Border escalations by China during the last few weeks culminating in the watershed event of Galwan clash in Eastern Ladakh on the night of June 15, 2020 has changed the nature of Indo-China relations to a level of complex uncertainties. Although India has not forgotten the Chinese betrayal of 1962, the relations between both the countries were mostly on an even keel in recent times. The borders which have remained generally peaceful without a round being fired since 1975, has now suddenly become explosive and all the previous confidence building agreements of 1993, 1996 and 2005 have fallen flat. In fact, their relevance itself has now become a big question mark. An uncertain future stares at both the countries.
India-China border referred to as Line of Actual Control (LAC) stretches around 4,057 kms. The peculiarity of Eastern Ladakh is that the LAC is neither clearly marked on the map nor on the ground, though both sides have a very clear idea of the border on the ground as perceived by each side (referred as Line of Actual Control and not Line of Control (LOC) as in Indo-Pak border which is well-defined both on the ground and the map). When there are differing perceptions of the border by two parties, it results in creation of some land in between which is contested. Both sides patrol up to their own perceived limits of the border. Many times scuffles, fisticuffs and jostling have taken place in the contested area but were mostly resolved at post level or a level higher. More serious ones have taken place in Chumar in 2013, Demchok in 2014 and more recently in Doklam in 2017. These also were settled, even though it took 20 to 90 days for the same.
India’s relations with China have always been ruffled mainly due to China’s intransigence, its larger aim of keeping India down and due to China’s constant attempts to unilaterally change the LAC. China has consistently worked against India in various international forums blindly supporting Pakistan-sponsored terrorists and terrorism, fishing in troubled waters in countries around India with a view to “teach India a lesson” (as per China). While recent incidents in Nepal are a case in point, the list is endless. However, there have been several interactions at the Prime Minister level with the President of China in recent years and even one-to-one meetings in 2018 and 2019. With these, the relations between the two countries were expected to at least remain on an even keel if not improve. The recent incidents at the border are a surprise and have once again proven that China cannot be trusted and its long term plan to settle the border demarcation on their own terms remains. With this background let us move to the present situation.
The current intrusions by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from early May onward are by far the most serious violation on the LAC since 1962. The peace and tranquility agreement signed between both countries has been turned upside down by China and its attempt is to try and change the LAC unilaterally as per their perception.
Why has China undertaken such a course now? China and its current leadership are under tremendous pressure, both internally and internationally, due to the spread of COVID-19 across the world with many unanswered queries about its origin and delayed reporting and so on. India has a prominent role in World Health Organisation (WHO) and will have a role in the investigations on COVID as mandated by a resolution adopted by WHO.
Is China’s attempt to divert attention from internal problems to outside the country? China has been belligerent on many fronts recently – militarising South China Sea and illegally claiming more area, threats to Taiwan, Hong Kong and now in India. A typical bully. Why India? India is a major voice in international matters and China would like to keep India under pressure embroiled in sorting out border issue and hence indirectly preventing support to Taiwan or Hong Kong or even aligning fully with the United States. The nature of the incursions and the slow progress of talks on an escalating ladder from post commanders to Colonels to Brigadier to Major General to Lieutenant General level is an indicator that China is in no hurry to settle matters.
The current intrusions from early May onward are in four different areas in large numbers starting from North at Galwan valley, further South towards Hot springs and Pangong tso Lake fingers area and Nakula on the India-China border in Sikkim. These are all important areas with tactical and strategic significance. Galwan Valley and Pangong tso Lake are the more serious intrusions that have taken place. These are quite different from past attempts, clearly indicative of a well-planned aggression with a view to unilaterally change the status quo of LAC to China’s advantage.
Normally these attempts take place at a single point of contention – this time it was in four different areas more or less simultaneously. Secondly, it was not normal patrolling. They came in larger numbers, obviously to stay put and also establish camps, which are against the agreed protocols that no construction will be done by both sides in disputed areas. And thirdly and more importantly, not only were they aggressive but also they did not respond to local post commander’s call for flag meeting as per established practice.
Galwan heights overlook the Leh-Darbuk-DBO road by observation and fire. With the PLA occupying the Galwan heights, India would find it difficult to use the newly constructed road. This 250-km road runs across one of the most difficult and treacherous area and India has recently completed the construction of a bridge over the Shyok River. Once this road becomes operational it will facilitate better defence of DBO, also called Sub Sector North. As far as China is concerned, DBO is very important as they see this as one area that prevents its larger aim of linking up with Pakistan and posing a threat to Siachen Glacier.
China is also upset about the new map released after revocation of Article 370 of Union Territory Ladakh, which includes Aksai chin-area occupied illegally by China and also Gilgit-Baltistan through which CPEC road goes to Gwader. China will be worried by India’s capability enhancement and that Indian Army plans to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) or Aksai chin. While this area is important, it must be stated that till this time there has been no incident with PLA in Galwan valley. LAC was clear and respected by both sides. China’s current interest in this area has a definite link to the ongoing border infrastructure development by India.
