Border lines

China's military incursion is a reminder that India's China policy needs greater realism and resolve

A Chinese platoon's foray last week into Indian territory at Burthe in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of the Ladakh region was not a routine "incursion" across the long and contested Himalayan boundary. India and China don't agree on where exactly the Line of Actual Control is. Their security forces undertake patrols to their respective claim lines, which don't match and generate "incursions" by one side or the other. These "incursions" end when patrolling units withdraw after moving up to the claim line. This time, the Chinese platoon chose to stay put after intruding nearly 10 kilometres into Indian territory. Delhi responded by sending military reinforcements to the area and initiating talks.

Delhi, however, finds that the local Chinese commanders on the ground as well as senior officials in Beijing are unresponsive to India's concerns. A spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs publicly rejected India's assertions on the intrusion. The foreign office in Delhi called in the Chinese envoy to demand a quick resolution of the issue. From the Indian perspective, this must necessarily include a withdrawal of the Chinese platoon and the removal of the structures it has put up. Delhi and Beijing must also reaffirm their commitment to maintain peace and tranquility on the border.

The Chinese military incursion comes amid the reported plans of the new premier, Li Keqiang, to make India one of his first foreign destinations. The incursion is a welcome reminder to Delhi that it must always differentiate between the expanding opportunities for cooperation with China and the enduring tensions on the border. In the past, Delhi has downplayed the difficulties on the China border and held them back from public view amidst soaring rhetoric about collaborating with China to change the world. At the same time, however, Delhi has no reason to overreact. It must prepare for a possible escalation while exploring all avenues for a peaceful resolution. Delhi must also take the Indian people into confidence on the implications of China's growing military assertiveness on the northern borders. From Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, there is a growing sense that the UPA government has become ineffective in responding to Chinese provocations. Many in Delhi's strategic community are convinced that the Congress leadership may be soft-pedalling the problems with China in the name of non-alignment and other discredited ideas of the past. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can no longer wait to inject some resolve and realism into India's China policy.

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