The current Sino-Indian confrontation in Ladakh is markedly different from the Dokalam standoff in 2017. The attendant circumstances are entirely dissimilar; Chinese economic power was at its peak in 2017 and liberal doses of credit had turned most countries into Chinese clients, but today China is feeling cornered, with the same countries (excepting ‘iron friend’ Pakistan) shunning her publicly and, to add injury to insult, demanding a probe into the origin of the Coronavirus.
Such crass ingratitude (as China sees it) has made China belligerent. In an attempt to recoup lost pride, China is asserting its territorial claims in Taiwan, South and East China Sea and the Himalayan heights, even while its neighbours are busy fighting Covid.
A number of factors fuel China’s bellicosity against us. India annulled Article 370A which resulted in the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir, and more importantly, turned Ladakh into a directly administered Union Territory ~ a move that made China approach the United Nations Security Council.
Then, China did not like the way India joined the chorus questioning its role in the spread of Coronavirus. China also did not like India’s strenuous efforts to attract companies headed out of China and last but not the least, China did not like the heightened scrutiny of its investments in India. By confronting India militarily, China intends to send a message to the international community. India has a 3488 km. long border with China, right from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh. The border has 23 disputed areas including the entire Arunachal Pradesh, that China calls South Tibet.
On an average there are 300 Chinese intrusions in Indian territory every year. Thankfully, major incidents are few, the most notable in recent times being the Daulat Beg Oldi incident (2000), Depsang Plains (2013) and Dokalam (2017), which was followed by an informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi in April 2018. The most important bilateral accord, in the present context, is the “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” (1993) whereby both sides had agreed to maintain status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Moreover, the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC), set up in January 2012, continuously monitors border incidents.
The only problem is that the Sino-Indian border, demarcated by various agreements between the British and China, is not acceptable to China. Rather, China justifies its territorial claims by alluding to some mythical boundaries of the distant past. Though not acknowledged officially by the Indian Government, China has been steadily nibbling away at Eastern Ladakh. The classified Shyam Saran Report of 2013 purportedly mentioned that China had illegally occupied 640 sq.km. of Indian territory, since the early 1980s. Both the Government and the army have denied the report. Officially, the loss of Indian territory has been attributed to a change in river course.
A reason for Chinese expansion in Ladakh is that we have left the disputed areas to the east of the LAC uninhabited. While Indian nomads are dissuaded from going there, China follows a standard procedure of sending its nomads in disputed areas and following through with its army. We will have to rethink our strategy in Ladakh, if we do not want to lose more territory. The latest confrontation in Galwan River Valley is not an isolated incident, as similar incidents were reported in Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh, and Naku La in Sikkim. Though no firepower was used, 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers were engaged in a violent face-off on May 5 at Pangong Tso, which resulted in injuries to more than 100 Indian and Chinese soldiers.
The Chinese intention appears to be the capture of the Indian part of the picturesque Pangong Tso lake and adjoining areas, which would bring China to the doorstep of populated areas in Ladakh. Despite recurring border incidents, India and China come together on innumerable issues like trade and climate change. However, China remains implacably opposed to India’s more vital ambitions ~ Security Council membership and Nuclear Suppliers Group membership. We, somehow, always fail to read China’s real intentions. Perhaps, brought up on non-alignment, non-violence and Panchsheel, Indians are naive enough not to appreciate that foreign policies of all countries are guided by selfinterest alone; not by consistency or moral principles. We do feel hurt when our closest friends, Nepal and Bangladesh, attend China’s OBOR meetings, and sometimes side with her. China, on its part, is focused on the US, feeling confident enough to challenge the US both economically and militarily.
The repeated incursions in Indian territory are probably a signal to India, to layoff the Sino-US conflict. China has invested heavily in modernising its army and has assiduously built up military infrastructure along the SinoIndian border. China has a number of all-weather roads, railway lines and airfields near the SinoIndian border, while our infrastructure on the border is decidedly inferior. This can partially explain the deliberate provocations and snubs China hands out to us frequently. We can deter China only by increasing our military capabilities along the common border. This would mean building allweather roads and rail tracks right up to the border ~ an unfinished task since 1962. Equally important is expansion of our indigenous arms manufacturing capabilities.
The CAG had pointed out that our stockpiles are barely sufficient for a ten-day war. Since most of our weapons and ammunition are imported, it would be virtually impossible to replenish them during actual warfare. We have the sad precedent of the Kargil war when we had no shells for the Bofors gun. Nepal has joined issue with India by claiming that the recently built Dharchula-Lipulekh Road, which connects to the LAC between China and India, fell into Nepalese territory. In retaliation, the Nepal army is completing the hitherto abandoned 130 km Dharchula-Tinkar Road, to facilitate trade with China.
Nepal has also released a map that shows Lipulekh, Kalapani etc, a total of 395 sq. km., as part of Nepal. Our Army Chief Gen. Naravane has stated that Nepal was acting at the Chinese behest. The Indian leadership has taken the Chinese incursions seriously and Prime Minister Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, both have discussed Chinese intrusions with the Chief of Defence Staff and the Service chiefs. The Chinese Ambassador to India and the Chinese Foreign Office have made conciliatory noises but the stance of the top Chinese leadership remains confrontational. It seems that China has applied its concept of “Three Warfares” (public opinion/media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare) to the present conflict because in addition to the pressure built up by the Chinese media, a pack of ‘Wolf Warriors’, Chinese diplomats who use Twitter to aggressively promote Chinese interests, have been let loose on India. A holistic response is required to stop the Chinese juggernaut.
We have to curb unbridled Chinese imports by changing our flawed taxation policies which make Indian goods costlier than Chinese goods in India and discourage local manufacturing. Dependence on cheap Chinese imports can hamstring us in times of crisis; when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, we suddenly discovered that we had no PPE Kits, testing equipment or Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) for manufacturing drugs, because we were importing vital medical equipment from China. Interestingly, rigorous testing during the pandemic revealed that China had been supplying sub-standard equipment to us. Import of all sensitive items from China should be minimised because power generation and transmission equipment, wireless routers, desktop computers and smartphones that are imported from China can compromise our critical systems in war-time.
We have the potential to outdo China in all fields; only lack of initiative, sloth and bureaucratic inefficiencies hold us back. China has increased its influence by enterprises like the Belt and Road Initiative while similar Indian initiatives like the Chabahar Port and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) are at a nascent stage, even two decades after their conceptualisation. Lastly, we have to synchronise our domestic policies with our long-term foreign policy. We will have to eschew populist measures like CAA, that create dissensions in our own society and irritate our friends. Most of our problems with our neighbours are of our own making, if we had sufficient foresight and forbearance, we could have possibly made the entire neighbourhood, including Pakistan, client states instead of giving China that opportunity.
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)