Dragon at the Gate: Looking back at border disputes with China in 2022

The Modi government should have realised that threats from China would increase following Xi’s ascendance to a historic third five-year term as China’s President. How will India respond in 2023?

A video grab of a skirmish between Indian army personnel and China’s PLA troops in the Galwan valley in Ladakh. The video is purportedly from June 2020
A video grab of a skirmish between Indian army personnel and China’s PLA troops in the Galwan valley in Ladakh. The video is purportedly from June 2020

Bhavin Kakkar

Buttonholed by an unyielding Opposition, the government relented—quite unusually for this regime—on December 13 to make a statement in Parliament on China’s unprovoked transgression four days earlier at the Line of Actual Control in the Yangtse area of Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector.

A government hitherto reticent on the developments at our frontiers got defence minister Rajnath Singh to make a brief statement in Parliament on this crucial issue. The minister said that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had tried “to transgress the LAC in the Yangtse area of Tawang Sector and unilaterally change the status quo”, but three infantry units of the Indian Army had “bravely stopped” them and “compelled them to return to their posts”.

Assuring the House that no Indian soldier had been killed or severely injured, Singh added, “I also assure the House that our army can defend the country’s territorial integrity, and is ready to tackle any transgression.”

The minister pointed out that the local commanding officer of the Indian Army held a flag meeting with his Chinese counterpart on December 11, and asked the Chinese side “to refrain from such actions and maintain peace and tranquillity along the border”. Without elaborating, Singh added that the issue had also been taken up with the Chinese side through “diplomatic channels”.

As fleeting as the clash was, soldiers were wounded on both sides, with more PLA troops claimed to have been injured than the 20 on the Indian side, at least six of whom needed to be airlifted to Guwahati, in the adjoining state of Assam, for treatment. It was also the first physical combat between the two sides since the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in June 2020 in which 20 Indian soldiers were martyred.

Political dialogue, suspended since November 2019, must resume. These two major Asian countries are not just neighbours but also nuclear weapon states. It’s untenable that they will refrain from engaging on the state of their relationship
Former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale in a recent paper

A video clip doing rounds on social media shows the large column of Chinese soldiers—who clearly outnumbered the Indian jawans—withdrawing without much retaliation after they are beaten back with sticks and stones by the Indian side.

It is possible that theirs was a tactical retreat and this scuffle was part of a wider design that may unfold in the days to come. This face-off was very likely schemed by senior commanders, as Chinese armed forces are extremely regimented and operate solely on orders.

The timing for the intrusion too proved awkward for India, which, after assuming the year-long rotational presidentship of G-20, on 1st December, was hosting G20 Development Working Group (DWG) meetings in Mumbai from 13 to 16 December. G20 members, that include China, represent around 85 per cent of the global GDP, over 75 per cent of the global trade, and about two-thirds of the world population, and the delegations will be lavishly hosted by India at 215 meetings being held across 56 cities and in all the seven north-eastern states, including Arunachal Pradesh.

At the G20 meeting in Mumbai on December 14, Chinese delegate Hanwen Tang deemed it “a great experience to enjoy Indian hospitality”, adding that G20 provides a great platform for India and China to discuss the important issues that concern the whole world.

China had similarly embarrassed India internationally when its troops had waded into the Demchok and Chumar areas of the border Union Territory of Ladakh exactly when Chinese President Xi Jinping was meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Ahmedabad in 2014. It is profoundly offending for a world leader to see his country under attack by another while he is hosting its leader on a state visit.

People in India, looking to their leadership to resolve the threat of war, are agitated that the government has shown no firm response even as a vast territory of the country stands forfeited, its soldiers are killed or maimed, and it is being outmanoeuvred by China militarily, diplomatically and politically almost at will

A united Opposition in both Houses sought suspension of listed business to discuss the volatile situation at the LAC, the Himalayan frontier that divides the two nuclear-armed neighbours. They said the Chinese actions were impinging on national security and the Indian public was feeling threatened and wished to know what steps the government was taking to prevent any recurrence.

Article 75 of the Constitution makes the government responsible to Parliament. However, presiding officers of both the Houses—Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh— disallowed the requests, forcing the Opposition MPs to stage walk-outs.

Maintaining that no clarifications can be provided as the matter was “sensitive in nature”, Harivansh said: “As the Defence Minister informed the government is treating the situation with seriousness and is taking all necessary steps, I am sure that the entire House is unanimous on this sensitive issue. The House also wants to give a message in one voice that the country and all parties are united when it comes to challenges on security.”

