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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

India takes the high ground against China

June 14, 2008

By Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times
June 14, 2008

ANGALORE - India has reopened its Daulat Beg Oldi airfield in Ladakh
in Jammu and Kashmir after a gap of more than four decades. Located a
stone's throw from Aksai Chin - a part of Jammu and Kashmir province
that has been under Chinese occupation since 1962 - the Daulat Beg
Oldi airfield will improve India's logistical support to its troops
deployed along its 4,057-kilometer disputed frontier with China.

The Daulat Beg Oldi airfield was set up in 1962 in the run-up to the
brief but brutal Sino-Indian war. The Indian Air Force (IAF)operated
American-supplied Fairchild Packets from this airfield between 1962
and 1965. Then in 1966 an earthquake in the region loosened the
surface soil, making it unsuitable for fixed-wing aircraft to land on
the airfield. It was subsequently shut down.

On May 31, for the first time in almost 43 years, an IAF AN-32
transport aircraft landed at the Daulat Beg Oldi airfield. Regular
operations will begin in due course.

At a height of 4,960 meters (16,200 feet) the airfield is the world's
highest. "The airfield can be used for touching down and dropping or
picking up troops and supplies, not forward operations," said air
commodore and former deputy director of the Delhi-based Institute for
Peace and Conflict Studies, Prashant Dikshit. The IAF plans to reopen
Chushul (located south of Pangong Lake and near a vital supply road
to Leh) and Fukche airfields in eastern Ladakh, also along the Chinese border.

The Daulat Beg Oldi airfield is located a mere eight kilometers from
Aksai Chin and the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control in this sector.
It overlooks China's Xinjiang province and more importantly, the
strategic Karakoram Highway that links China with Pakistan. It is
near the Karakoram Pass and lies east of the Siachen Glacier.

The airfield is "very critical to deal with incursions from China and
Pakistan", Phunchok Stobdan, senior fellow at the Institute for
Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, told Asia Times
Online. "Besides, in the event of war, its proximity to the Karakoram
Highway will give India a significant edge."

The reopening of Daulat Beg Oldi airfield has ruffled feathers in
Beijing. China is reported to have expressed its "unhappiness" over
the Indian move. "This is not surprising given the airfield's
proximity to Aksai Chin," said an Indian intelligence official.

Roughly covering an area of 42,685 square kilometers, Aksai Chin is
an icy, high-altitude desert in the extreme northeast of Jammu and
Kashmir. In the late 1950s, India discovered that China had quietly
constructed a road through this remote plateau. Then in the 1962 war,
China occupied some 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai
Chin. This remains under Chinese occupation to date.

Aksai Chin's importance to China, especially in the 1950s, 1960s and
1970s, lay in the access it provided to Tibet. Of the three routes
from China into Tibet, the westerly route from Kashgar into the
Tibetan plateau via Aksai Chin was the best.

As John Garver points out in his book Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian
Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, the western route via Aksai Chin
"has a much more continuous rise in elevation than either the
northern [via Qinghai] or the eastern route [via Sichuan]. On the
western route, once you have climbed up to 4,600 meters (14,000 feet)
or so, you more or less stay there and in any case do not have to
descend back down to 2,400 meters [8,000 ft] elevation to start over,
as with the Sichuan route".

Besides, although winters in the west are bitterly cold they have
little snow. Of the three routes it is the route via Aksai Chin that
is open year-round, throughout both the winter and the monsoon
season. For China, which needed to send troops, officials and
supplies to consolidate control over Tibet, Aksai Chin was a vital lifeline.

"Control of Aksai Chin was thus essential to Chinese control of
western Tibet and very important to its control over all of Tibet,"
wrote Garver.

Indian troops stationed near the Line of Actual Control have hitherto
depended largely on air-dropped supplies. That will now change with
aircraft landing here.

According to the IAF, the Daulat Beg Oldi airfield has been reopened
to facilitate rotation of troops stationed in the area and to provide
then with regular supplies. "The temperature plummets in winter and
all supply routes are cut. The only way out is through the air and
helicopters can only service a little," said Air Marshal P K Barbora,
Western Air Command's commander-in-chief.

"By reactivating the airfield, India would like to be seen as
exercising a more assertive presence in this area. Most of all it
will be a great morale booster for our troops positioned there.
Landing at Daulat Beg Oldi airfield will enable India to induct
troops swiftly, improve communication network and increase the air
effort in the region substantially," Barbora added.

"The reopening of the field is a signal to China that India will take
steps to protect its national interest," Dikshit told Asia Times Online.

IDSA's Stobdan said that India is trying to counter the "dozens of
provocations from China". Earlier, there was a "general apathy in
India's response to Chinese moves". Financial constraints and fear of
China resulted in a more cautious response.

"That has been changing over the past two to three years," said
Stobdan, pointing to Delhi's decisions to improve connectivity and
road infrastructure along the Sino-Indian frontier. "Its level of
confidence vis-a-vis China has gone up and it is showing that it will
take steps to consolidate its position in its peripheries."

The decision to reopen Daulat Beg Oldi airfield is part of this
larger effort to improve preparedness vis-a-vis China. "India is
preparing for contingency," said Dikshit.

The reopening has come amid increasing Chinese incursions into Indian
territory, especially over the past year. Concern is mounting in
India over China's massive buildup of military infrastructure and its
robust road-building activity along all sectors of the Sino-Indian border.

A month ago, bilateral tensions spiked when China laid claim to a 2.1
square kilometer tract of land called the "Finger Area" in the
northern most tip of Sikkim, which overlooks the strategic Sora
Funnel. Chinese troops threatened to demolish stone structures in the
Finger Area and their threats were endorsed by officials, who
reiterated the warning to Indian diplomats.

Sikkim's boundary with Tibet, which falls within the middle sector of
the Line of Actual Control, was considered to be the least
complicated of the three sectors. This is the only part of the
Sino-Indian frontier that China had accepted as settled; this is the
only sector where the two sides have exchanged maps. But this did not
prevent Beijing from dragging it back into the border dispute.

Indian analysts are of the opinion that the Chinese claims over the
Finger Area together with earlier incidents of Chinese troops
destroying Indian bunkers near the Sino-Sikkim-Bhutan tri-junction
and its objections to India beefing up its troops in the Siliguri
Corridor indicate China's hardening stance on the border issue.

There is growing impatience in India with what is seen as the
government's weak response to persistent Chinese bullying and
arm-twisting on the border issue and its unsubtle pressure on India
to clamp down on Tibetan protests.

While the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has accused the United
Progressive Alliance (UPA)government of going soft on China because
of its dependence on support from the left parties. Analysts have
castigated the government for its "lamb-like approach" and for
sweeping crucial issues under the carpet, while newspaper editorials
have pointed to the UPA government losing momentum on the border
negotiations and "in danger of yielding ground on the Sino-Indian frontier".

"No doubt, the two countries have to work closely and avoid potential
points of conflict, but it is meaningless and short-sighted to ignore
the differences," observed the Times of India.

Stobdan points out that in the run-up to the Summer Olympic Games in
Beijing in August, China is vulnerable: "This provides India with a
window of opportunity to assert itself. But this window will close soon."

China can be expected "to up the ante after the Olympic games in
August 2008", warned Shantonu Choudhry, a former vice chief of army
staff, in an article in the Indian Express. "The probability of an
all-out border war is low, [but] a series of border skirmishes is a
distinct possibility," he writes, adding that the "attempt will be
more flagrant if India's political center is perceived as weak and
pusillanimous".

India will have to learn to stand firm against China, without being
seen as confrontational. Is the re-opening of Daulat Beg Oldi a step
in that direction?

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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