China’s land grab in India

by Brahma Chellaney

Stoking tensions with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the South and East China seas has not prevented an increasingly assertive China from opening yet another front by staging a military incursion across the disputed, forbidding Himalayan frontier.

On the night of April 15, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) platoon stealthily intruded near the China-India-Pakistan tri-junction, established a camp 19 kilometers inside Indian-controlled territory, and presented India’s government with the potential loss of a strategically vital, 750-square-km, high-altitude plateau.

A stunned India, already reeling under a crippling domestic political crisis, has groped for an effective response to China’s land grab — the largest and most strategic real estate China has seized since it began pursuing a more muscular policy toward its neighbors. Whether China intends to stay put by building permanent structures for its troops on the plateau’s icy heights, or plans to withdraw after having extracted humiliating military concessions from India, remains an open — and in some ways a moot — question.

The fact is that, with its “peaceful rise” giving way to an increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, China has broadened its “core interests” — which brook no compromise — and territorial claims, while showing a growing readiness to take risks to achieve its goals.

For example, China has not only escalated its challenge to Japan’s decades-old control of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, but is also facing off against the Philippines since taking effective control of Scarborough Shoal last year.

What makes the Himalayan incursion a powerful symbol of China’s aggressive new stance in Asia is that its intruding troops have set up camp in an area that extends beyond the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated border war. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India, trying to alter the LAC bit by bit.

One of the novel methods that the PLA has employed is to bring ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the LAC and give them cover to range across it, in the process driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands.

But the latest crisis was sparked by China’s use of direct military means in a strategic border area close to Karakoram Pass, which links China to India.

Because the LAC has not been mutually clarified — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — China claims that PLA troops are merely camping on “Chinese land.” Yet, in a replay of its old strategy of furtively encroaching on disputed land and then presenting itself as the conciliator, China now counsels “patience” and “negotiations” to help resolve the latest “issue.”

China is clearly seeking to exploit India’s political disarray to alter the reality on the ground. A paralyzed and rudderless Indian government initially blacked out reporting on the incursion, lest it come under public pressure to mount a robust response. Its first public statement came only after China issued a bland denial of the intrusion in response to Indian media reports quoting army sources.

To add to India’s woes, Salman Khurshid, the country’s bungling foreign minister, initially made light of the deepest Chinese incursion in more than a quarter-century. The garrulous minister called the intrusion just “one little spot” of acne on the otherwise “beautiful face” of the bilateral relationship — a mere blemish that could be treated with “an ointment.”

Those inept comments fatally undercut the government’s summoning of the Chinese ambassador to demand a return to the status quo ante.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s corruption-tainted government tottering on the brink of collapse, there has been no official explanation of how India was caught napping in a militarily critical area where, in the recent past, China had made repeated attempts to encroach on Indian land. In fact, the government inexplicably replaced regular army troops with border police in 2010 to patrol the mountain-ringed plateau into which the PLA has now intruded.

Known as Depsang, the plateau lies astride an ancient silk route connecting Yarkand in Xinjiang to India’s Ladakh region through the Karakoram Pass.

India, with a military staging post and airstrip just south of the Karakoram Pass, has the capacity to cut off the highway linking China with its “all-weather ally,” Pakistan.

The PLA intrusion, by threatening that Indian base, may have been intended to foreclose India’s ability to choke off supplies to Chinese troops and workers in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, where China has expanded its military footprint and strategic projects. To guard those projects, several thousand Chinese troops reportedly have been deployed in the rebellious, predominantly Shiite region, which is closed to the outside world.

For India, the Chinese incursion also threatens its access to the 6,300-meter-high Siachen Glacier, to the west of Depsang. Pakistan claims the Indian-controlled glacier, which, strategically wedged between the Pakistani- and Chinese-held parts of Kashmir, served as the world’s highest and coldest battleground (and one of the bloodiest) from the mid-1980s until a cease-fire took effect in 2003.

India’s nonmilitary options to force a Chinese withdrawal from Depsang range from diplomatic (suspension of all official visits or reconsideration of its recognition of Tibet as part of China) to economic (an informal boycott of Chinese goods, just as China has hurt Japan through a nonofficial boycott of Japanese-made products).

A possible military response could involve the Indian army establishing a camp of its own on Chinese territory elsewhere that China’s leaders regard as highly strategic.

