To add to India’s woes, Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Salman Khurshid initially made light of the deepest Chinese incursion in more than a quarter of a century. The garrulous minister called the intrusion just “one little spot” of acne on the otherwise “beautiful face” of the bilateral relationship — a mere blemish that could be treated with “an ointment.” Those inept comments fatally undercut the Indian government’s summoning of the Chinese ambassador to demand a return to the “status quo ante.”
With Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s corruption-tainted government tottering on the brink of collapse, there has been no official explanation of how India was caught napping in a militarily critical area where China has made repeated attempts to encroach on Indian land in the recent past.
The Indian government inexplicably replaced regular army troops with border police in 2010 to patrol the mountain-ringed plateau into which the PLA intruded. Known as Depsang, the plateau lies astride an ancient silk route connecting Yarkand in China’s Xinjiang region to India’s Ladakh region through the Karakoram Pass.
India, with a military staging post and airstrip just south of the Karakoram Pass, has the capacity to cut off the highway linking China with its “all-weather ally,” Pakistan. The PLA intrusion, by threatening that Indian base, may have been intended to foreclose India’s ability to choke off supplies to Chinese troops and workers in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, where China has expanded its military footprint and strategic projects. To guard those projects, several thousand Chinese troops have reportedly been deployed in the rebellious, predominantly Shiite region, which is closed to the outside world.
For India, the Chinese incursion also threatened its access to the 6,300m high Siachen Glacier, to the west of Depsang. Pakistan claims the Indian-controlled glacier, which, wedged strategically between the Pakistani and Chinese-held parts of Kashmir, served as the world’s highest and coldest battleground — and one of the bloodiest — from the mid-1980s until a ceasefire took effect in 2003.
For the time being, the Himalayan crisis seems to be over and Chinese and Indian troops began moving out of the region on Tuesday. However, before it can exercise any long-term presence in the area credibly, India needs a stable government. Until then, China will continue to press its claims by whatever means — fair or foul — it deems advantageous.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.
Copyright: Project Syndicate