Features | Security | South Asia

India Tries to Manage China Border Challenges

New Delhi is pursing diplomatic and military avenues in dealing with its long-running border dispute with Beijing.

By Nitin A. Gokhale for

If India’s Defence Minister AK Antony thought his visit to China in early July would be sufficient to paper over the long-standing cracks in the Sino-India relationship, he was in for a rude surprise. Just before he arrived in Beijing on July 4, a hawkish PLA General warned India not to “provoke new problems” and “stir up” trouble through its plans to increase deployments along the border.

Major General Luo Yuan, who works at PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, is known for his outspokenness. Reporting from Beijing, The Hindu quotes him as saying to the All China Journalists’ Association, “There is no denying there are tensions and problems between China and India, particularly in border areas.”

“There is still the problem of 90,000 sq km of territory that is occupied by the Indian side,” the general added, referring to China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh. “I think these are problems left over from history and we should look at these problems with a cool head. Particularly, the Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase military deployment at the border area, and stir up new trouble.”

Gen Luo’s statement may not reflect the official line at the highest levels of the Chinese government, but the fact that he would openly warn India on the very day Antony landed in China suggests that at least a section of the Chinese establishment maintains an aggressive posture towards India. The PLA in particular is riled by India’s efforts to bolster its military position all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the de facto border between the two countries is known.

While the Chinese political leadership has concentrated on improving bilateral trade with India and looking to engage New Delhi on issues like climate change, PLA hardliners have kept up the pressure on the un-demarcated boundary, indulging in the kind of brinkmanship on display in April this year. On April 15, a platoon of PLA soldiers advanced 19 km into Indian territory in Ladakh and stayed put for three weeks before restoring the status quo.

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Intense efforts at both the military and diplomatic levels were needed to resolve that crisis, which once again highlighted the fault lines that exist on the boundary issue. The impasse was resolved because it was in Beijing’s interest to do so, as new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was scheduled to visit India in early May. As his first overseas trip, Beijing could hardly have afforded to cancel it.

When he came to Delhi, Premier Li waxed eloquent about age-old ties between the two civilizations, and suggested there was enough wisdom on both sides to resolve outstanding issues as he sought to step up engagement on other fronts.

Indeed, on the surface, Sino-India relations do look to be on the upswing: bilateral trade is booming and is expected to touch 100 billion dollars in a couple of years, although India has expressed concern over a huge trade deficit; cultural and people-to-people exchange has risen substantially; New Delhi and Beijing have worked jointly on climate change negotiations. Yet despite the apparent bonhomie, the two countries failed to break the deadlock in what is now the longest border negotiations in the world.

The responsibility for resolving the boundary issues lies with the Special Representatives on either side. India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon in fact held negotiations over two days with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing in the last week of June, after New Delhi and Beijing agreed to continue with the talks.

Menon and his new counterpart Yang Jiechi of course made the right noises at the end of their meeting, with the Indian side reporting that they had “discussed ways and means of strengthening the existing mechanisms for consultation and coordination on border affairs and methodology to enhance the efficiency of communications between the two sides.”

The sides agreed to keep channels of communication open to avoid any flare up on the 4,000- km long border, but neither set any deadline nor indicated a roadmap for settlement of the border issue, underscoring once again the intractable nature of the problem.

The Menon-Jiechi meet was the 16th round of talks between Special Representatives since 2005, when New Delhi and Beijing agreed to lay down political parameters for border negotiations. The process has, however, become stuck on the point of finalizing the framework agreement before both sides can move onto the third and hopefully final stage, that of delineating the border on the map and on the ground.

These last two steps are not easy to achieve. Perceptions about where the boundary lies differ drastically. Border patrols regularly intrude into each other’s territory to try and establish claims. So far conflict has been avoided, but with India now shedding its defensive mindset, the PLA anticipates a much firmer response from the Indian military in coming years.

Even in the Ladakh crisis, the Indian military held on to its position and, according a senior military official, did not concede any of the Chinese demands. Lt Gen KT Parnaik, head of India’s Northern Army till this June, told The Diplomat in an interview just before retirement: “the de-escalation which took place happened without us making any compromise on the issue. We lost nothing, did not dismantle any of our defenses.” This is what China fears – a militarily stronger India.

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For years, New Delhi neglected its defenses on the China frontier, obsessing instead with its smaller but implacable adversary, Pakistan. But over the past seven or eight years, India’s strategic and military planners have drawn up a blueprint to beef up not only infrastructure but also to raise additional forces to counter Chinese military strength. Over the next few years, India is poised to add 90,000 soldiers, raise independent armored brigades and artillery regiments, and add muscle to air and naval power specifically meant to handle any potential military conflict with China.

At the same time, New Delhi will have to continue talking to Beijing and ensure the border is delineated as soon as possible without conceding any Chinese proposal to freeze troop strength at the current level. It’s a tough balancing act but one that New Delhi’s political, bureaucratic and military establishment will have to manage if India is to stand up to the kind of aggression displayed by the hawkish PLA general.

Nitin A. Gokhale is Security & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian Boradcaster NDTV