The Line of Actual Concern
Deccan Chronicle| V Sudarshan
The Chinese goal is to remap the areas it is occupying militarily to suit its strategic purposes.
It is odd that the Chinese managed to outflank us on such a large swathe of the undefined border areas, from the west to the east, without us getting to know about it or if we did, without us doing anything about it till after the event. In its attempt to define portions of Line of Actual Control by force, it cannot be that the Chinese troops became invisible to Indian surveillance as they surged forward to depth areas. It is remarkable that over twenty years after Pakistanis did the very same thing in nearby Kargil, after an exponential growth of Indian expertise in these areas and tonnes of secret reports to address our security environment, after a multiplicity of agencies set up and assets deployed to make us more secure, after five national security advisers and one Chief of Defence Staff, we should find ourselves in this situation. Surely, sooner or later, some explanation is called for?
The Chinese goal is to remap the areas it is occupying militarily to suit its strategic purposes. What we see now is the thin edge of the wedge. Gone is the ambiguity that swirled around Chinese intentions when it moved into Dokhlam valley. The Chinese military advances will inevitably bring in its wake, concomitant infrastructure developments that will further and irretrievably consolidate its claims. From the Chinese point of view, this task is best done when the infrastructure skew in its favour and it places New Delhi at a very significant disadvantage; despite New Delhi’s recent and belated feverish and feeblish scramble to improve the infrastructure situation. At a conservative estimate, any army general who has served in those areas will tell you that at least seventy percent of the border areas with China lack meaningful infrastructure to keep Indian soldiers easily and well supplied. That means bridges, tunnels, all-weather roads, airstrips, helipads and other kinds of connectivity that modern armies operate on. Along many stretches of the borders our soldiers routinely go out on patrol for days into the remote inhospitable mountains, with just enough survival ration, and return several kilograms lighter in bodyweight for their ardor while the Chinese flit about like ghosts looking for more places to haunt while slicing salami. In many forward areas, essentials are transported on mule backs and ponies, equipment airdropped in remote locations to keep our soldiers supplied in the wilderness, in areas that we claim to be our territory but have made little attempt to maintain a formidable and deterrent forward presence. So long we have been lulled comprehensively into complacence thinking that the various dud bilateral agreements and smooth talking by glib diplomats alone would maintain the status quo and a reasonably episodic quantum of peace and tranquility along the border areas with China, all the while glossing over the reality.
It is time to grasp the nettle. As a result of the various wars India has fought with Pakistan and China, there are four distinct aspects to the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. One is the area occupied by Pakistan, the other is the area India administers, portion of the area that was acceded to India, then there is the portion taken in the ’62 war by China and administered by China. The fourth is a portion of the Trans-Karakoram range, in the Shaksgam Valley, abutting Siachen that Pakistan ceded to China less than a year after the ’62 war with China under a boundary agreement that explicitly states that once India and Pakistan arrive at a settlement on Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan and China would renegotiate their boundary in these areas. This pushed the Chinese control further south. It is also a recorded fact that at various points in the seven rounds of discussions that India has had with Pakistan on the Siachen glacier, Pakistan has sought to involve China. Further, since the eighties, Pakistani maps show a straight line that connects the furthest point NJ9842, on the line of control, to the Karakoram Pass, arguing it is implicit in the 1963 agreement with China. This formulation on NJ9842 was more or less repeated by the then Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz during the height of Kargil intrusion, the aim of which was to starve Indian troops of logistical wherewithal by seeking to choke supply routes to Ladakh and Siachen. In the first round of Siachen talks, which ended without a statement being issued in January 1986, Pakistan had also asserted that traditional administrative control over Nubra valley, part of the Siachen mountain conglomeration, saying it was historically a part of Baltistan, administered from Skardu and Khapalu. That joint Chinese-Pakistani quest still is, as some would colourfully term it, ‘a work in progress.’
As China explores establishing new, alternate and shorter road routes to warm waters in its quest to bind the region and bend it to its will, the strategic interests of China and Pakistan converge emphatically in more ways than one around the Karakoram ranges and beyond. It should be obvious that given Chinese acquisitory instincts, its fevered territorial imaginings, and Shaolin-type derring-do, what may have been regarded as militarily and road-wise preposterous in eighties may not seem nearly as preposterous now, forty years on. The Karakoram pass, it has been pointed out, is less than thirteen kilometers as the crow flies, from Daulat Beg Oldie bridge that supplies the last village in the sub sector north along the Shyok river. Galwan valley, where the Chinese troops are amassed is in Karakoram range.
No amount of international ganging up against China, or combinations of it, is going to deter China from its strategic goals in its steadfastly undefined border areas with India. New Delhi has no choice but to rapidly, militarily, logistically, operationally scale up its presence in Aksai Chin areas, as well as in other areas where China has red-flagged its intentions. It should maintain a robust, year round, permanent force posture. This is probably the best way to temporarily moderate Chinese behavior, as politicians and diplomats bring up the rear. If we have managed to box the Pakistanis into a no-win situation in Saltoro Ridge, north of Point NJ9842 in the freezing and inhumane Siachen areas, there is no reason why it can’t be duplicated with the Chinese. A consistent shoulder-to-shoulder, eye-to-eye deployment will lessen any ambiguity that exists in both sides’ actual control in these hitherto militarily undefined areas. If it worked in Dokhlam there is no reason to believe it won’t in other areas.
V Sudarshan is the author of Adrift: A True Story of Survival at Sea, and, Anatomy of an Abduction; he writes among other things, on diplomacy, security, strategic affairs, foreign policy.