China’s latest Arunachal provocation has serious implications

India needs to take a holistic view of the Chinese strategy

TOPSHOT-INDIA-CHINA-BORDER-DEFENCE Ready to breathe fire: Bofors guns deployed near the LAC in Tawang on October 20, 2021 | AFP

IN CHINESE FOLKLORE, the mythical dragon represents strength, nobility of intention and good luck. As China’s most recognisable emblem from the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), the dragon has negative attributes, too―arrogance and impatience.

The northeast has been priority geography for the Modi government. Interruptions in the infra buildup there will affect the setting up of military stations and deployment of cutting-edge technology.

India has been witnessing the dragon’s negative qualities of late. Arrogance, however, could signal the beginning of the end, and impatience breeds costly mistakes. That could well be the story of China’s perceptible shift in focus from eastern Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

Bilateral ties have been deteriorating since May 5, 2020, when a border squabble on the northern bank of Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh sparked off a fistfight between the two sides. Hostilities peaked on June 15, 2020, when 20 Indian soldiers died in a hand-to-hand night combat with the Chinese army in the cold and treacherous Galwan Valley. China reported four dead.

Two harsh winters have since passed, and a third is under way. Seventeen rounds of military commander-level talks have taken place. Both sides have agreed to a buffer zone at many points of dispute.

This has had the effect of ‘fixing’ the blurry border while blocking off Indian troops from areas that they could earlier patrol. Tricky issues such as settling the Depsang and the Demchok border were being addressed when news of fresh trouble broke on December 11, 2022. Another bout of border fisticuffs had taken place two days earlier. Many troopers were injured on the high-altitude Yangtse ridge in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector.

The ridge has long been coveted by China; the last attempt to wrest it from Indian control was on September 28, 2021. The Yangtse ridge is strategic because its commanding heights (17,000ft at its highest point) offer a clear view of the lower terrain on both sides of the border, including the tracks that lead into Tibet’s Cona county.

A standoff had reportedly taken place a few days earlier in Sikkim, near the border area under the Indian Army’s 33 Corps. But it was resolved swiftly after Indian troops stood their ground. The area is not far from Doklam, which had seen a 73-day face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017.

China is known for making moves that are well thought out. “The Yangtse, northeast of Tawang, has been witnessing such incidents for many years,” said retired Lt Gen S.L. Narasimhan, former defence attache in the Indian embassy in Beijing. “It is an area that the Chinese claim to be theirs. To keep the claim intact, they make these attempts to unilaterally change the status quo.”

According to Narasimhan, India should have a holistic view of the Line of Actual Control. “The G-695 highway on the Chinese side runs almost parallel to the LAC; there are the Xiakong (moderately prosperous) villages that are coming up [along the highway]. There is a lot of infra improvement in those areas. We need to keep an eye on it,” he said.

Keeping watch: Indian soldiers during a drill at Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district in March 2018 | PTI Keeping watch: Indian soldiers during a drill at Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district in March 2018 | PTI

Chinese transgressions have been taking place for years, but now the environment has drastically changed. “It is very difficult to comprehend Chinese strategies,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on China’s foreign and security policies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “From 2020 onwards, they have militarised the entire LAC―from Galwan to the Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh frontier.”

According to him, the Tawang issue does not mean that China has shifted its focus from Ladakh. “All 70,000 troops that China had deployed in and near Galwan remain there. India positioned 1.2 lakh troops to stall a possible China advance. A shift would have entailed a shift in the deployment as well,” said Kondapalli.

Each sector has its own dynamics. “In the middle sector, China is keen to control passes like the Mana Pass. But in the eastern sector, they want to control the heights and valleys below, including the Tawang tract,” he said.

The latest provocation in the Arunachal frontier has several serious implications that require a closer examination. One, by sparking incidents in the eastern theatre, China is stretching Indian forces all across the LAC. Incidents such as the one in Yangtse will necessitate more deployment in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Permanent deployments in such difficult terrain will lead to mounting expenses and physical and psychological costs. Also, China’s border terrain is not as challenging as it is on the Indian side.

Two, unlike in the case of eastern Ladakh, China has never agreed to any kind of negotiations over Arunachal Pradesh, which it continues to claim. Even now, China issues stapled visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh.

Three, the link between India’s mainland and the northeast is tenuous at best. The narrow, 22km land corridor that connects the mainland to the northeast, called Chicken’s Neck, is vulnerable to enemy gunfire. In the event of a conflict, China can block supplies from the mainland to the northeast. In fact, China’s southward push in the Chumbi valley in the Doklam region is aimed at establishing a position at Jampheri Ridge, a high point from where it can monitor all Indian activity in the Chicken’s Neck area.

Four, the northeast has a long history of violent sub-nationalism. Many of the region’s insurgency movements have close contacts with China, which can create conditions for destabilising the northeast.

Five, by changing focus towards the east, China is seeking to drive a wedge between India and the US, and thereby cripple America’s Indo-Pacific policy that is aimed at strategically encircling China. Beijing apparently hopes that brewing trouble on the LAC would make India realise that the US would be of little help in India’s land rivalry with China.

Six, the northeast has been priority geography for the Narendra Modi government. On December 18, the prime minister said in Shillong that his government had invested seven lakh crore rupees for developing infrastructure in the northeast. In Arunachal Pradesh alone, the Border Roads Organisation has built 64 roads totalling 3,097km in the past five years. Interruptions in the infra buildup will affect the setting up of military stations and deployment of cutting-edge technology.

Seven, with its Act East Policy (AEP), India has been trying to leverage the northeast’s close cultural and ethnic ties to connect with southeast Asian nations. China’s efforts to rake up border rows will blunt the initiatives under the policy.

Tension in the northeast will also aid China’s control over Myanmar, which has emerged as a pivot in AEP. With Myanmar’s cooperation, China has already overcome the ‘Malacca Dilemma’―its geographical incapability to bypass the Malacca Strait while carrying out trade with West Asia, Europe and the Atlantic region. The recent completion of a multimodal (sea, rail and land) route through Myanmar to China’s Yunnan province enables China to finally bypass the Malacca Strait.

In August last year, China conducted a successful dry run of a new trade route from Singapore to Chengdu, capital of China’s landlocked southwestern province of Sichuan. The test cargo set sail from Singapore to Myanmar’s Yangon port, from where it was ferried by road to Lincang in China’s Yunnan province, and then by rail to Chengdu. The new rail link that was used was inaugurated the same month. Lincang is located opposite a Myanmarese border town in Chin Shwe Haw Shan state.

The infrastructure growth in the hotly contested region may only speed up the growing rift between the Asian giants. Also contributing to the trend is the emergence of new power blocs amid the continuing churn in geopolitics. Russia and China seem be to warming up to each other in an anti-west consolidation, even as regional powers like Iran and Turkey are leveraging their diplomatic positions.

For India-China ties, the road ahead looks certainly thorny if not insurmountable.