The 19-kilometres deep intrusion by an armed patrol of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the strategically sensitive area around Daulet Beg Oldi in the Aksai Chin region, and detected on 16 April 2013, has been unprovoked.
It is necessary at the outset to dispel any notions that the ongoing over two week long stand-off between armed patrols of the PLA and the Indian Army in the barren, but strategically important, area around Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) is an isolated or unplanned incident. Similar incidents of armed eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation have occurred with increased frequency, especially since 2008, along the entire length of our 4,057 kilometres border. On this occasion, Beijing seems to have a specific motive. Interestingly, the intrusion coincided with the release of China’s latest Defence White Paper and PLA Navy Day.
The attributes of this stand-off, which has dragged on in the full glare of India’s print and visual media for over twelve days, are different. Pertinent is that Beijing remains transparently unmoved by the adverse media publicity and damage it has caused to India-China relations. It has neither moved to resolve the situation despite three flag meetings at the level of local army commanders and communications from New Delhi requesting resolution. Beijing has thus made it abundantly clear that it will defuse the situation only at a time of its choosing. Beijing’s stance confirms too that the stand-off is not a local incident provoked by the action of a local commander, but one initiated with the full knowledge of China’s senior leadership.
The timing of this intrusion points to a specific motive. It comes just weeks before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan and is a warning against India expressing support to Japan. The backdrop is the steadily escalating tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.
In the context of China’s national interests, China’s top echelon leaders strongly apprehend that the US is putting together an alliance comprising India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia to contain China’s rise. Articles in China’s official media, including signed articles by Minister-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, have candidly stated this. China’s latest Defence White Paper released on 16 April 2013, in a thinly veiled comment declared that “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.” The reference to the US is implicit.
Tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands has risen since 2010. China has been adamant in asserting its maritime territorial claims over the Senkakus (Diaoyu). Two specific developments highlight the extent of this tension and Beijing’s determination not to yield concessions. The Defence White Paper released on April 16, specifically named Japan as one among “some neighbouring countries” that are taking actions to exacerbate the situation. It accused Japan of “making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands”.
More significant is the statement of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson. Speaking at the regular Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on April 26, 2013, she repeatedly, and for the first time publicly, referred to the Diaoyu Islands as a matter of “core interest” for China. The statement raises the level of the dispute significantly and clarifies that Beijing does not consider the matter open for negotiation.
There have been warning indicators earlier that Beijing views the growing warmth in relations between India and US and between India and Japan with suspicion. In the days following the largest ever US-ROK joint military exercises in July 2010, a Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper observed: “the issue of China’s territorial disputes with neighbouring countries will ignite the flames of war sooner or later. If a country must be chosen for sacrifice, India will be the first choice…India’s long term occupation of southern Tibet is indeed worrying…If armed force is used to resolve border disputes, China must pick a country to target first, and it will definitely pick a big country, which means choosing between Japan and India…”. Other references stated that China’s relationship with India and Japan had limits imposed by history. With this Beijing dragged India into the South China Sea dispute.
China’s latest action needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the People’s Republic of China’s readiness to employ military force on issues of national interest relating to its security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beijing is adept at using a blend of threats and promise of military retaliation to deter an adversary from taking actions contrary to Beijing’s interests. India needs to calibrate and time its response. For a start it could withhold reiteration during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s upcoming visit of the formulation that the Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of China.
Views expressed are personal