China’s Galwan misadventure shows that India isn't a pushover

China’s Galwan misadventure shows that India isn't a pushover

China’s Galwan misadventure shows that India isn't a pushover

In early May 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in fist fights and stone pelting at the beach of Pangong Tso, a lake shared between India and Tibet/China with the Line of Actual Control passing through it. More brawls followed at 14,000 feet. Later, in mid-June, soldiers fought fiercely with fists, rocks and wooden clubs spiked with nails and wrapped in barbed wire, but as the border code dictates, no shots were fired.

As the snow melted in early 2020, the Chinese army had dramatically increased its presence in Aksai Chin along the LAC, which India mistook as military exercises, even though there were substantially larger elements of tanks and artillery. The PLA had encroached beyond its usual deployments on the LAC at four locations in Ladakh — in the areas of Galwan, Hot Springs, Pangong Tso and Demchok — besides one location in Sikkim. This initially led to a lot of pushing and jostling between the troops patrolling the LAC, until the stand-off turned extremely violent and led to the much reported clash in Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020. This much publicised conflict resulted in the death of at least 20 Indian soldiers and a larger number of Chinese soldiers, including the commanding officers of both the military units, even though the Indians were vastly outnumbered. Thereafter, China made its intentions known.

Beijing was in no mood to pull back its army and as it did in 1959-60, China once again conveyed to New Delhi that a solution to the latest boundary tensions could be found around the Chinese proposals of 1959. This reassertion of the same package proposal by the Chinese foreign ministry on 29 September 2020 stated that 'Beijing abides by the LAC proposed by premier Zhou en Lai to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter dated 7 November 1959.' Although it was the first time in decades that Beijing had conveyed what it was willing to accept, India formally rejected the proposal, just as it had done six decades ago. India's official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs was that 'India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 Line of Actual Control. This position has been consistent and well known, including to the Chinese side.'

Eastern Ladakh crisis

These combats in eastern Ladakh destroyed the four-decade-old myth that India could expect peace and stability with the Chinese on its Himalayan frontier. When news about these intrusions by the Chinese army became public knowledge in India in May 2020, with much of the military build-up along the LAC in eastern Ladakh and reports of attempts by the PLA to make inroads in northern Sikkim, a question asked by informed observers was: 'Why were we unable to gauge Chinese intentions despite the 22 rounds of Special Representative talks and what really was China's design?'

It must be understood that talks by the political special representatives were to be a parallel track to the military's presence on the boundary lines with patrolling pickets and posts. One wasn’t meant to be a substitute for the other, though in the aftermath of the 1962 conflict, China 'did not permanently administer or patrol many parts west and south west of Aksai Chin for decades'.

India had also set up the 'China Study Group' (CSG), a secretary-level grouping which includes the foreign secretary, home secretary and defence secretary besides the vice chiefs of the three services and chiefs of IB and R&AW. The NSA convenes meetings from time to time, which are attended by the service chiefs. The CSG, set up to advise the government on its China policy, has been carefully monitoring and assessing Indian military activity for decades now. For better border management, the CSG also recommends revised patrolling limits, rules of engagement and the pattern of Indian military presence along the Indo-China boundaries.

Accordingly, the CSG identifies specific patrolling points on the LAC that act as 'designated spots to be patrolled according to a pre-determined schedule by the security forces'. This means patrols are sent to a numbered point with no prominent geographical feature, that 'serve as a guide to a location on the LAC for soldiers, acting as indicators of the extent of "actual control" exercised on the territory by India'. Therefore, the Indian Army's movements are controlled by the CSG, which has a formal political mandate of 1975, later reviewed in 1975, even though the frequency of patrols is not controlled by the CSG. That is left to the army or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). It is said that 'close observation of the LAC' is done even more stringently than along the LoC with Pakistan in western Jammu and Kashmir.

On the other side of the border, the CCP leadership too exercises overall control over the PLA, but lacks the political drive to find a solution to the boundary dispute. Especially after the 2013 and the 2017 Doklam stand-off, China's desire to position itself at an advantage has become more noticeable, with 'nearly 75 percent of the transgressions' by Chinese troops taking place across the LAC that lies east of Ladakh, while only 20 per cent have occurred in India's eastern front along Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This makes it apparent that for the Chinese, the Aksai Chin area is 'a valued piece of real estate' and the Ladakh crisis could thus be explained as a 'belated reassertion of China's original claims over the area'. Belated because in the past, intrusions or attempts at it had occurred mostly in a few sensitive 'grey areas' on the disputed Sino-Indian boundary, that by many accounts is said to be 3,488 kilometres long, but as per a former Indian Army chief, General JJ Singh, the entire Sino-Indian boundary is 4,057 kilometres long.

