It’s a year now since diplomatic and military engagements began to get the Chinese army (PLA) to pull back from where they intruded at several locations across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – that separates Chinese held Aksai Chin from Ladakh. But even now it is anybody’s guess whether China will pull its troops back to where they came from. The much trumpeted disengagement process has not made their return to status quo ante, despite eleven (11) rounds of talks. The PLA’s return to earlier positions along the Pangong Tso, was only, as critics had pointed out, after Indian troops vacated their gains on the Kailash ranges. These were occupied in a swift military operation on 29/30 August last year that stumped the Chinese army and left their positions vulnerable. But that apart, a lot of water has flown through the rivers of Ladakh. However, there is little optimism about achieving more in the other areas where the Chinese troops had intruded, like Gogra and Hot Springs. The PLA’s intrusions in Depsang had taken place mostly in 2013. So why did the Chinese intrude again now?
The first reason was perhaps the Chinese desire to deflect the bad global press they had for their shoddy handling and the spread – either by default of design – of the Covid-19 virus. This coupled with the riots in Hong Kong (in 2020), that made China’s leadership look inept in the eyes of their locals and their vast diasporas across the world, (that have access to global news). In 2020 the Chinese President Xi Jinping had hoped to announce major economic achievements preceding the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (2021). But with the world economy being hit by the Virus pandemic, he needed another achievement. Moreover, just as China’s Chairman Mao Ze Dong decided ‘to teach Nehru a lesson’ in 1962, when he couldn’t digest Pandit Nehru’s rising global stature following his role as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and other initiatives. It thus seems likely that Xi Jinping chose to put Mr Modi in a spot with these intrusions.
The second point to understand is that China is not a status quoist nation – that will respect boundaries, like India does – but it has an expansionist agenda, and wants control of not just Aksai Chin, but Ladakh, and north of that, the Siachen glacier and the parts of what we call POK and its northern areas. The Chinese long-term strategic aim is of limiting the rise of India and settling its boundary with India to its advantage, as they nibble away territory in the eastern parts of Ladakh, beyond the perceived boundary lines. This is to get as much territory as they can ‘grab’ in this area, to achieve more depth for their important road link (Highway 219) that connects Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet. The two border regions in west China are really their Achilles heel, and both have been at the receiving end of much state sponsored brutality. That apart, the Aksai Chin area is part of a grand strategic design. Beijing has plans to extend its reach north of the Galwan river – where they had intruded– to the Karakoram pass, where they have built a major road link to the Shaksgam valley which they have occupied since 1963. Pakistan gave it to them to firm up the China-Pak nexus which has been Pakistan’s major diplomatic life line, now.
Third, China is forever looking for more water resources in the Ladakh region, as the Indus river system originates from Tibet and goes via Ladakh to Pakistan’s northern areas that we call POK. The Chinese agenda is to have access to as much water in this region, as China needs an abundance of water to manufacture microchips. Silicon wafers require lots of water (10,000 liters for its 30 cm sq) to produce, and thus it is the waters of the Indus river system that China wants and Pakistan is expected to provide for its geo-strategic and economic agenda. In 2018, China imported over $ 230 billion worth of Microchips from the US, Japan and Taiwan in 2018. In 2019, the US put a ban on any rther microchip sales to China. So China wants to make all this itself – through the fresh waters of the Indus system and by melting of the glaciers in the Shaksgam valley. China had in fact begun eying Kashmir’s waters from the 1950’s, and so it occupied Aksai Chin in 1954. Now the Chinese have agreed to finance five major Dams on Indus rivers in POK, and invest in excess of $25 billion dollars in these dams. Therefore, these Chinese intrusions across the LAC, were part of a larger strategic plan, and China would be unwilling to vacate them, as I had pointed out, in my essay in the Times of India on June 9,2020, titled: ‘Water, status and territorial depth: How the LAC intrusions fit into larger Chinese strategic designs’.
I had further pointed out that to assume that Chinese will withdraw back to where we want them on the LAC (Line of Actual Control) was rather optimistic on our part. In all undefined borders or boundary lines – as is the case on the LAC, unlike the McMahon Line along Arunachal Pradesh – you keep what you grab, till a full and final settlement is arrived at. Thus, New Delhi’s diplomatic approach of going through the talks and peace-making model, needs to be reviewed. It hasn’t got us anywhere on the matter of settling the boundary, especially on the Ladakh front, as there are differing perceptions of which line to follow. Will it be the LAC as agreed in 1993, or should it be the one proposed by the British in Simla in 1914 – which the Chinese representative didn’t accept – or the Johnson Line, that India claims? A lesson of the past year of negotiations has been that any negotiation on the boundary issue must involve the Indian military commanders, who know the lay of the ground. Giving away even a single hill feature can make a major difference as we have seen most recently. Even then India gave up its gains in Kailash ranges. But the Chinese having got those heights, are now silent about what apparently – it can be assumed – they had promised in return elsewhere on the LAC!
However, the Chinese intrusions had made India’s military establishment wake up and focus themselves to the Chinese threat – or the reality of a ‘two front’ China- Pakistan threat – and prepare themselves accordingly. Three decades after the then defence minister, George Fernandez, as India’s defence minister in the mid-1990s, had warned that China was a bigger threat to India, and not Pakistan, the policy makers on Raisina Hill in Delhi got their wake up call in March 2020, specially after the hand-to-hand fighting in the Galwan valley, led to the death of 20 men from 16 Bihar, and an unspecified number of PLA soldiers, in mid June 2020. It has also led to a flurry of military purchases that has given our armed forces many new weapon platforms now, from fighter aircrafts to long range maritime drones and attack helicopters, as ‘ force multipliers’. But a lesson from the Kargil conflict where we were similarly surprised, was the need to equip our infantrymen well to fight in those icy heights – and Aksai Chin too has tough high altitude terrain –with air and artillery support, if need be, in that hazardous front.
It’s now clear that this standoff will be the new normal, and the LAC will be another Line of Control (LoC). It requires India to deploy two China centric ‘strike corps’, (of 30,000 or more troops) by reassigning the existing manpower – since new resources may be hard to come by – with one ‘strike corps’ to be ready to be launched anywhere northwest of Nepal onto the LAC, and other east of Bhutan, to divide the attention of China’s western theatre command that’s responsible for their entire land borders with India. By using the multiple military commands facing China, India could spring many surprises, if the political order so desires. However, budgetary re-allocations will have to be made sooner than later to give these army ‘strike corps’ alpine equipment to be prepared for a conflict in the high Himalayas. And though the nation’s attention is rightly focused on the 2nd (and God forbid the 3rd ) wave of Covid-19 pandemic, China’s agenda is far from settled. To prevent that an ggresive posture could help stall China’s designs.
That apart, it’s about time we create a new mechanism to settle this boundary challenge, since 22 rounds of Special Representative talks have led us nowhere. But can failed talks eventually lead to another Kargil like conflict? That shouldn’t be kept off the table. China respects you if you talk from a position of strength. The absence of a drive to find a solution over the boundary disputes – especially after the 2013 Chinese intrusions in east Ladakh, and the 2017 Doklam stand-off – can be a reason for a Chinese desire to position itself at an advantage as it has done along the LAC. There were reports in recent years that ‘nearly 75 percent of the transgressions by Chinese troops’ took place across the LAC, while ‘only 20 percent in India’s eastern front along Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh’. It shows that for the Chinese, the Aksai Chin area is ‘a valued piece of real estate’, and the Ladakh crisis could be explained as a ‘belated reassertion of China’s original claims over the area’.
(This essay was first put up on the website of timesnownews.com on June 7, 2021)
The writer is a retired army officer and columnist