“While they were busy changing history, somebody changed the geography”. This witty one-liner, whose creator remains unknown, began going viral on all of social media in Kashmir when the India-China crisis on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh started.
The reference is to two developments, less than a year apart. One, Indian government’s act of altering the political status of Jammu and Kashmir, strip it of its special status and divide it into two union territories as a unilateral way of settling the historic dispute on August 5, 2019. Second, is the guzzling up of about 60 square kilometres of Indian territory by China in Ladakh region of Kashmir.
Before the two sides decided to begin a process of dis-engagement, unfortunately allowing China to alter the border alignments to its strategic advantage quietly, the two preceding months witnessed a massive build-up of China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) all along the yet unsettled boundary, it shares with India, of about 3,500 kilometres, and its incursion across the de facto (and somewhat unclearly defined) border called the LAC.
China has had a finger in the Kashmir pie since 1950s, controlling over 40,000 square kilometre area of Aksai Chin; and India and China have gone to war in 1962.
The Aksai Chin, an area under Chinese control which India claims as its own, is separated from India’s Ladakh region by the LAC and the complexity of the issue is deepened by the absence of a clearly defined line and the vagueness with which it has been interpreted by the two sides for decades. In 1988, India and China agreed to negotiate a border settlement but the process of clear demarcation of the LAC has been virtually stalled since 2002.
This was not the first time the region has witnessed border tensions but the enormity of the scale was unprecedented after the 1962 war.
The fresh tensions arose with China fortifying its bases along the LAC and India responding by doubling up its military reinforcements. Skirmishes between soldiers of the two nuclearized states, fighting with spiked clubs, stones and batons on the icy heights lead to injuries on both sides in the first week of May. Tensions scaled up on June 15, when in a major confrontation, 20 Indian soldiers including a senior officer, lost their lives. Mystery shrouds the Chinese casualties, if any, as China remains tightlipped about it while India claims to have downed their 40 personnel. As both the armies have thankfully begun the process of retreat after a frightening eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontation, questions are raised about the sustainability of the agreement of disengagement, diplomatic level bilateral engagement between the two countries and whether China would keep its word. The Doklam crisis and the way it ended with China finally having its way necessitates more caution.
Opinions are divided on whether India’s theatric in Kashmir was the cause or an excuse for China to begin its misadventure. The connection, however, is unmistakable. Chinese officials have of late linked the India-China standoff at the borders to New Delhi’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir. While China had expressed its displeasure over the move last year, Indian home minister, Amit Shah’s pledge to regain control of the Pakistan controlled and Chinese controlled territories of Kashmir, appeared to have woken up the dragon. The creation of two union territories of J&K and Ladakh, enabling India to consolidate its power and hold over the region, have also possibly added to China’s anxieties as it considers the area to be of strategic worth in view of its expansionist designs towards its west. Recent reports have pointed out to signs of early transgression which began not this year but last year in September and also that China was embittered by India spurning Chinese offer in October 2019 of trilateral dialogue between India, Pakistan and China.
The Aksai Chin and LAC together stand at a major junction, linking China with Tibet on the eastern side and Pakistan administered Kashmir areas on the western side, the latter enabling China’s ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan administered Kashmir and leads right up till Iran.
The ignored warning
There is a recent precursor to the Chinese transgression. During the height of Doklam crisis in 2017-2018, when India and China were involved in a similar standoff of lesser magnitude on the Sino-India border in the eastern sector, a Chinese foreign affairs ministry official had told a visiting team of Indian media, “What if we use the same excuse and enter the Kalapani region between China, India and Nepal or even into the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan?” The comment was a foreboding of things to come.
The Chinese official’s warning in 2018 has turned into a prediction. It’s more than coincidence that in May this year when the present tensions began in Ladakh sector, India was also grappling with another border dispute with Nepal in Kalapani.
India, however, hoped to win over China through bilateral summits and investing in multi-billion dollar trade. When the Chinese Army occupied chunks of its claimed Galwan Valley, India seemed to have officially acquiesced the area after China’s refusal to move back its troops. Despite the evidence from google maps, Indian officials denied any transgression by China. While the optics of ‘amicably resolving the issue’ was being created internally, what India has effectively done is to shut its eyes to Chinese refusal to retreat and set a wrong precedent. The present diplomatic engagement so far does not address that wrong, rather perpetuates it.
While India and China have begun to sort out the issue, imbuing some optimism, tensions are far from over. Not only have the troubles with Nepal have deepened, the disengagement process has allowed China, habitually altering the LAC from time to time, to shift the claim line and devour a chunk of the territory. While caution and preparedness are still necessary, there are lessons to be learnt and understand why this happened.
By altering Kashmir’s political status and weaponising it against the Kashmiris in an attempt to satiate the frenzied urge of Hindu right wing constituency as well as to fulfill its long held dream of transforming ‘secular’ India into a Hindu state, Narendra Modi led BJP government ended up handing China the levers, the latter needed against India. Whether this is the sub-plot or the central theme of the continuing stalemate, a combination of many other factors are not only possible triggers but add to the complexity of the problem.
