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Home / India / On the cold frontiers, silent struggle is on

On the cold frontiers, silent struggle is on

As India militarises borders with its powerful neighbour, Chinese troop incursions leave behind painted rocks and subtle signs. What's going on? Varghese K George reports.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2009, 01:40 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

Why do Chinese troops make quick forays across the cold frontiers of three Indian states to do seemingly trivial things like painting rocks in Mandarin, drop cold-drink cans, soaps and cigarettes? It’s a primeval marking of territory.

For more than 20 years, the People’s Republic of China has always used incursions into Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim as an assertion of its claims over Indian territory. But increasing forays over recent months are a reaction to an Indian militarisation of its eastern border, according to an union government assessment.

"After two years there was an air incursion in July and the frequency of ground incursions were also slightly higher around the same time" said a highly placed source dealing with official policy on China, on condition of anonymity. "Over the last two years, India has added new bases along the area and invested in infrastructure. Chinese are reacting to it."
(From left) A file photo of an Indian and Chinese soldier at the border during the 1962 war. An IAF aircraft (AN 32) lands at Daulat Beg Oldie, the world’s highest airstrip at 16,200 feet close to the China border at Aksai Chin in Ladakh. The airstrip was reopened last year after 43 years. A Chinese soldier stands guard while Indian soldiers work at the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim.

In 2008, there were around 230 Chinese incursions; there were 76 in the three months before that. There were no such teasing forays in August.

While border skirmishes and posturing have defined the relationship of Asia’s largest countries for more than 40 years, both sides are going today going the extra mile to keep matters calm.

“With China, the boundary has been one of the most peaceful,” said external affairs minister SM Krishna on Monday. “Reports of incursions are baseless,” the Chinese foreign ministry said last week.

India's uneasiness with China, and vice-versa, has always been apparent, but the biggest deterrent to escalating tension is a fast-growing economic relationship: Trade between the two was worth

$52 billion (Rs 2.6 lakh crore) in 2008, a 34 per cent rise over the previous year.

“These things (incursions) are bound to happen in the absence of a mutually accepted border,” said Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese studies at the JNU. “However, I do think there is some degree of concern in China about the increase in the military infrastructure on the Indian side. Articles have come out in the Chinese media questioning India’s intentions.”

“We cannot entirely dismiss the fact that this (incursions) is some kind of a response from the Chinese to bring the question (border dispute) on table and highlight the problem.”

Indian government sources agree with this view.

Thirteen rounds of talks have taken place between India and China on the border question, without much progress. China occupies more than 43,000 sq km in Jammu and Kashmir and claims another 90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh.

The official source said both India and China walk into what each considers own territory, but there's a pattern.

Both sides do not confront each other when the ‘intrusion’ happens along unsettled boundaries such as Ladakh and Tawang in AP. But Indian troops have stopped Chinese movement into Sikkim, which has a settled boundary.

“In such cases Chinese have quietly returned,” the official said, adding that the present situation does warrant any reaction.

Here's what India has done over two years to make the Chinese uneasy:

n Deployed a squadron of frontline combat aircraft, the Soviet-made Sukhoi-30MKI, at the Tezpur base in Assam in June 2008.

n Upgraded five airbases in eastern and northeastern India, including Tezpur, Chabua and Jorhat (Assam); Panagarh (West Bengal); and Purnea (Bihar). * In the process of raising two new mountain divisions at a cost of Rs 650-700 crore for deployment in the north and northeast. Each division will have around 15,000 soldiers.

n Early this year, Russian-made T-72 battle tanks were deployed in the higher reaches of Sikkim following repeated Chinese incursions last year in Finger Area, a 1-km sliver of land on the northern tip of Sikkim.

n In Ladakh, Daulat Beg Oldi and Fukche airfields have been reactivated last year while the Nyama and Chushul airfields are being reopened.

“This has been done to strengthen its air maintenance operations in the region," said an army officer on condition of anonymity, since he is not authorised to speak to the media. "The idea is to build up our strategic presence over there.”

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