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Vajpayee claps with one hand on border dispute
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - India-China relations continue to be fragile despite what was billed as a "path-breaking" visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to China last month. This was underlined by the consternation expressed by Indian members of parliament and media over a border incident involving a brief detention, disarming and interrogation of Indian intelligence personnel by Chinese security forces inside Indian territory that is claimed by China.

Clearly the Indian government's approach - put the border disputes on the back burner and go ahead with developing trade and other relations - may not work in the climate of mutual suspicion and paranoia that has prevailed since the 1962 border war, particularly as China does not appear to be as keen to keep a lid on contentious issues as India does.

On June 26, while Vajpayee was still in China, a 10-man Indian team comprising four Intelligence Bureau (IB) and six Special Security Bureau (SSB) personnel were detained, disarmed, interrogated and warned not to patrol an area that is 14 kilometers inside the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh's Subhansari district.

Indian intelligence personnel were on a routine mission when a 21-strong Chinese army patrol stopped them. "This is Chinese territory and you should never come here," a Chinese officer told them in English. They were at a place called Neiphu, trekking toward their final destination, Serela Top, an area sometimes visited by Indian officials. They were finally released near the Yume Bridge across the Yume Chu (river), three kilometers deeper inside the LAC.

After detailed internal discussions, the Indian government decided that the issue would not be publicized, particularly as it would put the Vajpayee visit in a bad light. But a section of the government apparently did not agree and leaked the incident to a section of the media.

Intelligence officials familiar with the border area and the northeastern terrain cannot recall the last time such an incident happened. But the Arunachal border has always been a potential flashpoint. There are several areas along it that both China and India claim. And the Chinese are extremely suspicious of permanent structures being built anywhere near the LAC. In the mid-'80s, India decided to set up a permanent post in Wangdung in the Tawang sector. The Chinese reacted quickly and set up their own post in the region, prompting India to send the 5th Mountain Division to Tawang. That incident almost sparked a war.

Different sections of the Indian establishment perceive the issue differently. The army is, for instance, prepared to take a more conciliatory and understanding line. Sandeep Dikshit of the Hindu newspaper quoted sources in army headquarters as downplaying the incident. Chinese "intrusions" into India, they said, are routine occurrences. They involve armed patrols crossing the LAC and returning unchallenged, thanks to strict instructions to the Indian Army not to precipitate matters. The "intrusions" are not confined to the eastern part of the LAC, the McMahon Line. Armed patrols come in also in the Western Sector that marks the Ladakh border. In some areas, vehicles carrying Chinese soldiers cross the LAC once every three days. However, these sources said, India is reluctant to record and acknowledge these violations.

The Hindu quoted a confidential army document to point out that Trig Heights in Ladakh is one such area where "vehicle-mounted Chinese patrol transgressed [India's] own perception of the LAC" on at least 90 occasions last year. Such patrols have made 50 sorties so far this year. Similarly in eastern Ladakh, incursions occur on the northern bank of Lake Pangong Tso frequently. Chinese patrols come in every week on the east bank of the lake, which is also claimed by India.

Clearly, the two countries have different perceptions about the border. While maintaining that incursions occur frequently at some places, the army sources made two points. One, Indian troops too have been crossing into China, though the sources will not say how frequently. The Hindu merely quotes them as admitting: "Our boys also do that sometimes. This should not be treated as a major issue." Second, both countries have sequentially implemented the agreement signed in 1996 on "confidence-building measures in the military field along the LAC". As a result, say army sources, "not a bullet has been fired by either side for over a decade".

The 1996 agreement envisages the removal of tanks, combat vehicles, surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft missiles from the vicinity of the LAC. It also bars division strength (15,000 troops) military exercises near the border. The implementation of these measures and visits by senior Indian Army officials, including the chief of the army staff, have helped avoid the kind of direct confrontation that is a regular feature on India's disputed boundary with Pakistan.

Apparently the army has learned some lessons from its humiliating defeat by China in 1962. It had then claimed a Chinese incursion in the Thang La ridge and was ordered to clear the Chinese from there. But the IB perhaps hasn't learned the same lessons from a leak of a similar incident in 1986 that brought the country close to war. The issue then was reports of Chinese occupation of Sumdorong Chu (river).

Analyst Manoj Joshi of The Times of India has a sense of deja vu. In 1986, as now, the incident involved IB personnel, rather than the army, which routinely patrols the frontier in that region. It is also likely, he says, that then, as now, the incident was a result of the fact that Indian intelligence agencies have their own interpretation of the LAC, different from that of the Chinese and even the Indian Army. This puts the McMahon Line in some areas somewhat north of where it would be, if the Treaty of Simla of 1914 that created it were to be literally interpreted. The Chinese have never recognized this treaty, which was initialed, though not signed, by its representative.

"There seems to be something more to the recent incident than meets the eye," said Joshi. "There have been reports in the recent past of Chinese road construction in the Asaphi La region. It's more than likely that the Indian group was on a reconnaissance mission and deep inside the Chinese side of LAC rather than in Indian territory as claimed subsequently."

Giving the background of the border dispute, he comments: "The problem has really arisen from the IB's interpretation of the map. Since the 1950s, it has insisted that the border was not the literal McMahon Line as translated on the ground, but the highest crest-line of the Himalayas in the region. In 1985, on the basis of a 1983 directive to actively patrol the border, an IB party began camping on a nearby pasturage on the Sumdorong Chu. But when they returned in 1986, they found the Chinese camping there. A story leaked to the press alleging a Chinese incursion touched off a crisis that nearly led to war."

