Power differential with China doesn’t allow us to take back the usurped areas, but habitat across LAC will safeguard India against further loss of territory

by Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R)

The formal response of the Indian and Chinese governments to the “discovery” of a newly constructed Chinese village 4.5 km inside Indian territory on Tsari Chu river, Upper Subansiri district, reflects on the current power equation in the high Himalayas. Even our media, barring a few who ran sensational headlines, soberly analysed the historical background, and resigned to the fact that the area had been under Chinese occupation for nearly 62 years since the 25 August 1959 Longju incident — the first physical confrontation between the People’s Liberation Army or the PLA and Indian forces. Our post at Longju was attacked and four Assam Rifles personnel were taken prisoners of war. What followed was an exchange of protest notes, temporary withdrawal by the PLA and reoccupation soon thereafter.

I analyse the implications of contrasting approaches of India and China towards border management and development, and the way forward

China’s Response

On 21 November 2020, Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in India, tweeted the statement of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing: “China’s position on Zangnan (southern part of China’s Tibet) is consistent & clear. We have never recognised so-called ‘Arunachal’ Pradesh’ illegally established on Chinese territory. China’s normal construction on its own territory is entirely a matter of sovereignty.” No ifs and buts, not even lip service to the 80-year-old dispute and absolute clarity with respect the right to do what it wants to on disputed “claimed sovereign territory”.

Global Times, the Chinese mouthpiece, analysed Indian media reports quoting experts. Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, said that “China and India haven’t demarcated the border line of this area yet. So they cannot accuse China of building a village on the Indian side.” The report also quoted Zhang Yongpan, a research fellow at the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), as saying that “It’s absurd for the Indian government to use this line (McMahon Line) to determine the territory administered by China and India. Indian media should not bring about the issue when the country is still plagued by the serious situation of a COVID-19 pandemic.” This, in my view, also reflects the official line that until the boundary is demarcated, it is China’s right to do whatever it wants in the disputed territory. And it is also clear that since even the maps have not been exchanged, the demarcation is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

In fact, Chinese actions are part of its policy all along its borders. Professor M Taylor Fravel, eminent China scholar at MIT, explained that the village’s construction was part of a Chinese plan of rural revitalisation, put in place in 2017 with a budget of $4.6 billion, and is due for completion in 2020. A total of 624 model Xiaokang (which literally means ‘well-off’) villages have been constructed in Tibet on/near the borders. As per China scholar Claude Arpi, 965 such villages have been constructed since 2015.

The Chinese aim is clear — to ensure border control/consolidation while promoting economic development and tourism. As per Jayadeva Ranade, former RAW additional secretary, the Xiaokang “border defence villages” are also intended to create a buffer along the border (inhabited by people loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and the nation). President Xi Jinping has himself spelt out the theory for defence of border areas: “Governing border areas is the key for governing a country, and stabilising Tibet”. These modern villages are easy to be kept under surveillance via WiFi-enabled devices. And they will provide a secure base for military operations in areas where Tibetan population may turn hostile. In this context, the newly constructed village is significant because it lies, according to Arpi, on the route of the “12-yearly circumambulation of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims around the mountain known as the Rongkor Chenmo.” This pilgrimage had the character of a State ritual for the erstwhile Tibetan government.

India’s Response

In sharp contrast to China’s assertive advocation of the legitimacy of its actions, India’s response was nothing more than acceptance of fait accompli. The Ministry of External Affairs said, “China has undertaken such infrastructure construction activity in the past several years. In response, our government too has stepped up construction of border infrastructure. Government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security and takes all the necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Formally, not a word a word was said to condemn or confirm Chinese occupation of our territory across the McMahon Line. It was a typical weak-kneed response of a weaker power. It was left to the media to dig out the historical facts. Off the record, the details were confirmed by “official sources”. “The Chinese have been holding the area since 1959 and it is not a new development….There were some temporary constructions few years back. They have now done permanent construction there.”

Intrusions Across the McMahon Line/LAC?

The Narendra Modi government’s failure to acknowledge the Chinese intrusions and occupation of our territory in Eastern Ladakh since May 2020 is inexplicable. More so, when open source satellite imagery confirms the same. Even more intriguing is its failure to even acknowledge the historical occupation of our territory post 1962 by China. When the government does acknowledge, it is to humiliate the beleaguered Congress by broadly referring to the loss of 38,000 square kilometres till November, 1962.

It is time the government formally told the people in detail about our territory under illegal occupation of China. The government must put in public domain maps and satellite imagery showing the International Boundary, Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the nibbling intrusions that have taken place since 1962. Failure to do so will put a question mark on the government’s commitment to safeguard our territorial integrity.

Open Up The Borders

It is empirical wisdom that territorial integrity is best safeguarded by infrastructure, settlements and footfall of tourists. This is one reason why China has not secured the 1959 Claim Line in Demchok area. India has a Border Area Development Programme since 1986-87 for security and well-being of the border population. At present, it runs on a meagre budget. Under the project, the government had allocated Rs 783.71 crore in budget 2020-21 for the development of border villages and towns, out of which Rs 190 crore ($2.5 million) were allotted for India-China border. Compare this with China’s $4.6 billion — $1.53 billion per annum for three years for 624 villages in Tibet.

The India-China Border Roads project has been given impetus by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, but it continues to suffer from lack of vision, adequate budget and tardy execution. One only has to compare the open source videos of China Pakistan Economic Corridor roads with our roads to know the difference. Same is true for a number of hydel projects approved for Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

There is also the need to open up the borders for tourism. There is no justifiable reason to hide our borders, other than our poor state of infrastructure getting exposed. No visit to South Korea is complete without going to the 38th parallel, the border with North Korea. The infrastructure and defences are awe-inspiring and a source of confidence for the domestic population. Our people and tourism industry are no less innovative. India can impose entry/environmental taxes on visitors to earn revenue for infrastructure. In addition, the government can also open up the area for mountaineering expeditions and trekking.

We should not take counsel of our fear with respect to China’s reaction. China can do nothing more than what it has already done. We have the capability to stalemate it, which for a bigger power is a defeat.

The power differential with China does not allow us to take back the usurped territories by force. However, keeping the public informed of exact details of International Border, LAC and historically nibbled territories, development of infrastructure, construction of habitat and tourist footfall will certainly help safeguard India against further loss of territory.