With no ice melting or breaking in Ladakh, what are India and China talking about?
With China allegedly building a bridge on the banks of the Pangong Tso Lake, tension is once again building up. Experts say the purpose of this new bridge is to ensure quicker military action by China
Snows in the high reaches along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China ensuring a modicum of calm, the 14th round of talks at the level of corps commanders was held after a three-month hiatus on January 12, with India hoping for some forward movement in the delayed process of disengagement in the Depsang Bulge and Demchok in eastern Ladakh.
Lt Gen Anindya Sengupta, who recently assumed command of the Leh-based 14th Corps, also known as the Fire and Fury Corps, led the Indian delegation for this Senior Highest Military Commander Level (SHMCL) meeting, a mechanism set up 21 months ago to resolve the standoff in eastern Ladakh. He met Maj Gen Yang Lin, the South Xinjiang Military District Chief heading the Chinese delegation.
It was unclear whether this round of talks would be held until China confirmed the day before talks were tentatively scheduled that the meeting would indeed take place. Reactions or lack of reaction from both sides after the meeting indicated little headway had been made.
Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China, points out that the situation continues to be “tense, potentially kinetic and confrontational”. Rao, whose recent book ‘The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-1962’, provides vital insights into the psyche of the players involved in the region, says, “The status quo ante of June 2020 has been seriously disturbed, and there is every risk of conflict without disengagement and de-escalation. Both sides are seeking to define the LAC from their perspective--the Chinese even more so.”
There have been other significant developments, negative from the Indian point of view, since the last military commanders’ meeting on October 10, 2021. With China allegedly building a bridge on the banks of the Pangong Tso Lake, tension is once again building up. Experts say the purpose of this new bridge is to ensure quicker military action by China by reducing the distance to the other side by about 125 kilometres.
It is clear that India cannot afford to let its guard down, as it did when advanced patrols did not go out in Galwan because of the Covid pandemic in 2020, allowing the Chinese to come right up to the Indian posts and kill Indian soldiers in the skirmishes that followed.
China, on October 23, 2021 passed a new law to protect its “sacred and inviolable” land borders. The law, which came into effect on January 1, outlines measures for the protection and exploitation of its land border areas and could have a definite bearing on China’s boundary dispute with India. The Chinese law says that the State shall take measures to strengthen border defence, support economic and social development in border areas, and improve public services and infrastructure in such areas.
This explains the establishment of settled “villages” and other populated infrastructure parti-cularly across Arunachal Pradesh, that China says was Southern Tibet.
Former diplomats, China watchers and analysts believe that given the aggression China has displayed, beginning with its belligerence and building of infrastructure in the South China Sea and, subsequently, with its intrusion into the hitherto undisturbed Galwan Valley even before June 2020, Beijing is actually building up pressure to stake claim to the territory of Arunachal Pradesh, that it will not merely confine itself to Tawang.
With the border standoff in eastern Ladakh unresolved, China announced it had renamed several places in Arunachal Pradesh as part of its claim on the Indian state. India predictably denounced the move. Even more shockingly, a Chinese diplomat from its Embassy in Delhi wrote to an Indian minister and several MPs objecting to them attending a dinner hosted by the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile.
The fact that Chinese diplomats in India feel emboldened enough to disapprove of actions of Indian ministers and communicate with them directly, China watchers say, is “consistent with their reading of how the Indian govt will react”.
“They have closely studied the Indian leadership and have understood that reactions like complete silence or outright denial of any Chinese ingress into Indian territory would be helpful in furthering their efforts,” an analyst stated. Beijing looks at Washington as its only competition and what New Delhi thinks does not really matter to China, a former diplomat agreed.
While the Indian government has politically tried to underplay the issue of clashes along the LAC, opinion is divided over whether New Delhi should have anticipated and pre-empted the Chinese aggression, particularly after the Doklam standoff.
The aggression in the hitherto peaceful Ladakh region of the western sector had come within months of the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and boastful statements about the takeover of PoK and Aksai Chin. However, while that might have served as a catalyst to provoke Beijing’s military manoeuvring along the LAC, the intent has been long simmering and is part of President Xi Jinping’s grand vision, which includes resolving its border problems and building unhindered connectivity with Europe.
India’s declining financial heft and its poor economic indices have also emboldened China--which is facing its own economic crises, particularly in the real estate sector, along with global opprobrium over the pandemic outbreak.
So how should India deal with the problem?
Primarily, by shoring up its defences and vastly improving its economic performance so that it can no longer be ignored, as was the case in the first decade of this century, experts suggest.
According to an analyst, India needs to ramp up its defence expenditure and rapidly bolster its military hardware and capacities, while continuing to improve its border infrastructure.
“Sensibly, the government has continued with its efforts to seek disengagement of Chinese troops and a de-escalation of tensions in Ladakh, while dealing with trade and economic relations, diversification of supply chains and a gradual decoupling in areas where India had become too dependent on Chinese raw materials such as pharmaceutical and telecom,” says Rao.
India has also invested in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Quad has grown in stature and substance, relations with US and Japan receiving more emphasis. But experts believe the Quad would require an economic pillar to pose a more significant challenge to the Chinese aggression.
In the short term, however, India has very few levers to turn the tables and can, at best, try to judiciously manage the situation and prevent further escalation by visibly raising its security and economic profile and some deft behind the scenes diplomacy.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)