Two track policy on China essential

Dr. Manmohan Singh will be in China next week on what appears to be his last visit to the Asian neighbour during the current tenure as Prime Minister. 

Apart from the possible exception of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Manmohan Singh has had more interaction with the Chinese leadership than any other Indian leader. History will judge Dr Singh’s contribution to Sino-Indian leadership but for the moment he will have to concentrate on what New Delhi can achieve immediately in its topsy-turvey relationship with Beijing. 

An improved border management posture is on the cards in the form of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) to be possibly signed during Dr. Singh’s 2-day visit next week. India will have other points to convey, notably on huge trade deficit, the continuing Chinese policy on issuing stapled visas to residents of Aruanachal Pradesh. The Chinese, apart from pushing for the early progress in border negotiation talks are sure to once more broach the subject of Indian media’s belligerence and jingoism but at the moment policy makers on both sides will seek to look at the positives more than dwelling upon the irritants.

Following the Prime Ministerial visit, in the first week of November, Indian and Chinese infantry troops will hold a company level joint military drill–third in the series that began in 2007–after a gap of five years. After the last edition in India (at Belgaum), various flash points between the two countries prevented this important but largely symbolic exercise being held annually as originally envisaged. Now after considerable diplomatic effort, an Indian infantry unit will travel to Chengdu to resume the Exercise Hand in Hand next month.

This joint anti-terrorist drill notwithstanding, the two Asian neighbours are bound to remain strategic competitors in decades to come. Right now, China is way ahead in terms of economic and military muscle. Till four years ago, India was seen to be making a valiant effort in catching up with China.

poor roads in Arunachal Pradesh
BRO labourers in Arunachal Pradesh

Since 2012 however, India’s economic woes has put a question mark on India’s defence preparedness in keeping with its needs. 

And yet, both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh on the frontier with China, India’s strategic planners have started to make amends for decades of lethargy and apathy. 

China watchers will recall that it was in  2006 that the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCS), which takes the final decision on India’s security matters had decided to reverse the decades old policy of NOT building infrastructure in the border areas, lest the Chinese get easier access to Indian areas in the event of a skirmish!

The late realisation and start to improve infrastructure–both military and civil–in these remote areas however means that at least for decade, India’s military preparedness there will remain tenuous.

Over the past one year, having travelled to both Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, I am convinced that India has the right intention but somehow lacks the means to get its act together in building and improving infrastructure. There are multiple agencies involved in planning and giving clearances for border projects. Although the  Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is primarily responsible for road and bridge building in these areas, it is hampered by a number of shortcomings. Having told the BRO to construct 73 strategic Roads in 2006, it was expected that these roads will be ready by its original deadline of 2012. Unfortunately as Ajay Banerjee of The Tribune brought out in detail earlier this year only a fraction of the work has been completed (

On the road to Demchok
The double-laning of Upshi-Demchok road on fast track

As a quasi-military organization the BRO is entrusted with building and maintaining these strategic roads and come rain or winter, its labourers work to keep the only road link to Tawang in Arunachal Prdaesh open through the year but at the moment they are fighting a losing battle, as I saw during my travel there. The fault lies not with them but with people higher up who planned  the widening of the only road without building an alternative.
Constant landslips, frequent blockades are a recurring challenge. But landslides apart , BRO officials told me that they are plagued by a shortage of labour in this sector. Earlier, large groups from Jharkhand and Bihar made their way to these parts.  No longer, since now plenty of work is available in their home states. Excruciatingly slow environmental clearances both by the central and state governments add to the delays. In Arunachal Pradesh, nearly five months of Monsoon followed by a couple of months of intense cold and snowfall means, the working season is limited to less than six months. 

In Ladakh too, the situation is no different. Snow and severe winter leaves the road and infrastructure builders just about six months of work time through the year. But as state government officials in a remote sub-division like Nyoma in south eastern Ladakh told me last fortnight the clearances have started flowing in faster than before. The road from Upshi to Demchok for instance is currently witnessing intense broadening and improvement work. Demchok is the place where maximum face offs have occurred between Indian Army and Chinese PLA patrols. The Indus also enters India at this extreme south-east corner of Ladakh.

An ITBP post on the banks of the Tsomo Riri lake

India owes it to its own forces to put in place better infrastructurealong the China frontier  and provide border guarding forces like the ITBP better facilities than the current ones. Although there is clamour to entrust the India-China border fully to the Army or bring the ITBP fully under the Army’s control, so long as the ITBP is deployed on the frontline, it deserves better treatment. 


The nomads can become eyes and ears
Beyond TsoMo RiRi, in the nomad land

Similarly, the Centre and the State government must go the extra distance to support the nomadic tribes that live along the remote Ladakh frontier. The further these grazers keep going in search of pasteur for their cattle, the better it is for Indian authorities to lay a claim on the undemarcated borders. These nomads should get full material help in their quest for a better life and access to more grazing land in the border areas. 
We all recognise that 2013 is not 1962.

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.

But as I wrote earlier, what has 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 is therefore in India’s interest to keep talking to the Chinese on border issue and other irritants in the relationship but at the same time not concede on the fundamentals even as military and economic capabilities are enhanced manifold. In a way adopt Deng Xiaoping line he advocated in the late 1970s: “Hide Your Strength, Bide Your time.” India must also be mindful that the US may prefer to remain neutral in the event of a India-China standoff.

  1. October 21, 2013 -

    The solution here too is to to make a Military Confrontation in this sector Internationally and Domestically untenable…….Unfortunately Indian National Policy makers need to understand it and act in Sync with the Def Est in the area. The mil equation is skewed in favour of the stronger mil – in this case China. So the answer lies in answering the question ` How do we make an Offensive in this sector (which is devoid of Insurgency and Terrorist activity) Internationally ad Domestically Untenable? There are a number of alternatives…….again it is not Rocket Science…….the real test is whether we can think them through, act them quick and execute them well. the answer to `Hide your Strength, Bide your Time' lies in another saying `Show your strength, Time your Tide'…!