It is difficult to say with exact precision what is going on in the back channels between India and China after Chinese troops have made incursions inside the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Clarity is warped by not just the historically contested positions but also denials and counter claims. But what is happening on the ground is more than a game of Chinese whispers. Tensions between India and China, following build-up of military installation and mobilization by the two armies all along the LAC, particularly in Ladakh, which is the hot spot, seem poised for a prolonged stalemate.
Unwilling to budge, though both sides opened up diplomatic channels on May 28, coinciding with US president Donald Trump’s offer to mediate which both countries rebuffed, the stalemate continues with Chinese and Indian troops standing eyeball to eyeball. The dangers of an escalation cannot be ruled out.
Though tensions and flare-ups in decades after the 1962 war have been amicably resolved by the two countries, this situation may be different. With China not just entering the Galwan Valley on the Indian side but also building its military installation and tripling up troops on its side, this may not be the usual case of the dragon nibbling at the doorstep. China’s Peoples Liberation Army is strengthening its fortifications from three sides in a bid to push boundaries with India beyond the Shyok and Indus rivers, which undermines India’s strategic gains in Siachen. The Chinese battle formations have been meticulously planned and the build-up is unprecedented in scale. Indian military readiness is up to the mark but the military imbalance between the two countries is inescapable.
The present stand-off is a consequence of a historic dispute, strategic concerns, economic projects and global power tussle. The historic dispute pertains to Aksai Chin, an area under Chinese control which India claims as its own. The Aksai Chin is separated from India’s Ladakh region by the Line of Actual Control (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. The region has strategic value for both the countries which bring the tensions alive every now and then. There are, however, more reasons for the latest provocation.
India hastening up construction of roads and air strips close to the LAC is one of the fresh triggers. 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. The latter is in a tearing hurry to retreat from Afghanistan but is also cautious not to concede any space in the region to China or Russia. 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 and dependence on US, have precipitated the crisis.
Additionally, China has also taken exception to Kashmir’s altered political and geographic status after India scrapped its special status and reorganized it into two union territories while also announcing to regain control of the entire territory of Jammu & Kashmir, as it stood in 1947, including Aksai Chin. By default, India has managed to internationalise Kashmir by provoking China which may not be willing to cede an inch of the area under its control. Its army installations on the Indian side of LAC are thus aimed at mounting pressure on India. But things can get more complicated from here. Pakistan, whose politics has been immensely Kashmir centric, is a close 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. The reported PLA sightings in Pakistan occupied Kashmir raised the heckles in India few years ago. Meanwhile, India is also engaged in a territorial tussle with Nepal at the disputed borders of Kalapani. Nepal has been a traditional friend of India but the latter’s aggressive posturing in recent years is virtually pushing Nepal into lap of China, which is making all out attempts to woo the former. India’s tensions with Nepal and Pakistan may be unrelated but could have an impact on the Chinese equation.
Both the reasons for the present triggers and the scale of build-up suggest a deeper crisis, if not escalation. To this, Indian strategic expert and Editor of Force magazine, Praveen Sawhney, points out to the immense cyber capability of China, its superiority in electro-magnetic spectrum and kinetic war-field – all of which are aimed at destruction of not just defence installations but also India’s communication systems at a lightening speed, warning about China’s changing war philosophy and the options it has available for bringing India to a complete standstill, both in the war-zone and the hinter-land.
Though India is blocking Chinese forward movement with an equal number of troops while engaging China diplomatically also, the odds are that this ability may not ward of Chinese intrusion despite a prolonged wait. Any reckless move could turn the nuclear region into a hot potato that the world wouldn’t want on its hands. That possibility is a bit minimized with India shunning its denial of the scope and scale of the Chinese intrusion and finally going back to the diplomatic channels open, without lowering its guard. China is unlikely to withdraw without getting extra concessions. At best, India can manage to pressurize it to retreat a bit, not fully. That may provide an occasion for the victory drum-beaters to pronounce a symbolic win but would be detrimental to Indian strategic interests as it would compel India to double up its mobilization on LAC in perpetuity, similar to its mobilization on the Line of Control with Pakistan. Besides, it would set a terrible precedent as it would encourage China to demand its pound of flesh every now and then.
The concerns are not only for India, which has only its conventional battle techniques to fall back on. A bigger misadventure would also be a blow to the global powers who may find their hold over South Asia and the strategically vital Central Asia, neighbouring it, weakening. What happens next is not without perils. Thus, every effort must go into ensuring that the war games do not transition from the mind level to the ground level.