Ongoing tensions with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the South and East China seas has not prevented an increasingly assertive China from opening yet another front by staging a military incursion across the disputed, forbidding Himalayan frontier.
On the night of April 15, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) platoon stealthily intruded near the China-India-Pakistan tri-junction, established a camp 19km inside Indian-controlled territory and presented India’s government with the potential loss of a strategically vital 750km2 high-altitude plateau.
A stunned India, already reeling under a crippling domestic political crisis, groped for an effective response to China’s land grab — the largest and most strategic real estate China has seized since it began pursuing a more muscular policy toward its neighbors. Prior to Sunday’s withdrawal agreement, whether China originally intended to stay put by building permanent structures for its troops on the plateau’s icy heights, or always planned to withdraw, remains an open — and in some ways a moot — question.
With its “peaceful rise” giving way to an increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, China has broadened its “core interests” — which brook no compromise — and territorial claims, while showing a growing readiness to take risks to achieve its goals. For example, China has not only escalated its challenge to Japan’s decades-old control of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands — but is also facing off against the Philippines since taking effective control of the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) last year. Both of these territories are also claimed by Taiwan.
What makes the Himalayan incursion a powerful symbol of China’s aggressive new stance in Asia is that its intruding troops set up camp in an area that extends beyond the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated Sino-Indian War.
While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India, trying to alter the LAC piece by piece.
One of the novel methods that the PLA has employed is to bring ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the LAC and give them cover to roam across it, in the process driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pastureland.
However, the latest crisis was sparked by China’s use of direct military means in a strategic border area close to the Karakoram Pass linking China to India.
Because the LAC has not been mutually clarified — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — Beijing claims that PLA troops were just camping on “Chinese land.”
Yet, in a replay of its old strategy of furtively encroaching on disputed land and then presenting itself as the conciliator, China then counseled “patience” and “negotiations” to help resolve the issue.
China was clearly seeking to exploit India’s political disarray to alter the reality on the ground. A paralyzed and rudderless Indian government initially blacked out reporting on the incursion, lest it come under public pressure to mount a robust response. Its first public statement came only after China issued a bland denial of the intrusion in response to Indian media reports quoting army sources.