June 18, 2009

India gears up to counter potential China threat

by Jyoti Malhotra

Wed Jun 17, 2009 5:52 pm (PDT)

India gears up to counter potential China threat


Exactly a year after the Indian Air Force landed an An-32 transport plane at Daulat Begh Oldhi, a mere 8 km from the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, the IAF on Monday operationalised four nuclear-capable Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jets at a newly refurbished airbase, some 3,000 km away in Tezpur, Assam.

Two weeks earlier, J J Singh, former army chief and now Arunachal Pradesh governor, had announced that the Centre would soon add two divisions (about 50,000 troops) to the 10 mountain divisions that already exist for defence against China. The heightened deployment, said Singh, was intended to meet "future security challenges" posed by China.

The two additional army divisions, along with artillery, medical, signals and engineering support, will be placed along the disputed Line of Actual Control between India and China, he said.

Soon after, a defence ministry team from Delhi [ Images ] was in the state capital of Itanagar to sign an agreement with the state government for the transfer of eight airfields in Arunachal to the IAF.

The IAF's sweep, from Ladakh in the northwest to Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast, combined with the additional mountain divisions, form the core of New Delhi's response to the realisation that defence preparedness against China has to be upgraded.

Last November, the IAF landed aircraft in Chushul and Fukche, two airfields in Ladakh just off the Aksai Chin, which last saw action during the 1962 border war with China. Defence sources also say the first of three AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) planes will also soon be in the region, to act as a "potent force-multiplier" that will monitor the movement of Chinese aircraft and troops across the LAC.

Meanwhile, there is increased activity on the border. India's heightened patrolling has detected 270 "intrusions" by the Chinese over the past year, compared to 60 the year before.

So, even as Delhi and Beijing [ Images ] prepare to celebrate 60 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2010 -- with a visit by President Pratibha Patil [ Images ] to China and a return visit by Xi Jinping, China's vice-president and the man expected to succeed President Hu Jintao -- Manmohan Singh's [ Images ] government intends to complete the upgrade of the defence and civilian infrastructure that it embarked upon in 2005 along what had been a neglected border.

In April 2008, defence minister A K Antony travelled to the north-east, noted with surprise the superior infrastructure on the Chinese side of the LAC, and promised troops would be armed with the latest equipment "so that our armed forces can be among the best in the world."

While the decision to build a motorable road to Daulat Begh Oldhi was taken during the Vajpayee government's tenure, in 2001, it was UPA-I which decided to build a network of roads in Arunachal Pradesh, to accompany the upgrade of the military infrastructure.

Shyam Saran, foreign secretary at the time, proposed that the Centre change the colonial manner in which it treated border areas, with its 'buffer zones and Inner Lines', and better integrate them with the rest of the country.

Saran told Business Standard this week the need existed to 'multiply opportunities across the border as well'. So Nathu La in Sikkim was opened to border trade in 2006, while permits to visit border areas in Ladakh (eg Chushul) were relaxed. It was also decided to add 1,000 km of roads in Arunachal, including 13 strategic roads that connected the entire trans-Himalayan region, with feeder roads right up to the LAC.

China has been even busier than India, upgrading its own infrastructure by building 22,000 km of roads in the Tibet [ Images ] region (including more than 6,000 km of roads in Nagari prefecture that adjoins Ladakh), as many as 15 airfields in Tibet, Yunan and Sichuan provinces, and a network of roads and railway lines connecting Lhasa, including a highway from Kunming (in Yunan province adjoining Arunachal), its feeder roads almost touching the LAC or the British-era McMahon Line.

Meanwhile, unlike the defence brass (like the just-retired IAF chief Fali Major), who have spoken of the Chinese threat, Indian diplomats decline to talk on the subject. In fact, the defence brass has been reprimanded by Antony for speaking out of turn.

'India has to speak softly, but remain focused on its priorities,' a diplomat said, pointing out that despite 12 rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese representatives, the resolution of the border dispute is very much a 'long haul' issue.

Referring to the June 11 editorial in China's People's Daily ('India can't actually compete with China in a number of areas, like international influence, overall national power and economic scale…India has not realised this…'), the diplomat pointed out that Beijing was signalling its intent to keep the border issue alive.

Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi

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