No solution in sight

A mutually acceptable settlement is still a far cry despite the multiple 'agreements' in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. These pacts did provide a clear direction, but a sincere desire and the political will needed to settle this long-standing issue was missing. In some ways, this territorial dispute is like the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. Neither side can be seen to be giving in, with so much at stake for their political leadership.

For China, there is the vision of Mao, who saw Tibet as the palm of China's right hand and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as its five fingers that China has to 'liberate'. For India, it meant 'horse trading' as Nehru put it, as Zhou's proposal involved accepting all the Chinese territorial claims 'whether Arunachal Pradesh in the east or Aksai Chin in the west, which were Indian'. For many years even after Nehru had passed away, Indian diplomats were loyally hanging on to this legacy. This stand in due course has become an Indian article of faith!

Even meetings by later leaders of these two nations have not resolved the dispute despite Modi and Xi Jinping having visited each other’s countries and having engaged in 18 meetings from the time Modi became prime minister until the Galwan clash in June 2020. They first engaged in 2014. Later, following the stand-off over Doklam in 2017, they met over structured summits at Wuhan in 2018 and then at Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, in 2019. Yet, there were major Chinese intrusions across the LAC in 2014 and again in 2020, despite the issuing of 'strategic guidance' to their respective militaries to have better and more frequent communication and strengthen the existing CBM, so that the special representatives could 'seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the border question'. It still remained delightfully vague.

So it seems that with talks leading nowhere, China perhaps decided to try and once again 'teach India a lesson'. China’s leaders have perhaps chosen to ignore the fact that the myth of invincibility of the PLA was put to rest by its neighbouring country Vietnam in 1979, after Deng Xiaoping had similarly sent the PLA across China's southern borders to 'teach Vietnam a lesson'. Similarly, by hanging on to their experience of the 1962 conflict, China’s civil and military leaders do tend to ignore that much has changed since then. That '2020 wasn't 1962'. India's leadership, conscious of the 'lessons' learnt from 1962, is determined to defend India's territorial frontiers with deliberate action that may be perceived as intimidating by China.

Catalyst for China

As China saw it, matters came to a head following several actions initiated by India in recent years. First was India's effort to improve infrastructure — roads, bridges, tunnels and communication arteries — at various points along the Sino-Indian boundary, which had been long neglected for fear that better roads from the Himalayas onto the plains would aid invading Chinese forces to roll down!

Then, in July 2013, India took a decision to raise a strike corps for the Indian Army in the eastern sector, with offensive defence capabilities to monitor China's activities and conduct trans-border strikes. This corps would have acclimatised army units for rapid responses. Finally, another action by India that put China on the edge was the Modi government's decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, the creation of a new union territory of Ladakh and the call thereafter given by the home minister himself 'to liberate 38,000 sq. km of Aksai Chin'. These events had all contributed to China's aggressive behaviour.

The fighting at Galwan Valley was a turning point with China’s incursions along the LAC in 2020 and its large military build-up that woke up India’s policymakers to the reality of the Chinese military threat. It led one major Indian newspaper to state in its editorial that 'the LAC is the new LOC'. This implied that India must now prepare for a permanent increase in its deployments and constant friction like the military situation on the LoC — the fiercely contested Indo-Pak front along Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, this time there would be no rollback by China because 'there is now insufficient trust between the militaries for such a move. If India were to accept the status quo, on paper this will seem as if India had conceded a chunk of land behind its version of LAC.' What is the way out? Is China now keen to establish a 'new normal'? Should both sides bring the boundary issue to the fore and seek a settlement?

New Delhi adopted a multi-pronged approach of talks to tell Beijing that its expansionist approach was unacceptable, followed by several highly publicised visits by the leadership, including that of Modi. It was soon clear that India must adopt a new approach with China. To allow China to gain either territorially or psychologically would have been politically disastrous for the Indian prime minister and his government. So, to begin with, India chose to match Chinese deployments on the LAC. In the summer of 2020, India and China had deployed about 1,00,000 troops around the LAC in Ladakh. Clearly, New Delhi wasn't going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Besides, it became apparent to India that the 2020 ingress by PLA troops across the LAC in Ladakh had a greater strategic design, unlike Chinese intrusions in the past, that happened regularly only to be withdrawn after diplomatic talks.

Three Warfare Strategy

The bigger question 'why China chose to adopt a sudden military build-up along the LAC in 2020' has many answers. On the face of it, China saw the time when the world order was in shambles due to COVID-19, as an opportunity to address its ambitions and to tell doubting Thomases at home that Beijing was still strong and working towards Xi's ‘Vision-2050’ for China to stand tall in the world.

It has been argued that beneath the surface of China's aggressions lies a plan to humiliate India, to damage its economy and its industry. China does it through its 'Three Warfare Strategy…. to subdue nations. This strategy is composed of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare.

