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Growing number of China incursions into India lead to a strategy change

Along the disputed border near Ladakh, India has long neglected infrastructure to discourage a Chinese invasion. But the strategic landscape is shifting.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2009

Tsering Mutp served 15 years as a Ladakhi scout (infantry regiment) and is currently employed as a driver. Shown here in Leh, India, in September, Mr. Mutp drove to the Deputy Commissioner to the Chinese border to talk with villagers.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Leh, India

First came the Chinese helicopters, flying low. Then came the Indian officials asking what happened. Suddenly, the tiny Himalayan village of Demchok stands at the center of rising tensions between the world's two most populous nations.

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Villagers told an Indian delegation recently that the two Chinese choppers buzzed the village in August and flew several miles into Indian territory, according to Tsering Mutp, a retired Indian soldier who attended the meeting. Mr. Mutp says the villagers had some pointed questions for the visiting officials. In particular, they asked why on the Chinese side of the river there are paved roads and development but nothing on their side.

The answer lies in India's strategy for dealing with China's land claims. In the past, India has deliberately neglected the roads and other infrastructure in such border regions to slow down any possible invasion, says Brahma Chellaney, a security expert at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. But in response to a major spike in cross-border incursions by the Chinese in the past few years, the Indian approach is changing, with plans to expand infrastructure and bring more of a government footprint to the contested region.

"Now the Chinese are basically doing so much damage on the Tibetan plateau, and given these Chinese border incidents and provocations, the Indians have been left with no choice but to begin infrastructure development along the Himalayas," says Mr. Chellaney.

Chinese incursions jumped from 140 in 2007 to 280 in 2008, says Chellaney. The Indian government is trying to downplay mounting reports in the India media of Chinese incursions in Ladakh and Uttarakhand and says this year has seen "no significant increase."

"That is alarming. That means the Chinese are still sustaining pressure at last year's level," says Chellaney.

China officially denies incursions. "Border patrols are strictly conducted according to the law and will never enter [Indian] territory," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said last month.

The Indian government has tried to keep the issue out of the public square, calling it media "hype." Good relations with Beijing are important to Delhi: China is now India's largest trading partner.

But India is also quietly building up the border.

A journey to Ladakh

In September, the Indian Air Force opened a new high-altitude airfield here in the district of Ladakh in the country's far north, bordering both China and Pakistan. It follows the building of two other fields in the Himalayas in the last 15 months, including the world's highest at 16,200 feet at Daulat Beg Oldi.

India is currently repositioning Sukhoi war jets to its northeastern borders with China. Air Chief Marshal P V Naik said earlier this month that while the Chinese posed no imminent threat, there was a jet gap.

"Our present aircraft strength is inadequate. Aircraft strength is one third that of China. The government of India is doing a lot to augment Air Force capability," he said.

India also approved construction of four strategic roads in Ladakh – part of a wider road-building effort across the Himalayas. Crews can already be seen beavering away on remote mountain roads in Ladakh, burying new wiring.