Setting boundaries

NEW DELHI: No one in the Indian government has said Chinese cross-frontier incursions are not happening. Yet to play down the incursions, New Delhi has accused the media of overplaying such intrusions.

To the delight of the autocrats in Beijing, who tightly control the flow of information in their country, including through online censors, New Delhi has made its home media the whipping boy.

The unwitting message it sends to Beijing is that when the world’s biggest autocracy builds up pressure, the world’s largest democracy is willing to tame its media coverage, even if it entails dispensing half-truths and flogging distortions.

The facts, even if unpalatable, should be allowed to speak for themselves. New Delhi’s oft-repeated line in recent days has been that Chinese incursions are at last year’s level, so there is no need to worry. But 2008 brought a record number of incursions, with defence officials reporting that the number of such intrusions went from 140 in 2007 to 270 last year, or almost double. In addition, there were 2,285 reported instances of “aggressive border patrolling” by Chinese forces in 2008. As defence minister AK Anthony told an army commanders’ conference last year, “there is no room for complacency” on the Tibet border.

That the incursions this year are continuing at the 2008 level suggests there is every reason to be concerned. After all, the 2008 record pattern is continuing, with China keeping India under sustained, unremitting pressure. Yet, from the external affairs minister and foreign secretary to the national security adviser and army chief, Indian officials have sought to tamp public concerns by saying there is “no significant increase” compared to last year. Do they wish to thank Beijing for keeping border incidents and other provocations at the 2008 level without seeking to establish a new record through a “significant”

increase in incursions?

China has opened pressure points against India across the Himalayas, with border incidents occurring in all the four sectors. Chinese forces are intruding even into Utttarakhand, although the line of control in this middle sector was clarified in 2001 through an exchange of maps, and into Sikkim, whose 206-km border with Tibet is not in dispute and indeed is recognised by Beijing.

Yet, gratuitously stretching the truth, Indian officials say the incursions are the result of differing perceptions about the line of truth. That may be so about Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, but can that be true about Sikkim and Uttarakhand? It speaks for itself that Beijing hasn’t offered this lame excuse. Make no mistake: The Chinese border provocations have resulted both from India’s political pusillanimity and from the withdrawal of China-related army divisions in past years. For example, the 8th Mountain Division, tasked with defending Sikkim, was moved from northern Bengal to J&K and took part in the Kargil War. Tank forces also were moved out from Sikkim.

Similarly, a mountain division was moved from the northeast to J&K for counterinsurgency operations. Such relocation of forces emboldened the Chinese. The current Indian moves to beef up defenses against China largely involve the return of the forces that were withdrawn a decade or more ago.

Chinese cross-border incursions are designed not only to keep India under military pressure all along the Himalayas, but also to ensure Indian “good behaviour” on assorted political issues, including Tibet, Pakistan and military ties with the US.

Take the Pakistan factor: At a time when an internally troubled Pakistan is facing US pressure to redeploy a sufficient number of forces to the Afghan front, China wants to shield its “all-weather ally” from Indian military pressure by keeping a sizable number of Indian forces bogged down along the Himalayas.

The Chinese muscle-flexing suggests otherwise. In fact, more than three decades after China tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, India doesn’t have an ICBM even on the drawing board. India still hasn’t deployed even a single, Beijing-reachable missile.

If the threat from an increasingly assertive and ambitious China is to be contained, India must have an honest and open debate on its diplomatic and military options, including how gaps in its defenses can be plugged and what it will take to build a credible deterrent.

The media has a crucial role to play in such a debate, both by bringing out the facts and providing a platform for discussion.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan.

Courtesy: Centre for Policy Research