“The defence minister left without giving any clarification to the House,” said Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who is also the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “This is not good for the nation.”

He, however, asserted that his party stood united with the armed forces. Recalling that the 1962 Parliament session had extensively debated the India-China conflict of the time, RJD member Manoj Jha remarked, “This government lives in brazen denial of the Indo-China conflict.” Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said the MPs were being denied their parliamentary privileges.

Even after more than 5,000 PLA troops breached the LAC and clashed with Indian soldiers in May 2020—overrunning vast tracts of Ladakh sector—as also after the PLA killed 20 Indian jawans in the area a month later, the government had not convened a special Parliamentary session to take all political parties—and the public at large—into confidence on the dangers lurking at our borders, and for forging a consensus on the response to it.

It instead denounced the main Opposition Congress party as “anti-national” and “pro-Chinese” for raising questions on the events at the border. Media coverage of the conflict was also discouraged, leading to avoidable and unhelpful speculation on the issue.

New Delhi appears unable to resolve the impasse in Ladakh even as China opens additional flanks of hostility along the border with the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal. India fears China’s intrusions are what it views as ‘salami-slicing’ whereby Beijing seeks to scythe through Indian territory with the intent of redrawing the LAC.

Chinese Han culture is goal-oriented and focussed, and its military may be justified in believing that if it can at will invade a territory that offers little resistance, it cannot be expected to retreat on request.

The government should have realised that threats from China would increase following Xi’s ascendance to a historic third five-year term as China’s President at the conclusion of the 20th congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on 23 October. The 69-year-old leader has been a bugbear for India, with cross-border threats surging since his first rise to Presidency in 2013, and especially since May 2020.

India has reason to fear a progressive deterioration in its security environment, as President Xi consolidates his political standing to near supremacy by stacking key echelons of the CPC with loyalists, and by inscribing his name and political ideology in the party’s constitution.

He is adroitly positioning himself as a possible leader-for-life, having cemented his place as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong who founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

Modi chose to ignore these developments across, and also within, the border while visiting Ladakh’s second largest town of Kargil to celebrate Diwali with the Indian Army soldiers posted there, just a day after Xi’s ascension. Addressing the soldiers, the Prime Minister said that anyone casting an evil eye on India should be ready to receive a befitting reply.

Following the Yangtse skirmish, Union home minister Amit Shah too affirmed: “The PM Modi-led government will not allow an inch of India’s territory to be encroached upon by China or any other country. Our soldiers drove away all infiltrators within a few hours and protected our motherland.” Why the clash took place is itself being questioned, when it was known that the PLA had been doubling its strength along its side of the LAC at both Sikkim and Arunachal since early October.

A report released in March by Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank said, ‘China is constructing or upgrading 37 airports and heliports in Tibet and Xinjiang since 2017. The pace of this activity sped up significantly in 2020. That year alone, China began constructing seven new air facilities and initiated upgrades at seven others.’

Ever since it annexed Tibet in 1950, China extended itself to India’s frontiers and has historically claimed the entire 83,743 sq. km of Arunachal Pradesh. In January 2021, Chinese workers backed by PLA troops crossed into the state to construct a village along the border, separating it from Tibet.

Acknowledging the move, India’s external affairs ministry viewed China’s attempt to buttress its claims to the region as part of its strategy to build civilian settlements in disputed frontier areas. Beijing, however, maintained that this encroachment was “beyond reproach” because it has “never recognised” Arunachal, which it calls Zangnan, or South Tibet.

Tibetans hold the Tawang Monastery sacred, as it was the fifth Dalai Lama who had guided its founding by Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1681. Tibet had controlled present-day Tawang district until 1914, when it made a pact with British India delineating a common boundary that came to be known as the McMahon Line. The Tibetans, however, made their agreement conditional upon Beijing’s acceptance, and deemed the McMahon Line “invalid” when China refused to recognise the boundary agreed upon.

People in India have been looking to their leadership to resolve the threat of war. Many are agitated that the government has shown no resolute response even as a vast territory of the country stands forfeited, its soldiers are killed or maimed, and it is being outmanoeuvred by China militarily, diplomatically and politically almost at will.

New Delhi’s response will ultimately determine its standing in the global community.

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