Come clean on India’s border policy with China

The reverbations of the April 2013 incident have reached the TV studios in Delhi in August. Although the Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) Shyam Saran has denied submitting any report to the government reporting loss of 640 sq km of Indian territory in Ladakh (His official statement reads: The NSAB is an autonomus body whose members serve in their individual capacities. They undertake visits to various parts of the country to familiarize themselves with the local situation to assist their deliberations. The visit to Ladakh was in the nature of such a visit to familiarize oneself with the situation prevailing in an important border region. No mandate was sought or given by the PMO or the Government.

“The Board has the strengthening of border management on its agenda and will, on the basis of all inputs available to it, make appropriate recommendations to the Government after due deliberation. The board does not concern itself with operational matters), the fact remains that India is under pressure all along the Chinese frontier.  

When Chinese troops came in 19 km and camped near Raki Nallah in Depasang plains near Dault Beg Oldie (DBO) in April this year, they exposed India’s vulnerability in north-east Ladakh.

The Depasang plains-DBO area (see map) has remained as inaccessible to Indian troops as it was in the 1960s. Although the Indian Air Force (IAF) managed to land the newly-acquired C-130J Hercules transport plane at the DBO airstrip, absence of a road connecting the area continues to hamper the Indian security forces.

ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) and the Indian Army is forced to depend on foot patrols to keep a vigil in the area. The Chinese on the other hand have developed roads very close to Depsang plains. The advantage of a road network was evident in the April crisis when the Chinese pitched tents for three weeks and were well supplied from the rear. The Indian effort was however dependent on mules and air drops during the face offs.

During that period it also become apparent that the Chinese had chosen Raki Nallah with care. Their presence at 19 km deep inside what Indian territory had cut off access to over 600 sq km of area north of Depsang.

My colleague Sudhi Ranjan Sen reported on Thursday that the ITBP (which is responsible for the Depsang area) had told to the government in May that 640 square kilometres in Raki Nallah in north-east Ladakh had been inaccessible to Indian troops because of that large incursion by the Chinese army.
The question that needs to be asked however is: has the government downplayed the creeping Chinese encroachment in this area for years?

RN Ravi, a highly respected Intelligence Bureau officer, who retired as Special director in April 2012 had monitored India’s land border for 20 years in his official capacity, thinks so.

During the Depasang crisis he revealed in a column he wrote for “Taking advantage of its superior military capabilities along the border, China has been making increasingly aggressive military pushes along Karakoram-Daulat Beg Oldi- Track Junction- Burtse axis in the Depsang Plains inching closer to Shyok river and seeking to substantially alter the “differing perceptions” of the LAC in its favour, forcing the Indian troops to yield and incrementally retreat. Loss of territory in this sub-sector grossly undermines India’s strategic future vis-a-vis China in this sector and increases vulnerabilities of its supply axis to the Siachen sector vis-a-vis Pakistan.
“Although the latest aggression by China caught the attention of the nation, thanks to the media, the countrymen have been kept in the dark about their ongoing numerous such transgressions. While in 2005 there were 150 transgressions of the Indian LAC in this sector, the number increased to about 240 by 2010. In fact the Chinese aggression escalated after 2009.
They built a 20 km motorable road along Jeevan Nallah in 2010 and 15 km long motorable road along Raki Nallah from JAK II to GR 626516 in 2011– both on the Indian side in the Depsang Plain without a scintilla of resistance.”

Ravi, an old friend, is known to have been a blunt and plain-speaking officer even while in service and had always made his strong views known to the government. However China apologists in the government, starting with the Prime Minister, the National Security Adviser and the foreign minister Salman “acne” Khurshid, have always downplayed such incidents and attributed the dispute to “differing perceptions,” on where exactly the border lies.

Army’s formation commanders in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh have however reported increasing belligerence on the border and increasing face offs between Indian and Chinese patrols of late. This report on (, as late as August is revealing: “Even as India and China work towards finalising a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to prevent faceoffs with a potential to escalate into serious skirmish, the Army’s Northern Command is worried over a change in pattern in the border intrusions in Ladakh and a discernible aggressive attitude of the intruders of late.
“In mid-July, for instance, two of the three intrusions in a week happened around midnight. Chinese troops on horseback came across the perceived Line of Actual Control in the dark. Strict instructions and rigorous training of the troops deployed on the LAC has prevented any untoward incident so far, Northern Command sources said. “Our worry is that a small mistake, an accidental exchange of fire at night, might lead to an unintended escalation,” a senior officer confessed.”As a student of India-China relations and border disputes, I have often tried to look into  past incidents to relate to the present situation. In the past I had an occasion to point out that in the late 1950s too, the Chinese behaved exactly as they are doing now.

