There is a bad Moon rising on IndiaChina relations,” tweeted former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao this week. Rao, who was also India’s Ambassador to Beijing, had some strong words for the Chinese. They always “present themselves as injured party & blame the opposite side for the consequences. A dark hour like this with all the blood that has been shed is such a dreadful tragedy. Efforts made for normalisation since 1976 have come to nought,” was her considered opinion.
The crisis in Ladakh is serious because it signals the end of agreements crafted by diplomats since 1993. Army veterans also wonder what happened to the boast that the army was prepared to fight a war on two fronts at the same time. Army commanders saying on record that they could occupy Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as and when the political establishment ordered, is also being recalled even as the country unites behind the army.
Evidence now suggest that the Chinese build up in the Galwan valley in Ladakh began at least eight months ago. And it is now clear that the PLA were acting under instructions to occupy Indian territory and the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), negating the treaty of peace and tranquility the two countries signed in 1993 and agreements that neither side would escalate the situation.
Why then were we caught by surprise? And was it necessary for our soldiers to die?
While several analysts have shared Rao’s despair, they say they are not surprised. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment told historian Srinath Raghavan in a podcast that India’s attempts at wooing China were always held with suspicion by senior Chinese officials. Significantly, Tellis claims that in his conversations with Chinese officials he had failed to convince them that reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir in August, 2019 was prompted by domestic compulsions and was not designed to facilitate occupation of Chinese territory.
Beijing had reacted violently to the development and had declared that turning Ladakh into a Union Territory amounted to changing the status quo. Significantly, the Chinese President and the Indian Prime Minister had met at Mahabalipuram in October, 2019, two and a half months after J & K was reorganised. Nobody knows if the issue was brought up during the summit but it is now clear that the Chinese side did not buy the Indian narrative.
Analysts appear to be in broad agreement that Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s rhetorical boast that India would regain Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and wrest Gilgit, Baltistan and the whole of Aksai Chin would also have deepened Chinese suspicion. “The Chinese always suspected that India was trying to balance China but covertly,” says Tellis.
Beijing had reacted much the same way when Arunachal Pradesh was made a full fledged state from a Union Territory.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we now know, met the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping as many as 18 times since 2014. He is the only Indian Prime Minister to have visited China five times in addition to four visits to China as the chief minister of Gujarat. There were informal summits at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram and the Indian Prime Minister was effusive about the rapport that he shared with the Chinese leader. Since 2014 Chinese exports to India also zoomed and Chinese investment in India jumped at a fast clip. The Indian market was swamped by Chinese mobile handsets, which now enjoy over 50% market share in India. But if Tellis is to be taken at his word, none of this really impressed China, which remained deeply suspicious of India.
Analysts believe that China always feared the rise of India as a competing power in Asia. And while at one time the Chinese leaders might have seen the two countries collaborate, China now harbours the ambition of being the dominant power in Asia and sees India as a rival. India’s rise as even a regional power is unacceptable to Beijing, they say.
The rise of US-China rivalry and India’s growing defence and military ties with the US also convinced Beijing that New Delhi’s public overtures to it were a charade. India’s refusal to join the Belt and Road initiative, India’s partnership with the US, Japan and Australia to form a Quad and the US renaming its Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command, the analysts believe, would also have raised doubts in Beijing.
What are the options before India? Not many, say experts.
The tactical option is to reoccupy the territory by way of a military operation. Defence analysts believe the Indian Army is capable of pulling off the operation. A limited war, however, would involve costs and India would have to weigh the benefits. Another tactical option being pushed is for the Indian armed forces to put pressure on the PLA by occupying Chinese territory elsewhere on the LAC and use it as a bargaining chip.
Some kind of military action, from India’s point of view, will be necessary, feel analysts. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers at Galwan valley has incensed the military establishment. As Lt. Gen (Rtd) HS Panag puts it, “Indian Army has never faced such humiliation. Never in our history have unarmed troops been clobbered. It’s a big failure at political as well as military level”.
Military strategists wonder why the Indian Army was engaged in ‘talks’ about the border; and why unarmed soldiers were sent to negotiate with the Chinese. Pravin Sawhney, former army officer and editor of Force, says, “You never send soldiers on frontline without their self defence weapons. Not providing weapons amounts to getting them butchered by enemy which was well prepared in hordes to lynch them. Soldiers obey orders. In any nation military topmost leader would have had a lot to answer.”
Both political and the military establishment would therefore be exploring options to take the battle to the PLA. But PLA enjoys an edge in Galwan Valley as they now occupy the peaks and are supported by back up forces, helipads, jammers and airfields, making tactical options costly.
The strategic option before India is to openly align with the Trump Administration and other rivals of China and put pressure on Beijing. The one obvious obstacle is the US Presidential election due in November. American observers are at pains to draw a line between the Trump administration and the US. While the Trump administration has pursued an aggressive anti-China policy, it is not certain that the pugnacity would survive if Trump were to lose the election.
There are other issues that India will have to sort out. Reliability of the United States as an ally is something that has been repeatedly questioned by American allies. The US is known to have dumped allies as and when it suited its interest. So, can India really trust the US to come to its There are indications that India had sought the help of Russia to mediate. When foreign ministers of India, China and Russia meet on June 22, it is hoped the ice will be broken and de-escalation would be set in motion.
The Indian foreign minister did speak to his Chinese counterpart and told him, “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on bilateral relationship,” but observers pointed out that after saying China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” the MEA was still reposing faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols”
(Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s own)