On 19 October in Arunachal Pradesh’s Rupa town, during an interview with the media, Lt Gen Manoj Pandey, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command, noted that “China is strengthening its deployment on the LAC and military exercises are also increasing. In such a situation, the Indian Army will also have to adopt an aggressive posture on the LAC.”
The Eastern Command is responsible for the borders from Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh.
General Pandey also spoke about the Indian Army’s ‘containment plan’, that it was ready to face any challenge on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while admitting that in the last one and a half years “China has not only increased its PLA army in the ‘depth area’ of the plateau region of Tibet but has also increased military exercises… Apart from this, the Senior Military Commander of the Chinese Army is continuously ‘visiting’ the LAC.”
China is not only improving the infrastructure on the border but also the legal framework for the border management has recently seen a major enhancement. In an article, China law tightens land borders amid regional tensions, The Nikkei analysed a new Chinese law which was passed on 23 October. According to the Japanese paper, “China’s top legislative body passed a law to strengthen the country’s land borders amid rising tensions with India over disputed territory and concerns over a possible influx of Islamic extremists from Afghanistan… Under the new law, the People's Armed Police Force (PAP) and the Public Security Bureau (PSB), which are in charge of maintaining public order in China, can be mobilised to guard borders in addition to the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The forces will look to handle serious incidents, terrorism and illegal crossings in border regions.”
More importantly, the armed forces can use weapons “against people illegally crossing borders if they engage in violence, as well as banning the use of drones and model airplanes near borders without permission.”
Had the Chinese legislators the Galwan incident in mind?
One implication of the new law is that there will be far better coordination between the PLA, PAP, PSB, the Border Defence Force, the militia, the local governments as well as China’s Ministry of Railway or Water Resources, but also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ultimately, it means a far greater efficiency in case of a border conflict; it would, in addition, take care of an action by a rogue general who on his own initiative could try to start a new front on the border (as it happened in the past).
The law specifically said that infrastructure facilities for transport, communication, surveillance and defence can be built on the Chinese side of its borders, but no organisation or individual can build durable structures near borders without China’s approval. The law goes rather in detail; for example, Article 40 stipulates that “no organisation or individual may construct permanent structures near land national boundaries without the approval of the relevant competent authorities”.
Remember September 2014. As President Xi Jinping arrived in Ahmedabad to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more than 1,500 Chinese PLA troops crossed the LAC in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh; the situation became extremely tense.
Why this show of force at a time Xi Jinping, who was/is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), was speaking of instilling trust in the bilateral relations? Was there a better way to sabotage his own visit?
Differences in ‘perception’ about the LAC were known to exist, particularly in this area but why wait for Xi’s arrival in Ahmedabad to activate the dispute?
A couple of days after his return to China, Xi Jinping met with the PLA’s Chiefs of Staff in Beijing; he stressed the necessity of loyalty in the senior officers. “Headquarters of PLA forces must have absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China, guarantee a smooth chain of command and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented,” he said. But perhaps more interesting was: “Military commanders should have a better understanding of international and domestic security situations as well as the latest military development.”
It meant that the commanders needed to be briefed about the international situation and the relations with the neighbours. The new law will take care of this and should hopefully not allow ‘private’ actions by the military.
The new law has to been seen in the context of the recent change of guard in the PLA, with Gen Wang Haijiang promoted to full general (three-star) and taking over the Western Theater Command (based in Chengdu, Sichuan), which is looking after the Tibet and Xinjiang borders.
General Wang was earlier posted in Tibet (TMD) in 2016 as deputy commander and then as commander, before being transferred on 1 April 2021 to Urumqi as Xinjiang Military District commander.
Nearly simultaneously, Maj Gen Liu Lin, the interlocutor of the Indian 14 Corps Commander in Ladakh during the 12th first rounds of talk, was made Lieutenant General and sent to Urumqi as Commander of the Xinjiang Military District.
Wang Haijiang’s and Liu Lin’s promotions mean that the Central Military Commission (read Xi Jinping, its Chairman) is happy with the way that they have dealt with India. Importantly for India, both Lt Gen Liu Lin and Gen Wang Haijiang have an in-depth knowledge of the Indian frontiers and the Indian forces opposite the PLA in these areas.
The leadership of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has also changed with Wang Junzheng, a Deputy Secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), responsible for the dreadful internment camps in Xinjiang (as well as Political Commissar of paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps), taking over from the rather-mild Wu Yingjie.
The governor of TAR too was replaced — a Tibetan from Qinghai (with a Han name) Yan Jinhai replacing Che Dalha, the previous incumbent. All this indicates a hardening of the policies in Tibet.
While these changes are taking place, another highly strategic move seems to be in offing. China Newswire (in Chinese) reported about life in a Border Management Detachment, just north of the McMahon Line in Subansiri sector; it mentioned Kelsang Border Checkpoint, next to the new G219 national highway in Shannan prefecture.
What is strange is that the G219 (infamously known as the Aksai Chin road), which links Tibet to Xinjiang, has its terminus several hundreds of kilometres west near Lhatse at the Nepal-China border, not far from the Nepalese town of Kodari.
The China Newswire article indicates that China will extend the Aksai Chin road to the north of Arunachal Pradesh bringing far greater mobility for the troops, while linking the Ladakh and the Sikkim/Arunachal front. The article says, “National Highway G219, known as a scenic adventure road, is a ‘heavenly road’ that satisfies all the dreams and passions, and is now the longest national highway in China, the highest altitude and most dangerous road in the world. It is a ‘world-class landscape road’, with many famous mountains and rivers to see beside the 219 National Highway, the terrain and landscape altitude difference, climate and weather is extremely rich, the scenery along the way makes every traveller surprised and amazed.”
Like its western section across the Aksai Chin, it may not be a ‘heavenly road’ for India; it could soon be nightmarish. The article further observed that at the end of 2019 already, “self-driving tourists visited the Tsari sacred mountain [Dakpa Sheri] and the Net-celebrated ‘Yumai’ township, which guard the peace and stability of the motherland’s frontiers.”
Yumai was the first of the 600 or so model villages on the Indian border. Adopted by Xi Jinping in 2017, it is located north of Asaphila and Taksing of Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh.
By reaching north of the McMahon Line, the new G219 extension will completely change the strategic stakes in the region. India has no choice but to take measures to develop this remote area of the Indian territory and, perhaps as stated by Gen Pandey, be more aggressive with China in order to pass on the message: No mischief will be permitted.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.