Sunday, January 27, 2008

After PM visit, China protests troop movement in Sikkim

NEW DELHI, JANUARY 26: Within days of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s return from a “successful visit” to Beijing, China has stumped India by lodging a diplomatic protest over Indian military activity in Sikkim and claiming that Indian troops are trying to be active on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

It’s learnt that China has taken objection to building of structures along the LAC and the Indo-Bhutan border, pointing out that this is in violation of the understanding to maintain peace in the area. The timing of the protest — after Singh’s China visit and ahead of his maiden trip to Arunachal Pradesh — has once again brought the boundary question in the spotlight.

Further, it may be noted that India did not specifically take up reports of Chinese incursions and transgressions during the visit despite confirmations of aggressive patrolling by China and a reassessment of Chinese ability to move in troops more quickly.

The reopening of claims, particularly on the Sikkim border, has taken India by surprise. And this comes after all the discomfort in New Delhi over heightened Chinese activity along the LAC. A lot of this stems from the destruction of unmanned Indian bunkers near Doka La on the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction sometime last November. This action by the Chinese was complemented by movement of the troops into the disputed Dolam plateau in Bhutanese territory.

However, both sides sought to calm matters down and Singh’s visit was targeted at emphasising the need to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC. Both he and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo agreed on this, and the Indian side repeated these statements during the high-profile visit. But clearly, China has now sought to put India on the backfoot.

According to informed sources, India has been strengthening existing defences on its side of the LAC in Sikkim. It may be noted that troops about a division strong had been moved out of the area to Jammu & Kashmir a few years ago. But over the past year, they have been moved back to their defensive positions in North Bengal and Sikkim. As a result, old facilities and structures are being strengthened, which are not seen as a violation by the Indian side.

At the political level, there is fresh thrust to improve infrastructure along the LAC, which includes building more accessible roads and better facilities near Indian posts. In fact, ahead of the PM’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the Defence Ministry has given its go-ahead for IAF reviving four

airfields — Vijaynagar,Mechuka, Tuting and Passighat — in the State. As for Itanagar, a Greenfield airport for civil aviation purposes is already in the works.

At the same time, India has been careful in its projection of the visit so that it does not provoke China. So far, the PM’s itinerary avoids the contentious Tawang area. This is in line with Singh’s views to not allow the boundary question eclipse the meeting ground between both countries on various other global and regional issues.

During his visit to Beijing, Singh’s thrust was on pitching the relationship as one between two major powers and to that extent, there was reciprocity from the Chinese side too. In his policy defining speech before the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Singh consciously did not mention Panchsheel or any other historical instance that may come in the way of redefining the partnership.

However, a cold reality check has followed the warmth during his visit. The pro-active approach on Sikkim has also cast a shadow of doubt on the boundary negotiations where for the first time the two sides have two separate drafts on a possible framework agreement that will identify areas for exchange.

To break the stalemate, India has agreed not to discuss Tawang for the moment and instead start with areas on which there is “least disagreement”.