The Line of Actual Conflict
Watch this space for the latest updates
Since early May, India and China, nuclear powers and currently disgruntled neighbours, have been witnessing eyeball to eyeball confrontation along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh, and in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim.
Earlier today, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and discussed the crisis in Eastern Ladakh, with the latter maintaining that the situation was entirely India’s fault. While a solution itself was not reached, the meeting established at least superficially that both sides are committed to resolving the tensions resulting from violent clashes in Galwan at the earliest. Prior to the conclusion of this meeting, a little after 3 PM Indian Standard Time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that while peace was desired and would be worked towards, ‘India will defend every inch of its territory’.
Reports emerged in May that on the nights of May 5th and 6th, many soldiers on either side were injured in a hand to hand conflict between 250 soldiers of the Indian and Chinese armies at lake Pangong in Ladakh. On May 9th, in Sikkim’s Naku La area, a few Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a skirmish on the LaC, and less than a week later, tensions built up in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. On June 15th, the Indian Army finally reported that 20 Indian soldiers were killed after they succumbed to injuries sustained in hand to hand combat and by falling off the high altitude, high-risk ridges and plunging to their deaths. This report gives a succinct timeline of the events in the month past.
(It has to be noted that both armies were unarmed because of a long-standing tradition of disarming in the region to prevent a drastic escalation between the two nuclear states.)
While many reports have emerged about the genesis of the confrontation, it boils down to this. The Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road or DSDBO road, which is close to the Gulwan Valley leads to Daulat Beg Oldi/DBO, the highest airfield in the region that helps supply and connect with Indian personnel and interests in Siachen. The road itself was recently constructed by India to ensure the maintenance of supply lines and for strategic reasons. The Daulat Beg Oldi airfield is tactically important as it overlooks the road between China and Pakistan occupied Kashmir and gives India a key vantage point. The DSDBO road comes quite close to the LAC and if China were to come away from the current situation in control of the Galwan Valley, they would easily be able to destroy it as the valley gives a clear line of sight for artillery and heavy ammunition to wreak havoc.
While the Line of Control between India and Pakistan is disputed in Kashmir, it is far more clearly defined than the LaC which has never actually been agreed upon by Independent India and China. It is a relic of poor negotiations between British India, China, and the then Independent Tibet, where the borders were loosely defined as the western sector in Ladakh, the middle sector in Uttarakhand and nearby areas, and the eastern sector in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The consequent disputes including the war of 1962, the standoff in 1967, and the recent nose to nose standoff in Doklam, Sikkim have been well documented.
What stands out about the current crisis is the fact that skirmishes have happened at multiple locations along the LaC, which is new. This indicates a growing hunger from China to solidify and perhaps expand its territory, taking advantage of an increasingly arbitrary border, and more importantly, means that these skirmishes are a result of coordinated orders from Beijing. President XI Jinping’s government has for a few years now continuously been at odds with India. India’s refusal to join China’s grand economic plan, the One-Belt-One-Road initiative irked them, and have since tried to make India’s international standing weaker. China refuses to allow India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group unless Pakistan is admitted at the same time, has repeatedly given a lukewarm response to India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has cozied up to India’s Himalayan neighbour Nepal, and continues to expand investments in Sri Lanka and a vast number of ASEAN member states.
This is a part of China’s growing pattern of aggressively expanding its borders. In 2009, China claimed virtually the entire South China Sea to itself citing the nine-dash-line, a demarcation China claims belongs to them historically, with no legal basis or logic. It has even built artificial islands in the South China Sea to establish naval dominance.
This is in stark contrast to what is becoming an uphill task for PM Modi to secure India’s neighbours as neutrals if not allies, with the leader even inviting all SAARC countries to his oath-taking ceremony for his first term in May 2014, in a bid to establish friendly ties. While Pakistan is an old foe, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have begun to decouple themselves with India on the back of rising nationalistic trends domestically in these countries. A remark that has been going around is that if India doesn’t find a way to turn the tide, its only friends in the region will be the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. While the situation may never reach such a nadir, PM Modi must ramp up efforts for bonhomie in the region for the sake of India’s territorial integrity and lasting peace in the region, and for India’s pride.
The Chinese perspective is far less emotional. They seek to by hook or crook establish their dominance all along the LaC, an effort that has possibly been ramped up to deviate from the global pandemic they helped create.
In the short term, India’s goals are clear. Using diplomatic and military channels India must first work towards halting the skirmishes in the Galwan valley. It is imperative that brutal hand to hand combat ceases as reports are emerging that Chinese soldiers ambushed an outnumbered Indian contingent that had gone over to try and resolve the issue, with sticks laced with barbed wire and other primitive weapons.
Following a cessation of hostilities in Ladakh for the time being, India must demand a withdrawal of buildup of Chinese troops all along the border and a return to the status quo. This however is only for now. China’s defence spending is almost 5 times that of India’s and a direct escalated conflict could possibly be difficult for India to manage.
Instead, India must explore other avenues. The first of which, as this article points out must be to make an accentuated global push for democracy and the safeguarding of it in Hong Kong. India must side with western democracies, especially as part of a quartet with Japan, Australia, and the USA, who under the leadership of the United States are keeping China’s expansionism at bay in the South China Sea, and build up an initiative that prevents Xi Jinping from establishing power at various global platforms, including the UN. In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, tensions between China and the West are going to be at an all-time high and the moment is right for India to come out on top.
Some, however, argue that India must continue to be non-aligned and work out independent solutions with China to the conflict but it is becoming increasingly clear that India must move beyond the LaC to make a significant dent in China’s ambitions. India must secure ASEAN allies despite recent disagreements over the RCEP or risk losing an entire bloc of possible allies to Chinese investment.
While India can look to the West for diplomatic backing, India must be Aatmanirbhar, as this article points out, or risk becoming tied to American ambitions in the region. While China may say that they do not want any more clashes with India, the tensions between the two will never be limited to the border. India’s diplomatic might must far exceed its economic might if PM Modi is to mount a reasonable response to the threat of China.
The current crisis will eventually stagnate and petter out, given the sizeable amount of trade between the two countries., but the challenge will remain. China is mighty, at times devious too and India cannot allow itself to be outmanoeuvred, or risk being outgunned.
PM Modi has time and again said that while a peaceful solution is always the goal, India is not willing to compromise on her strategic interests and national security. While this attitude will attract allies from the West, a consolidated, patient, determined diplomatic effort in the region is India’s best way forward.
Reports have emerged that Indian jawaans fought bravely damning odds in the Gulwan Valley and it is that indomitable, fiery spirit which must form the core of India’s policy in the region hereafter.
(Authored by Bharat Govind Gautam)