China on Friday indicated that India’s move to raise a mountain strike corps along the border would not have a negative impact on bilateral ties, with officials reiterating that they were "willing to join hands" with India to maintain peace and stability in border areas.
The measured reaction from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, analysts said, reflected the renewed keenness, on both sides of the border, to ensure that bilateral ties were better insulated from boundary issues in the wake of the Depsang border stand-off in April.
The Foreign Ministry here on Friday played down the significance of the move – the Cabinet Committee on Security had on Wednesday granted in-principle approval to set up a strike corps of 45,000 soldiers – saying both sides already had agreements in place to ensure border stability.
The ministry added, in a statement to The Hindu issued in response to questions, that it was “willing to join hands with India to safeguard peace and tranquility of the border areas”.
“China and India have signed several agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility of border areas and on establishing confidence-building measures in the military field,” the Foreign Ministry said, adding that “the overall situation” in the border areas was “peaceful and stable”.
Chinese strategic analysts have also played down the move, in part because the official approval was both long-expected and overdue, mired in bureaucratic delays, and hence hardly seen as a surprise.
Analysts were of the view that while the decision would likely generate media attention in both countries – China’s nationalistic tabloid newspapers are yet to react to the move, although it has sparked some discussion on online military forums – it would have little impact on bilateral relations.
“This plan has been mulled over for quite some years in the Indian side,” Hu Shisheng, a prominent South Asia strategic scholar at the State-run China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), told The Hindu .
“Although this development could add more spice in the media hype, I don’t think this will have any tangible negative impact upon Sino-India relations,” he said.
Analysts here are also aware that China still enjoys a favourable asymmetry across the border both in terms of infrastructure and terrain, having completed a modernisation of road, rail and air networks in Tibet and Xinjiang that allows Beijing to mobilise its forces rapidly.
The strike corps will now give India the capability to launch an offensive into Tibet in the eventuality of a Chinese attack, serving as an additional deterrent. The Army has also proposed raising two infantry brigades and armoured brigades to plug gaps along the border.
Mr. Hu said “China will not have much concern about this latest development”. “The two countries cannot afford to fight a war over their disputed border issue. They have much more important issues to tackle," he said.
He was also of the view that the recently concluded 16th round of talks between Special Representatives Shivshankar Menon and Yang Jiechi had seen both sides “committing to make further progress in the settlement of border issues, like making some tangible progress in the middle section and the Sikkim section of border”.
“My personal view,” Mr. Hu added, “is that with more troops from both sides to plug the loopholes (man those grey areas) in the boundary region, there will be clearer and clearer understanding about the locations of each other’s claimed [Line of Actual Control]. This will definitely reduce the face-off eventualities.”
Earlier this month, both sides agreed to increase both the frequency and number of locations of border personnel meetings in an effort to increase communication across the border. The agreement, announced in a joint statement issued following Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit to Beijing, was aimed at beefing up the mechanisms in place in order to prevent the recurrence of an incident such as the Depsang stand-off.
On April 15, four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers set up a tent in eastern Ladakh, sparking a stand-off that took as long as three weeks to resolve. While both sides had in the past carried out patrols in disputed areas where their perceptions of the LAC were overlapping, neither side had taken the step of putting up a tent, a move seen by some Indian officials as an unexpected provocation.
India and China are also discussing a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to consolidate and enhance their existing confidence-building measures. Both sides are expected to discuss this agreement when officials from the foreign ministries and militaries who comprise the boundary consultation and coordination mechanism meet in New Delhi for talks scheduled for next week.
Mr. Hu said it was a “normal development” for both sides to carry out development in border areas. “I personally take the upgrading of their infrastructure as a normal development of each other’s economic and social development strategy,” he said.
“In fact, if two countries have no trust, any development in any area could be regarded as a source of concern. But the development of infrastructures of each other’s frontier regions will finally also provide a solid base for both countries, and peoples, to carry forward cooperation and communication, when the time is ripe”.