Picture used for illustrative purpose only.
Three years after the Doklam stand-off, Indian and Chinese soldiers are facing each other again, this time at points along the 3,450-kilometre long line of actual control between the two countries.
The current stand-off in eastern Ladakh began as patrol parties of the two sides scuffled on the night of May 5-6, leaving a few with minor injuries. Both sides later brought in more troops to bolster their positions.
The Doklam face-off followed when Indian troops blocked Chinese road construction at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. After discussions on their mutual concerns through diplomatic channels, the two sides announced disengagement 73 days later.
The current face-off began after Chinese soldiers blocked an Indian patrol party, alleging intrusion into their side of the LAC. India denied trespass by its soldiers. Soon reports of face-off came in also from some other points on the Ladakh border and Naku La in north Sikkim.
National Security Advisory Board member Lt-Gen SL Narasimhan told a newspaper India will match the Chinese build-up of troops. But he left the impression that there was lack of clarity on the size of the Chinese troops along the LAC.
“I have heard variations from 500 to 5,000 to 10,000,” he said. “It will be extremely difficult to predict.”
Summer is patrolling time on the mountains. China has well developed infrastructure on its side of the LAC. Infrastructure on the Indian side is less developed, and efforts are on to improve it.
One theory about the face-offs is that China wants to block infrastructure development on the Indian side. Since the Doklam face-off, an informal India-China Summit has become an annual affair. At the Wuhan meet in 2018 and Mahabalipuram meet in 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on the need to maintain peace and tranquility on the LAC. Accordingly, they issued “strategic directives” on border management to their armed forces.
Most of the issues that arose subsequently on the LAC were quickly resolved through direct contacts between the local commanders. Gen. Narasimhan averred the Chinese were trying “to lay claim to their perception of the LAC” and not to pick up territory.
Although there have been daily meetings between tactical commanders and at least two meetings of higher level commanders and talks between the governments at diplomatic level, the issue remains unresolved at the time of writing.
LAC transgressions are not new. Parliament was told last November that there were 273 transgressions in 2016, 426 in 2017 and 326 in 2018. Some analysts link the recent transgressions to the Modi government’s crackdown on Jammu and Kashmir last August. They argue Ladakh’s separation from J&K has rendered it vulnerable.
Ladakh, they point out, is the only place where direct military collusion between Pakistan and China is possible.
It has also been suggested that the current Chinese posture may be a response to fear of Indian attempts to regain control of Aksai Chin, a part of J&K which Pakistan had given to China in a border settlement.
After the abrogation of J&K’s special status, army brass has talked of action to re-take areas under Pakistan’s control if the government so ordered.
In an insipid political gesture, the state television included places in Pakistan-controlled areas of Kashmir in its weather bulletins.
In 1954 India and China had committed themselves to the five principles of co-existence, which included respect for each other’s territorial integrity and mutual non-aggression. In the border war of 1962 India paid a heavy price for lack of preparedness resulting from excessive faith in Beijing’s good faith.
Much water has flown down through the Yangtze and the Ganga since then. China is no longer an outlaw excluded from the councils of the world. On the contrary, it is a major power waiting to take its legitimate place at the high table.
India is no weakling either. Under Modi, divisive forces have gained ground in the country and the economy has taken a hard beating. But it still has greater ability to face and overcome challenges than six decades ago.
China’s new assertiveness has rekindled old fears in India. The Modi regime’s opposition to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative and its inclination to play along with the US-led Quad in the South China Sea have engendered suspicions in China.
Amid the face-off China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that both nations must shed mutual inhibitions. The Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must dance together, and not fight, he said.
There is sense in those words. But it takes two to tango and the Himalayas are not the right place for a spectacular dragon-elephant dance.