FOR the past two weeks, a platoon of People’s Liberation Army soldiers has been camped in the barren Depsang Valley in India’s Ladakh region, some 11 miles inside Indian territory, in what is being seen as a test by China of Delhi’s resolve to protect its borders.
Beijing denies any incursion, but Indian officials say that the soldiers have refused to move back over the so-called Line of Actual Control that divides Indian-ruled territory from Chinese-run land, leaving the government on the verge of a crisis with its powerful north-eastern rival.
Indian officials fear that if they react with force, it could escalate into a battle with the powerful PLA. But doing nothing would leave a Chinese outpost deep in territory India has ruled since independence in 1947. “If they have come 19 kilometres into India, it is not a minor LAC violation. It is a deliberate military operation.
“And even as India protests, more tents have come up,” said Sujit Dutta, a China specialist at the Jamia Milia Islamia university in New Delhi. “Clearly, the Chinese are testing India to see how far they can go,” he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said yesterday that Chinese troops had been carrying out normal patrols and had not crossed the boundary.
Ms Hua said talks to defuse the dispute were ongoing and that it should not affect relations. “As we pointed out many times, the China-India border issue is one which was left over from the past,” she said.
Military commanders from both sides have held three meetings over the crisis. India’s foreign secretary called in the Chinese ambassador to register a strong protest. Yet the troops have not moved.
The timing of the crisis, weeks before new Chinese premier Li Keqiang is to visit India, has surprised many. The Chinese leader’s decision to make India his first trip abroad since taking office two months ago had been seen as an important gesture toward strengthening ties between rival powers that have growing trade relations.
Manoj Joshi, a defence analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said the timing of the incursion raises questions about “whether there is infighting within the Chinese leadership, or whether someone is trying to upstage Li.”
Indian politicians have this week accused the scandal-plagued government of prime minister Manmohan Singh of cowering before China.
“China realizes that India has a weak government, and a prime minister who is powerless,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former foreign minister from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Former defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav called the government “cowardly and incompetent.” He warned that China was trying to annex more territory to add to that it took following its victory over India in a brief 1962 border war.
Defence minister A K Antony countered that India is “united in its commitment to take every possible step to safeguard our interests.”
Supporters of the right-wing Shiv Sena party burned effigies of Mr Singh, Mr Antony and other top officials on Wednesday, demanding India retaliate by barring Chinese imports.
Though the two countries have held 15 rounds of talks, their border disputes remain unresolved. India says China is occupying 15,000 square miles in the Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas, while China claims around 35,000 square miles in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Analysts said they are baffled by Beijing’s motives, since its actions could force India to move closer to Beijing’s biggest rival, the United States.