This is the third part of a series of articles titled ‘A Savage Turn in India – China Relations’ on the India-China stand-off on the Line of Actual Control at Galwan valley by Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko, Sena Medal (Retired).
Incursions of 2020 was different from the ones seen before. It seemed to go according to a well-planned script. As summer set in, Chinese troop movements were reported at multiple places near the LAC. The troop strength too was larger than before. Then, as if on a key, a series of incursions at multiple places, one after another, along the LAC occurred. Unlike earlier, the level of violence was high. It seemed that they were deliberately ratcheting up the severity of confrontation. This gave an indication that something was amiss. In a widely publicised speech in May, President Xi Jiping exhorted the PLA to be ready for war and on June 15, Galwan valley erupted in violence. Two days after the violent incident, China laid claim to the entire valley. Something must have triggered the Chinese to go brutal and physical.
Chinese do not do anything without a purpose. It is clear that China was executing a well-thought out plan. What could have prompted China to precipitate action that literally dumped the high optic Modi-Xi friendship developed over a series of informal meetings?
The Darbuk- Shyok-DBO Road
Some analysts seem to suggest that the construction of the Darbuk- Shyok-DBO road triggered Chinese aggression. This explanation has its inadequacies.
Construction of the 255-km all-weather mountain road, with 37 prefabricated truss bridges, running almost parallel to LAC and traversing heights between 13,000 to 16,000 feet, started way back in 2000. It was to be completed by 2014. High altitude roads need long time because the construction season in such areas is barely four to five months a year and at best six. Alignment and cutting is a herculean task. The road had to be realigned in 2011 due to topographical issues and the revised date for completion was 2017. The project is believed to have been completed in April 2019. The road became national topic of discussion after the much-publicised inauguration of the bridge on this road by the Defence Minister.
This road is of strategic importance because it ensures all-weather connectivity between Leh and DBO and takes India close to the Karakoram Pass and areas held by China. The road certainly adds to the infrastructure and enhances logistic flexibility considerably. If Chinese had objections to this road, they could have taken action any time starting 2000.
To say that they never noticed this road or failed to appreciate its strategic importance even once in the last 19 years, will be fooling ourselves about our adversary. They knew all of it, way back in 2000. As such each bridge on the road will be a registered target for China and without bridges the road is useless. There is also a school of thought which argues that the Chinese moved forward to dominate this road. With much easier, cheaper and effective means available they can achieve their aim. This by itself couldn’t have triggered the aggression.
Another reason propagated by analysts is operationalisation of the DBO airfield. Even this argument runs short on logic. The airstrip at DBO was first commissioned during the war in 1962. An earthquake in 1966 left the airfield inoperable. After restoration, the airfield was made operational on May 31, 2008 with landing of an AN-32 aircraft. On August 20, 2013 Indian Air force landed a C130J Super Hercules creating a world record. China had already foreseen this and moved its forces ahead in April 2013. However, the standoff was diffused in May 2013, setting space for the historic landing of the medium lift aircraft. Ever since, DBO airfield is operational. Thus, DBO airfield cannot really be considered as a trigger for the current violence.
The Momentous Announcement
A chain of events of national importance, according to analysts, seems to have triggered the Chinese aggression. On August 5, 2019 the Government of India, abrogated Article 370 and revoked the special status given to the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Later in the day, the bill for reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir was introduced in the Rajya Sabha by the Minister of Home Affairs. It was passed the same day. On August 6, 2019 the bill was also passed by the Lok Sabha. It received the President’s assent on August 9, 2019. The Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation Act, 2019 bifurcating the State of Jammu and Kashmir became effective on October 31, 2019. Two new Union Territories, were born, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
During the discussion on the bill in the Lok Sabha, responding to a member’s query, the Home Minister categorically stated on the floor of the house, that entire territories of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin were integral to India and will be taken back. China seemed to have viewed India’s internal matter differently. They objected.
Under the Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement of March 2, 1963, China ceded 1942 square kilometres of land to Pakistan. In return Pakistan recognised Chinese sovereignty over 5300 square kilometres of POK. India objected to it on grounds that Pakistan cannot cede Indian territory. The dispute continues.