Coming to Pangongtso, it is an area of dispute where there is different perception of the LAC, India’s claim has been up to Finger 8, while China’s claim is up to Finger 4. PLA has been acting aggressively in this area for some time and this time they have come in very larger numbers in Finger 4 area and have taken up ground positions. Also, with this Indian Army’s patrolling beyond Finger 4 will become difficult. As it is, PLA has been preventing our patrols beyond Finger 6 in recent times. This area has strategic importance being in close proximity to the main highway 219 from Xinjiang to Tibet through Aksai chin.
China has extensively built up infrastructure in its area – strategic roads, highways, airfields and so on. In comparison, India has been slow and for many years adopted a policy of non-development of border roads. In the last 10 years India has also been ramping up its infrastructure along the border with China. A total of 73 strategic roads were to be constructed along this border (75 per cent has been completed). A number of bridges has also been completed. Some of the present actions, particularly in Galwan Valley, could be linked to the overall infrastructure development in our area.
Having outlined the importance, let us see what happened in May and June. PLA came in large numbers at the four points of the LAC as stated above. Subsequently, there has been series of talks with the final one taking place on June 6 where it was decided both sides will withdraw and move back 2 to 2.5 kms. Whether any move back took place on the ground is not known – it doesn’t look like from the subsequent events. On June 15 night there was a horrible incident which involved heavy close quarter fight between Indian troops and PLA in Galwan Valley. The intensity of the physical fight can be understood as more than 60 died – 20 of our brave men, including Commanding officer of the unit, and reportedly 30 to 40 from the PLA (not confirmed). All kinds of weapons were used by the PLA and it looked like they had come fully prepared. Kudos to the Indian soldiers who not only stood their ground but also retaliated in good measure. The Indian side had gone to stop PLA from erecting an observation post ahead of the LAC on Indian side and then this happened – further details are not known. China, of course, has denied it stating that Indian troops had moved across the LAC and then the altercation took place. As per current reports, PLA was evicted from Indian side of the LAC and now they are on the other side of the LAC. With regard to Pangongtso, PLA is in full occupation of the heights between Finger 4 and 8 and they have dug themselves in.
At present PLA, while it may not be in Indian area, has occupied disputed areas in large strength at Galwan valley and Pangongtso with a view to change the alignment of LAC unilaterally. This cannot be accepted as it will be highly disadvantageous to India at a later stage. So, PLA has to be pushed back to its original pre-May positions in Galwan valley, Pangongtso and other areas.
China has consistently played a double game and stabbed India in the back. It has once again proved that it cannot be trusted. This time also, in the guise of patrolling and routine military exercise, the PLA occupied areas in Galwan valley and Pangong tso and other areas. India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is not negotiable.
Wherever PLA has entered in the disputed area they must move back to the original positions prior to May, that is status quo ante. There is no way India will permit them to stay in the area within the perceived LAC. Any attempt to change the LAC unilaterally will not be accepted. China has made things difficult and complex. Will they vacate on their own through talks? Very unlikely. They have come with a purpose and will stay. How does India make them move out if they don’t on their own?
India’s policy of placating China will never work. In spite of all its dirty tricks India has been bowing to them and never has India even seriously criticised China in the international forums. The list is endless, whether it is Tibet, Aksai chin, numerous violations on LAC, Chinese support to Pakistan and creating trouble in the neighborhood, including Nepal recently. India has to shift out of this mindset that China has to be treated with kid gloves or else it will continue to face surprises. It is high time India, a large and powerful country with nuclear capability, started to stand up firmly against Chinese bullying tactics. For this a short- and long-term plan has to be made, both starting immediately.
In the short-term, India has to remain very alert across the entire LAC, and spare no opportunity to hit back. If PLA can occupy a disputed area so can we. Without a strong negotiating point, talks with China will be meaningless. China only respects strength. One must also never lose sight of the fact that China is an adversary, so capacity building is vital. And this has to be a consistent long-term process – not the SOS injection of resources only when a crisis looms.
Economic power cannot be attained or sustained unless there is a strong military power. There is no other way. Simultaneously, diplomatic, political and economic actions must continue. Some immediate actions on the diplomatic and economic fronts are required to convey a strong message to China. This has to be done quickly. While we are still in discussion stage on economic actions, China has moved swiftly removing tariff on 98 per cent goods imported from Bangladesh! Optics that India means business is important.
A complete re-look at China policy is needed and a calibrated action plan to continuously put pressure on that country must be in place. With most of the world upset with China about the Corona virus, there is no better time. India needs a better strategy to deal with China which should include all elements of our national power.
A complete rethink on the entire gamut of Indo-China relations is the need of the hour. Starting from treatment of Dalai Lama, Tibet, one China policy, support to Taiwan, Hong Kong, QUAD and so on, a re-framing of policy is urgently required. They cannot take us for granted. Every action by China must be questioned by India just like they do. India has to act fast on economic sanctions, particularly in areas that will hurt China. A China-free economy over a period should be the aim; this may take time but can be done with resolve. Also, all agreements without demarcation of LAC has very little meaning and India will continue to have problems on the border. It has to start now with a firm resolve. No doubt, it will take some time to bear fruit. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions, especially when dealing with an adversary who patiently executes a “hundred-year plan”!
A paratrooper who had served in Ladakh at various levels, Major General P. Rajagopal AVSM,VSM (Retired), has also commanded the division in Eastern Ladakh.