Tuesday, October 6, 2009

India plays down Chinese incursions


By Priyanka Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI - Reports of incursions into Indian territory by China have been on the rise in recent weeks.

The reports include the injury of two soldiers from the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force) in firing from across the border into the northeastern Indian state Arunachal Pradesh, portions of which China claims as its own.

Other reports claim Chinese aircraft have transgressed into Indian air space, among other infringements along the disputed 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control, as the India-China border is referred to.

In Ladakh, part of the northern state of Kashmir, Chinese intruders
reportedly painted rocks red to mark their presence.

There are also instances of Chinese issuing separate visas to Indian passport holders from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a delicate matter given the long history of conflict with Pakistan over the state.

India's diplomatic reaction, however, has been to play down the events. Federal Foreign Minister S M Krishna said, "This [India-China boundary in Ladakh] is one of the most peaceful boundaries. We have no dispute with China in this area. There is an in-built mechanism to deal with such issues."

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorji Khandu said the additional deployment of troops is a routine drill to help soldiers acclimatize with the high altitude terrain and not an "eyeball-to-eyeball" confrontation.

Dorji was responding to reports that India is fortifying its border positions with China by readying 30,000 troops in two divisions for quick deployment coupled with a beefing up of the Indian Air Force along the Sino-Indian border.

At one level, the incidents could be seen as a continuation of past skirmishes and also an overreaction by a "hypersensitive"' media.

On the other hand, these can also be indications of things to come even as the two emerging Asian giants fight for resources, energy and influence in the region, including the Indian Ocean corridors.

The fact remains that all is not well between the two countries, which went to war over disputed Himalayan border territory in 1962. As per some expert estimates, Chinese violations of Indian-territory have doubled from nearly 150 in 2007 to 300 in 2008.

Global strategic positioning means that India and China are pitted in diverse spectrums.

In the past couple of years, one main reason America has sought to cement India as its partner in Asia has been to balance the rise of China, both economically and militarily.

Apart from the India-US civilian nuclear deal last year, America and India are emerging as partners in defense and sharing anti-terror expertise.

Given the stiff competition in business as well, the air of suspicion that continues to persist between India and China will not go away in a hurry.

New Delhi has thus not taken too kindly to Chinese attempts to "gatecrash"' plans for a Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, as India remains undecided about its participation due to security, pricing issues and pressure from America not to deal with Tehran.

In March 2009, China attempted to block a US$2.9 billion loan to India from the Asian Development Bank, meant to fund a $60 million flood management program in Arunachal Pradesh.

Last year, Beijing tried to obstruct the US-India civilian nuclear deal at the meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

All along, China has vehemently opposed India's bid to join the United Nations Security Council, while remaining a staunch supporter of India's traditional rival, Pakistan, at international forums.

Cultural, linguistic and other differences are believed to have hampered Indian and Chinese developing ties at a personal level. This is unlike Indians and Pakistanis, where similarities have led to emotional ties and created a constituency that wants peace.

Thus, despite the top diplomatic channels maintaining a dignified tone and veil to the recent events, the Indian armed forces and political leadership are not prepared to take chances.

The Indian parliamentary standing committee attached to the Foreign Ministry looking at Chinese incursions is also studying the situation.

Some observers said that a worrying factor is that skirmishes have been along areas that have been relatively peaceful and not disputed by Beijing lately - this includes the Sikkim-Tibet border and Uttarakhand that also stand clarified via India-China exchange maps.

Opposition political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Samajwadi Party have been voicing their fears. Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, said, "India must take adequate precautions [given the 1962 war]."

Meanwhile, India's army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, has also voiced his concern on the recent reported incursions, suggesting that the situation is more serious than is being projected. Top Indian commanders have been visiting the Indo-China border areas of Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh to make first-hand assessments.

The Indian army's northern commander, Lieutenant General P C Bharadwaj is visiting the Leh-based 14 Corps headquarters to verify the authenticity of the reports.

Earlier this month, the air force opened a runway near the China border in the inhospitable terrain of Ladakh to fixed-wing aircraft, previously it was used only by helicopters. There are also plans to upgrade many runways in Arunachal.

In July, India for the first time based its latest Russian Sukhoi-30 MKI Air Dominance fighters in Tezpur in the northeast, in response to China's build-up of military infrastructure in Tibet and south China.

Militarily, India has been wary of the Chinese naval bases, commercial ports, radar and refueling stations around the southern coast of Asia, referred to as the "string of pearls" that could be tightened around India, should the need arise.

Chinese investment has proliferated in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Pakistan.

In 2006, China allegedly supported the Maoist violence in Nepal that resulted in the overthrow of the royalty. Given its own problems with leftist rebels, India is not happy about any role for Beijing in Kathmandu.

There have been reports that the Research Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, has found over 24 Nepal-China study centers along the Indo-Nepal border that are suspected to be "spying'' on India.

In Sri Lanka, India has claimed that China took advantage of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-led civil strife to gain a foothold in the island to set up a port at Hambontota on the island's southern coast.

Yet, it is also true that both India and China do not want the situation to spiral out of control, so that relations - especially business, with bilateral trade expected to cross $60 billion per year - can function within an accepted decorum.

National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, who reports directly to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has maintained that there cannot be a "repeat" of 1962 as both countries mutually agree that borders issues and outstanding differences can be resolved through dialogue.

Contrary to what seems to be the actual situation, Narayanan has said: "In terms of the number of incursions, there has been hardly any increase. Occasionally inroads are a little deeper than what might have been in the past. I don't think there is anything alarming about it.''

Narayanan has also warned that the "media hype" on China and India could provoke an "unwarranted incident or accident".

Nirupama Rao, foreign secretary and former ambassador to China, said that given the developing nature of the relationship between India and China, regular communication over important bilateral issues and border meetings have worked well in the recent past.

The India Air Force chief, P V Naik, has also stressed that there was no possibility of a repeat war.

Clearly, there is a damage control mechanism at work, at least for now, and the simmering can be expected to continue.

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