Take the period between 1959-62 and see what had happened in the same area then.

On December 26, 1959 Peking (as Beijing was then known) sends a note to India talking about Aksai Chin. It says: “This area is the only traffic artery linking Singkiang to Western Tibet because to its north-east lies the great Gobi of Sinkiang through which direct traffic with Tibet is practically impossible…the area all along belonged to China.”

So any move by India to improve its military posture close to Aksai Chin will always invite Chinese ire, as it has been doing since the late 1950s.
As Peking and New Delhi continued to exchange protest notes, 1962 began with fresh tension. Consider this:
Feb 22, 1962: India protests to China against advance patrolling by Chinese troops.
March: New Delhi protests against establishment of a military post by China 6 miles west of Sumdo.
April-May 1962: Chinese troops step up advance patrolling in Chip Chap area
April 30, 1962: Peking orders patrolling in the sector from Karakoram Pass to Kongka Pass and demands India withdraw 2 posts in the area.
May 2, 1962: China-Pakistan announce agreement to enter into ‘negotiations to locate and align’ the portion of India-China border west of Karakoram Pass in Kashmiri territory under Pakistan’s unlawful occupation.
Mid-May, 1962: China sets up a new post in Indian territory 10 miles south-east of Spanggur.
Its not my case that events of 1962 will repeat themselves. Half a century later, the world has changed, India’s military capability is far far better than it was then; And finally there is too much at stake for Beijing to launch any overt aggression.
What has however not changed is the Chinese tendency of bullying weaker neighbours and its policy to keep redefining ‘core’ interests according to circumstances. Policy making in China is one continuous process. In India on the other hand, it varies according to personalities and political parties in power.
While the military in India has overcome the trauma of the 1962 defeat, civilian policy makers appear to be still bogged down by the burdens of the past in dealing with China.
Of course, these mandarins get their act together only under pressure of a crisis like they did post-1986 Sumdorong Chu face off. The 2009 sanction for additional forces and speeding up of infrastructure development projects also came after increasing reports of Chinese belligerence along the LAC.
It is therefore essential to push for another round of capability-enhancing drive. Simultaneously, India must re-look and re-tweak its China policy. For instance:
  • Insist with Beijing the need for exchanging maps for all sectors immediately so that each side knows the other’s claimed LAC and border negotiations can resume
  • Bring the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) under the operational control of the Army to ensure uniformity in border management
  • Ensure timely and effective information sharing mechanism with Indian media and through them the Indian people rather than let different stake holders speak in different and some times discordant voices during times of crisis
  • Educate and prepare the Indian people on the need for give and take on border negotiations in the future
Policy makers in India must be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It must also communicate clearly with the Indian public as to what is India’s stand on the border question. Otherwise we will end up in the same mess as in 1962.

  1. September 6, 2013 -

    Dear Nitin,Great article which puts things in perspective.Just my two cents – (a) Depsang Plains extend to both side of LAC. And PLA infrastructure is on Depsang Plains on their side of LAC. (b) There is a larger threat at play here – position of PLA 'incursion' not only threatens Indian access to Depsang Plains, they also threatens the surface link to DBO via Depsang La. PLA incursion is like a wedge which has the potential to interdicts the surface link from Burtse to DBO. This point needs to be highlighted. The inputs from IB officer in your article touch on this aspect. PLA managing to reach Shyok means DBO gone as well threat to Siachen from eastern flank via Saser La pass.Regards,

  2. September 8, 2013 -

    When will our Babus and policy makers realise that jiski lathi uski bhains. The Chinese, over decades, have always maintained a posture and position of strength on the Indian borders. The Indian military today is much better equipped than it was in 1962 with Nehru in his own dreamland and Krishna Menon in his ivory tower! However, it is once again falling behind, with slow modernisation due to a Defence Minister who only knows how to smile like a half-wit and kow-tow to the powers that be to maintain his own position and welfare. His attitude towards all efforts at modernisation and/or procurement of new equipment is totally averse to fast moving and rapid modern day technological advances. His play-safe attitude is doing immense harm to the military preparedness, of all the three wings of the Indian Armed Forces. To make matters worse we have a weak and incompetent leadership of the Army, where positions have been gained more through manipulations than through sheer merit.