It was perhaps this fear of escalation, particularly during and immediately after a prime ministerial visit, that caused the government to downplay the incident. But opposition leader and former union minister Ramjilal Suman raised the issue in parliament, saying: "While the prime minister was in China, the Chinese were making incursions into Indian territory."

The media too went to town. Headlines screamed of Chinese betrayal. An editorial in The Hindustan Times, which originally broke the story on July 23, was titled "Cross-border duplicity", as if it were another version of Pakistan-inspired "cross-border terrorism". It recalled, as did almost every other observer, a previous incident of Chinese "perfidy" and commented: "When Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to China as the external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai government [in 1979], his hosts embarrassed him by invading Vietnam, forcing Mr Vajpayee to cut short his visit. The Chinese have embarrassed him again by entering Arunachal Pradesh while he was in their country."

The timing of the incident has caused widespread disquiet for another reason. It took place at a time when, as the Hindustan Times put it, "There is a vague feeling in India that the Chinese have got more out of India during Mr Vajpayee's visit than the other way around."

This was a reference to a general feeling that while India gave an important concession in reiterating Chinese sovereignty over Tibet more explicitly, China did not reciprocate by accommodating Indian sensibilities on the issue of Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh. China continues to claim that Sikkim was illegally annexed by India in 1975. Indian government spin doctors have interpreted the Chinese acceptance of border posts in Sikkim for trading purposes as meant to indicate Beijing's recognition of the state as a part of India, but the Chinese have clarified that they do not think so. Even in the matter of Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese have made their point quite clear. They do not consider it Indian territory.

The furor in the media and parliament finally forced a reluctant External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha to admit that the government was aware of the transgression of the LAC by a Chinese patrol on June 26 in the Asaphila area of Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. This and earlier such incursions could have been avoided if the two countries had a common perception of the LAC, he said. Responding to Suman's adjournment motion, he told the House that the government had taken up the issue of the latest incursion with China and a response was awaited. This, he said, "is an area where there are differences in perception of the LAC between the two countries".

Sinha said the Chinese patrol had not observed the specific provision laid down in the 1996 agreement between the two countries that concern situations involving face-to-face contact between patrols of the two sides. He said the process of clarification of the LAC was under way and that "the government regularly took up with the Chinese authorities the violations of the LAC, according to our perception, by the Chinese side through the established mechanism".

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has reportedly come to the conclusion that the border incident wasn't premeditated by the Chinese. It is of the view that the Chinese patrol couldn't have stage managed the incident, as it had no advance information on the movement of Indian intelligence personnel. It was thus sheer accident, in its view, that the two patrolling parties ran into each other - as often happens along the 4,000km LAC between the two countries - while the prime minister was in China. However, the MEA also contends that the Chinese patrol's action in disarming and detaining the Indian personnel constituted a breach of the November 29, 1996, agreement on confidence-building measures in the military field.

India also responded in a similarly restrained manner to comments made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that Arunachal Pradesh was not a part of India and that it was the "Indian side" that had crossed the LAC in the eastern sector. In response to questions on the issue, the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman said India had made its position clear on the June 26 "transgression" of the LAC by the Chinese side.

While the spokesman did not offer a detailed response to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's comments, official sources said there was no exchange of fire during the June 26 incident. They added that the "encounter" in Arunachal Pradesh should not be blown out of proportion given the fact that the LAC is a lengthy one. This, again, pointed to the urgent need to clarify the LAC, the sources added. They said that just because the Chinese had a certain view about the status of Arunachal Pradesh it did not mean that the state was not a part of the Indian Union.

Vajpayee's mature response to Chinese "provocations", whether in the form of incursions into Indian territory or in statements on Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, may succeed in containing any adverse fallout on Indo-Chinese relations and help keep his peace initiative in place, but it may well snowball into a major controversy in India and harm him politically in an election year. The opposition has not taken up the issue yet in a major way, preoccupied as it has been with more urgent and sexy domestic issues such as the government's role in downgrading charges against Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani in court cases dealing with the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992.

But fortunately for Vajpayee, there are some powerful voices in India who support his line on the way to normalize relations with China. India's largest-circulated newspaper, The Times of India, for instance, said: "Rather than a media-driven frenzy, what the incident demands is the creation of a regular mechanism of interaction between senior military officers on both sides of the LAC, which will boost mutual confidence and localize the problem in a way where the two governments can get on with more important business. For far too long, the focus of Sino-Indian bilateral relations has revolved around the border question. But it's not in expanded territories but expanded trade and economic relations that the future lies." Another influential newspaper, the Statesman, commented in a similar vein.

Yet the prime minister cannot ignore the fact, least of all in an election year, that China remains a very sensitive emotional issue for the vast majority of Indians. The Sino-Indian border dispute goes back to 1914 and was vastly aggravated by the 1962 war, regardless of who was at fault. A whole generation in India was reared on the notion that the top national priority was to take back from China every centimeter of the 38,000 square kilometers of land it occupied in the remote Aksai Chin area in 1962 and the 5,180 square kilometers of northern Kashmir it is illegally holding, ceded to it by Pakistan.

Vajpayee cannot clap with just his own hand. Normalization of relations is hardly possible without China too wanting it. And if does, the least it can do to demonstrate that is to refrain from needlessly aggravating tensions by reiterating its claims to 90,000 square kilometers of Indian land in the eastern sector.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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