Sino-Indian border tensions: Let the Facts Speak For Themselves

Setting Boundaries

India must have an honest debate on its diplomatic and military options regarding China.

Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, October 5, 2009

No one in the Indian government has said
Chinese cross-frontier incursions aren’t happening. Yet to play down the
New Delhi
has accused the media of overplaying such intrusions. To the delight of the
autocrats in
Beijing, who tightly control the
flow of information in their country, including through online censors,
New Delhi has made its
home media the whipping boy. The unwitting message that sends to
Beijing is that when the
world’s biggest autocracy builds up pressure, the world’s largest democracy is
willing to tame its media coverage, even if it entails
dispensing half-truths and flogging

The facts, even if unpalatable, should be
allowed to speak for themselves.
’s oft-repeated line in recent days has been that
Chinese incursions are at last year’s level, so there is no need to worry. But
2008 brought a record number of incursions, with defence officials reporting
that the number of such intrusions went from 140 in 2007 to 270 last year, or
almost double. In addition, there were
2,285 reported instances of “aggressive border
patrolling” by Chinese forces in 2008. As Defence Minister A.K. Anthony told an
army commanders’ conference last year, “there is no room for complacency” on

That the incursions this year are continuing at
the 2008 level suggests there is every reason to be concerned. After all, the
2008 record pattern is continuing, with
under sustained, unremitting pressure.
Yet, from the external affairs
minister and foreign secretary to the national security adviser and army chief,
Indian officials have sought to tamp down public concerns by saying there is
“no significant increase” compared to last year. Do they wish to thank
Beijing for keeping
border incidents and other provocations at the 2008 level without seeking to
establish a new record through a “significant” increase in incursions?

The key point to note is that China has opened pressure points against India across the Himalayas, with border incidents occurring in all the four sectors. Chinese forces
are intruding even into Utttarakhand, although the line of control in this
middle sector was clarified in 2001 through an exchange of maps, and into
Sikkim, whose 206-kilometer border with Tibet is not in dispute and indeed is recognized
Yet, gratuitously stretching the truth, Indian officials say the incursions are
the result of differing perceptions about the line of control. That may be so
about Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, but can that be true about
and Uttarakhand? It speaks for itself that
Beijing hasn’t offered this lame excuse.

Make no mistake: The Chinese border provocations have resulted both from India’s political pusillanimity and from the withdrawal of China-related army divisions in past years. For example, the 8th Mountain Division, tasked with defending Sikkim, was moved from northern Bengal to J&K and took part in the Kargil War. Tank forces also were moved out from Sikkim. Similarly, a mountain division was moved from the northeast to J&K for counterinsurgency operations. Such relocation of forces emboldened the Chinese. The current Indian moves to beef up defences against China largely involve the return of the forces that were withdrawn a decade or more ago.

Chinese cross-border incursions are designed not only to keep India under military pressure all along the Himalayas, but also to ensure Indian “good behavior” on assorted political issues, including TibetPakistan and military ties with the US. Take the Pakistan factor: At a time when an internally troubled Pakistan is facing US pressure to redeploy a sufficient number of forces to the Afghan front, China wants to shield its “all-weather ally” from Indian military pressure by keeping a sizable number of Indian forces bogged down along the Himalayas.

Had India’s
nuclear deterrent been credible in the eyes of
wouldn’t have dared to ratchet up border tensions. But the Chinese
muscle-flexing suggests otherwise. In fact, more than three decades after
China tested its first intercontinental
ballistic missile,
doesn’t have an ICBM even on the drawing board.
India still hasn’t deployed even a
single, Beijing-reachable missile.

If the threat from an increasingly assertive and ambitious China is to be contained, India must have an honest and open
debate on its diplomatic and military options, including how gaps in its
defences can be plugged and what it will take to build a credible deterrent.
The media has a crucial role to play in such a debate, both by bringing out the
facts and providing a platform for discussion. If
New Delhi wishes to ensure Himalayan peace
and stability,
pulling the
wool on public eyes at home is certainly not the way.

The author is
Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research,
New Delhi.

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