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Engaging China

Roadmap to engage China along Indian borders

It does not need a rocket scientist to understand the game that China and Pakistan are playing on the roof of the world. Its first impact is intended to be regional domination leading towards a bi-polar world. Should India stand by and watch it happen?

STRATEGIC AFFAIRS, in earlier articles on the developments in the north Kashmir salient, has warned about the danger of India being sidelined even as its territory in Jammu and Kashmir, usurped by two of its neighbors, is to be used to fulfill their strategic goal.

The goals of a linkup of territories with improved road, railways and oil and gas pipelines that will serve China’s interest by reducing travel time for fuel and commerce to days instead of weeks. It has suggested that the Government of India should refashion its negotiating stance and put it to China that since the large parts of the former princely State of Jammu and Kashmir are “disputed” the territory should not be treated as belonging to any one of the disputants and should be utilized for the mutual benefit of all three nations party to the “dispute”-India, China and Pakistan.

China and Pakistan are already using the land to fulfill their geopolitical ambitions and the laying of the Karakoram Highway has facilitated this. To measure China’s true intentions India must make a proposal that the road in Aksai Chin, the original cause of military confrontation between the two countries, should be elevated to the status of a “zone of co-prosperity” whereby both China and India can utilize it for purely peaceful purposes and trade and commerce both between themselves as well as with Afghanistan and beyond to the former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union, now clubbed as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Access to Afghanistan

India’s real requirement is to get access to Afghanistan without having to depend entirely on the Wagah-Attari checkpost and the connecting road through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan. The latter is amenable to both political disruptions as was seen in the opposition to the concept of Most Favored Nation treatment to be extended to India by Pakistan.

Also, physically it is vulnerable to the kind of attacks that the Pakistani Islamists currently reserve for NATO convoys servicing the needs of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Convoys are blown up whenever the Taliban want to do so and the Pakistan Army and security forces just stand by and watch it happen.

Both China and India can plan and execute the extension of the Aksai Chin road across the Pamirs to the Wakhan Corridor and the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan for an alternative route, which, if Chinese intentions of good neighborliness are pure, will be a more secure mode of transportation and commerce than is the route through Pakistan.

Even if the arrangement is purely bilateral it should not be seen to appear to an anti-Pakistan phalanx in that it would serve to ensure for both countries a safe passage by dint of Chinese good offices.

The whole exercise is intended to create a mechanism that will test the commitment of both countries to live peacefully and to maximize the geographical aspect to mutual advantage. The Chinese are well aware of the advantages of a link to Afghanistan across the Wakhan corridor but for sheer cussedness and intentions of exclusive regional domination it should agree to the Indian proposal if its protestations of being friendly and peaceful are genuine.

If there is prevarication or an outright rejection of India’s proposal then India should reserve the right to stop the use of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for China-Pakistan links. The Karakoram Highway is a very vulnerable asset as the 2010 landslide north of Gilgit has shown.

Since it happened the Chinese and Pakistan have had to ferry their goods by boat across the huge lake that was created by the landslide-hardly a very strategic asset. While the alternative route to Afghanistan too will suffer all the same vulnerabilities as does the Karakoram Highway but it has the added advantage of providing both China and India an alternative access to Afghanistan that would benefit both.

India should gauge China’s mood and inclination and assess that China may try to buy time to complete the expansion of the Karakoram Highway and create bypasses to avoid landslides by drilling tunnels through the mountains without having to create bridges which too are vulnerable to both the elements and to sabotage.

If China is not amenable to allow India access across Aksai Chin, then, in the interest of national interest and the grave consequences that could follow for it if China and Pakistan widen the Highway and lay a rail-link and oil and gas pipelines across territory that is essentially Indian, New Delhi will have to prepare to exercise other options to prevent the use of its territory by any other nation.

Otherwise the effect will be an encirclement that will eventually throttle India and reduce it to a Chinese vassal State. Of what use would be all the investment in missiles, the nukes and the defence paraphernalia if Indians are to accept Chinese hegemony?

Defending interests

What is being offered to the Chinese is peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial arrangements that are not arrayed against any other nation, not even Pakistan. All India wants is access to Afghanistan. It should be allowed that facility. If not, India must prepare to exercise other options.

If it has not already done so, it must make a detailed map of the alignment of the Karakoram Highway and mark out the areas that are most vulnerable to long-term disruption.

It is known that Pakistan and China do not allow photography of bridges but unless most of these bridges are constructed beneath a rocky overhang, they will be visible from space. It should not be difficult to acquire their coordinates.

However, it appears that China is trying to reduce the vulnerability of the Karakoram Highway by digging tunnels through the mountains which entails a great deal of stabilization with steel buttresses of the mountain itself and even if landslides occur along its surface the interior is largely unaffected.

It has been variously speculated that the tunnels that are already in existence have been prepared to house missiles. Very possible, but the dernier cri of the Chinese building activity in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is not storage of missiles but creating a passage on which a large slice of its economy and geopolitics will depend.

It should be India’s endeavor to ensure that if the Chinese are not willing to accommodate it and allow access to Afghanistan then it should be in a position to disrupt for very long periods any travel across the Karakoram Highway.

It is being postulated that the very act of disruption of the Karakoram Highway would trigger the two-front war that Indian strategists have predicted. It may well be so but if we are to accept vassaldom why spend so many billions on “national security”.

It is not without significance that objections to taking both the Chinese and the Pakistan head on comes from retired military personnel who at one time were not averse to vacating the Siachen glacier irrespective of what the consequences could be. Some began to sing a different tune after a tenure of governorship but none has come forward with any concrete ways of defending India’s national interests vis-à-vis  the China-Pakistan combo.

Taking the Highway into the tunnels will tend to substantially decrease its vulnerabilities and hence it is some of the more difficult engineering sections need to be studied by India to ensure that a substantial portion of the tunnels can be hit if required.

Bombs of the kind that are used to destroy runways by retardation of flight followed by deep penetration into the runway concrete to crater it should give ideas of creating bombs that can be guided into the tunnel and made to explode deep inside, causing the mountain to collapse.

A reconfiguration of the runway bombs for retardation of flight, the ability to search for the mouth of the tunnel and fly into it is what is required. The explosion should be timed for a flight of 50 meters or so. And the warhead should be a fuel-air explosive (FAE) so that the concussion is nearly as much as a nuclear blast. That should do the trick.