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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

The Extended LAC

Sunday 16 July 2017

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Until now, India had only one Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. But if things work well as per the Chinese strategy, the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could soon double up as another LAC. At least this is what one can make of the twelfth round of China- Pakistan bilateral defence and security dialogue held recently in Beijing.

The Beijing round comes at a time when the two countries have already invested heavily in the CPEC. The Pakistan Army has constructed nearly 900 kms of road as the ‘basic prerequisite of the CPEC’ and has deployed 15,000 troops to protect the 19,000 Chinese working in the CPEC and other projects. The Pakistan Navy has also pitched in by raising a contingent for the protection of the Gwadar port, re-developed by China and now being managed by a Chinese company. Most importantly, when the two militaries were discussing ‘issues related to the CPEC’ at Beijing, the Pakistan Navy was con-currently engaged in a joint naval exercise with the Chinese Navy in the North Arabian Sea. The CPEC, therefore, has a military dimension.

India did not participate in the OBOR project since there are ‘sovereignty’ issues related to the CPEC. The CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. However, more than the sovereignty issue, it is the military usage and potential of the CPEC that is worri-some. The CPEC provides access to China throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan. True, China has promised $ 46 billion of investments and a series of projects under the CPEC. However, it is debatable if economic considerations alone has lured China into the CPEC. For China, the CPEC actually offers a big opportunity to box out India geographically.

Various hypothetical military advantages accrue to China from the CPEC. First, it can move its troops using the Karakoram highway through Pakistan along the CPEC alignment right upto the Gwadar port. Perhaps, that also explains why China has invested so heavily in the development of the Gwadar port, which is, hitherto, low on commercial traffic. Second, China can dump huge numbers of eavesdropping instruments and earth stations much near to the Indian border and place its spies all along Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Himalayan terrain inter-mixing with the LAC does not facilitate easy spying activities for China; the same would not be a problem in Pakistan due to its plain landmass. A huge number of Chinese workers in Pakistan is another advantage since many of them must be professional spies masquerading as workers. Third, the CPEC also allows a marine outlet for China via the Gwadar port into the Arabian Sea. This year’s annual report by the US Department of Defence has apprehended that China could be looking for a permanent naval base on the Pakistani coast after its successful outlet in Djibouti. China could use its increased marine presence in the Arabian Sea to snoop on India’s vital strategic installations in Mumbai. Fourth, increased Chinese presence in Pakistan could even lead to a breakdown in the fledgling India-Afghanistan relations. It is no secret that China is unhappy with the bonhomie and is trying to make friends with Afghanistan as well as broker a peace between Kabul and Islamabad. That Afghanistan has declared its intentions to join the CPEC speaks of the seriousness of the Chinese efforts! Fifth, the CPEC provides China to launch, what Robert Blackwill calls, ‘war by other means’ such as geoeconomics. China has the purse and stimulus to pump investments in the CPEC. Pakistan has all that it takes it to become a part of China’s co-prosperity sphere.

Though there are rumblings in Pakistan about the impact of the CPEC, official Pakistan has no misgivings. China would now provide hidden resources through manpower, technology and weaponry. Bandwagoning with China greatly subsidises its proxy war efforts against India and enhances its deterrence, sorry, nuisance capabilities, against India. Pakistan relishes this ‘revenge of geography’.

For long, Indians have been apprehending a two-front war through the Sino-Pak collabo-ration. Here it is, albeit in a subtle form of proxy war! The entire debate on the CPEC in India has veered around two issues: how it infringes upon India’s sovereignty or for that matter how Pakistan’s internal compulsion will make the CPEC a difficult proposition! The big picture of the CPEC creating an LAC 2.0 has been com-pletely missed out. Imagine a scenario where the tranquil Radcliffe Line suddenly becomes more energised due to a spurt in cross-border activities since China would be doing the back- end stage management. Should India display a blatant offensive realism in response? Should it gear up and be more vigilant on the western front? Should it take it up as a part of the revamped strategic dialogue with China? These are choices that need further research since the traditional approaches to security do not offer any help.

At this stage, India does not have any hard power or soft power to dilute the strategic effect of the CPEC. India would also find it difficult to up the ante since the nature of the impact is mostly discreet and even hypothetical. But as long as Indians discuss the strategic impact of the CPEC, a cost-effective response mechanism would emerge from the shelves that would enable India to handle the Chinese challenge through LAC 2.0.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are his personal.

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