China’s provocative and unprecedented incursion in India’s Eastern Ladakh took a violent turn on Monday night when a physical clash between Indian and PLA troops near the Galwan Valley region killed 20 Indian soldiers (an officer and two Jawans who were initially reported) with 43 Chinese casualties, based on intercepts and chopper activity that the Indian Army monitored, according to its statement.
The month-long standoff that began with Indian Army and PLA soldiers clashing near the Pangong Lake on May 5, was followed by massive Chinese mobilisation behind their multiple points of incursions, unlike previous standoffs that were localised and resolved with routine diplomatic parleys and military talks on the ground. It is a different matter that the entire episode has witnessed a surprisingly muted response from the Indian government itself that is reported to have told journalists to not report extensively on the matter.
The immediate trigger for the Chinese has been reported to be India’s construction of a bridge and a feeder road to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road that will allow faster Indian mobilisation to the DBO airfield, close to Aksai Chin and south of the Karakoram Ranges. The PLA incursions are at multiple points with massive mobilisation behind their lines, including “fighter bombers, air defence radars, rocket forces and jammers” unlike the localised face-offs at Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) or Doklam (2017), also evidencing that it could not have happened without sanction and detailed premeditation from the highest in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Central Military Commission.
India has “mirrored” these deployments and while there were reported “disengagements” after Lieutenant General-level talks, there has been “no reduction in overall troop deployment” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the heavy armoured and artillery formations brought in by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remain in place. India’s 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh led the Indian talks with Maj Gen Liu Lin of the Southern Xinjiang Military District.
But coming as it is in the midst of another Great Power contest between China and the US which has seen both trading criticism over the Coronavirus pandemic and India’s growing proximity to the US despite the latter’s own destabilising and self-serving actions, the face-off has to be looked at as a part of this New Cold War. India has a complicated relationship with one (China) and is amidst enhancing its ties with the other (US), with the latter directly involved with other regional players like Pakistan and Afghanistan and the conflicts therein. Thus detaching it from the larger picture is naive.
Having said that, questions and theories are also abound about China’s real motive, which this prism might provide. ‘Motive’ because that’s what the culturally strategic Chinese let in little on, guided by their classically devious thinking Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ espouses. “They have been known to think so long term, that if India is planning ahead 30 years, China has already thought ahead a 100,” said an officer who had handled the China desk at the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW).
“The diplomatic motivations are what need examining since the mobilisation of the PLA is just a ‘front’ and a means to an end, and not an end in itself,” according to Maj Gen Harsha Kakkar (Retd). “What message they are trying to convey to India for exactly what policy change amidst this global scenario is important,” Kakar says. A war is too costly for even an admittedly militarily, technologically and economically superior enemy like China.
“‘Deterrence’ still holds. It has held back the US and China from actually entering a shooting match in the South China Sea (SCS),” Kakar added. Against a professionally-trained army, China too would take an equal beating, which Lt Gen HS Panag, a former Northern Army Commander, says can at least “hold its own” and “bloody” the PLA to a stalemate in a defensive war.
The ‘deterrence’ between smaller nuclear states like India and Pakistan is slightly at a slightly higher threshold, since they quickly and tacitly disengage after brief fisticuffs - evident from the two clashes in September 2016 and February 2019. Add to this a nuclear overhang; - albeit less sharper than the one with Pakistan, where relations are governed by different set of hyper religious nationalism - a delicate situation in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and checking a pandemic with its accompanying economic recession will invite apocalyptic chaos. Besides, a war with India in Ladakh might possibly draw in Pakistan which sits across just a few hundred kilometers west in Baltistan.
It is in the larger geopolitical churning that are a result of American and Indian domestic politics and the ongoing New Cold War between the US and China; India’s own current brand of domestic politics under PM Narendra Modi; it’s tilt towards that Western nation; and a brief hark back to history of the first war between India and China in 1962 is the prism through which this rather extreme Chinese reaction and it’s possible intention and ‘signaling’ should be read.
THE REGIONAL & GLOBAL PICTURE
India’s Internal Politics and J&K
The first sign of things to come was the Chinese reaction to the abrogation of Article 370 (special status for Kashmir) that made Ladakh a Union Territory and Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement on Aksai Chin. Shah, while moving a resolution in Parliament on August 6, 2019 to scrap Article 370, said, “Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt about it. When I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it.”
