A fact that often goes unnoticed is that the Chinese too are party to the territorial disputes over Jammu & Kashmir, with a fifth of the state (in Aksai Chin) under Chinese occupation since 1962. And in 1963, Pakistan illegally transferred thousands of square kilometers of the Shaksgam valley north of the Siachen glacier, to the Chinese. This has allowed the Chinese to link up the Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Tibetan plateaus through an effective line of communication through Aksai Chin, via the Karakoram pass. Pakistan was therefore keen to control the Siachen glacier, to have easy access to the Karakoram pass, for traffic from and to China ( specially for military hardware and missiles). But India’s control of Indra Col (on the northern reaches of Siachen) overlooking the Shaksgam valley, has worked against these Chinese-Pak designs.
But south of Siachen, even though the Chinese are operating at the extreme end of their capabilities opposite Aksai Chin near Ladakh, India has failed to convey a message that it can ward off the Chinese threat. Instead the Chinese still get away with aggressive border posturing especially in Ladakh because of the passive attitude of the Indo-Tibetan border police (ITBP) that in many parts is deployed closest to the Chinese. Poor leadership in the ITBP coupled with instructions for restraint by the Ministry of External Affairs, has given Beijing the message that New Delhi is reluctant to confront the Chinese.
With its occupation of Tibet complete, China has built infrastructure in many parts of the Tibetan plateau, not just to connect it to mainland China, but also to provide its armed forces the capability to move troops rapidly to the Sino-Indian border in the event of another border conflict with India. Most of the road and rail links from Lhasa are towards Arunachal Pradesh and Nepal, with roads built to military specifications (with class18 bridges). It is estimated that China could move a military division (over 8000 men with vehicles, weapons and equipment) every 36 hours to the Sino-Indian border backed by considerable air force and missile capabilities to threaten the Chumbhi Valley and Sikkim as well as Bhutan and eventually the Siliguri corridor.
In contrast, the Indian Army is still essentially in a defensive mode, though far better equipped and prepared than it was in 1962. But India needs to do much more for building effective road and rail linkages desperately needed in these far flung areas. A combination of neglect, paucity of funds and the limitations of the border roads organization, are reasons for the delay. Some of this blame must also be shared by the Indian army, whose senior commanders in the past have resisted the development of road and rail links to India’s North East and the Sino-Indian border, on the grounds that India had a shortage of forces to undertake a pre-emptive strike on the Chinese in the event of hostilities.
Thinking in Delhi is however changing. India is now setting up a ‘strike corps’ (with 40,000 or more troops) to undertake aggressive operations against the Chinese in India’s North East. This would give the Indian military the necessary teeth to bite into certain key pieces of territory and halt the Chinese in their tracks in the event of a conflict. And the Indian Air Force has upgraded a number of air fields along the Sino-Indian border and deployed deep penetration Su-30s as also C-130s with large air lift capabilities, to challenge China’s build up. However New Delhi must be willing to create the perception that the cost of provocation by Beijing could be disproportionately high for China in a short sharp future conflict – below the threshold of nuclear weaponswith India deploying strategic weapons on the borders as well. Beijing would then think twice before undertaking aggressive operations. Remember China respects strength, not passivity.
Maroof Raza is a strategic affairs commentaror.