Through the past few weeks, India’s border with China, or the Line of Actual Control (LAC), has become a theatre of ‘actual’ excitement. It must be clarified at the outset that ‘LAC’ is a misnomer, because the line is neither delineated, nor demarcated, and therefore, it is more a line of perception. Over the years, the situation has been managed through a series of agreements, and confidence building measures. The recent series of incidents are, however, calling to question the sustainability of these arrangements.
First, let us briefly recount what has happened. India and China have been locked in approximately a month-long military ‘face-off’ at multiple places in Eastern Ladakh, spread across the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Tso lake. Around the same time, there was a face-off at Naku La in Sikkim.
‘Galwan’ gets its name from Ghulam Rasool Galwan from Ladakh, who had travelled to this area in 1899. Pangong (meaning ‘long, narrow, enchanted’) Tso (lake) is at an altitude of approximately 4,350 metres above sea level. It is 134 km long and extends from India to the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Approximately 60 per cent of the length of the lake lies within the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The face-off at Pangong Tso is on the lake’s northern bank, where spurs from the mountains come down into the lake. These spurs are identified as numbered fingers, increasing from west to east. Let’s get a sense of the perceptual dispute here. According to India, the LAC runs north to south along Finger 8, while according to China, the LAC runs through Finger 2. For years, both sides have been patrolling up to their respective perception of the LAC. Quite often, they have got into face-offs at varying points, between Finger 2 and 8, and over a period, the conduct has become more aggressive and, lately, violent.
Galwan gains salience due to the vicinity of the 255 km road, running along the Shyok River valley, from Darbuk to the area of Daulat Beg Oldi. The road has existed for some years now. It is well inside Indian territory and provided depth by the mountains overlooking Galwan valley. Last year, after much effort, India succeeded in building a crucial bridge on this road. This has possibly raised alarm bells in China. India’s ability to deploy in the Daulat Beg Oldi area, using this road, is perceived as vulnerability by China to its Aksai Chin area and the highway linking Tibet to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang, incidentally, has been in the news for the last couple of years because of human rights violation and abuse by Chinese authorities against the majority Muslim population. China perceives a threat from Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently mentioned that this time the face-off is ‘different’. Ostensibly, the difference is in the scale, level, simultaneity, and preparation by China. The rapid follow through to the face-off is suggestive of extensive advance preparations and build up. Simultaneous action in Sikkim and Ladakh, spread over the frontage of two different Chinese military regions, is an indication of coordination and control at the highest level. All these factors put together provide certitude that this is not just an isolated or localised incident.
Several motives could be ascribed to China’s offensive conduct. Fundamental of course is to exert pressure on India, for multiple reasons. Firstly, to coerce India to prevent cosying up to the US, as the impact of the pageant of President Trump’s visit three months back is fresh. As many analysts point out, a new cold war between the US and China has begun. Secondly, to check India from going against China on a range of issues, which include a probe into China’s alleged role in the origin, handling, and profiteering from COVID-19 and India’s firm stand on the South China Sea with regard to freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in the international waterways in accordance with international law. Thirdly, to prevent India from developing its border infrastructure opposite China, particularly in areas where it perceives higher threat. The action against India is also in line with China’s general aggressiveness, visible in South and East China Sea, in its coercion of Taiwan and repression in Hong Kong. Last but not the least, China wants to create a smokescreen to divert attention from fast brewing domestic discontent.
On the economic front, China is dealing with several challenges, notably, trade war with the US and decoupling from major economies such as Japan, which has allocated close to $2.2 billion to help companies take production out of China. Xi Jinping acknowledged this in the Politburo Standing Committee meeting in Beijing, stating that, “as the pandemic continues its global spread, the world economy faces a mounting downside risk. Unstable and uncertain factors are notably increasing.” China’s real GDP growth is at risk of being flat or negative too.
The current situation favours India, as almost every other global power has burning issues with China. In the US Congress, a bill has been introduced to nullify China’s control over Tibet and recognise it as an independent country. In the UK, a cross-party group of former cabinet ministers have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lead the international response against China’s “flagrant breach” of Sino-British agreements by imposing tough national security laws on Hong Kong. France has dismissed Chinese warnings on upgrading the Taiwan Navy’s warship fleet, saying it was implementing existing deals and that Beijing should focus on battling the COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian media has also highlighted the Chinese aggression against India. Notwithstanding the overall international mood, India’s immediate neighbourhood could need some deft handling.
India, on its part, has responded firmly to China’s aggression, while at the same time, trying to resolve the dispute amicably. This is in line with the Indian government’s firm resolve on national security issues.
As a first step, we must be resolute and make no compromise to revert to the pre-face-off status quo. The road from Dorbuk to the Daulat Beg Oldi area is in the shadow of areas affected by the face-off. The Daulat Beg Oldi area is adjacent to the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield of the world, where India is locked in another conflict with Pakistan since 1984. The two together have the potential to pose what is known as a ‘collusive threat’. Going forward, the boundary resolution must be expeditiously pursued; if left to perceptions, these face-offs will continue, adding to an unending and sapping political deadlock.
By violating territory and falsely asserting claims, China has undermined the principles and agreements of conduct along the LAC. In the accompanying intense ‘information warfare’—or simply ‘propaganda’—it is peddling half-truths and untruth. We should be prepared for a long, hard slog, and up the ante in both the military and economic domain. There are multiple options, in time and space, to raise the costs for China’s misadventure. And we are quite adept at succeeding in a prolonged eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation scenario.
God willing, this time around, Lata Mangeshkar Ji will sing this rousing ode to the valour of the valiant Indian soldier: Aye mere watan ke logon, tum garv se bhar lo chhati!/ Gatha in veer jawanon ki, ab kar lo muh zabani!/ Desh ka hausla rakha buland, di jeet ki unhone garima,/ jaikar karein hum milkar, ab un veer senani ki!
(The author is member, National Security Advisory Board, and former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Kashmir corps commander. Views expressed are personal.)