With the 2019 informal summit between China and India at Mamallapuram, in the periphery of Chennai, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping made a decision to celebrate the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2020 by deepening exchanges whatsoever levels – involving the legislatures, political parties, cultural and youth organisations, even militaries of the two countries. Both the leaders also decided to organise 70 activities, including a conference on the ship that would trace the historical connect between the two civilisations.
No person expected that rosy diplomatic picture would turn as grim since it has recently, with all the spread in the coronavirus that was first reported from Wuhan – ironically, the site of your 2018 informal summit between India and China – along with war clouds gathering over eastern Ladakh. This has happened within seven months of your Mamallapuram meet, which saw the reiteration of your desire for peace and tranquillity within the border areas plus a commitment to work with additional Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Yet, today, the Indian Army is facing two aggressive Combined Arms Brigades of your People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso patrolling points across the 3,488-kilometre-long Brand of Actual Control (LAC).
In May, PLA first activated LAC at Naku La area in north Sikkim after which at three points in Galwan and another point at Pangong Tso. As the Chinese defence ministry spokesperson has stated that the circumstance in Ladakh is “stable and controllable,” this is apparently a gross understatement since the two armies are actually at every other’s throats. This fragile situation fails to augur well for bilateral relations. It has already turned the normally-dormant LAC active, forcing India to deploy troops on the northern border and get ready for the worst-case scenario. Even PLA would have to move troops from the hinterland to protect its own territory if the red flag goes up,. That is much as India’s detractors would like to remind it about the 1962 border skirmish with China, the fact. Nowadays China has 77 and 76 group armies (around 45,000 men) in addition to a choice of six to eight divisions of troops from Tibet and Xinjiang military district holding the Western Theatre Command facing India. It will be only a matter a time before PLA calls for reinforcements from the hinterland if status quo ante is not restored, with India rapidly building force levels in eastern Ladakh.
Given that India’s lines of communication and air bases are nearer to LAC, the scenario may not favour PLA. For instance, its Russian copy fighters will suffer severe load penalty if they take off from the rarefied Tibetan plateau. The PLA has lost the element of surprise after events of stand-off, and the next question facing Chinese generals would be whether their troops can force a decisive victory. The PLA generals, that have studied the Kargil war more seriously that anyone, understand that the Indian Army will and can fight against all odds. Although China has become sabre-rattling in the border, additionally, it knows that India features a quite strong leader in PM Narendra Modi, who has not named China for spreading the Covid-19 virus, maintained a studied silence over the management of minorities in Xinjiang, not commented about the draconian laws in Hong Kong, and stayed silent while some have pushed on an observer status for Taiwan at the World Health Organization.
India has also kept its ally, the United States, at bay as it does not believe in hyphenation and fiercely guards its strategic independence, by openly favouring a direct dialogue with China on the border issue. PM Modi’s go on to restrict foreign direct investment from neighbouring countries – a move clearly aimed at China – implies that India has the capability and capacity to react. Yet it is also not catalysing the resentment against China on the behest from the Trump administration. The truth is, it really is Beijing which happens to be using neighbours such as Pakistan and, more recently, Nepal to project its dominance inside the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The argument the Ladakh stand-off is because of the Modi government abrogating article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir will not hold good as no less than Foreign Minister S Jaishankar flew to Beijing last August to reassure China that India had not been raising any other territorial claim on contested areas in the region. By aggressively posturing on the border, China has added insult to injury as Beijing has hardly addressed India’s demand to reduce the trade deficit, which stood at $51.68 billion from January-November 2019 before the pandemic struck the world.
Still, with both leaders previously committing to not turning bilateral differences into disputes, it will be inside the interest of both parties to withdraw on their respective base camps in Eastern Ladakh as there is no chance that India will almost certainly allow China to help make unilateral modifications in either in the sectors. The Modi government may also not come under pressure from China on its legitimate border infrastructure upgrade, which happens to be happening well within its unique territory. After 21 rounds of hardly productive Special Representative Dialogue around the resolution in the boundary issue, it is time the two sides a minimum of exchange maps of the western and eastern sector so that the two armies know each other’s positions on the floor. Both the leaders need to keep their communication channels open as both their bureaucracies and militaries possess a huge historical baggage and cannot think beyond protecting their silos. The direct channel will assume further importance as being the succession in the Dalai Lama is about the horizon with China expected to make its very own candidate because it did with regards to the Panchen Lama. The two most-populated nations worldwide, the countries with the first and second largest armies on earth, should not be adversaries forever.