Rumblings in the High Himalayas
Once again the Dragon is flaunting its fangs---a lot more perilously than hithertofore. Gravely beset also in its own land combating the pandemic COVID 19, it pushed onto an unsuspecting world, China could not have found a worse time to trigger uncalled for tensions with its neighbour, India.
It has, since 5 May 2020 onwards, transgressed in East Ladakh at 4 points along the earlier quiet Galwan Valley and at one place along the picturesque Pangong Tso(lake). China also crossed into Niku La in North Sikkim where, it has since pulled back, with both sides utilizing the existing border management protocols to resolve the dispute. However, in the vicinity, towards its own side, it has reportedly been improving its defensive posture.
According to widespread media reports displaying commercially available satellite imagery, China in the Galwan River Valley has reportedly deployed two brigades with over 5000 soldiers, established helicopter landing grounds, pitched tents, moved heavy vehicles nearly 4 kms across the Line of Actual Control(LAC) and even some artillery though in its own territory. China has upgraded its civil and military airfield at Ngari Giinsa which is just 60 kms from the LAC and reportedly deployed J 11 jets at this airfield.
Though the Chinese have committed hundreds of transgressions across the LAC in the Ladakh sector in the past many years, yet the Galwan Valley witnessed Chinese intrusions for the first time in the long history of India-China border disputes. India too swiftly moved its troops to face the ominous Chinese build-up and now both sides are facing each other. The deployments continue to be further strengthened and which way this confrontation will shape up in the coming weeks is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile media reports also point at some Pak troops build-up on India’s west in the Gilgit-Baltistan(GB) region. Presumably, China may have asked its vassal state, Pakistan, to build-up some troops in GB thereby ensuring India remains occupied in its north-west areas too and is unable to switch troops facing Pakistan across the Line of Control(LC) in J&K towards the LAC facing the Chinese!
With the world and China itself combating the deadly pandemic COVID 19 and having suffered thousands of fatalities with no end in sight, what has been engaging the minds of strategic analysts and many nations, is the timing and the strategic and tactical intent of China’s serious transgressions ? The Chinese objectives across the LAC appear to be serious enough to prompt even US President Donald Trump, the other day, to offer to mediate between the two Asian giants. That the US and China are themselves engaged in a serious verbal confrontation with the US directly blaming China for the pandemic, which has caused over a lakh of fatalities in the US, is another matter! Meanwhile, the US and other nations, would be aware of India’s consistent policy of an aversion towards mediation by a third country in what India considers its internal matter. Accordingly, India has promptly declined the US president’s offer.
At the outset, it is clear to all India-China affairs watchers that despite the occasional Chinese assertiveness along the nearly 4000 kms India-China Himalayan borders, India’s overall reactions have been somewhat restrained over the past 20 years and more. PM Narendra Modi right throughout his tenure has endeavoured to foster friendly relations with China with mixed results. Even during the somewhat serious Doklam crisis ( near Sikkim) in Sep 2017 during the 73 days, when India asserted itself equally, not a shot was physically fired despite the tensions of a large number of troops facing each other.
Prior to the Doklam face-off, India and China have had confrontations in Depsang in 2013 and in Chumar in 2014 (both in the Ladakh sector). The most serious confrontation between the two likely adversaries was in 1985 when India, then under the leadership of the young, decisive PM Rajiv Gandhi and an able Army Chief, Gen Sundarji, launched Op Falcon in Oct 1986 to push the Chinese back from Sumdurang Chu, north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. This operation alongwith Gen Sundarji’s brainchild, Op Chequerboard, to deploy the Indian Army in strength along the India-China borders were a roaring success. The Indian Army’s determined moves did send a strong message to the Chinese that the 1962 debacle was far behind. India’s strong stand in late 1986 paved the way for a visit by PM Rajiv Gandhi to China - a first by an Indian PM in nearly 30 years or so. Temperatures between India and China did cool down considerably during that time and the ground work laid for border management protocols between the two Asian neighbours.
As India now gears up to the latest and indeed a surprising provocation by China in Ladakh, its security establishment, must be gauging the “raison-de-tre” of the Chinese moves. Are the Chinese uncalled for actions a result of its recent annoyance with India on supporting the US and global call for a thorough investigation of the origins of the pandemic - all facts point towards Wuhan in China and the Chinese attempts to hide relevant facts about this world- ravaging catastrophe. India now assuming the chairmanship of the WHO advisory board and likely to accelerate the global efforts at ascertaining the causes of the pandemic may have rattled China.
With US and China relations, currently, at abysmally low levels owing to the pandemic slugfest, their trade wars irreconcilable and mutual tensions between the two powers in the South China Sea, does China feel that India is getting too close to the US for China’s comfort? Does China wish to caution India at getting too close to a supposedly anti-China formation emerging in the QUAD alongwith the US, Japan and Australia?
A major and commonly understood reason for China’s intransigence towards India, in the last few years, has been the latter’s refusal to join China’s globally ambitious Border and Road Initiative (BRI) especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC). The latter runs through the disputed region of GB, and India rightfully claims it and thus can never be a party to the CPEC. Despite China’s President Xi Jingping’s pressure on Indian PM Narendra Modi to join this Chinese initiative, rightfully India has put its foot down to not joining this venture which clearly harms Indian strategic interests. In addition, with many foreign industries now planning to move out of China and relocate in other Asian nations, does China feel that they may lose the status of being the “world’s factory” to a rising India ?
Another reason which may have provoked China could be India’s improving roads infrastructure in the border regions. India had successfully completed, last year, a major road running along the Shyok River till Daulat Beg Oldi which is India’s last military post just south of the Karakoram Pass. In addition, India continues with building up a large concrete bridge over the Galwan river---- well inside Indian territory. Over the last many years India has been improving its long neglected border roads infrastructure.
What puzzles many China watchers is the timing of its upping the ante vis-à-vis India at this juncture. China, apart from the pandemic global opprobrium, is currently facing serious problems in Hong Kong and Xingjian, in the South China Sea, with Taiwan and in Tibet, and importantly, with the USA. Consequently, as China views India as its serious competitor in Asia, is it merely trying to deflect attention from itself out of all these vexed issues to somewhere it surmises it may meet with some success and end India’s rise as a major regional power. Will China thus find it appropriate to trigger a shooting war with a reasonably well prepared India in its border regions is a question which emerges in the minds of most analysts. As the immediate future will unravel the workings of the enigmatic Chinese, it will be safe to assume that the Chinese have taken this step as a cumulative fall-out of all the problems which it currently confronts.
Though it will be highly imprudent on China’s part to get into a kinetic confrontation with India, it goes without saying that only India’s swift and strong military preparedness combined with a resolute political will deter the dragon. Dissuasion and deterrence towards an adversary emerges solely from the sinews of Comprehensive National Power. As it builds up militarily, diplomatic channels to solve the stand-off must also be activated. To combat the wily Chinese, India is fully capable. Nevertheless, it is hoped that wisdom will prevail with China and cordial relations between the two Asian giants underscore the current geopolitics of the region.
(A distinguished soldier and one of India’s leading military thinkers, General Davar retired as Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff after raising India’s Defence Intelligence Agency. He has also served as GOC Ladakh).