civilians on our side. They fired in the air,” says the officer.
At Kerang in North Sikkim late last month, an Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) patrol that chanced on PLA troops that had crossed the LAC and had gone near them, were fired upon, injuring two ITBP jawans. Though the ITBP has denied the incident, sources in the Gangtok-based 17 Mountain Division that oversees the area have confirmed it. Another new development is the launching of vehicle-mounted patrols into Indian territory by the Chinese—till now, only PLA foot patrols used to cross the LAC.
The signs are ominous. While PLA incursions used to be limited along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, China has opened a new front in North Sikkim. “There’s a small piece of territory known as the ‘finger tip’ (in Sora Valley of North Sikkim, near the famous Gurudongmar Lake) into Tibet. China suddenly claimed this piece of our land at a flag meeting held at Nathu La in May last year. We showed them our maps and they appeared to accept our position then. But all of a sudden, they started patrolling this area, scaring away shepherds from Sikkim who go there, and demolishing stone structures that the shepherds had erected as shelters. On at least one occasion, they fired in the air when they spotted our shepherds,” the Army officer tells Open from Gangtok. This, in spite of the fact that China recognised Sikkim as an integral part of India in June 2003 during the visit of then Prime Minister Vajpayee to Beijing in exchange for India’s emphatic assertion that Tibet is an integral part of China. China amended its maps that year to show Sikkim, with the ‘finger tip’, as part of India. Thus, the sudden claim by China to this small area has surprised India. “A more serious threat to India is the infrastructure build-up in the Tibetan side of a narrow territory wedged between Bhutan and Sikkim bordering East Sikkim district. The Chinese have moved in more troops here and are constructing roads and permanent structures at a furious pace. This area adjoins the crucial ‘chicken’s neck’ corridor of North Bengal that connects the northeast with the Indian mainland,” says a senior staff officer at the Indian Army’s 33 Corps headquarters at Sukhna near Siliguri. He points out that it would take Chinese troops only a few hours to cut off the strategic corridor in case of a conflict. “The Chinese have certainly become very aggressive during their incursions and have been adopting offensive postures along the LAC,” admits the Army officer at the Eastern Command headquarters.
New Delhi has also been trying to ignore the massive road construction and other infrastructure projects initiated by the Chinese on their side of the LAC. Not only have wide motorable roads running parallel to the McMahon line (considered by India to be the international border but disputed by Beijing) been constructed by the Chinese, they’ve also built two-lane roads up to what they consider as the LAC well inside Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi is yet to take up this grave issue with Beijing. “China is unilaterally pushing the international boundary into our territory and we’re silently watching the frenetic pace of activity on their side. They’ve even constructed bunkers in our territory. The road running parallel to the McMahon line is dotted with concrete structures—checkposts, barracks, watchtowers, underground facilities and other constructions. They’ve not stationed troops there as yet and our assessment is that these have been constructed for future operations, which can only be directed against us,” says the Army officer from Tezpur. All this has to be viewed in the backdrop of the PLA’s increasing strength in Tibet. Beijing has recently integrated its conventional missile forces, part of its strategic second artillery (the nuclear forces command), and deployed them with regular PLA troops in Tibet. Beijing is also reported to have moved a large number of surface-to-surface missiles into Tibet and placed them with the military area commands (MACs) overseeing that region. It has massively increased the PLA Air Force’s air-lift capacity in Tibet to one division, and helicopter lift capacity to two battalions. This, in effect, means that China can transport tens of thousands of troops from Tibet to the frontline in just a couple of hours. Compare this to the non-existence of even dirt tracks that can take our troops to the LAC; in most areas, Indian soldiers have to trudge on foot for days, even weeks, to reach it.
The portentous signs do not end there. Senior Indian Army officers say that Beijing has put in place a unique command-and-control structure for its forces only in Tibet. The military district in Tibet is an integrated command of the army, air force and support elements like missile, electronic and cyber warfare units, and, unlike China’s other military districts, are under the operational command of the Chengdu and Lanzhou MACs. This points to a two-theatre construct against India: while Chengdu MAC is responsible for operations in the eastern and central sectors of the LAC with India, the Lanzhou MAC is for operations in the western sector along Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.
