Photo: AFP/John MacDougall
Photo: AFP/John MacDougall

Mao Zedong famously said that Tibet was the “palm of China” while  Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, present-day Arunachal Pradesh) were its fingers. Deng Xiaoping repeated this and Xi Jinping, who was a secretary in the Ministry of National Defense when China invaded Vietnam in 1979, followed it assiduously.

Mao annexed Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to give depth to erstwhile China, and his successors have concentrated on Tibet’s “fingers.” The 78-day Doklam standoff between India and China in Bhutan last year was part of the plan to usurp these fingers.

Despite being engaged in boundary talks with Bhutan and the existence of a China-Bhutan agreement on the pending final boundary settlement, which stated that peace and tranquility should be maintained along the boundary and that both sides refrain from unilaterally altering the status on ground, China intruded into the Doklam Plateau, which was Bhutanese territory. This intrusion was contested by Indian troops, since India has a defense arrangement with Bhutan. However, even after a mutually agreed pullback, Chinese troops continued for few meters, making a permanent base of brigade-sized force, in addition to constructing posts and roads in Indian territory, the Shaksgam Valley.

China illegally occupies nearly 43,380 square kilometers of Indian territory: Aksai Chin (37,555 square kilometers), Shaksgam Valley (5,180 square kilometers), and 645 square kilometers in other areas. Gilgit-Baltistan (72,971 square kilometers), which was leased by Pakistan to China for 50 years, is also Indian territory. Yet China claims more areas, including Arunachal Pradesh (90,000 square kilometers).

On earlier occasions, every time India contested Chinese intrusions, the People’s Liberation Army withdrew. This is clear from the Nathu La clash of 1967, where PLA troops were forced to vacate their posts for three days, and in 1986 when the PLA withdrew from its intrusion in Sumdorog Chu, where it was confronted resolutely.

The problem is that many Indian politicians lack the resolve to confront China, despite the fact that even in 1962 it took the sacrifice of thousands of PLA troops to overrun Rezang La held by only around  400 Indian soldiers. Hence China continues with efforts to salami-slice Indian territory over a wide frontage, mostly where the border infrastructure on the Indian side is absent or poor.

In December 2017 and January 2018, China was discovered building a 1.25-kilometer road on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) under a meter of snow, obviously at the behest of the PLA. China is also engaged in extensive mining close to Arunachal Pradesh, and tunneling under the LAC can hardly be ruled out.

Now satellite imagery shows that the PLA has moved into Arunachal Pradesh, at least 5km inside Indian territory in the Tsari Chhu Valley, and is well established: a battalion-sized post with barracks and underground construction; a training and sports ground; an electric generator; a road traversable by four-wheel-drive vehicles; and riverbanks lined with concrete and stone revetments.

This intrusion has not been sudden like in Doklam, but the PLA has taken advantage of the absence of Indian troops and lack of roads on the Indian side. Satellite imagery from February 27 shows the road surface being improved and many new construction vehicles; possibly the PLA plans to upgrade the intrusion into a brigade-sized post.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment when contacted by Asia Times.

Over the years, Indian governments have continued to neglect development of border infrastructure, fearing China could exploit these, but grossly undermining its own defense potential and mobilization in the process.

The current government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done plenty of road development in the hinterland but no such enthusiasm has been shown for border areas. India also has the lopsided arrangement that development of border roads is under the Ministry of Home Affairs but execution is carried out by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), which is directly under the Ministry of Defense.

Recently, the BRO, tasked with building and maintaining sensitive border roads in the Himalayas, extended one road to the China border, but that is just one road and will require two to three seasons to stabilize. In many places there are either no roads at all or just narrow ones that permit only one-way traffic. Therefore troops are located scores of kilometers behind, providing ample opportunities to the PLA.

A cross-section in India is under the impression that the informal summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27-28 put tensions on the back burner. Others feel that Modi’s meeting with Xi despite Doklam was meant to ensure China doesn’t create incident(s) on the border that will affect Modi’s chances in elections next year.

But China has never put its territorial ambitions on the back burner. It is buoyed by its gain from the recent summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and consolidation in South China Sea, Doklam and now Tsari Chhu. China continues to refuse to acknowledge Arunachal Pradesh, calling it “South Tibet.”

China is also aware that India continues to neglect equipping of its military, defense allocations being the lowest since 1962. The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense recently lambasted the government for neglecting the military, pointing out grave shortages. Yet Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman openly rubbished the report, though she remained mum when it was presented in Parliament.

China is adept at political warfare and given the obsession of Indian politicians with elections, vote-banks and unending efforts in aggravating caste politics, China possibly psyched the Indian government that trade and investment is all that Xi Jinping is interested in. So it will only be an advantage all the way to China; if India continues to ignore China’s salami-slicing, what could be better?

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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