Is the growing militarisation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the border between China and India, an invitation to open confrontation between the Asian giants? Could the Sino-Indian border become like the Indo-Pakistan border, a flashpoint where daily jostling between bitter enemies carries the danger of armed clashes, even outright war?
This is an important question. India is adding four new divisions, with some 80,000 soldiers, to reinforce the seven divisions that already defend the north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Simultaneously, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has beefed up the Tezpur and Chhabua air bases with capable Sukhoi-30MKI fighters. The IAF is upgrading five more air bases and a string of advanced landing grounds (called ALGs) that will allow big helicopters, light fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to operate along the border. Six squadrons of the indigenous Akash anti-aircraft missile system will soon guard India’s vulnerable air space along the Eastern Himalayas. Ground troops remain short of artillery fire support, but batteries of the indigenous Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher have been sent to the Northeast. And now comes the news (reported in this newspaper yesterday) that two armoured brigades, with more than 500 T-90 tanks and BMP-IIs will be deployed to the LAC for the first time. One of these will be stationed in Ladakh, while the other will operate in the Northeast.
India’s boundaries, it would appear, are drawn in abbreviations. The LAC is the 3,488-kilometre long, de facto border with China. The LoC, or Line of Control, is the unsettled, 776-kilometre de facto border with Pakistan (distinct from the settled 2,308-kilometre border from Gujarat to Jammu). Then there is the AGPL, or Actual Ground Position Line, which is the 110-kilometre long de facto border between India and Pakistan in the Siachen sector. The LAC has three sectors: the “western sector” between Ladakh and the Aksai Chin; the “central sector” between Uttarakhand and Tibet; and the “eastern sector” that divides Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet.
Regardless of the force levels that India deploys, the LAC will never become an unstable border like the LoC. The simple reason: China is very unlike Pakistan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for all its ideological rhetoric, has inherited and absorbed Beijing’s millennia-old tradition of handling power and inter-state relationships. In contrast, Islamabad and its alter ego, Rawalpindi, are self-perceived underdogs, beset by a sense of siege.
It is notable that the LAC has not seen a single casualty due to enemy action since China and India stabilised their borders with two ground-breaking treaties: the 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control”, and the 1996 “Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control”. Chinese and Indian patrols routinely travel to their respective claim lines, log pro forma complaints accusing each other of border violations — and life goes on quite peacefully.
This is not to suggest there is complacency on the LAC. Besides regular patrolling, both sides dutifully monitor each other’s force levels, capabilities, exercises, training and morale. But that is very different from the Indo-Pak LoC where, despite a cease-fire agreement in 2003, soldiers continue to die in cross-border firing and militants continue to infiltrate into Jammu & Kashmir, supported by the Pakistan Army. In 1972, senior Indian and Pakistani commanders exchanged maps jointly marked with the exact alignment of the LoC. But the Pakistan Army thought nothing of violating the LoC with the Kargil intrusions of 1999. China is a study in contrast: while resolutely stonewalling the exchange of signed maps (and, therefore, leaving the door open for expanding its holdings) the PLA has never militarily violated the status quo.
This is not to suggest that the CCP is an honourable organisation, or that China’s leaders are men of their word. The CCP has consistently proved itself to be a brutal, heartless tyrant, whose leaders, especially Mao Zedong, presided over the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese citizens, some forty million in the self-created famine of 1958-62 alone. Repression continues unabated in Tibet and Xinjiang even today. But the Party and its leaders have always demonstrated an exceptional understanding of the dynamics of power. They calculate coldly and reach rational decisions that minimise risk, unlike the bullying bluster of Pakistan’s mainly Punjabi generals and leaders.
Because of these differences, Beijing is unlikely to over-react to India’s enhanced force levels. Given China’s massive military deployment in Tibet and Xinjiang, and its expanding road and rail infrastructure that already allows it to concentrate seven to nine divisions within a fortnight for an offensive against a chosen point in India’s defences, the Indian army’s four divisions and two armoured brigades are mere pinpricks to the balance of power. What will certainly change is the impression of Indian military weakness. And, given that weakness breeds instability by inviting a strike from a militarily superior enemy, India’s build-up would go a long way towards stabilising the “eastern sector”. Were India not so poorly prepared in 1962, China might not have waged war so confidently.
Finally, unlike with Pakistan, there are engagement mechanisms with China that stabilise the relationship. The two navies cooperate daily in anti-piracy patrolling off the Gulf of Aden. There is a military-to-military dialogue that, notwithstanding recent hiccups, organises joint training, exchanges and visits. New Delhi and Beijing increasingly collaborate in international negotiations, most recently taking closely aligned positions in the climate change negotiations. Trade relations are growing exponentially. Most importantly, India and China simply do not share the same levels of animosity as do India and Pakistan.