Going back in history, Indian bureaucracy, and some in the Army too, cannot exorcise the ghost of 1962. The Chinese media takes advantage of this defeatist mindset and uses the narrative that India was humiliated in 1962 because the Indian Army (IA) was inferior to the Chinese Army (PLA). Indians, as is oft repeated, have a feeble sense of history, nevertheless this mindset needs to be changed and the pages of history moved fast forward to more recent times when the IA has either snubbed the PLA, or given it a bloody nose, whether it was in the Eastern Sector or in Ladakh.
The IA had to postpone its summer exercise in mid-March along the line of Actual Control (LAC) due to some soldiers testing positive to the Coronavirus. The exercise, an annual affair, involves the movement of troops from Himachal and is a mirror to a PLA exercise, which, for whatever reasons, was also postponed by a month. The IA was surprised by the PLA manoeuvres in April when its troops quickly redeployed in the Galwan valley and the ‘fingers’ on the Northern bank of Pangong Tso. Disregarding all pandemic protocol, Indian troops were deployed to match the PLA deployments. The first confrontation in Ladakh region reportedly occurred on May 5-6, when a major scuffle resulted in injuries, some serious, to soldiers of both sides.
Why has China timed its incursion now? It probably felt that India, being distracted while handling the Corona-crisis, combined with a seriously damaged economy, would restrict any instant reaction and its bullet-less aggression would end in it gaining some territory. While it is true that India was caught off-guard, its immediate reaction, and the magnitude of it, did catch China too off-guard, making it reconcile to a mutual pullback of troops; the talks at the various levels, although initially ending in a deadlock, did bring about some results after three rounds and are expected to continue for some months, testing each nation’s diplomatic and military patience.
Was the Chinese incursion timed as a protest against India’s abrogation of Article 370? Probably not! Was it retaliation against the amendment to the new FDI restrictions announced by India during the pandemic? Once again, probably not, for China would not venture into a border show-down, where victory was not assured; China, for those who did not monitor, has already retaliated by banning pork imports from India! Then what could be the strategy behind China’s actions?
Bertil Lintner, in his book, ‘China’s India War’ has mentioned that the 1962 war was a diversionary tactic against the failure of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’; in 2020, the ‘Peabody ducks’ are not exactly lined up for Xi Jin Ping, who has many a credibility issue with his people and Party, not the least being the handling of the virus pandemic. China’s ambition to place itself as the future superpower has taken a massive hit with almost all nations questioning its handling of the virus outbreak. It, hence, is seeking to co-opt its citizens under the garb of aggressive nationalism, through a pliant media, to divert attention from unemployment, low growth, thin fiscal stimulus and uncertain global conditions, by a dominant action on its only un-demarcated border, and thus, also, quashing India’s vaulting ambitions.
There, however, appear to be other strategic designs too. One needs to be clear, that the earlier intrusions in 2013 and 2014, in Depsang and Chumar respectively, apparently had limited tactical objectives; this appears to be strategically planned and put into action to alter the boundary by occupying vantage locations, thus placing the PLA in a commanding position. Why does China want to have commanding locations in this area?
China, it so seems, is keen to consolidate its security along its important road link (Highway 219) that connects its two volatile, Western border regions of Tibet (Lhasa) and Xinjiang (Kashgar). While doing so, it probably wants to extend its reach from north of the Galwan River, where the PLA is currently camped, to the Karakoram Pass and further ahead to the Shaksgam valley (an illegal ‘gift’ by Pakistan in 1963). This would provide the necessary security to its projects in POK, which are a part of the CPEC and involves a huge investment of billions of dollars by China.
Another reason that may appear outlandish at first glance, but considering China’s quest for being numero uno in the world, is quite plausible. China, in 2018, spent over $230 billion to import microchips from the USA, Taiwan, and Japan. It wants to make the microchips itself to reduce its dependency on other nations; to do so it requires a profuse supply of fresh water (10000 litres for a single 30 cm wafer), which is available from the Indus River and by melting the glaciers of Shaksgam. China had its eyes on the waters of Kashmir from the 1950s, when it annexed Tibet, and now with its ‘strategic partner’ Pakistan, it has planned five dams on the Indus River in POK. The Indian development of infrastructure in this area and around has not been appreciated by China, for its strategic plans can be thwarted; the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road, and the link road in the Galwan valley, well inside Indian territory, can make China’s plans go haywire!
China has opened many international fronts, including the one with India, in a bid to deflect bad global publicity on its slip-shod handling, intentional or otherwise, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. While in the South China Sea, it is facing comparatively weak opponents, the Chinese generals appear not too convinced of a decisive victory, now that India has the capacity, capability and resolve to react, and react strongly.
While it would be in the interest of both nations to withdraw to their respective base-camps, it would be naive on the part of India to lower its guard. India should be prepared for more trouble, while continuing to develop its infrastructure, and resolving ‘differing perceptions’ of the LAC at the diplomatic/political levels. China is known to draw lines on maps to suit its designs, while India is quite aware of Chinese cartographic aggressions being transformed into physical occupation of land!
Attempts are being made to resolve the situation through dialogue; India can maintain a stalemate, for an ultimate checkmate!
Author: Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja (Retd.)
The Author retired as the AOC-in-C of Training Command, IAF. He is a postgraduate in ‘National Security Strategy’ from National War College, USA.