This saw, possibly for the first time, China departing from it’s rare policy of not commenting on countries’ internal matters, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “We urge India to be cautious in words and deeds on the border issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides and avoid taking actions that further complicate the border issue.” On August 16, the Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN argued in a closed door informal session of the UN Security Council that the abrogation of Article 370 also “challenged China’s own sovereign interests.”
For a country that has maintained a conscious neutrality on the Kashmir issue and supported it’s resolution through “increased dialogue” (Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang’s statement in September 2017); had until the abrogation of Article 370, nipped Pakistani attempts to raise Kashmir in the UNSC and the UNGA; and consistently stated it’s adherence to “non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries” (the last through a column in the state-run Global Times on May 1, 2017 and a subsequent foreign ministry statement on May 4), the statement was totally uncharacteristic.
In the former it announced it’s “vested interest” in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute for the success of the OBOR that passes through the Northern Areas and Gilgit-Baltistan. While boasting about it’s “increased economic influence” to help resolve the conflicts, it said “(it also) needs to be prudent with other big powers…(like)…India.” In the foreign ministry statement on May 4, it went far as to express clear reluctance to mediate between India and Pakistan, calling it an issue “left over from history… (which should be) …properly addressed by India and Pakistan through consultation and negotiation.”
The abrogation of the Article 370 itself was marked by a swooping and extreme 7 month lockdown, which before being lifted headed into the Coronavirus outbreak, by default extending it. A total communications, internet and transport ban, arrests of minor boys (that was later reported to the Supreme Court) and houses arrests of senior elderly politicians persisted nearly the entire duration.
Moscow-based strategic affairs analyst Andrew Koybko said, “The predicting differences between India and China on a host of issues were exacerbated by India’s abrogation of Article 370. Beijing condemned it for violating UNSC Resolutions and then some Indian officials reaffirmed their claims to Aksai Chin which provoked a defensive reaction from China,” he said.
Then in the same month and the following one in September 2019, then Chief of Army Staff (and now Chief of Defence Staff) General Bipin Rawat said the army was capable of any action in “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) if the government passed orders for it” and that “war games” by the army’s 14 Corps and 15 Corps have envisaged them “going across...into POK and Gilgit-Baltistan.”
Rawat has often courted controversy for making political statements from the non-military domain. China that has investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is the flagship project of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), would have certainly viewed it as a possible Indian action and not made light of it.
(The BRI itself is a gargantuan project that envisages overland trade routes uniting Europe and Asia in the supercontinent of Eurasia, with a view to take the region away from sea lines of communications and trade. China’s oil imports too can be transported straight from Gwadar in Balochistan to the Chinese mainland without the roundabout sea route through Malacca Straits, which is open to being molested by India and the US. Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is based on the same principle of tapping the natural continuity of the landmass).
India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the the ‘semi-official’ status accorded to Dalai Lama’s Arunachal Pradesh visit in April 2017 too offended China. The Chinese retaliated by vetoing India’s move to have Masood Azhar designated as a global terrorist by the UNSC and blocking its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). These series of actions led to the 73-day Doklam crisis between June and August 2017, when both nations actually came close to a military confrontation.
“Acknowledging the risk of an escalation, both sides mutually agreed to diffuse the situation. India officially ‘distanced’ itself from the activities of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. China too responded with a conciliatory attitude, paving the way for the Wuhan informal summit in April 2018,” wrote Gen Panag in October 17, 2019 in The Print.
India Joining the US Bandwagon & the Latter’s Dubious Role in World Politics
This is what motivates China’s angst towards India, more than anything else. The last few years has seen New Delhi grow increasingly close to Washington, whose while Beijing considers it’s prime strategic rival, which has a questionable global repute with destructive wars against imagined enemies; support to radical groups against democratically elected governments and more recently, securing arms sales even in the times of the Coronavirus. (The State Department recently approved the sale AGM-84 Harpoon Block II Anti-Ship Missiles to India in April this year, at the height of the Coronavirus outbreak).
As for the pandemic itself, despite the World Health Organization's (WHO) statement, multiple research virological and microbiology research papers and a public report by the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) itself that denies the possibility of the SARS-Cov2 virus being made in a lab, as President Donald Trump has been belting and mounting an international campaign to demand reparations from China over the outbreak, India, albeit not openly, has been seen to tacitly seen supporting the same. News channels seen close to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) have been hosting prime time segments on the theme which China perceives as being grossly unfair.
