That the Chinese finally withdrew from the Daulat Beg Oldi area at about 19:30 hrs on Sunday, 05 May 2013 has brought some relief to the beleaguered UPA Government is not in doubt.
Having come under severe pressure from all quarters due to the inept handling of Sarabjit Singh case who was attacked by prison mates in Pakistan leading to his death and also facing the heat on the acquittal of Sajjan Kumar who was accused of being the master mind for the attack on the Sikh community, the Government of India has managed to contain, at least temporarily, the damage caused by the Chinese incursion. The UPA has heaved a sigh of relief with the passing of the storm clouds in Himalaya. Unsubstantiated reporting by the press suggested that the Chinese blinked first. Subsequently it was reported that there was simultaneous withdrawal of both the troops to respective areas. However, there are many questions that will continue to haunt the strategic community, security establishment and the people of India. The main question is what did the Chinese achieve by crossing the LAC and now agreeing to withdraw from the occupied area on the Indian side of the LAC after some anxious moments and many meetings. What was sought to be conveyed to India, the rest of the world and its own domestic constituency? Here are some observations of the Chinese action.
It is obvious that the Chinese wanted to convey a message that they still do not recognize the Indian perception of the LAC despite the agreements in 1993 and 1996 and are willing to resort to forceful occupation at the time of their reckoning. Also, while the timing of the incursion could be questioned, it was obviously to test the waters and see how the Indian Government reacted at many levels. While externally the Government tried to convey the message that it was in control of the situation, the Indian Government as usual was clueless about the responses. The fact that the incident was not made public or acknowledged for days after the incursion itself is serious. At the end of it, the Chinese stayed put for twenty one days and had pitched five tents. To add insult to injury, they also had put up signs in the areas saying that “you are in Chinese side”. The Chinese would indeed be extremely happy with this exercise which reinforces their reading of the Indian mind. They would even be encouraged to get even more adventurous along the LAC at a later date of their choosing, knowing fully well that the Indian responses will be too little and always too late. The details of what concessions were given on 05 May 2013, if any need to be shared with the nation.The people of this country have a right to know what transpired at the final meeting leading to the withdrawal of the troops. This should not again be something that is hidden from the public quoting some excuse or the other.
With the change in leadership in Beijing, it appears that Xi is increasing his efforts to be shown as an assertive leader capable of initiating measures to protect China’s core interests. The escalation of tensions both in South China Sea and the East China Sea has heightened the potential for risk due to miscalculations in the maritime domain. It is unlikely that the Chinese are not aware of the growing distrust of its neighbours in the Indo Pacific. It is puzzling as to why China wants to take on so many maritime neighbours simultaneously. While that is the case in the maritime domain, the otherwise tranquil land borders with India suddenly erupted and became the center of attention. As analysts around the world have gotten busy to analyse the behaviour of the Asian Giant there are many theories which try to explain the conduct of the Chinese leadership. The fact that Daulat Beg Oldi(DBO) was strategically extremely important for the Indian Armed Forces was never in doubt and therefore, the forced occupation of this strategic post poses a serious security threat now and forever. The strategic importance and relevance has been brought out by Mr Raman in another SAAG paper vide http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/node/1258 .
The recent incident has again showed that the Indian side of the LAC still suffers from lack of requisite infrastructure for connectivity. The Chinese on the contrary have laid out good roads and are able to logistically support the troops in this inhospitable terrain. For decades, India fought shy of building the required infrastructure to support the troops who are required to protect the borders. It is only now that there is some halfhearted effort to correct this deficiency. It will be many years before India can catch up with the infrastructural build up on our side of the LAC as India has been a slow and hesitant starter. This again should be a top priority for the leadership.
The media in India went to town with many panel discussions on the topic. Most of the panelists were unanimous that India’s response was too weak and lacked proactive approach. Consider the fact that the Army Chief apparently provided five options to the political leadership for what was described as a localized situation which meant it could be controlled locally? While the details of the options are not in the public domain, it is not clear as to why India still does not have Standard Operating Procedures including calibrated use of force for such incursions. Apparently, during the time of General Sunderjee when he was the Army Chief, there was a similar incident in 1986 and the Army applied the local rules and was able to ensure that the Chinese mis-adventurism was brought to a halt. The political leadership was only informed about the incident after the Chinese had beaten a hasty retreat. The details of the incident are available at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/sundarji-defied-political-leaders-in-confrontation-with-chinese-troops/995479/0 . It is unlikely that written orders or Rules of Engagement would not have been provided to those guarding the areas with our neighbours along the LAC since that incident. However, since the Government continues to insist that this was a localized affair; those guarding the border in these sensitive areas would need to be provided with clear guidance on the action to be taken and the chain of command. Also, there is a need to apply the remedy with in the first twenty four hours of detection of such violation as any delay would only lead to the kind of situation that developed after the blatant intrusion on 15th April. Also, with all the achievements in space surveillance and technology, it should be easy to ensure that there is real time availability of information and analysis that would lead to initiating counters without delays.
The short note by the Press Trust of India on 05 May 2013 just gave a brief report on the withdrawal of the Chinese and also mentioned that the Indian troops likewise withdrew to the position occupied prior to the incident. There was also a suggestion by the press to say that the Army was not allowed to make any comments on the incident as the top brass contacted by the press refused to divulge any details of the agreement. This only raises further questions on what transpired behind the scene on Sunday. The issue was not resolved even after many flag meetings and the Chinese continued to maintain that they did not agree with the perception of India on the location of DBO with respect to the LAC. This in itself is serious as the Chinese after respecting the position and perception of India for decades, suddenly decides to change the status quo. The question that needs to be answered, is related to what were the quid pro quos? What were the concessions and or agreements if any that led to the restoration of the status quo along the LAC?
There was a hint that both the sides did not want the visit of the Foreign Minister from India and the visit of China’s Premier to India to be subverted due to this piquant situation. While all may be well that has ended well, there are still many questions about the preparedness of the Indian establishment to cope with similar testing situations. The role of the China Study Group has also been discussed and it is clear that the CSG would need to draw up National contingency plans by involving all the concerned stake holders namely, the MEA, the Armed Forces and the intelligence agencies. This also makes it incumbent on the part of the both the nations also to expedite the marking of the LAC on the ground. This should be done though it may be tempting for both sides to think that it is advantageous to continue with ambiguity and a status quo that can be challenged by the more powerful at a convenient future date.
(Courtesy: – South Asia Analysis Group. The writer is Commodore RS Vasan(Retd.) is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and member, Chennai Center for China Studies. He can be contacted at email@example.com)