Aftab H. Wahla
Historically, India-China ties date back to the 1950s. Both countries started their diplomatic relations in a cordial atmosphere. After the defeat of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government on October 1, 1949, by Mao Zedong-led communist forces, India was the first non-communist Asian country that recognized Democratic Republic of China IDRC) and established diplomatic relations with it. But soon, the flowering relations withered and faded into an atmosphere of hostility on account of various factors like Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950; the 1959 correspondence between DRC premier and his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru in which China refused to accept McMahon Line (de-facto demarcation line between India and China) as the international border; and India’s provocative action of offering asylum to Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers in 1959.
These politico-diplomatic developments caused the outbreak of brief but bloody war between India and China in 1962. The war proved humiliation for India and Chinese forces were able to occupy 48 kilometres of Indian territory in Assam plains and gained access to strategic points in Ladakh. Since then, this bilateral relationship is characterized by border disputes at multiple points along the whole length of 4,056 km Sino-Indian border. The ongoing face-off between India and China has also its roots, to a considerable extent, in the decades-old territorial dispute along the Line of Actual Control—the demarcation line that divides Indian-controlled territories from Chinese-controlled territories of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) remained an informal ceasefire line till 1993 when both countries accepted it as de-facto border line. India considers LAC 3438 km long whereas China asserts that its length is 2000 km. This line traverses the extremely difficult mountainous terrain and is divided into three sectors: Eastern, Middle and Western. The Eastern sector spans Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; demarcation here corresponds to the 1914 McMahon Line. There are minor disagreements here between India and China. The Middle sector is also least controversial as both countries have exchanged maps of the straddling territories. The most disputed and hotly-contested sector is the Western one where both countries have major disagreements.
These three sectors of LAC have distinctive and peculiar legal features. As far as the state policy regarding these sectors of LAC is concerned, both sides follow different approaches: China has maintained consistent policy to assert its sovereignty all along the LAC whereas Indian position is surprisingly contradictory in all three sectors. As far as the claims of both countries are concerned, the LAC corresponds to China’s territorial claims in the Western and the Middle sector, but in Eastern sector, it considers entire Arunachal Pradesh and southern Tibet its own territories. India maintains that LAC does not mirror its territorial claims. In the Western sector, it claims entire Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Aksai Chin; in Middle sector, it locks horns with Nepal over Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura disputed territories, and in the Eastern sector, it does not claim any territory at all as LAC corresponds the McMahon Line which is accepted by India, but rejected by China as international border.
The recent flare-up between two nuclear-armed countries, which spend $300 billion approximately on defence expenditure annually, started in early May when thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops suddenly descended upon Indian-occupied territories in western and eastern sector of LAC and stunned Indian political and military strategists. Situation is particularly tense in the western sector where Chinese troops engaged in fist fight and scuffling with Indian troops and took physical control of nearly 60 km2 in Gulwan valley (northern Ladakh), Hot Springs and Pongong Lake (eastern Ladakh). In addition to reported stand-off at above-mentioned three points, there are also reports that Indian and Chinese came to blows on Sikkim (eastern sector of LAC) as well. As Lt. Gen (retd) HS Panag, who remained General Officer Commanding of Indian army in Northern and Central Command, in an article published in The Print on 28th of May, noted: “[J]ust like previous skirmishes of 1962, 1965 and 1999, PLA again surprised India both tactically and strategically. The manner in which we had to rush reinforcements from other sectors gives a clear indication that we were surprised.”
At the time of penning this article, two rounds of dialogue between both countries at military level have failed as negotiations remained inconclusive. Although there are some signs of slight pull-back of troops in three out of four confrontation sites, the situation at main face-off site, Pangong Lake, remains tense where China has effectively blocked all Indian patrols since early May. It has now become evident that complete withdrawal of Chinese troops is highly unlikely as it has gained tactical advantage and will be negotiating with India from a position of strength in future rounds of negotiations.
The rapid escalation of the stand-off warrants unearthing of underlying strategic and political factors that pushed China to act aggressively despite that it is facing the Covid-19-caused serious medico-economic challenges. The reasons have been discussed in the following paragraphs:
Strategically, Ladakh, the theatre of active confrontation, is the only territory where Pak Army can collaborate with PLA to threaten Indian positions at Siachen Glacier, the highest battleground on Earth. The supply line for Indian troops stationed in Siachen is extremely tenuous due to vulnerable communication in this region. Given these factors, India started building infrastructure to strengthen its communication lines. The construction of a road in Galwan river valley is the major plank of India’s strategic plan. China opposes the move as the Galwan valley provides access to China-controlled Aksai Chin territory where Tibet-Xinjiang NH-219, a strategically-located national highway, passes. Any infrastructural improvement in Indian-controlled Galwan valley is set to threaten crucially-important NH-219. To neutralize this potential threat, PLA took physical control of the 3-5 km area of this valley. In the second round of military-to-military dialogue held on June 10, 2020, PLA interlocutors flatly refused to withdraw troops from Galwan valley; instead they claimed sovereignty over the entire valley. As per Indian defense analysts, PLA has now gained strategic advantage and effectively rendered the strategic road useless for Indian army.
Chenmo river valley is another area that can give Indian military direct access to Aksai Chin. Owing to the strategic significance of this valley, India has maintained a check post here that is called Hot Springs. This is the third confrontation site where militaries of both countries engaged in physical scuffling and troops have dug in and enacted tents and mobilized military assets.
