It is not hard to see why China decided at this time to pick at the scab of disputed border with India by starting ruckuses along the length of it at Daulat Beg Oldi, Galwan Valley, the Pangong Lake, Bararahoti, and Naku La in Sikkim. Xi Jinping and his ruling cohort find their pretense to Asian hegemony challenged in their own backyard. Developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong have shred China’s “one country, two systems” policy. President Tsai Ing-Wen, elected to a second term, has made it clear that Taiwan is separate from China and sovereign. The people of Hong Kong, with less latitude, are fearlessly resisting rule by Beijing’s puppets.
Elsewhere, the United States is embarked on a Cold War that is halting China’s economic gravy train. By pouring advanced weaponry into Taiwan America is making the difficult task of invading that garrison-state People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals dream about, unthinkable. Japan is waving China off the Senkaku Islands, and the freedom of navigation patrols by several extra-territorial navies in the South China Sea and assertive actions by littoral states are making nonsense of China’s “nine dash line” claims.
That leaves the big, cowering, India an easy target for Beijing to coerce to show other Asian countries who is boss.
What is unusual about the latest Chinese provocations are the medieval arms the PLA wielded in the encounter in the Pangong Tso area of eastern Ladakh. An Indian army colonel and a major accompanying a small patrolling unit were grievously injured early May by Chinese troops swinging solid wooden batons with protruding nails! Perhaps, it is time Indian soldiers are armed, other than the standard infantry weapon, with hefty wooden clubs with embedded steel spikes for free use at close quarters against PLA soldiers.
The still greater surprise was the nonresponse of the Indian army and government. The spokesman of the army’s Eastern Command, almost condoned Chinese provocations saying “Temporary and short-duration face-offs between border-guarding troops do occur as boundaries are not resolved.” The Ministry of External Affairs, equally conciliatory, conceded PLA had disturbed India’s “normal patrolling patterns” in Ladakh, but referred to the “established mechanisms to resolve such situations peacefully through dialogue.”
It is as if the clubbing of senior Indian officers is normal and the Chinese are amenable to quiet persuasion. No hint here of what this portends for the armed monitoring of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or of the potential for such designed eruptions to escalate into war.
Such anodyne statements, moreover, do three things. They demoralize the frontline troops, hide from the public the seriousness of India’s deteriorating military situation vis a vis China, and by reflecting the acute timidity characteristic of the Indian government and army leadership when confronting China, encourage Beijing to be even more obstreperous. Aggregated, such reactions only reinforce Beijing’s contempt for India and convince it to push India around some more.
[ Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with General MM Naravane]
The latest events on the LAC may have shaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s confidence in his policy of rapprochement with China that pivots overmuch on his personal relations with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Otherwise the apex meeting of the principals called by Modi on May 26 would not have so quickly followed the May 23 briefing of defence minister Rajnath Singh by the army chief General MM Naravane who bore ill-tidings from his Ladakh trip, with national security adviser Ajit Doval and chief of the defence staff General Bipin Rawat in attendance.
Obviously, the situation is grim and getting worse. While the decision by the PM forcefully to oppose the Chinese changing the status quo on the LAC and especially in the sensitive Daulat Beg Oldi sector is reassuring, it fails to address the central problem of sustained piecemeal territorial aggrandizement by China.
Just how much territory has been lost is revealing. Punchok Stobdan, a native Ladakhi and former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, refers to a 2013 report by Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary (2004-2006) that indicated China had until then annexed 640 sq km of Indian territory deploying “area denial” measures that, in effect, changed the alignment of LAC on the ground. It is an activity, incidentally, that has proceeded unmolested by Indian forces. With China creating new status quos and Delhi accepting them there’s every incentive for Beijing to persist with this “no cost” policy.
Invariably there’s strategic intent behind Chinese moves.
Regarding the Chinese claim of 80 sq kms in the Chumur region containing the Tible Mane (stupa) holy to Tibetans, for instance, Stobdan points out that its control is “critical” for the safety of the Leh-Manali road. And, in an extended geographic context, why the PLA is “desperate” to grab the Lukung Lake area to stage operations from to cut off Indian access to the Chip Chap plains, the Aksai Chin in the east and the Shayok Valley to the north, and how this will create a new LAC bracketed by the Indus and Shayok rivers. Gaining control thus of the southern side of the Karakoram range China, he explains, can then reach the Siachen Glacier from Depsang and cover “the Tashkurgan junction from where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) crosses into Gilgit-Baltistan”. It will weaken India’s proximity to, and leverage over, CPEC, the Indian military’s hold on Siachen and, according to Stobdan, permit the diversion of the waters of the Shayok, Galwan and Chang-Chenmo rivers to Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin.
[Army Chief General MM Naravane in Ladakh]
China’s “occupy, build-up, intimidate, occupy some more, build-up”-policy begun in the early 1950s and proceeding apace has hollowed out India’s paper claims. More brazenly, Beijing is justifying PLA actions on the basis that India is constructing roads, bridges and airfields on its side! If the Modi government fails to implement a policy of absolute reciprocal actions, such as filling vacant spaces beyond Indian claim-lines with armed encampments, allowing the Indian army to blow-up offending Chinese infrastructure and, by way of retribution, ambushing passing PLA troops, and relies only on endless and futile negotiations, then India should be prepared for a map thoroughly changed by China.
Published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint.com, May 28, 2020, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/india-china-tensions-cowering-response-to-chinas-provocations-may-lose-india-more-territory