New Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked de-escalations
Published in ‘Up Front’ column. India Today, issue dated March 1, 2021, available at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20210301-himalayan-diffidence-1770899-2021-02-19
After talking with the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, a rattled US President Joe Biden warned that China will “eat our lunch”. Considering the underway military disengagement could end up consolidating Chinese territorial gains in eastern Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought to worry about China feasting on India’s dinner.
Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked de-escalations, which Beijing may convert into opportunity for annexing territory in small parcels. Consider the withdrawal of forces from the Pangong Lake area. Until not too long ago all the eight mountainous features – the ‘Fingers’ abutting on its northern shore — on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control were notionally under Indian control; today only Fingers 1 to 3 are. So why is People’s Liberation Army’s moving to its Sirijap staging area east of Finger 8, which is also inside Indian territory, reassuring or proof of China’s good faith?
Since last August when Special Frontier Force troops preemptively occupied various hilltops on the Rezangla-Rechinla ridge inside the Indian claim line, China has tried to reverse this development because these posts afford a 360-degree view and help the India army get a fix on potentially adverse Chinese military activity in the extended Pangong area. This advantage will be lost with the pullback, especially because the PLA is not thinning its forces from the Moldo garrison. In any case, the past record of Chinese chicanery — easing tensions the PLA itself creates as at Nakula, suggests that once Indians depart the commanding heights, the Chinese will fill the vacated space.
Meanwhile the issue of PLA’s de facto control over 1,000-odd sq kms of Indian territory in the Depsang Plains in Sub-sector North, of utmost significance to India, is deferred. Here PLA’s blockade of the Y-Junction has rendered the area northwestwards of it inaccessible to Indian patrols, enabling China to bring this vital piece of land within its control without contesting India’s claims — a neat little trick of occupation by indirect military means! This area adjoins the Xinjiang Highway whose branch — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, veers south at the nearby Karakorom Pass and, hence, is of strategic value. The Indian army could forcibly evict the blockaders but Beijing is betting Delhi lacks the guts and the gall to order such action.
Chinese adventurism, foreign minister S Jaishankar said, has “profoundly disturbed” India’s trust, but apparently not the Indian government’s gullibility and habit of taking Beijing’s professions and commitments seriously. Thus, the China Study Group making policy for the government seems satisfied with a “written agreement”!
The process of penny-packeting the ‘phased’ mutual withdrawal has helped China evade the eight “guiding principles” defined by Jaishankar as the basis for negotiation, including the two principal ones of respecting the sanctity of all past accords and of the LAC, which China violates on a whim. It has permitted Beijing to dictate the pace, tenor and content of interactions. For Delhi to proceed regardless is, in effect, to legitimate a new tabula rasa for resolving the border dispute and for Sino-Indian relations generally, one in which whatever China wants goes.
At heart the problem is the Indian government’s terminal diffidence. It has foresworn the option of discomfiting China by strategic missile arming states on its borders as a belated payback for Beijing’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear missiles, and shies away from using its leverages (Taiwan, Tibet, trade, Uyghurs). This attitude infects the Indian military as well. In an alternative universe, army Special Forces would long ago have cleared the Y-Junction and counter-blockaded PLA on the Depsang. While there’s talk by military brass about reorienting Indian forces China-wards, there’s little initiative on display. The Indian response in Galwan Valley, it may be recalled, was reactive and SFF is run by the external intelligence agency, Research & Analaysis Wing (RAW).
Accustomed to supinity the Indian government nevertheless believes it will not lose out to Beijing. How is anybody’s guess!