China has also stationed many units of its special forces—the ‘Resolving Emergency Mobile Combat Forces’—in Tibet, built five additional aircraft and half a dozen helicopter bases there, besides positioning Early Warning and Surveillance units in many places along the LAC. All these activities received a boost with the Gormo-Lhasa rail link, operational since 2006. “All these are signals of China preparing to undertake offensive operations against India. China’s actions in Tibet cannot be aimed at any other country except India. Even a cursory glance at the map would reveal this truth,” an Indian Army officer says, “Factor in the PLA’s recent hostile incursions, and China’s real intentions emerge.”
China has also undertaken massive projects in Myanmar, the latest being a 1,100 km pipeline from Kyaukryu on Myanmar’s west coast to Ruili in Yunan province. China is also building road and rail networks to link Myanmar’s Sittwe and Tilawa ports to its southwestern region. China will transport oil, gas and other goods through these networks from Myanmar’s coast to its interior areas. Strategic experts say it is only a matter of time before China boosts its military presence in that country and stations its navy in the Bay of Bengal. Survey work for a four-lane tri-nation road link between China, Myanmar and Bangladesh has already commenced, amidst growing military ties between Dhaka and Beijing. Apart from supplying missiles, small arms and ammunition to Bangladesh, China has set up a huge artillery training facility in the Chittagong hill tracts. Powerful sections in the Bangladeshi military and political establishments favour a Islamabad-Dhaka-Beijing axis aimed against India. China, according to reports by Indian intelligence agencies, has been actively promoting this doctrine. Strategic experts fear that such links would enhance the PLA’s capability to roll straight into the Brahmaputra valley in one fell swoop. “It’ll be a classic pincer attack
scenario: PLA forces crossing over the LAC from Tibet into Arunachal, through Myanmar into Upper Assam and through Bangladesh into Lower and Middle Assam,” says a senior Army officer. Those who would dismiss this scenario as overly alarmist only need to be reminded that till Chinese troops actually invaded India in 1962, our leaders had never even imagined they’d do so. At that time, too, there were ominous signals of an impending attack.
As part of its ‘string of pearls’ doctrine aimed at encircling India, China has forged military ties with Sri Lanka, persuaded Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar to give it listening posts, embraced Pakistan in a strategic hug, and stepped up its engagement of Iran and Afghanistan. Latest intelligence reports indicate that despite denials, Beijing hasn’t cut off all ties with militant groups in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. This lends credence to an article by one Zhongguo Zhan Lue put up on the website of Chinese International Institute of Strategic Studies, advocating the dismemberment of India through separatism. And in totalitarian China, every word that appears in print or on the website of a think-tank typically has official sanction. This article, coupled with anti-India editorials in state-controlled papers like The Global Times—all talk of ‘cutting India down to size’ and warn India of ‘harbouring unrealistic ambitions’ (of competing with China)—should worry New Delhi.
Many in India maintain that there exists no compelling reason for China to take any offensive action against India, especially with growing trade ties. Others, however, point out that it would make a lot of sense for Beijing to nip India, with its growing economy, soft power and increasingly close ties with Washington DC that can eventually lead to China’s containment through a USA-India-Australia-Japan strategic axis, before any potential danger is posed to China’s interests. Beijing knows very well that a military operation, even a limited one, against India now would deal a debilitating blow to the economy and psyche of the country, thus preventing its emergence as a rival Asian power.
China is wary of an independent power that doesn’t toe its line in Asia. But while all this is open to varying analyses and interpretations, what is not are the alarming signs from across the LAC. India ignored such signs in 1962, it can do so once again to its peril. Oddly, the same ostrich-like attitude is in evidence now. This is bad. A country that fails to learn from history is bound to watch helplessly as history repeats itself.