Before it can exercise any option credibly, India needs a stable government. Until then, China will continue to press its claims by whatever means — fair or foul — it deems advantageous.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut,” “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” and “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.” © 2013 Project Syndicate

  • Salam

    India’s knee-jerk reaction to repeated Chinese incursions into Indian territory is a result of India’s defeatist mindset since the Indo-China War of early 1960s. This sick mindset allowed the Chinese to be more aggressive in its illegitimate demands from India and its constant bullying at the Indian border. Unfortunately, for the Indian politicians, they are always afraid that India will lose again in any kind of future confrontations with China. That is not necessarily true. But that is what they think and how they act in relations to China.

    As a result, they always turn a blind eye to Chinese military incursions and are slow to condemn such acts of violation of Indian sovereignty. If these politicians think that China will be deterred by India’s kindness or respectfulness of China, they are dead wrong. And India will pay heavy price again in the future for not rightfully standing up to China’s bullying. The only way to deal with a bully, whether in school, in street, or in international politics, is to stand up to that bully and show him your unwavering resolve to take action.

    So far, I have not seen anything like that from India. It is time for India to stand up to China and show its resolve. The feet of Indian elephant are not made to kneel before the Chinese dragon and tremble but to stand up straight and kick the ass of that dragon to where it came from.

    India should join force with Japan, Vietnam and USA to defeat the rise of Chinese dragon, which is a threat to every country in Asia and the world.

    Love and Peace for India, the land of the brave and home of the wise!


  • manofsan

    Like the election of Shinzo Abe, likewise India will elect a stronger leader like Narendra Modi, who will be much more firm against Chinese aggression.

  • sangos

    The Chinese keep embarrassing themselves in their overconfident bids of reckless nationalism. They keep claiming other’s territory to be their own then withdraw in the face of overwhelming military power. Ex Senkaku islands; Depsang valley may provoke India’s far superior air force to swiftly neutralize their military assets in Tibet.

  • Ken5745

    It is strange that Mr Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies, has made no reference to the much-maligned McMahon Line, arbitrarily drawn up by the British raj, which encroached into Chinese territory, after a one-side agreement with Tibet, a province of China but not with the Chinese Government.

    Only when the McMahon Line impasse is settled will there be lasting peace in the Sino-Indo border.

    • IAF101

      Obviously, the McMohan line was “much maligned” in China by the Chinese, not India or by Tibetans in exile in India. In fact the Tibetan leader before the Chinese invasion of Tibet himself claims that Tibet historically was only ever a “vassal” of China – never a “province” as revisionist history has proposed.
      The Chinese “perception” of the McMohan line as an “arbitrary” line is the heart of the matter – as long as such revanchist tendencies remain, China will continue to exhibit hostility to all its neighbors trying to “extract” as much territory from surrounding nations as possible to meet the benchmark of some mythical “Chinese empire’s territory”. Pretty soon, China may claim “heaven and earth” as Chinese territory since the rulers of China were given titles of “rulers of Heaven and Earth”. And Chinese will claim that the Moon or Mars is Chinese too!

      • Ken5745

        Hey, Bhai, there is no such thing as a McMohan Line. If you wish to make an intelligent post at the very least get the spelling right.

        The Mongol conquered Tibet and then incorporated it into the Yuan Dynasty.

        Tibet is part of China and as such it could not make any valid treaty with the British to recognize the arbitrary McMahon Line which encroached into a large chunk of South Tibet.

        In the early 1920S even India rejected the McMahon Line drawn up by the British Raj, who ruled India for over 150 years.

        And China does not want an inch of Indian territory. She just want her land back. No need to fight.

        Indians and Chinese are Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (Brothers).

      • IAF101

        The spelling is relevant only to those who are more interested in appearing intelligent than being intelligent. If you wish to quibble over typo’s knock yourself out!
        The Yuan Dynasty collapsed and they Kublai Khan never called his kingdom as China or saw himself as Chinese. China’s present claim of Tibet is nothing more than robbery and even during the Qing Dynasty- Tibet was independent with China claiming token suzerainty over Tibet. This fact is self evident when the Nationalist government of China sent Ma Bufang to “capture” Tibet -which was essentially Islamification and massacres. In fact before Ma Bufang Tibet printed its own currency and was an independent nation where Chinese influence was non-existent and only a token presence.
        In the 1920s there was no India to reject anything – in fact there were no Indian leaders of any kind in public office.

        Chinese present tantrum over the “McMahon” line is just another example of their long and violent imperialistic ambitions. Just like their illegal claim over the East Turkestan, their ambition too annex Vladivostok, their attempt to annex Damasnky island, their claims to Taiwan, their xlaim and violent campaign against the countries of the South China Sea, their failed attempts to steal territory from Vietnam and their recent attempt to steal the Senkakus and surrounding islands.
        Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai is just more goza from China about its so called “peaceful rise”!