The fact remains that as long as India, Nepal and Bhutan do not protest Chinese aggressive moves because of political compulsions China will keep having its way, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd.) for South Asia Monitor
China’s new border law has empowered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become more assertive and aggressive. The annual report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), a bipartisan advisory group to the US Congress, released in November 2021, said that China was building “militarized villages” having electronic warfare systems and air defence stations close to India in the area of Doklam plateau of Bhutan. China would have done the same in new border villages built in Arunachal Pradesh, India, which serve as advance camps for the PLA.
On January 18, 2022, the PLA abducted a 17-year-old youth from Arunachal Pradesh within Indian territory. According to Tapir Gao, former MP and currently president of Arunachal Pradesh unit of the BJP, the abduction was affected in Lungta Jor area where China was found building a road three km inside Indian territory in 2018, which it gave up after a standoff with the Indian Army.
The PLA initially denied any knowledge of the missing youth though Tapir Gao had tweeted that “his (abducted youth) friend escaped from PLA and reported (the matter)] to the authorities”. Five days after the abduction, the PLA communicated that the ‘missing boy’ had been found and his identity was being established – read torture, indoctrination or inducements. The youth eventually handed over to the Indian Army on January 27, narrated that he was given electric shocks in PLA custody.
This is not the first time the PLA has abducted a youth from Arunachal Pradesh. It happened twice in 2020 and the youth was returned after a few days on request. The PLA then alleged that five Indian youths caught by them were from Indian “intelligence staff attempting to pry” into PLA’s functioning. These five youth too were denied food and water and tortured. China always takes cover behind the un-demarcated border for PLA encroachments into Indian territory and periodic abductions.
In January 2021, satellite imagery showed a newly constructed 100-house Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh. This was followed by the discovery of another new village of 60 houses in another area of Arunachal Pradesh discovered through satellite imagery in November 2021, which was also reported in the annual report of the Pentagon to the US Congress released in November 2021.
These villages have come up while the India-China standoff is continuing in Eastern Ladakh since May-June 2020 and both sides are mobilized along the entire Line of Actual Control. China has cited the same excuse that the border is not demarcated and that the new villages are in Chinese territory.
According to Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor in Chinese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, China is doing the same in Bhutan and Nepal. China even disregarded its own 1961 treaty with Nepal and demolished border markers in several border areas to undertake encroachments. China is planning to set up such villages in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) also.
Jamie Seidel wrote on January 17, 2022 that satellite photos show China constructing two large villages well within the territory of Bhutan to outflank nearby Indian border forces. This isn’t the first time China has done so. In 2020, China established what it called a “Tibetan” village but it was 2.5 km inside Bhutan. New satellite images reveal that the number of villages under construction astride a road being cut through mountain passes is six – all well within Bhutanese territory.
The latest Chinese provocation is constructing a bridge over the Pangong Lake in the area of Khurnak Fort which is the narrowest point of the lake. The bridge has been under construction for the past two months and with prefabricated structures being used for construction, would be completed soon. The area of Khurnak Fort, where the bridge is being constructed, is in Indian territory but illegally occupied by China since 1962.
The discovery of this Chinese bridge was reported in the media two months after the construction had begun. It created plenty of commotion because the bridge can clearly be used for offensive purposes. However, on January 19, 2022, China’s state media cautioned that “India should not make a fuss about Pangong Lake Bridge”. Later, some speaker(s) discussing the bridge in TV debates said the PLA is “scared” of India and that we can reoccupy the Kailash Range in a “jiffy”. Articles giving the same reasoning followed.
It is not known whether such utterances and writings are politically motivated or voluntary for political appeasement. But the fact remains that as long as India, Nepal and Bhutan do not protest Chinese aggressive moves because of political compulsions China will keep having its way. Despite the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh during 2020, the India-China bilateral trade in 2021 was a record $126.6 billion, with Indian imports from China amounting to $97.5 billion while Indian exports to China amounting to $28.1 billion.
But despite benefiting $69.4 billion from bilateral trade, Chinese aggressive moves have not mellowed down – which is typical of any street bully who needs to be looked into the eye lest he mounts on your head.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.)