China on Monday rejected reports in India that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had set up a tented post on Indian territory in Ladakh, but reliable sources in Delhi stressed that the place where Chinese troops had been camping for a week was Burthe.
Trying to play down the incident, the Chinese said its frontier patrols had “never trespassed” the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
In Delhi, the sources who identified the place as Burthe admitted that the Chinese were technically correct from their standpoint. But from New Delhi’s perspective, the land where the PLA found huts which Indian security forces abandoned and put up a tent was part of India.
“This is essentially a no man’s land,” explained the sources , refuting alarmist suggestions that the Chinese troops had occupied part of the runway at the nearby Daulat Beg Oldi advanced landing ground.
“The Chinese patrols do wander here from time to time,” they added. “And this time, they found the abandoned huts to the right of Siachen Glacier and near the Partappur army base and decided to stay put.”
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid more or less upheld this view and said both sides were holding flag meetings to address the issue. “We are still in touch, and flag meetings are going on. There is more information to come. We will factor all that [in] and then take a final view,” he told journalists outside Parliament House.
Furthermore, Mr. Khurshid did not want the incident to snowball, saying both sides were against any departure from proportionality. “I do not think we should allow this to get beyond the immediate area and we should retain at that level and not allow it to escape that level,” he said.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister A.K. Antony asserted that India would protect its interests and try to resolve the situation.
Indian officials did acknowledge that there were different perceptions of the LAC in that sector and said both sides were in touch to resolve the issue peacefully and avoid escalation, using the mechanism on coordination and consultation on border affairs, which was put in place last year to deal with such incidents.
While both India and China have in the past been routinely patrolling up to where they see their territorial claims end, sources said it was not common for either side to put up a tented post in a region where claims overlapped.
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying played down the incident, describing Indian media reports as “speculation.” “Our troops are patrolling on the Chinese side of the LAC and have never trespassed.”
“Over the past few days, I have also been following Indian press coverage. Relevant Indian officials have also made statements on this issue. They have clarified the issue, and I refer you to their remarks,” she said, adding that India-China relations were in fine shape.
Last week’s reports about the strains along the disputed border come against the backdrop of warming ties, marked by a period of intense diplomatic engagements between both countries that is expected to culminate in the visit of the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, to India next month. In recent weeks, both countries have had consultations on counterterrorism and the first-ever dialogue on Afghanistan aimed at boosting strategic trust.
The Chinese side has made it known that it is keen on Mr. Li’s expected visit to be the Premier’s first overseas trip after he took over in March — an indication of how the new leadership viewed relations with India as a priority.
Considering the opacity of the Chinese political and military set-up, officials and analysts say it remains unclear whether the People’s Liberation Army’s apparently more aggressive patrolling was a message from a military under new leadership; a reflection of a divergence of opinion among different sections in China on engaging with India; or merely an aberration driven by local factors.
Chinese analysts often make the point that insufficient communication between the two militaries remains a source of mistrust and a challenge for ties. Even as the two militaries grapple with strains along the border, the main channel of communication to defuse tensions is between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.
In the Chinese set-up, however, the PLA far outranks the Foreign Ministry, which has no say in how the military conducts its affairs and is widely seen by Chinese analysts as a department with far less influence.
Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, stressed on Monday that “China values its relations with India” and “would like to develop sound, steady, long-term relations.” Both sides, she added, had agreed that “the boundary issue should not affect the larger interests of bilateral relations.”