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Simmering Standoff

Despite the positive vibes between both the countries in 2019, the confrontation in Ladakh shows that no amount of bonhomie can wish away border disputes acting as a drag on bilateral relations. By Col R Hariharan

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Even as nations are in the midst of fighting Covid-19, Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation in eastern Ladakh for nearly three weeks. This seems to be the biggest standoff after the 73-day Doklam standoff on the Sikkim border in August 2017.

Since April 2020, Chinese troop concentrations close to the border had been noticed. However, the confrontation was triggered when they physically tried to prevent Indian troops patrolling the Pangong Tso Lake on May 5. In the fisticuffs that followed, troops used iron rods and sticks, in which 100 were reported injured.

Though local commanders from both sides met and agreed to disengage the next day, the standoff has now spread to Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). Both sides have massed troops, with the potential to explode into an armed conflict.

Indian troops clashed in these places during the 1962 war with China. This underlines their strategic importance to our national security, particularly after China and Pakistan stepped up their strategic cooperation during the last decade.

Estimates of troops on both sides vary, from 2,000-5,000. But the difficult terrain and high altitude makes the deployment of even 500 troops at a time tough, according to some generals with hands-on experience in the region. Another clash took place between Chinese and Indian troops on May 9 at Naku La in north Sikkim; ten soldiers were reported injured. The clash occurred even though there was no major dispute between the two about the international border in Sikkim. This would indicate that the Chinese are reminding India about its vulnerability.

On May 18, China accused India of “trespassing and illegally building defence facilities” in Galwan Valley. Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times mentioned that China had enhanced control measures throughout the border in Ladakh. It quoted Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that Galwan Valley was not like Doklam because it was in the Aksai Chin region of southern Xinjiang. So, if India escalates friction, its military could pay a heavy price.

So far, parleys between the military commanders in Ladakh have not yielded results. However, diplomatic efforts are on to defuse the situation. After making standard comments to buttress their territorial claims, the Chinese have given tentative signals of a thaw. This was evident from Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong’s conciliatory statement on May 26.

From past experience of such confrontation, followed by conciliation, it is going to be a long haul before the troops stand down in Ladakh and return to normal activity. However, given the complexity of India-China relations at all levels, our country is unlikely to lower its guard any time soon.

After the 1962 conflict, it took nearly three decades for India-China relations to move from confrontation to cordiality. An agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the border areas was signed on September 7, 1993. During President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India in November 1996, India and China signed an agreement on confidence-building measures along the LAC. It provided for border security and confidence measures between the two countries. It called for military disclosure when they undertake border exercises and for the reduction of troop levels in the border areas. It also allowed them to observe and inspect troop movements in each other’s territory upon invitation. This agreement built mutual trust, though border incidents continued. However, both sides handled them away from media glare.

During Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005, the two sides signed an agreement on political settlement of the boundary issue, setting guidelines and principles to the boundary issue through equal and friendly negotiations. An important milestone in these relations was the signing of the border defence cooperation pact on October 24, 2013 during PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to China. It put no restrictions on India developing border infrastructure or enhancing military capabilities there.

Against this background, 2019 may be considered a very constructive one. It saw interaction between the two countries at various levels starting with the Mamallapuram informal summit in October 2019 where PM Narendra Modi met President Xi Jinping. Evidently, the two leaders were trying to build upon their constructive engagement at the Wuhan informal summit a year earlier. The positive vibes created at Wuhan managed to patch up, if not mend, the frayed relations after the standoff at Doklam at the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction.

But a month before Xi’s participation in the Mamallapuram Connect, Indian and Chinese troops were involved in a scuffle on the banks of Pangong Tso. Though it was defused after talks between the commanders from the two sides, it was a stronger reminder that no amount of bonhomie can wish away the border disputes acting as a drag on bilateral relations.

