Is an assertive China considering a strategic shift in its equation with India? Is it ramming home claims on areas in Ladakh and following up on its protest after Ladakh became a Union territory last year? Is that what the current India-China stand-off is all about? Many experts believe that this time with incursions into Indian territory in several places in the western and eastern frontier China is sending out a message. What has surprised policy makers is Chinese intrusions into the Galwan area, where the boundary is clearly marked. This is a clear departure from the past. Indian and Chinese soldiers are in an eyeball to eyeball face-off in Pangong Tso, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie points.
Western experts including strategic analyst Ashley Tellis is not ruling out the possibility of a short armed conflict. President Donald Trump, has also waded in to say he is ready to mediate. As in the case of India-Pakistan and Kashmir, India has politely turned it down, not wishing to draw US into this conundrum.
Senior Pentagon official, Alice Wells also took the opportunity to lambast China. She dubbed China’s actions as provocative and disturbing. While many hardliners were thrilled with her remarks, the government wisely kept quiet. India is well aware that the Trump administration, with the presidential polls in mind is ready to point fingers at China, but Delhi would at the moment much rather tackle its issue with Beijing without interference from other nations. In short the Modi government does not wish to provoke China, while standing firm on its national interest.
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Western analysts point to China’s growing self confidence and its belief that Beijing is now militarily, economically and politically strong enough to challenge not just its Asian neighbours but the US as well. Westerner see the current stand-off as a part of China’s overall aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, its determination to keep Taiwan away from the observed status in the World Health Assembly, or Beijing’s strong armed tactics in Hong Kong, all fall into a pattern. China’s “wolf warriors’’ are a manifestation of President Xi Jinping’s resurgent China.
Border tension between the two Asian giants are nothing new.Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, and Doklam in 2017 were serious transgressions. Despite all this both India and China are proud of the fact that not a single shot has been fired along the LAC and peace broken perhaps just by fisticuffs between PLA and Indian soldiers.
Incursions into each other’s territories happen. Mostly at the onset of summer where patrolling by both armies intensify. India usually downplays the intrusions and says it is because the Line of Actual Control, has not yet been clearly demarcated. Yet all experts agree that this time it is different. Mainly because the incursions had happened at five places almost simultaneously. Almost five thousand PLA soldiers are said to have crossed inside Indian territory and possibly preparing to stay on through the summer. The Galwan area is a new inflection point. Here the border markings have not been contested by either side. So China possibly wants to claim this area too.
The Galwan river flows from Aksai Chin to Xinjian province of China before entering Ladakh. Retired army officials say that the idea may be to make it difficult for the Indians to service its attachments deployed close to the Karakorum pass. At the same time clashes are frequent because India is building roads and airstrips on the border areas. So areas not earlier patrolled is now easier to access and so encounters between the PLA and Indian patrols more frequent.
However the public mood in India is much anti-China. The covid 19 pandemic has led to much criticism against China worldwide, and India is no exception. Many BJP supporters want a tougher line on China, more so as they believe that China is under pressure from the Trump administration. But in the government guided by the MEA is much more circumspect.
Most Indian analysts rule out a military confrontation. They say both countries are pragmatic and will not risk an armed conflict. In case of escalation, India is prepared to stand its ground. Though China is way ahead of India in military capability, in the recent years Indian defence procurements have steadily risen, and today it is better equipped to face the Peoples Liberation Army. The current stand-off is arm flexing by China but will be diffused. India has infinite patience and like China has dug in its heels. No one is blinking yet. But efforts are on to sort to diffuse the situation.
At a MEA briefing on Thursday India made the point that the Indian army was following all procedures laid out in India-China bilateral protocols on border management. Several rounds of talks between commanders have so far not been able to resolve the issue. India is unlikely to budge till the PLA troops withdraw from territory inside Ladakh and status quo ante is maintained.
Is China upping the ante at a time when India is at its most vulnerable? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team is struggling with the pandemic as the curve refuses to flatten despite a strict earlier lockdown. The economy already spluttering before the pandemic, is now in the doldrums. The economic forecast remains bleak, as with many other countries, including China. But this has more to do with China’s stand on Ladakh.
The intrusions into Ladakh synchronises with China’s claim over the whole of the Aksai Chin. China captured part of Aksai Chin after the 1962 border war, while a large portion of territory was ceded to China by Pakistan, while fixing the international border between the two.
India too has begun talking of akand bharat, which includes the entire POK, China has kept up its claims on parts of Ladakh. Home minister Amit Shah said in Parliament that India was determined to get back all of the land ceded to China by Pakistan in Aksai Chin. Foreign minister Jai Shankar claimed POK as Indian territory and looked forward to its unification.
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Last August, when the Narendra Modi government decided to scrap Kashmir’s special status, bifurcate Ladakh and make it a union territory with administrative control with Delhi, China objected. In fact, two days after Article 370 was abolished, China’s foreign office spokesman said the new UT of Ladakh had incorporated territory which came under China’s administrative jurisdiction. The spokesman said it was a challenge to Chinese sovereignty.
The current stand-off in Ladakh is possibly China’s way to claim areas in Ladakh as its own. India has also been talking of Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory. POK is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and a part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious belt and road project, which India has stayed away from. India protests when roads and bridges and airstrips are built in the area.
The current crisis is likely to linger on for months. But unlikely to become another border war. China is merely flexing its muscles and India continues to hold its ground.