When a foreign minister goes out of his way to assure reporters that there is no tension on his country’s borders with a powerful neighbor, the logical tendency is to wonder whether “the lady doth protest too much. After all, you don’t hear Canada’s foreign minister denying tension on his country’s American frontier, because the truth of that proposition is self-evident. The claim by Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee on a June visit to Beijing that the Sino-Indian border is tension-free has prompted cynical observers to assume the opposite.
They are right to do so. The last six months have witnessed a proliferation of incidents along the 2,520-mile (4,057-km) Sino-Indian frontier. Nearly a hundred have been recorded, including no fewer than 65 incursions by China’s People’s Liberation Army in just one sector – the evocatively-named Finger Area, a 2.1-square-kilometer salient in the Indian state of Sikkim, which shares a 206-km border with Tibet.
While India seeks to downplay such reports, one incident that did make it into the Indian press occurred inside the “Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the western sector of the border at Demchok, in India’s Ladakh district. A mixed civilian-military team investigating reports of Chinese incursions were, on May 16, threatened and forced to retreat by a PLA formation in three armored vehicles. The Chinese soldiers allegedly assumed firing positions, leading the Indians to withdraw in order not to provoke a shooting match. The previous month, there were reports of an armed Chinese probe 12 kilometers into the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Intensified Chinese patrolling has been observed at Demchok and Pangong Tso in Ladakh, and in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, a state to which the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi went so far as to lay claim in a media interview.
With China having established four new airbases in Tibet and three in its southern provinces bordering India, the Indian Air Force is reportedly augmenting its own presence near the Chinese border by deploying two squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI fighters.
What is going on? Are China and India bracing for war?
Fears of imminent major hostilities are clearly overblown. China, with the Olympics looming, is unlikely to initiate a clash, and India has no desire to provoke its neighbor, which humiliated it in a brutal border war in 1962 that left China in possession of 23,200 square kilometers of Indian territory. At the same time, China has taken pains to remind India that it still claims a further 92,000 square kilometers, mainly in Arunachal Pradesh.
It doesn’t help that the two countries share the longest disputed frontier in the world, since the LAC has never been formally delineated in a manner accepted by both sides. India’s borders were defined by British imperial administrators in 1913 – the MacMahon Line, which China rejects (though it accepts that line as its frontier with Burma, which was then part of British India).
With the LAC coming into being in the wake of China’s victory in 1962, the situation is even more unclear. Whenever troops from either side build roads, construct or repair bunkers and other fortifications, or conduct patrols close to the LAC, tensions can flare. When the two sides are anxious to avoid provoking each other, such activities are kept to a minimum, but it would seem that China has taken a conscious decision in recent months to keep the Indians on their toes.
The reasons are not hard to identify. China’s recent troubles over Tibet have brought with them unwelcome reminders of India’s hospitality to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile. The fact that Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and a major monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, lies in Arunachal, deprives China of a vital asset in its attempts to assert total control over Tibet.
Reminding India of China’s claims is therefore all the more urgent for China.
Foreign Minister Mukherjee was treated rudely on his recent visit, with Premier Wen Jiabao cancelling a previously-scheduled appointment and the Governor of Sichuan Province failing to show up to receive a donation of Indian humanitarian aid for China’s earthquake victims.
At his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, Mukherjee was told what his hosts thought of the Dalai Lama’s activities and statements in India, and was reminded that the border incidents reflected different perceptions of where the border lies. The Chinese demanded a resumption of talks on the unsettled border, though there seems little prospect of either side making new concessions.
Behind the unpleasantness may lie a broader strategic calculation. With the end of the Cold War, China had two options concerning India: to regard it as a natural ally, together with Russia, in building up an alternative to American dominance in the region, or to identify it as a potential adversary.
The recent emergence of a United States-India partnership appears to have convinced China’s rulers that India has become an instrument for the “containment of China.
Such a perception may have been reinforced by India’s frequent military exercises with the US, Japan, and Australia and its cultivation of former Soviet Central Asia (including the establishment of a military base in Tajikistan). Moreover, India has attempted to establish strategic ties with countries that China sees as falling within its own sphere of influence (from Mongolia to Vietnam, including direct competition over Myanmar).
So the Sino-Indian frontier is unlikely to remain quiet. Needling an eager-to-please India on its troubled northern borders helps China to keep India guessing about its intentions, exposes the giant democracy’s vulnerabilities in an election year, and cuts a potential strategic rival down to size. Look for China to provoke more incidents once the Olympics are over.
Shashi Tharoor, an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration of Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).