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Peace games with China

Inside the operations room of India’s easternmost air force base, controllers sit at consoles and direct two interceptors to an attack formation of four Chinese aircraft.

On the wall upfront, radar operators interpret data and chalk the flight paths of the attackers and the defenders on a glass curtain. The attackers are flying over the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh. In the drill, the controllers guide the interceptors — MiG-21 defenders from the air force — into an advantageous firing position. The interceptors fire, “kill” two while the two others turn tail and flee.

For all the wargaming that is part of the routine for the air force in the eastern sector, this could well be the beginning of a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. The air force group captain who heads this radar station himself says that for the six months he has been in charge, there has been no hostile intrusion in the airspace in his large sector that spans territories over three nations.

At the air logistics centre in Jorhat, the Eastern Air Command’s largest base for its transport fleet of An-32 aircraft, air traffic controller Squadron Leader Daljeet says this is one of his busiest postings in years. Even as he is speaking, an An-32 is revving up for a sortie to an advanced landing ground in Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap district.

Vijaynagar is India’s easternmost settlement. It is surrounded by Myanmar on three sides and not far from China’s Yunnan province. The An-32 has to make a bumpy shortfield landing on the runway. Half the runway is metalled. The other half is of pierced steel plates over which the An-32 bounces before braking to a halt.

The transporters carry food and rations for an Assam Rifles battalion that mans the border outposts. A break in the weather has allowed the aircraft in here after weeks.

Peace and tranquillity on the borders with China is allowing the IAF to carry out more and more “mercy missions” and the defence ministry wants to advertise the fact. Last month, defence minister George Fernandes was on a trip to China and has returned optimistic of being able to resolve border disputes with Beijing in the near future. Prime Minister Vajpayee is meeting the Chinese President today and is expected to visit Beijing in June.

As if to emphasise New Delhi’s willingness to press ahead with confidence-building measures, the ministry of defence released its annual report today, which indicates that its threat perception in the east may be lowered.

“India continues its endeavour to seek a long-term and stable relationship with China and is committed to the process of dialogue to resolve all outstanding differences,” the report notes.

India and China have progressed to exchanging maps on parts of the Line of Actual Control. The report says that “of late, India has commenced some cooperation with armed forces of China”.

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