Pangong Lake is another site of intense standoff. On its northern bank, China has dug up its troops and they maintain very active presence here. There is a pass nearby, named as Anna La, in Indian possession which can give direct access to Indian troops to get behind Chinese lines of defence. Obviously, China can ill-afford this threat. This area also has a number of interlocking spurs, called fingers. India has physical control up to finger 4 and patrols up to 8. Contrary to this, China has established check post on finger 8 and claims the area down to finger 2. During the Kargil war, China built a road down to finger 5, where the third face-off is taking place. Here again, PLA negotiators, while terming stone-pelting by PLA troops as against the spirit, refused to accommodate Indian territorial concerns. In fine, the strategic aims of China behind this confrontation are to save both Aksai Chin and NH-219 from any threat, however remote it is.
Politically, China has telegraphed its strength across the world that it can fight at multiple fronts. After containing the medico-economic impacts of Covid-19 to lowest possible level, China has embarked on an aggressive foreign policy to send unambiguous warnings that it can address a number of national security threats simultaneously. This move has come at the time when China has established two administrative districts in South China Sea to bolster its claims of territorial sovereignty, announced plans to impose national security laws in Hong Kong to suppress year-long sustained pro-democracy riot-cum-protests and locked horns with US over trade dispute and origin of coronavirus. The ongoing Indo-Chinese stand-off fits right in the deftly-orchestrated broader Chinese foreign policy.
Though China is the largest trading partner of India and both countries have maintained largely peaceful ties since 2002, the emergence of Hindu nationalist party BJP and strengthened parliamentary position of Hindu supremacist, Narendra Modi, in the wake of 2019 general election, had made China very suspicious of India. It believes that India intends to restore the pre-1950 order and it looks at the resuscitated development of border infrastructure as the demonstration of Indian expansionist and hegemonic designs. US-India fast-deepening strategic partnership to contain China’s right to power, presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in Himachal Pradesh and, most importantly, India’s unilateral abrogation of special status of Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir have further added to the complexity of India-China relations. This illegitimate annexation move by India on August 5, 2019, that resulted into bifurcation of the state into two union territories—Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh—also had implications for Chinese territorial and economic interests in the perspective of Ladakh and CPEC. The post-August 05 aggressive stance of India’s civilian and military leadership regarding Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan rang alarm bells in China over physical security of CPEC-associated projects. In this backdrop, it is easy to understand why recent flexing of PLA’s muscles was sanctioned by President Xi Jinping’s most trusted lieutenant, General Xu, who is responsible for strengthening the interoperability between the PLA and Pakistan military through a series of joint exercises named as Shaheen. Now, with the complete physical control of Galwan River valley, which offers access to Sub Sector North and ultimately to east Siachen, China is able to start a localized two-front war against India in case of any eventually—the Pak army on the west and PLA on the east. This strategic advantage will help both Pakistan and China make CPEC more secured and Indian hold on Kashmir tenuous and overstretched.
The stand-off is set to linger for a considerable time. Hindu nationalist RSS-BJP dispensation in India can ill-afford shattering the hard-won image of invincible Modi. Both sides will cling uncompromisingly to their stances, thereby making resolution of issue quite intractable in the near future. Now the most pertinent question that must trigger the institutional debate is what sorts of regional and global implications the ongoing face-off will have and what strategic directions our foreign policy should have so as to capitalize on this opportunity to secure our strategic, political and diplomatic objectives.
The first and immediate impact is further addition of complexity to India-China ties. China has long seen the growing Indo-US alignment as the continuation of the US cold war-era strategy of encirclement and containment of Soviet Union. The mediation offered by President Donald Trump, though immediately rejected by both countries, is set to further embitter the Sino-US relations, in addition to creating further divergence between India and China on various regional affairs like Afghanistan peace process, Kashmir dispute and CPEC. The increased rivalry between India and China is bound to sharpen the geostrategic realignment in the Asia-Pacific regions as well.
The divergence in Indo-China relations provides strategic opportunity for Pakistan to secure its national interests. With the active involvement of China, Kashmir has effectively become a trilateral dispute, thereby making it easy for Pakistan to internationalize it for global audience. This aspect is particularly worth considering because India is all set to become the non-permanent member of UNSC from next year, and obviously, the active participation of India in the decision-making process of the world’s highest executive authority bodes ill for Pakistan. But now when China itself is involved with India over territorial claims, it will become comparatively easy for Pakistan to leverage China’s diplomatic and economic clout to further its cause at the world’s highest political platform. Another aspect of the ongoing conflict is that it provides fodder for Pakistan to substantiate its stance that RSS-BJP Hindu supremacist regime is pursuing Hindutva’s long-cherished dream of Akhand Bharat. Succinctly, Pakistan is bound to secure its goals through increasingly hostile Indo-China ties.
Regional conflict and instrumentalization of war as tool of securing national interests serve no one. Instability and lack of connectivity hinder the materialization of untapped potential of our region, but it has become evidently clear that international community-led appeasement policies regarding Indian expansionist designs is bound to create serious security threats. The increasingly aggressive policy of China is directly connected with Hindutva expansionist agenda. Some observers and diplomats of Pakistan Foreign Office have hinted that China may have linked the de-escalation with the condition of Indian commitment of restoring pre-5th August status of IOJK. Though these are just speculations, the scale and sophistication of PLA’s offensive mobilization do indicate the long-term strategic objectives that China intends to secure through this move. Indian hegemonic designs needs bulwark, since Pakistan cannot counter them effectively out of diplomatic and economic constraints, China is well-equipped to contain the nationalistic aspirations of RSS-BJP regime supported by underlying fascist ideology of alt-right and ultra-extremist constituencies of Indian society. China has shattered the myth of incredible India.