NEW DELHI – Stoking tensions with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over islands in the South and East China Seas has not prevented an increasingly assertive China from opening yet another front by staging a military incursion across the disputed, forbidding Himalayan frontier. On the night of April 15, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) platoon stealthily intruded near the China-India-Pakistan tri-junction, established a camp 19 kilometers (12 miles) inside Indian-controlled territory, and presented India’s government with the potential loss of a strategically vital 750-square-kilometer high-altitude plateau.
A stunned India, already reeling under a crippling domestic political crisis, has groped for an effective response to China’s land-grab – the largest and most strategic real estate China has seized since it began pursuing a more muscular policy toward its neighbors. Whether China intends to stay put by building permanent structures for its troops on the plateau’s icy heights, or plans to withdraw after having extracted humiliating military concessions from India, remains an open – and in some ways a moot – question.
The fact is that, with its “peaceful rise” giving way to an increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, China has broadened its “core interests” – which brook no compromise – and territorial claims, while showing a growing readiness to take risks to achieve its goals. For example, China has not only escalated its challenge to Japan’s decades-old control of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, but is also facing off against the Philippines since taking effective control of Scarborough Shoal last year.
What makes the Himalayan incursion a powerful symbol of China’s aggressive new stance in Asia is that its intruding troops have set up camp in an area that extends beyond the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated border war. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India, trying to alter the LAC bit by bit.