When the war of 1962 concluded, China had illegally occupied about 38,000 square kilometres of territory in Aksai Chin, part of Jammu and Kashmir. It still remains a bone of contention. China also built a military road through Aksai Chin to connect Tibet and Xinjiang. China now claims Aksai Chin as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. It also blames India for having illegally occupied Arunachal Pradesh. POK and Aksai Chin are historically and legally integral parts of India, but China portrays the Indian Home Minster’s statement on the floor of the parliament as a declaration of intent to capture Chinese territory.
Belt and Road initiative
Armed with surplus finances China launched the ambitious ‘Belt and Road initiative’ (BRI), one of the world’s biggest initiative for promoting connectivity. India views it with scepticism. Concerned about the strategic implication of the initiative, India marked its protest by not attending the BRI forum hosted by China in May 2017. The reasons were lack of transparency in the processes. India also raised objections against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project, because it uses POK territory, disputed land between India and Pakistan, thereby challenging India’s sovereignty.
Conceived and formed after the tsunami of December 2004, a consultative forum comprising of Australia, India, Japan and the US, referred to as ‘The Quad’ was formed. Chinese essentially sees this forum as an instrument of China containment strategy. It was shelved in 2006 for political convenience by America. However, the same has been revived. In order to protect its maritime interest in the Indian Ocean region, India is a key member of the alignment.
South China Sea activities
India also expressed strong reservations against China’s strong-arm tactics in South China Sea. Despite the tribunal verdict in The Hague against it, China continues to increase its military presence in the South China Sea bullying the littoral states. To counter this, India has been trying to build military ties and generate cooperation in fields of bilateral interest with other countries in the region having territorial disputes with China.
India and Australia also signed two bilateral military agreements, (Australia-India mutual Logistics support arrangement and The Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement) that has major impact on the Indo-Pacific region. Incidentally, the deal was clinched in a virtual meeting between the two Prime Ministers in the first week of June 2020.
Flight of Facilities
Rising cost of production had already compelled many manufacturing facilities to exit China. The pandemic that originated in Wuhan and the general reaction to China’s manner of handling it, hastened the process. India publicly offered incentives to those manufacturing facilities to relocate to India.
To prevent any hostile opportunistic takeover or acquisitions of Indian companies during the pandemic, the Government of India imposed strict norms making prior government approvals mandatory for investors based out of neighbouring countries. Though unstated, it is perceived to restrict Chinese investments in India.
Demonstration of Xi Jiping’s authority
Born in 1953 and sent to do manual labour from 1969 to 1975, Xi Jiping has come a long way, to where he is now. Having risen through party and political hierarchy, he became President of the People’s Republic of China in 2013. Under him China’s foreign policy became assertive and China rapidly grew both economically and militarily and positioned itself to leverage its economic, military and political might across the world. Xi’s political thoughts have now been included in the party and State constitutions. Through a constitutional amendment, he shall now remain president for life and has equated himself with Chairman Mao. Xi Jiping is the ultimate authority in China.
Continuing protests in Hong Kong despite China’s warning, use of force to quell its own population, poor handling of corona virus resulting in a worldwide pandemic, relentless acts of human right violations, non-adherence to international laws, aggressive use of economic might to subjugate other countries and blatant activities to enhance territorial claims have brought nations of the world to red-flag China. In addition, there is said to be growing disenchantment with the establishment amongst its citizens. These seem to seriously dent Xi’s authority. Nothing can be allowed to dent the image of strength and authority. Something had to be done to conclusively demonstrate Xi’s authority.
The Clarion Call
Each of the event, though significant in its own way, is not potent enough to trigger aggression. But considered collectively, China sees India galvanising the Anti-China movement. China interprets these as India’s attempt to change the status quo geopolitically, challenging China’s standing in the world or as growing assertion by India to reposition and equate itself with China. Declaration by the Home Minister in Parliament was the clarion call.
Something had to be done to put India in place. The growing number of intrusions, increasing level of violence and reluctance to get back to mutually accepted positions of LAC are acts carefully choreographed at Beijing and executed at various places on the LAC.
To be continued