At the 2019 informal summit between India and China at Mamallapuram, on the periphery of Chennai, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2020 by deepening exchanges by any means levels – between your legislatures, political parties, cultural and youth organisations, even militaries of these two countries. Both the leaders also chose to organise 70 activities, such as a conference on the ship that would trace the historical connect between the two civilisations.
No one expected that rosy diplomatic picture would turn as grim because it has recently, using the spread of the coronavirus that had been first reported from Wuhan – ironically, the internet site of your 2018 informal summit between India and China – with war clouds gathering over eastern Ladakh. This has happened within seven months in the Mamallapuram meet, which saw the reiteration of the need to have peace and tranquillity from the border areas plus a dedication to focus on 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 along the 3,488-kilometre-long Type 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. While the Chinese defence ministry spokesperson has said that the specific situation in Ladakh is “stable and controllable,” this looks to be a gross understatement as the two armies are literally at each other’s throats. This fragile situation fails to augur well for bilateral relations. It provides already turned the normally-dormant LAC active, forcing India to deploy troops about the northern border and prepare for the worst-case scenario. Much as India’s detractors would like to remind it about the 1962 border skirmish with China, the fact is that even PLA would have to move troops from the hinterland to protect its own territory if the red flag goes up. Nowadays China has 76 and 77 group armies (around 45,000 men) together with a possibility of 6 to 8 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 air and communication bases are even closer 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 component of surprise after events of stand-off, along with 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 combat all odds. Even though China is currently sabre-rattling with the border, it also knows that India has a quite strong leader in PM Narendra Modi, that has not named China for spreading the Covid-19 virus, maintained a studied silence over dealing with minorities in Xinjiang, not commented about the draconian laws in Hong Kong, and stayed silent while some have pushed for the observer status for Taiwan in 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 move to restrict foreign direct investment from neighbouring countries – a move clearly geared towards China – shows that India provides the capacity and capability to react. But it is also not catalysing the resentment against China in the behest of the Trump administration. The fact is, it can be Beijing which happens to be using neighbours including Pakistan and, more recently, Nepal to project its dominance in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The argument that this Ladakh stand-off is a result of the Modi government abrogating article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir does not hold good as no less than Foreign Minister S Jaishankar flew to Beijing last August to reassure China that India was not raising any additional territorial claim on contested areas in the region. 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, by aggressively posturing on the border.
Still, with both leaders previously committing to not turning bilateral differences into disputes, it will be from the interest of each party to withdraw with their respective base camps in Eastern Ladakh while there is absolutely no way that India will almost certainly allow China to help make unilateral variations in either in the sectors. The Modi government will likely not come under pressure from China on its legitimate border infrastructure upgrade, that is happening well within its own territory. After 21 rounds of hardly productive Special Representative Dialogue about the resolution in the boundary issue, it is actually time the two sides no less than exchange maps of the western and eastern sector to ensure the two armies know each other’s positions on the ground. Both leaders need to have 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 in the horizon with China expected to create their own candidate as it did when it comes to the Panchen Lama. Two of the most-populated nations in the world, the countries with the foremost and second largest armies worldwide, cannot be adversaries forever.