DC Pathak, Indo-Asian News Service
Fuel tankers are pictured on the Ladakh highway between Kargil and Leh on Sunday. Agence France-Presse
The continuing escalation of India-China tension on the border leading to a large-scale physical attack by Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) men on Indian personnel on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Galwan valley in Ladakh on June 15 — that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers including the Lieutenant Colonel in the field — is a new development that calls for a relook at our China policy.
American media has talked of the Chinese having sustained large casualties which only shows that the Indian troops did not take it lying down when aggression was unleashed by the opposite side. To India’s consternation, China had stepped up its muscle flexing at multiple points on our border in recent months, mobilised PLA units all along the LAC and launched a substantial military build-up in the Ladakh segment. Considering the fact of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping having held several meetings over the last couple of years, the resurfacing of Sino-Indian border conflict points to a recalibration of China’s global strategy by President Xi putting India in the ‘opposite’ camp — in disregard of all the Indian hospitality extended to him on his visit here and the peace overtures made by our Prime Minister in his bilateral ‘summit’ interactions.
None of what is happening, therefore, pertains to LAC alone — it is part of the larger Chinese policy of dealing with the emerging global scene in the long term. India has to get this new profile of China right to frame its strategic responses.
Considering the fact that a country would not allow its military to indulge in an activity on the ground that ran counter to its overall strategy, the display of muscle power by PLA in Ladakh sector of LAC is evidently a part of the Chinese plan to geo-politically strengthen its position in the Pak-Afghan-Kashmir tri-junction that had in the historical perspective been a crucial flag mark of superpower rivalries of the Cold War.
There is little doubt that after the demise of USSR, the Chinese leadership, particularly Xi Jinping, has been pursuing the economic and military path to making China the second superpower. Its military alliance with Pakistan and the base of economic convergence laid by CPEC, both resting on the enormous gain of territory acquired by China from Pakistan in POK, give it the benefit of having an intrinsic influence in the Pak-Afghan belt. The abolition of Art 370 of the Constitution by the Indian Parliament and the conversion of Ladakh into a Union Territory outside of J&K, to be governed directly by the Modi government, evoked an open protest from China and established a new degree of meeting of minds between Pakistan and China in countering Indian security initiatives in this vitally important border region.
The flashpoints created by China on LAC were primarily meant to enable it to stay put in Galwan valley apparently by using the ‘two steps forward one step backward’ doctrine — significantly, this was also a hotspot in the 1962 Sino-Indian military conflict. Something stronger than the verbal consensus at the local Commander’s level about vacating the encroachment here, was required. The incident on June 15 reportedly occurred when the Chinese army men used force to browbeat the Indian personnel who had asked them to move away. Chinese soldiers were clearly trained to attack and kill the opponents with specially forged personal weapons used in hand-to-hand combat. They obviously had instructions not to move back and to take advantage of the situation where the patrols by convention did not use firearms.
There is substance in the view that the Chinese highhandedness on LAC has been timed to take advantage of the trouble caused to both US and India, politically and economically, by the corona pandemic, in the backdrop of rapid growth of US-India strategic partnership during the Modi regime. The convergence between the two biggest democracies of the world on many global matters in the post-Cold War era is natural and cannot be faulted on the outdated plea of the need for adherence to ‘non alignment’ that India had to adopt as an ‘ideological’ line in the face of a complete division of the world between Communism and Capitalism at the height of the Cold War. The policy of equidistance from both might have been alright in the given context then but the Modi government has done well to shed the baggage of the past and adopt the policy of having bilateral relationships with all — based on mutual economic and security interests, in today’s world.
It is in keeping with these interests that India has, like the US, tried to correct the trade imbalance with China on one hand and moved closer to QUAD, which is a US-led multilateral grouping working for preservation of ‘rule based order’ in the Indo-Pacific maritime region -- on the other. From India’s angle, checking the aggressiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific is crucial for the security of Indian Ocean nearer home.
Post-Covid developments created an environment in which the US-led campaign, blaming the pandemic on China, wanted the global business to shun the latter — the Indian response of welcoming the investors who wanted to opt for India as the alternate destination and at the same time discouraging the Chinese portfolio investors was a valid strategy of safeguarding India’s economic interests. China seems to have decided to disturb the border scene to damage the environ of peace in the subcontinent and impede India’s economic recovery.
The emerging regional and global scenario makes it clear to India that the Sino-Pak military alliance and the US-India strategic partnership have become the counterbalancing factors impacting the security of entire South Asia. Pakistan had stepped up cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and was in concert with China on all points of conflict with India just as China had joined in the Pak campaign against India’s moves in J&K by labelling them as infringement of ‘China’s sovereignty’. India has, at the highest levels in the Modi government, raised the issue of illegal occupation of Aksai Chin by China. Things could thus be moving in the direction of irreversibility as far as Sino-Indian relationship is concerned unless China signals a pushback in Galwan.
In the meanwhile, India is required to put a three-fold course of defence in play — continuing the upgradation of infrastructure on the Indian side of LAC, adequate deployment of troops to deal with any infringement of the border there and doubling down on the counter-terrorism drive in Kashmir. China is as much under a constraint not to create a war-like situation as India is to avoid going beyond an effective answer to repel any encroachment on the LAC.
India has to be prepared to give a message of firm reciprocity to China militarily, take to a punitive response to Pakistan for its mischief in Kashmir and pursue international relations in the long haul in a manner that added to political and economic costs for the Sino-Pak alliance. In the new Cold War, developing between China and US there should be no doubt about India favouring the democratic camp this time around.