Ladakh on a Hair Trigger: Who will come up trumps?

Ladakh on a Hair Trigger: Who will come up trumps?

By Poonam I Kaushish

Neighbour or enemy? Both. Indeed, India-China relations are like being on a roller coaster, depending on which way the political wind is blowing, north or South. Presently, it’s bellicose,  defiant and eyeball confrontationist with both New Delhi and Beijing standing there ground: Don’t mess with us.

Yet, it takes two to tango! Recall, till yesterday New Delhi had bought Beijing’s line that the border issue could be compartmentalized, while they pursued other aspects of bilateral ties. But, Galwan and fresh claims in Eastern Ladakh have given a lie to China’s proposition. Whereby, New Delhi is resetting its China policy by making clear it is no patsy and when push comes to shove it will retaliate.

As the Army’s preemptive action 29-30 August to strengthen our position and prevent China from unilaterally changing the status quo on the Pangong Tso southern bank shows India can no longer be arm-twisted, as in 1962. Notwithstanding, Beijing’s angry response which have heightened tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh with neither knowing where it is, as both countries have differing border perception.

Towards that end, it has signalled two changes in the way it deals with Beijing on the border issue. One, security forces are responding with alacrity to attempts by China to change the situation on the ground. Asserted Chief of Defence Staff Gen Rawat, “Delhi has military options”. A far cry from the disengagement and de-escalation that military commanders continue to discuss.

Two, diplomatically, the multiple rounds of talks between military commanders and National Security Advisor Dulat seem to have made little headway. While India wants China to revert to status quo ante which goes unheeded, Beijing wants New Delhi to isolate the border issue from the broader bilateral ties, which has been vociferously turned down.

Questionably, can India defuse this impasse akin to a time bomb? Even as it musters world leaders’ support can New Delhi diplomatically counter Beijing’s drive for supremacy in the region? What options does it have? Does its foreign policy assertive trends portend the likelihood of an aggressive outcome?

A shadow of uncertainty hangs as the border remains on a hair trigger. New Delhi needs diplomatic, economic and military deterrents in place to counter Beijing’s moves. Deal with a boundary that remains un-demarcated, undelineated and disputed over seven decades with a neighbour who periodically flexes muscle. 

Remember, it suits China to have an unresolved boundary which allows it to make fresh claims and unilaterally push the LAC westward as a means of pressuring India. Think. It has refused to disengage at Pangong Tso, Gogra and Despang despite talks and wants to continue pushing the envelope to break India’s back.

Further, Beijing is no longer interested in maintaining peace and tranquility at borders, instead Xi Jinping wants to impose a fait accompli on its neighbours by independently changing facts and can happily go to war or escalate border tension because aggression and violence is its go-to strategy to resolve issues. Moreover, it is adamant to superimpose its position on a contested LAC aiming to capture as much land as possible before things settle down.

Today, Beijing is a totally different beast and we have hardly been able to understand it, let alone manage to tame and befriend it on our terms. Its preferred model is subjugation through tyrannical power designed to humiliate, stifle and weaken the other side. In fact, this is the common thread between aggressive Chinese military manoeuvres in the South and East China Seas and Ladakh where intrusions of territory are viewed as over-riding international agreements and rules.

From Tiananmen Square to Hong Kong protests, from sinking Vietnamese shipping boats to ambushing Indian troops with nailed rods, China can go to any level to get what it wants. Last time we trusted them, it was the infamous 1962 war, and India cannot forget it. This is the country we are dealing with.

Besides, China is busy raising its profile in the sub-Continent by participating in a quadrangular meet with Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting China’s largest province Xinjiang with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan, passing through POK which violates India’s territorial integrity. It is growing footprints in Nepal by bolstering infrastructure close to the Lipulekh pass and the newly disputed areas near Kalapani which are altering the security dynamic for India.

The Chinese are also offering massive financial assistance to several infrastructure projects in Dhaka and Sylhet and 97% duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods, becoming its largest trading partner and investor. It has upgraded its defence relationship by constructing a modern submarine base in Cox’s Bazaar, a new naval base in Pathuakali, and ensuring delivery of a Chinese Corvette to strengthen Bangladesh’s naval forces.

To counter China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy, India’s Look-Act East Policy is forging alliances with Beijing’s neighbours. It is engaging with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam etc. It is also reviewing its policy on Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong and gradually upgrade and strength it ties with Taiwan.

Certainly, one has no illusions about Sino-Indian complex ties but given China’s hegemonic ambitions of exacerbating border tensions, a shadow of uncertainty hangs. With both countries flexing their muscle the danger of military escalation along the LAC has increased. Diminishing that risk in the short term should be a priority.

Consequently, our relations with China will remain a serious problem, requiring engagement and hedging. Already New Delhi is economically pulling out all the stops to hit Beijing financially. It has banned over 224 Chinese apps and stalled financial investments in Indian companies. Prime Minister Modi is pushing hard to showcase India as an alternate destination for global value chains.

However, there is awareness of the need for continued Chinese investment flows and the importance of not getting into a hostile fracas with a stronger neighbour. Hence, tensions between these competing and contradictory imperatives would need to be managed as the stakes for the neighbours are higher and more complex now.

Thus, unless there is a comprehensive breakthrough, Indian and Chinese soldiers are destined, for now, to try and stare each other out at the LAC. Having been used to browbeat the Indian army in the past, the PLA is perhaps surprised that India 2020 is a far cry from India 1962 by its swift counter build-up and firmness. We need to expand these capabilities further.

Modi realizes that in today’s geo-strategic political reality pragmatism dictate real politic. New Delhi’s new assertiveness would need all the wisdom, maturity and restraint to ensure that it remains in control of the Indo-China script. In the long-term India-China relations will be determined by India’s strategic goals and objectives vis-à-vis the evolving regional and global security environment.

India needs to navigate these turbulent waters with measured and calibrated response. Ladakh underscores Beijing’s seriousness about demarcating the Indo-Chinese border but wants to keep the situation ambiguous to enable its salami slicing tactics to incrementally grab territory. Even as its neighbor wants to create a ‘new normal’, tough responses to provocations and clear red zones are the best guarantee of peace in the sub-Continent. Today, a chill has set in Indo-China ties. Deep mistrust and lack of confidence is apparent. New Delhi needs to walk a diplomatic tightrope, make some hard choices and pick up the gauntlet.  Yet the two have not rejected dialogue, even when it is no more than a repetition of known positions. India needs to balance the scales and defeat the Chinese bully at its own game by creating appropriate defence. It needs to stay aggressive. It’s only when there is fear of retaliation that China will stop taking us for granted. ‘Enough’.  


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Ladakh on a Hair Trigger: Who will come up trumps?

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