China’s intrusion into Indian border territories has almost become a ritual for the last several decades. In a number of such cases, the Chinese troops after intruding into Indian areas or the so-called ‘grey areas’ that are claimed by both sides go back to their earlier positions. However, in some cases, they have stayed on capturing Indian territory in the process. What is worse, they don’t remain satisfied with such gains. They make further intrusion into Indian territories once they have consolidated the gains made earlier. It is believed that over the last few decades India has lost thousands of square kilometres to China. This approach of China is often called salami-slicing tactics. The recent Chinese intrusion in the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Tso lake of Ladakh are examples of this. It has posed a military challenge before India which is like all other countries of the world is grappling with a pandemic originating from China.
China was successful in this Salami-slicing approach as it has built better infrastructure on its side of the border while the infrastructure on the Indian side remained underdeveloped. The Modi government has sought to change this situation. It has been giving a lot of emphasis on building this infrastructure in the bordering areas to make the Indian side of the border better manageable. This has also allowed Indian troops to patrol better in the bordering areas. The construction of one such road leading to the Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip is supposed to be the cause of recent bloodshed when the forces of both countries clashed with each other.
Though India and China have not used firearms in the bordering areas since 1967 the recent bloodshed has raised several questions about the earlier treaties which led to the creation of present norms in border patrolling. Now it is being asked why should not soldiers use firearms in the case of extreme provocation and when killings are actually taking place. This has made the Indian government now allow soldiers to use arms when faced with mortal threats. The spirit of the earlier agreements was to prevent killing in border areas where large sections are disputed and China has not shown any desire to sort them out. On the contrary, it wants to keep the dispute lingering and tries to bully India.
This bullying tactic of China is now paying a lesser dividend as a nationalist government headed by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi is in power in New Delhi. Still, China has not stopped its salami-slicing tactics and in this effort, it recently intruded in Ladakh. Its intrusion in the Galwan valley led to the killing of soldiers from both sides. Its soldiers are still holding the territory between finger four and finger eight, a grey area in the Pangong Tso lake area.
Now it’s a challenge for India to make the Chinese forces vacate this territory. Chinese on the other hand have created bunkers and other infrastructures with the objective to capture the area. India is trying political and diplomatic means to persuade China to vacate this area. Meetings have also taken place between the military officials of the two countries. Both sides have agreed to de-escalate. But it remains to be seen whether the Chinese would actually go back without any further confrontation.
It’s very important for India to handle the situation appropriately. The way it is handled will have implications not only for India China bilateral relationship but will also impact India’s relationship with its South Asian neighbours. First of all, China needs to be told that it can’t continue with its salami-slicing tactics. India is no longer willing to allow China to encroach into its territory and capture it so that it can create new realities on the ground.
Besides that China has also been using India’s South Asian neighbours to undermine Indian influence in South Asia. In recent times it has gone a step further and tried to use South Asian countries to create difficulties for India. The latest example is China’s use of Nepal for raising the Kalapani issue. When India inaugurated a new road in this area leading to the Chinese border Nepal raised an objection. It is widely believed that this objection was raised at the instance of China. What was more concerning was the fact that Nepal also deployed its army on this border and its army chief visited the area. This has happened for the first time in India Nepal bilateral relations.
The present Oli Government of Nepal is also trying to change the basic foundation of India Nepal relations based on ‘bread and bride.’ His government has introduced legislation that will make Indian women married in Nepal wait for seven years to get citizenship. It’s very common for people living in the Tarai area of Nepal to get married in India. This legislation will give a setback to the age-old civilizational link between the two countries. Perhaps that is the objective of the Oli government which many believe is a puppet in the hands of Chinese.
Similarly, despite having a friendly relationship with Bangladesh at the political level, the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh has not been equally smooth in the area of defence and security. Though Bangladesh has cooperated in countering insurgency and terrorism in northeast India its military is in league with the Chinese. The purchase of two submarines by Bangladesh has dramatically altered the security situation in the Bay of Bengal region. Chinese are also constructing a submarine base in Bangladesh where Chinese submarines can dock in future. This will further help the Chinese penetrate the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka, another Indian Ocean island country has been enjoying a close security relationship with China. They have already handed over Hambantota port to the Chinese for 99 years. Moreover, in the past, Chinese submarines have docked in the Colombo port. This kind of facility provided by Sri Lankans endangers India’s security. There was talk of renegotiation of the Hambantota port deal when the new government came to power in Sri Lanka. But the issue was dropped when the Chinese showed their displeasure.
India has faced similar problems even in the Maldives when Yameen was in power. Yameen brought in legislation that enabled the Chinese to buy land in the Maldives. Though things have improved for India after the MDP Government came to power in the Maldives, it is widely believed that the Chinese have already purchased islands in the Maldives.
While India believes in the sovereign equality of the nations it is also incumbent upon its smaller neighbours in South Asia not to do anything that endangers either the security of India or the whole region. Unfortunately, instead of working with India to improve the security situation in South Asia, they have tried to gang up with China to undermine the position of India in South Asia. This attitude will only change when India follows a robust policy towards China and gives a message that its bullying is no longer acceptable. India will defend its borders no matter what the cost. This will also send the message across to those nations in South Asia who try to undermine the Indian position by allying with China. However, any soft handling of China will further embolden them.
(The author is Associate Fellow Member Parikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses)