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China: Role of the People’s Liberation Army and Anti-Terrorism Drill with India

The ongoing first joint India-China anti-terrorism army exercise (Kunming, Yunnan province, China, Dec 19 – 27, 2007), has been officially viewed in Beijing as one ‘aimed at promoting mutual understanding and trust between the two countries as well as the two armies[1].” Also, military opinions[2] in China have highlighted the significance of the exercise for further boosting the development of ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ between the two countries, while specifically noting the stepping up of border negotiations by the two sides, in the spirit of “peace and friendship, consultation on equal footing, mutual respect and mutual understanding”.

Both China and India have taken care to ensure that the recent unconfirmed reports in sections of the Indian media on Chinese destruction of two Indian military bunkers in Sikkim and movement of Indian troops to areas close to India-China-Bhutan border, in response to alleged Chinese incursions into Bhutan, did not vitiate the pre-exercise atmosphere. Beijing has described[3] the reports as ‘not correct and not according to facts’; India, on its part, has denied any Chinese intrusions into its territory, while admitting the existence of differences in mutual perceptions on the border and seeking settlements of ‘some minor incidents’ through border negotiations.[4] The Indian Army sources have however acknowledged that an Indian fortification built in Bhutan was destroyed by Chinese troops[5]. This needs to be read with Beijing’s earlier official allegation[6] that India had built ‘facilities’ on its side of the Sikkim border in “violation” of the bilateral agreement on maintaining peace in the region and request to India for removing such facilities.

On Indian media reports about Chinese incursions into Bhutan, Beijing has rejected[7] them as ‘groundless’, whereas in late 2005, the Bhutanese Foreign Minister Kandhu Wangchuk himself is known to have taken up with Beijing the matter of building of roads and bridges within the Bhutanese territory by the Chinese. India, has not commented on such reports, viewing the Sino-Bhutan border problem as bilateral, while at the same time describing its troop movements in the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan border, as ‘routine rotation’[8].

Notwithstanding the apparent keenness of both Beijing and New Delhi to keep a congenial pre-exercise atmosphere, some discordant notes on territorial issues, challenging the positions of India, have emanated from China through analyses by strategic experts. They can be interpreted only in one way – expression of China’s determination not to make compromises on matters relating to its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity. Notable in this regard have been the reiteration of Beijing’s position on Arunachal Pradesh as ‘solid’ part of China in a prominent mouthpiece on international affairs[9] and a three-part historical article published by an influential Chinese think-tank[10] , just two days before the start of the exercise, charging India of militarily attacking China in 1962 and justifying the “Chinese counter-attack in self-defence”. The latter attributed China’s ability to resist India’s aggression and achieve a political victory, to ‘the high degree of wisdom displayed by Mao Zedong’. Observing that India and China have only a ‘traditional and customary border line’ and that ‘there has been no formal border delineation’, it has alleged that the so-called McMahon Line was illegally incorporated into the 1914 Simla Agreement, behind the back of the representative of the Chinese Central Government. Declaring that the McMahon line is ‘illegal’ and has not been recognised by the successive Chinese governments, the article accused India of ‘gradually pushing’ its territory in the Eastern Sector, up North, close to the so-called McMahon line, in the period following its independence and China’s peaceful liberation of Tibet.

India, for that matter, all other countries dealing with China, cannot afford to miss what seems to be an increasingly independent role, now being played by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), especially on key issues concerning military modernisation and national sovereignty. For e.g, the PLA has been seen as having carried out the ASAT testing programme in January 2007, without consulting the Chinese security and foreign policy apparatus in advance. Similar had been the cases earlier at the times of US spy plane EP-3 incident (April 2001) and the spread of SARS to Chinese military hospitals (2003), with the PLA not reporting the events in time to the concerned authorities – the Foreign Ministry and civilian health authorities, respectively. A fourth such instance has been the refusal of permission to the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk to make a port call on Hong Kong in November 2007. The Chinese Foreign ministry came to know about the action only later. As a damage control measure, it tried later to remove misgivings about the apparent communication gap between the PLA and government. Forced to project an image of government-army unity, the Ministry’s spokesperson went to the extent of denying (4 December 2007) his own Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s remarks to President Bush that the refusal was due to a ‘misunderstanding’. By mentioning at the same time about the Bush-Dalai Lama meeting in October 2007 and the US decision to sell weapons to Taiwan, he gave a clear indication that disallowing the US vessel was a Chinese retaliatory step against Washington. Also, the timing of refusal to USS Kitty Hawk coincided with a large-scale Chinese military exercise (third week of November 2007) in the vicinity of Taiwan, for which the PLA reportedly did not alert relevant Chinese government departments and also countries in the Asia- Pacific region.

