China’s strongly worded objection to Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh is not a new phenomenon. Previously too, China has objected to Indian politicians and constitutional authorities visiting the northeast state.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) rightly pointed out that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India”. Not that such a statement was warranted because it is futile to take the Chinese objections seriously. But these statements become part of the records. Besides, the Chinese statement comes at a time when the two countries are engaged in a conflict at the border. Although there are no new reports of military conflict for some time now, the 13th round of corps commanders-level talks failed to lead to any disengagement or de-escalation in Ladakh.
At the same time, about 200 Chinese PLA soldiers have reportedly crossed over to Tawang sector near the border pass of Bum La and Yangtse. The PLA, reportedly, is constantly building up troops in this area and had tried to enter Arunachal Pradesh from Yangtse in 2016 as well.
The zone also houses some medium and large dam and water diversion projects that China has initiated on Brahmaputra to strengthen water security. In the face of serious internal challenges, securing sustainable and non-stop access to, continued supply of, and total control over water resources has been part of China’s security strategy since the last four decades.
The area of conflict is also very close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There are bunkers built by the Indian Army to help patrol the section that provides access to the areas where Brahmaputra flows. Being an important seat of Buddhism adds greater strategic value to the area infiltrated by the PLA. Going by the reports, the PLA soldiers were briefly detained by the Indian Army when they were seen vandalising the unoccupied bunkers.
Stay put in border areas
It is important to see the connection between these incidents, though they may appear unrelated. The PLA incursion comes at a time when the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat visited a number of forward locations along the LoC including in the Sumdoh sector. The Army usually prepares to vacate some of the high-altitude bunkers during the peak of inhospitably harsh winter. The PLA, like the Pakistan army, could be looking for such vacated bunkers to occupy them.
Considering the serious situation in the western sector and the fluid situation in Kabul and also the failure of military-level talks for de-escalation, the Indian Army needs to stay put in the border areas and not vacate the bunkers. According to reports, besides the usual logistic support, the Army this time has been equipped with sniper and assault rifles, light machine guns (LMG) and drones. This level of preparedness is in keeping with Army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane’s statement this May that “the whole (northern) front will see this enhanced presence till such time we keep talking and de-escalation happens” with China.
What is important is that the talks with China cannot be limited only to the current de-escalation but has to be comprehensive so as to include the challenges to India’s hydro projects and water resources. Many of the rivers flowing from Tibet have now come under Beijing’s control since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The challenges are of serious nature not only to India but also other countries especially the Mekong region.
The Taiwan connection
China’s forays into Arunachal Pradesh comes at a time when Beijing has taken a strong view of India’s engagement with Taiwan, which is eager to shift some of its semiconductor manufacturing units to India. This will not only give a big boost to the Indian software industry but also increase bilateral trade. China has been in the process of upgrading three air bases (Longtian, Huian and Zhangzhou) since 2020, all located strikingly close to Taiwan. China has also accused what it calls the ‘Taiwanese secessionist groups’ of seeking US help, calling it their “doomsday madness”. It is clear that China under President Xi Jinping is challenging the might of the US in coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a military showdown.
In the emerging geopolitical situation, what New Delhi needs is short-term and long-term strategies to meet the regional challenges. While the northern and western borders need greater fortification, the regional situation needs greater cooperation, both military and economic, between Quad partners and other neighbours. As for long-term strategy, the Narendra Modi government is well within its rights to keep it under wraps. But what is important is to generate political consensus. In a parliamentary democracy, continuity of strategic thought process becomes very important and needs to be insulated from change in government.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)