Additionally, China practises a three-pronged approach at the geo-political level conducted through "debt trap, wolf warrior diplomacy and military coercion" in seeking a bipolar world order, writes Lt General Bhatia, India’s former Director-General of Military Operations.

Debt trap diplomacy

With this strategy, China makes investments and provides infrastructure loans to developing nations eventually to leverage the debt to achieve Beijing’s strategic objectives. Research and reports indicate that since 2015, Chinese tech investors have put in amounts from $4–8 billion into Indian start-ups and 18 out of 30 of India's unicorns are Chinese funded. Additionally, there were reports of Chinese investment to the tune of about $3.5 billion in multiple enterprises like Alibaba, Xiomi, Flipkart, Paytm and Oppo besides pharma and electronic companies. All this is part of China’s slow and creeping entry into the Indian economy, which has led to India's massive annual trade deficit of over S$50 billion.

Even though its investments were welcomed partly because India was happy to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) as an indicator of its economic growth, Indian consumers, like so many others in the world, had become heavily dependent on Chinese pharmaceutical, electronic and telecom products, often cheaper and better made than the local competitors. Thus, New Delhi has to work hard to wean itself away from the huge inroads that Chinese goods have made into India. The stand-off at the LAC changed the status quo and it wasn't business as usual anymore. Alarm bells had finally rung in the Indian finance ministry that this could be the classic Chinese 'debt trap', in which China had already entrapped Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Wolf warrior diplomacy

China has used wolf warrior diplomacy as a tool of state policy to deflect attention away from negative press, attack other nations and defend its national interests. In the short term, this brand of China's diplomacy was evident with the Ladakh stand-off, aimed to shift attention away from the negative media coverage and the public discussions in India and internationally, of China's slow and shoddy handling — by default or design — of the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

Coupled with China's handling of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in early 2020, the Chinese leadership looked hopeless in the eyes of its people — those with access to global news and their vast diaspora across the world. Thus, as a ploy to deflect bad press, the CCP leadership first resorted to some muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, although that angered the Trump administration enough to send in three aircraft carrier groups around China’s coast. Beijing then ordered the PLA to intrude across the LAC to lay physical claim on the unsettled boundary with India.

Military coercion

Historically, China uses military coercion by risking confrontation leading to conflict when it wants to advance its core territorial interests. The PLA build-up and fighting along the LAC was part of a greater Chinese design. It could be argued that China chose to up the ante in 2020, as it may have assumed that the world couldn’t be bothered with a territorial conflict in the Himalayas, as all the major powers were too busy battling the fallout of the COVID-19 virus at home. On the other hand, perhaps, China’s leadership may have decided that enough was enough and they needed some results because a border settlement based on dialogue per se was unlikely due to the obstinacy of both countries.

History had shown that whenever China has grabbed territory in Aksai Chin, as in the 1950s, it has retained and firmed up on it. Now with the world too busy battling COVID-19, Beijing may have assumed that this was as good a time as any and Chinese expansionism would go unnoticed. In some ways, this incursion was similar to the Chinese invasion of October-November 1962, when the world was busy with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, Beijing's assumption that India wouldn't stand up to Chinese designs was proved wrong. In an India of 2020 with its watchful media and awareness of China's illegal occupation of Aksai Chin, it was impossible for any government to keep matters like this Chinese intrusion away from the public eye, like Nehru's government had done in the 1950s. China thus forced India to respond.

India's response

Apart from engaging China in several rounds of dialogue, at the military-to-military commanders' level on the LAC and diplomatically in Delhi and Beijing, India also chose to announce trade restrictions on Chinese goods and investors. Joining the global anger against China for the spread of the COVID-19 virus, New Delhi finally woke up to China's steady encroachment into the Indian economy and just like other nations had done, reviewed its policies on FDI to 'wall off' Chinese investments into Indian companies. Even investments by entities which had Chinese nationals with ‘beneficial ownership’, including those being routed through Hong Kong, Singapore and South Asian countries, where there could be an indirect Chinese presence, were restricted by making government approval mandatory. Commentators on China in India welcomed this move, but it caused resentment in Beijing.

Among the several irritants for Beijing at present — ranging from India’s growing military ties with the United States to India being the only major country to openly oppose the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative — the biggest challenge to China's strategic territorial claims has been the Modi government’s call to liberate Aksai Chin following the creation of the union territory of Ladakh and India's publication of new maps of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.

For China, this was the challenge to what it had come to believe as the status quo. The Indian government has also permitted the Indian Army to respond in a responsible manner to any further escalation on the front lines, like the aggressive occupation of certain heights by Indian troops around the Pangong Tso on 5 August 2020, which took China by surprise. This showed that the Indian armed forces weren’t a pushover anymore.

Maroof Raza is a well-known commentator on India's security challenges and on matters military. The following is an edited extract from his new book, ‘Contested Lands: India, China and the Boundary Dispute’, published by Westland publications

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