Countries like India, having territorial problems with China, cannot afford to lose sight of the consequences of the PLA’s tendency to act independently. As can be seen from what has been said above, the Kitty Hawk affair could cause a rough patch in the Sino-US ties, which otherwise have improved. The same has been the case with Beijing-Hanoi relations. To explain this further, for Vietnam, the fact that the PLA’s November exercise was carried out close to the disputed Paracel islands, turned out to be a cause for bilateral tension. Hanoi described the exercise as a ‘violation of Vietnamese sovereignty’ and anti-Chinese demonstrations took place (9 December 2007) in the Vietnamese capital in front of the Chinese Embassy. Beijing reacted by saying (13 December 2007) that the protests have damaged its ties with Vietnam. Strategists in China[11] saw a ‘hardening’ of Vietnamese stand against China on territorial issue and linked the same to Hanoi’s growing perceptions on the need to compete with China in exploiting the oil and gas reserves in Paracels and Spratlys. It may not be out of context to note a latest irritant in Sino-Vietnamese relations, which may not be due to the PLA’s role. Vietnam was forced to reassert its sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos, in the first week of December 2007, in response to a Chinese government approval in the preceding month of a plan to set up the district level administrative city of Sansha in Hainan province, to manage three Islands, claimed by Hanoi as parts of the two Vietnamese archipelagos.

On a closer scrutiny, what becomes clear is that the PLA’s tendency to act independently on matters like sovereignty cannot be without the blessings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which directly controls the military. Though the maintenance of a “ Harmonious World’ and ‘ peaceful periphery’ remains a foreign policy goal of China, devised to suit its modernisation interests, the ruling CCP may feel that to meet any territorial challenges arising in future, say on issues like Taiwan, Tibet and the unsolved boundary questions, it is unavoidable to grant certain powers in the field to the PLA without it facing governmental constraints.

No doubt that the India-China first army drill is a very positive development in bilateral relations. India, at the same time, should not forget that for China, its territorial interests remain supreme. This is definitely in conflict with India’s positions. Also, the Sino-Indian relations continue to be clouded by Beijing-Islamabad nexus and China’s policy towards India’s neighbourhood. China is wary of the developing Indo-US relations and its state-controlled media have expressed fears over India’s becoming part of Western alliance with China as target. More over, Beijing does not seem to be enthusiastic about India’s participation in the East Asian Economic Community. It has even questioned the legality of Vietnam’s award of gas exploration rights in South China Sea to India’s ONGC. Bilateral trade relations on the other hand, have improved substantially. Thus, both competitive and cooperative elements are on the rise simultaneously in Sino-Indian relations.

In the circumstances, it would therefore be advisable for New Delhi to understand the logic on the PLA’s role as given above. More specifically, it should be prepared for any unforeseen PLA-initiated border intrusions, including into Bhutan. The Indo-Bhutan revised treaty signed in 2007 has given Thimphu more powers in defence and foreign relations. China may like to exploit such opportunity to pressurise Bhutan to finally demarcate the common border and enter into diplomatic relations with it. Another point is that China’s incursions into Indian borders have in the past had a pattern – minor incidents occurring around the period of exchanges of VVIP visits between the two nations, for the purpose of symbolically reasserting border claims by China on such important occasions.[12] The Indian Prime Minister is to pay a visit to China soon and it would therefore be advisable for New Delhi to increase its vigil in the border.

(The writer, Mr. D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

Footnotes

[1]. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Beijing, 20 December 2007 [2]. Liberation Army Daily, 20 December 2007 [3]. Wu Xiaoyi, Deputy Director General, Asian Affairs Bureau, Foreign Affairs Office, Ministry of Defence, 20 December 2007 [4]. Xinhua, 2 December 2007, quoting Indian Defence Minister in Gangtok [5]. Tribune News Service, 14 December 2007 [6]. PTI, 10 October 2007 [7]. ibid [8]. General Deepak Kapoor, 13 December 2007, www.stratfor.com/products/premium/read_article.php?id+299977 [9]. People’s Daily affiliated Global Times(Chinese), 3 December 2007 [10]. China International Institute for Strategic Studies, Beijing, article captioned “Dalai flees to India, Mao Zedong decides to go on war with India”, 19 December 2007. Its website www.chinaiiss.org, was established in October 2002, with the stated aim of contributing to research on the PRC’s international strategy. The head of the site is “Zhongguo Zhan Lue or China Strategy”, apparently a pseudonym for a high level cadre. The site’s “ Experts Group” has one Li Peng as member. Further check is necessary on whether this person is the former Chinese Premier Li Peng. [11]. China Institute of International Strategic Studies, 17 December 2007 [12]. “China: Beijing’s Arunachal Pradesh Card”, November 17, 2006, https://www.c3sindia.org/india/24/china-beijing-%e2%80%99s-arunachal-pradesh-card/

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