It would also be interesting to note that Trump mishandling of the Coronavirus in his own country has killed over 1 lakh people and infected around 20 lakh, with the death toll in China being less than 6,000 and new cases being detected only now in a fresh wave after a hiatus of several weeks. Worse, even after the rousing welcome by PM Narendra Modi in the ‘Namaste Trump’ rally a month ago, Trump on April 7 threatened India with “retaliation” if India didn’t sell it hydroxychloroquine. That India acquised instantly is noteworthy.
Other areas where China sees India joining an anti-China alliance is New Delhi being made a part of the US’s 2017 Indo-Pacific Strategy that they US envisaged in 2017 after the 73-day Doklam standoff. With an avowed goal of countering China, India however hasn’t completely embraced all it’s principles by saying the Indo-Pacific is an “open, free inclusive” platform. The QUAD alliance, between the US, Australia and Japan too sees participation by New Delhi in its naval exercises, which are aimed at countering China’s growing military assertiveness in the western Pacific.
However, this is also an age where the US has been pulling out of multiple alliances (NATO, Trans-Atlantic Partnership) and agreements meant to control arms races and nuclear buildups (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, New START, Iran Nuclear Deal, Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Open Skies Treaty) in an increasingly isolationist avatar.
It’s role in south Asia’s other issues, like Afghanistan and Pakistan too has been inconsistent and dubious. In Afghanistan, the radical groups were American creations themselves to fight the Soviet intervention on behalf of the secular government in Afghanistan, effected through the ultra-conservative and fundamentalist General Zia Ul Haq regime in Pakistan which it had propped up.
The creations birthed turned on their masters with the September 2001 attacks and the US entered Afghanistan to destroy the Al Qaeda and Taliban, now hastily leaving in a bid to keep up Trump’s election promise of bringing back American troops, with the Taliban stronger than ever.
It also gradually softened its anti-terror position on Pakistan in the run up to the negotiations with the Taliban by resuming sales of F-16s that had been suspended by the Congress and a training programme for Pakistan Army officers. That the Afghanistan peace talks did not involve the legitimate government of Afghanistan that were directly held between the US, Pakistan and the Taliban is proof of how the US has been directly responsible for the radicalism and instability in the Af-Pak region.
According to Korybko, these escalating geopolitical issues are exploited by the US, which share an interest in “containing China”. “It was therefore predictable that there would be flare up since the situation is so tense and India is being encouraged by the US to assert its claims,” Korybko adds.
WHAT IS THE CHINESE MOTIVE HERE?
Harking back to 1962, when the first Indo-Chinese border war saw the PLA overrunning the Indian Army in a surprise attack before pulling back to pre-war positions, provides a direct hint. The embarrassing defeat left a deep scar in Indian psyche for generations, particularly the Prime Minister at the times, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Chinese aimed to “humiliate” him for his aggressive military moves of establishing forward posts in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) (now Arunachal Pradesh), which China considers Greater Tibet.
And humiliate it did, with the defeat becoming his ignominious legacy that haunts him and his party long after his passing and a ready weapon by its opponents as an electoral plank. Present day India, PM Modi’s diplomacy has seen bombast and bravado on national security and terror threats from Pakistan, conducting two celebrated strikes that served as a ready fuel for the passionate and communal nationalistic sentiments.
Thus intruding into contested areas with massive mobilisation embarasses the top leader, who is not in a position to undertake a war when his country reels in an unprecedented economic recession, that was made worse by the lockdown and the public health emergency in containing them virus itself.
The Chinese calculation that India presently lacks the political will to go to war with a country other than Pakistan is proving to be true, as statements from the Indian leadership until and even after the June 15 violence have been conciliatory, with no statement on the matter from the Prime Minister himself. In fact, it is China that has accused India of “provocative actions” and “attacking border personnel” despite being the initiators of the stand off themselves.
And maybe, a signal to the US as well, that with all the Coronavirus diatribe, cornering in the South China Sea and the debilitating global recession after the Coronavius lockdown, it can still mobilise for war and has the economic capacity to afford it. Whatever the intent, it’s actions in Ladakh remain destabilising and will serve to only drive India away. While keeping the US at arms length, India must also protect its sovereignty from such Chinese moves.
Whether this is the Chinese motive, or any other goal, will only reveal itself after the militaries disengage and talks progress between the commanders and the diplomats. "This is because the areas held are patrolled only upto October when the winter snow sets in. The talks can go on until then and the Chinese have that amount of time to reveal what they want to extract out of India," he said. They really do think far ahead.
(The author is the Principal Correspondent at the 'Fauji India Magazine' and can be reached on Emails: [email protected], [email protected]) Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')