However, Xi did not raise or discuss the Kashmir issue, though Pakistan PM Imran Khan had made a number of visits to Beijing seeking China’s support to internationalise it after India abolished the special status of J&K. After the Mamallapuram meeting, Xi said: “We will seek a fair and reasonable solution to the border issue that is acceptable to both sides in accordance with the agreement on political guiding principles.” He also suggested that both countries needed to improve levels of military and security exchanges and cooperation, which was followed up. Even Covid-19 did not halt interaction between the two countries. They went ahead with the “Hand-in-Hand-2019”, the eighth edition of the India-China joint military exercise on counterterrorism and disaster relief. The objective of it was to build and promote positive relations between the two armies. The PLA contingent of 130 troops from the Tibet Military Command participated in the exercise.

In the same month, the 22nd round of talks between the special representatives, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor Wang Yi, was held in Delhi. They involved the most complex part of the negotiations—agreeing on a framework to resolve the dispute in all sectors. After that, the final step will be delineating and demarcating the boundary in maps and on the ground.

In spite of all the bonhomie, why does China create a military crisis in Ladakh when India is on the back foot fighting Covid-19? The answer lies in the importance of Ladakh for the strategic security of Xinjiang and Tibet, which form China’s longest land border with India. This is not the first time that Indian troops manning the border here have confronted Chinese troops transgressing the LAC because they do not accept its alignment. However, on the ground, Indian and Chinese troops have been maintaining patrolling limits that generally pass for the LAC. This makes the present standoff in Ladakh strategically more important for both China and India than Doklam was.

India had deferred improvement of border road connectivity, particularly in unpopulated regions of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, till 2011. The Chinese took full advantage of this to occupy more and more territory to buttress their claim. Shyam Saran, then NSA, was reported to have submitted a report to the PMO on Ladakh in which he said the PLA had “incrementally” occupied nearly 640 sq-km area at DBO, Chumar and Pangong Tso Lake. Media reports alleged that he had stated that the entire Depsang Bulge was now inaccessible to India.

Chinese intrusions across the LAC came at critical moments. China’s muscular assertions in the Ladakh region have increased in frequency, particularly after India started 61 infrastructure projects to improve connectivity to the western, central and eastern sectors from 2011 onwards.

In April 2013, when the Manmohan Singh government was getting ready for a general election a year later, Chinese troops intruded into the Depsang Bulge, a table-top plateau, threatening to cut off 750 sq km of northern Ladakh. After a 23-day standoff, they withdrew after Indian diplomatic efforts at the highest level.

This intrusion was strategically significant as it was just 35 km from the Karakoram Pass at the tri-junction of the India-Pakistan-China border and overlooks the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge to the west and the Indian observation post at Chumar in the east. Equally significant was that the Chinese intrusion took place before China’s Premier Li Keqiang’s scheduled visit on May 20, 2013.

Even as PM Modi extended a red carpet welcome to Xi during his maiden visit to India in September 2014, the atmosphere was marred by confrontation with Chinese troops intruding across the LAC in Ladakh. Apparently irked by such conduct, Modi did not mince words when he drew Xi’s attention to the incident in his statement at the end of the talks. And Xi took note of it.

Former foreign secretary and ambassador to China Nirupama Rao summed up the present situation in her tweet on May 25: “Given absence of line of separation and mutual distancing between sides, no jointly highlighted areas of difference of perception of LAC, we are bound to see more such incidents which now, additionally, have potential to turn into armed confrontation and conflict.”

India will have to take a serious look at China under Xi, which is more aggressive and ambitious. It is in a hurry to become a global power and create a new world order on its own terms. At the same time, Xi is under tremendous international pressure on many fronts after Covid played havoc with global trade and the economy. The US is spearheading a global campaign to hold China responsible for the spread of the virus due to its opaque public health practices.

China’s diplomats have become raucous in their response to them, earning the sobriquet of wolf warriors. China’s “one country-two systems” is under severe strain after Hong Kong’s quest for autonomy started getting out of hand. Taiwan has elected for a second time President Tsai whose party stands for independence and the US has announced it would resume arms sales to Taiwan. Tensions are at a new high in the South China Sea as China is trying to consolidate its control over the sea, brow-beating smaller neighbours like Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam from exploring offshore gas and oil resources.

These vulnerabilities of China could be turned into opportunities for India, with a mix of deft diplomacy, show of strength and imaginative trade and economic policy. That is the only option for India because it works better than empty rhetoric or muscle-flexing when the country is already under tremendous pressure from the pandemic.

—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute

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