It is more than two weeks now since a platoon of the PLA of China moved about 19 kms into Indian-claimed territory in Eastern Ladakh which, according to India, is on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) and set up a temporary camp with tents.
Media reports suggest that the Chinese action seems to be in retaliation for India strengthening its military-related infrastructure around the Daulat Beg Oldie area within Indian-claimed LOAC.
Three flag meetings at the level of local military commanders have not persuaded the Chinese authorities to vacate the Indian territory occupied by them. The Chinese attitude has been deliberately vague and evasive. It is not even clear whether the Chinese are projecting their vacation as a quid pro quo for India suspending its work on its infrastructure.
Ever since Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister visited China in 1988 and had a cordial meeting with Deng Xiao-Ping, the two countries have been following a policy of continuing with the border talks while not allowing the lack of progress in it to affect the development of bilateral relations in the political and economic fields. They have also been following a policy of not taking any action that could affect peace and tranquillity across the LOAC.
While de jure adhering to the various confidence-building measures agreed to by the two countries, the Chinese have de facto been trying to change the ground rules in their favour through a series of steps the implications of which were not initially grasped by India.
Firstly, they have avoided for over 20 years exchanging maps indicating the LOAC. As a result, they have sought to make where the LOAC lays a matter of conjecture suiting them than settled fact.
Secondly, they went back on the understanding reached between our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and their former Prime Minister Mr Wen Jiabao that any border adjustments in the Arunachal Pradesh area (Eastern sector) should not affect populated areas.
Thirdly, they unilaterally introduced a drastically reduced measurement of the length of the disputed border in the Ladakh sector in a disguised attempt to pave the way for inducting Pakistan as an interested party in the Western sector at a suitable opportunity.
And now, fourthly, they have unilaterally sought to change the perceived, but not yet marked LOAC thereby preparing the ground for increasing their sovereignty claims in this area.
While subtly changing the ground situation in their favour and to the detriment of India, they have fully benefitted economically from the agreement not to let the border dispute affect the relations in the political and economic fields. China has become India’s biggest trading partner with a huge surplus trade balance in its favour. The Chinese manufacturing industry has benefited immensely from its ability to export its goods to the Indian market. India has emerged as the largest market for Chinese construction companies which have won more construction contracts in India than in any other country of the world. The relaxed Indian attitude to security considerations have enabled Chinese telecom companies, some of them owned by retired PLA officers, which have been facing difficulties in the West, particularly the US, having a free run of the Indian market. Indian IT companies have not benefitted to the extent expected from their presence in China.
Thus, China has been the beneficiary of the policy followed till now. The time has come to revisit this policy and make it clear to China that unless and until the border dispute is settled to mutual satisfaction, the relations in other fields cannot improve.
The Prime Minister should immediately convene a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss a new strategy with the following components and initiate action for their implementation:
Firstly, all exchanges of visits between the leaders of the two countries, and planned joint military exercises should be postponed till China vacates its occupation of Indian territory.
Secondly, India should go ahead with the strengthening of its infrastructure in its territory in all the sectors.
Thirdly, no new construction contracts should be awarded to Chinese companies till the border issue is settled.
Fourthly, no replacement visas should be issued in respect of on-going construction contracts.
Our Army should strengthen its presence in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh to pre-empt the Chinese surprising us there as they have done in Eastern Ladakh.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre Fror China Studies. Twitter @SORBONNE75