The dragon dares
[ By Air Marshal (Retd) Anil Chopra
O] n the night of April 15, platoon strength (around 50 soldiers) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carrying small arms intruded nearly 19 km into the Indian territory near Burthe, very close to the strategic Karakoram Pass, in DBO (Daulat Beg Oldi) sector. They established a tented post within 900 feet of Indian positions and created a condition for a face-off with Indian troops and also symbolically claimed sovereignty. This place is not too far from the Indian advanced landing ground (ALG) which has been the lifeline of the area for decades. The type of accommodation appears to be for long haul and amounts to redrawing the line of actual control (LAC), tantamount to claiming over 700 sq km of Indian territory. The incursion was first confirmed on April 16 through an aerial survey. Very significantly, the Chinese had used air effort to carry out and support the deployment. The government initially kept the affair low-key but Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Army positions were strengthened by moving troops and logistics by air. Unlike in most cases, the transgression has not been removed even after three weeks of protests/consultations at various levels of the government including three flag meetings. The Joint Secretary level mechanism set up in 2012 was activated.
The historic boundary dispute with China in Ladakh, Central sector and Arunachal Pradesh is well known. In 1950, the PLA annexed Tibet and later they extended their influence by building a road through Aksai Chin and placing border posts. They formally laid claim on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin. As part of well-documented so-called India’s Forward Policy, in 1959 India started sending border patrols into disputed areas. This soon became a regular two-sided affair. The activity has been sporadic ever since. Normally the Chinese would make short incursions, leave behind some telltale marks like empty cold drink cans and markings on prominent rocks to remind their Indian counterparts that they have claim to the area. There has been a pattern in these Chinese activities; change of leadership in China, visit of a senior leader to India, visits of major Indian delegations to China are occasions to create incidents to put the Indians on a backfoot and start the negotiations from a position of advantage. Chinese premier Li Keqiang is expected in India in May 2013. Analysts are drawing comparisons with Sumdorong Chu incident of 1986-87 when a military stand-off was involved. Among the first statements of the new Chinese President Xi Jinping on taking over was his concern about the complex Sino-Indian border. There are on average around 400 incursions in a year and there have been around 100 till now in 2013.
In the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was restricted to air logistics and reconnaissance roles. Having flown extensively over this inhospitable region of northern Ladakh, let me analyse some air aspects and see how the two sides are placed. Former Indian Army Chief General Malik said in a TV programme that the Chinese army is in a dominant position in DBO sector. Air assets wise the two sides are evenly placed. China operationalised the Gar Gunsa airport on Indus River just 80 km from our border in July 2010. This civil-cummilitary airfield at 4,700 metres altitude has already been used for mili- tary operations. Not too far from the area are major airbases of Kashgar and Khotan in Xinjiang. All these airfields are regularly activated during exercises. Storage areas, aircraft hangars and other support facilities are clearly visible on Google maps. Chinese have a well developed highway cutting through Aksai Chin, connecting to Pakistan on their eventual way to Gwadar port in Baluchistan. India’s major airfields Leh and Thoise were created to support logistics for the army, and air operations of the IAF in Ladakh. To increase our air support capabilities in the region, an old ALG at Nyoma was operationalised in 2009. This is now the closest landing strip to Gar Gunsa. Smaller strips at Fukche (4,300 metres) near Demchok (now under Chinese control) and Chushul (4,500 metres) on the banks of Lake Pangong Tso are within line of sight of Chinese positions. DBO ALG is at 5,320 metres. At such altitudes there are serious restrictions on load carriage and take-off and landing performance for both sides. Unfortunately, infrastructure development on Indian side is proceeding slowly. IAF’s IL-76s and AN-32s fly round the year to build up supplies in the region. The helicopter fleet has been the ultimate lifeline and providing the last mile connectivity. The Mi17s and heavy lift Mi-26 have been the main work horses. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-built Cheetah, Cheetal and ALH of IAF and Indian Army have been supporting the very high altitude posts.
China which is deeply occupied with events in North Korea, Sea of Japan, South China Sea and Taiwan should normally not have opened another confrontationist front. Is India fully seized of the situation? Are the Indian military and foreign service mutually coordinated? Is China taking advantage of India’s timidity? Is this a signal for us to strengthen our armed forces? The forthcoming exchanges of important visits are under cloud. While the two countries work closely to resolve issues diplomatically, military has no choice but to strengthen its ground position.