A historic dispute, mutual strategic concerns, fragile relations despite major summits, a whopping increase in bilateral business deals to the tune of 84 billion dollars and, above all, a global power tussle have been the other key factors. China’s humungous appetite for increasing its economic footprints in West Asia and Central Asia through its China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Belt Road Initiative is a red herring for the USA, which wants to keep its foothold in the region as it retreats from Afghanistan. Of late, the deepening trade war between USA and China, and more recently Trump’s penchant for blaming the pandemic on China, coupled with India’s increasing tilt towards US and strengthening of the Quad, comprising US, Australia, Japan and India, as well as the complex story of global interests in South China sea region, have precipitated the crisis.
In this backdrop Indian haste in construction of roads and air strips close to the LAC was one of the fresh triggers. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s reckless handling of foreign policy made China wary and uncomfortable. His (Modi’s) obsession for use of histrionics and propaganda to bolster his own personal image, at the cost of a sagging economy, and deepening politics of religious divisiveness are weaknesses that China’s over-ambitious premier Xi Jinping chose to exploit to the hilt. Into this tangled web, throw in the increasing fragility of India’s relations with her other neighbours including its traditional ally, Nepal; and China had the moment on a platter. China’s is not only using its differential military status to its advantage but also weaponizing the common neighbours.
Pakistan, whose politics has been immensely Kashmir centric, is a close traditional ally of China and infiltration bids from India’s western borders have increased of late. Besides, there is an inter-operability of the Chinese and Pakistani armies.
Concerns both sides
The Chinese aggression was meticulously planned. While China’s interest appeared to be focused on gaining strategic control of the border areas and deriding India, its interest in keeping the diplomatic channel alive shows that it may also not wish to lose India completely, owing to its economic interests and multi-billion dollar bilateral trade which is heavily skewed in favour of China.
India’s interest to scale down the tensions stems from a variety of reasons including bilateral trade and its dependence on China. Besides, India’s huge military differential gap with China coupled with the biggest ever economic slowdown, further exacerbated due to the Covid 19 pandemic and a badly planned lockdown, further dampened its prospects of a payback. Neither war, nor insulating India economically from China, its biggest trade partner, are in Indian interests. Yet, the Indian government cannot get off the hook by allowing China to alter the border status quo and by ignoring the skirmishes that led to the deaths of 20 soldiers in a country where politics is foregrounded in the military doctrine and territorial integrity. Buoyed by the bloodletting cries for salvaging Indian prestige by military action or boycotting Chinese goods, a nagging opposition nailing the present government for its diplomatic failures, its timid silence and other challenges on the home front, posited by economic mess and widening communal cleavages, the Modi government has been caught between the devil and deep sea situation.
A small but significant detail may be added to this crisis. The revocation of Kashmir’s special status through sheer military force last year, and the subsequent laws aimed at turning the territory into a settlement bonanza for mainland Indians and completely devouring the collective identity of the erstwhile state and its different ethnic groups has already turned a massive population hostile. Even Buddhist dominated Ladakh, which had initially welcomed the move in view of its long pending demand of separation from rest of Jammu & Kashmir and a union territory status, is now worried about the vulnerability of its identity. Ladakh is directly impacted by the Chinese transgression and panic has already set in, engendering unpopularity of the Indian government. Local residents in Ladakh talk about China gradually nibbling at the LAC and shrinking the pasture lands of the nomads on the Indian side in the past few years. This time, they have been virtually dislocated.
Much worse, in the Muslim dominated Kashmir Valley, young men driven by pure helpless, translating into hatred, are viewing China as a ‘saviour’. Added to this is the romanticism of the historical and cultural ties of Kashmir and Ladakh with central Asia before the creation of the state of J&K in 1846 when the modern nation-states did not exist. This internal crisis is a great cause of worry for India, which has already wearied out its military apparatus in stamping out any rebellion in the region.
Range of options
India’s options, otherwise, are also limited.
Any aggressive posturing against China would compel it to gravitate towards America and mark the transition of India from being the founder of Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War era to becoming a pliable poodle of the super-power, which is no stranger to extracting its pound of flesh. Besides, America’s interests in Afghanistan require it to continue playing footsie with Pakistan, which shares a congruous and porous border with Afghanistan.
The other option is to accept the humiliation for now and attempt to strengthen the country’s economy, politics and military within and enhance its power of diplomatic negotiations at the foreign level. But does that ward of the China’s threat? What it gets away with today, it will get away tomorrow.
The prolongation of this conflict also exposes the region to the risk of deepening the India-Pakistan hostility. Both sides have just downsized their embassies to half and cross-border firing is a routine. Any display of war machismo on the borders, by either side, due to reckless adventurism, to suit domestic hunger propelled by jingoism or as part of calculated deflection strategy, could inflame the region with no buttons to stop. China’s unquenchable expansionist appetite coupled with Pakistan’s unease with India since the latter’s move alter the status of Kashmir, which has for decades been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s political discourse, would script a story that may not remain in anyone’s control and its impact will spill beyond Kashmir and beyond South Asia.
One can, thus, heave a sigh of relief that India and China have gone in for a more civilized option. But how far the two sides will be able to bridge the trust deficit and protect their respective interests, without stepping on each other’s toes is a tricky business. The waters have yet to be tested. But more importantly with a ruptured Kashmir in the backyard, it is less likely that eternal peace in the region can be achieved.