China is upping the ante all along the LAC. The violent and primitive physical clashes between the Indian and Chinese soldiers have left three – an officer and two jawans -dead. The casualties on the Chinese side are not known. This is the first time in 45-years that fatalities have been reported from the Line of Actual Control and point to China’s desire to escalate tension.
The news mid-morning took everyone by surprise. Ordinary citizens were lulled into believing that after several rounds of talks of military officials as well as senior diplomats, the situation was under control. That this should happen at a time when both the Indian and PLA soldiers were in the process of de-escalating their eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation in Ladakh, adds to the confusion. Talks are on between the two armies to calm temperatures. So why is China raising the bar and escalating tension at this particular moment in time when the focus across the world is in fighting the pandemic.
To add insult to injury, China has accused India of crossing the LAC into territory which it says belongs to China. While India has consistently maintained that it is the PLA which had come in large numbers into several points inside Indian territory. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Indian troops crossed the border twice on Monday, “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical confrontation between border forces on the two sides”. China has lodged “strong protests and solemn representations” to Delhi, he said.
“We again solemnly request that India follows the relevant attitude and restrains its frontline troops,” he said. “Do not cross the border, do not provoke trouble, do not take any unilateral action that would complicate the border situation.”
“China’s tone and tenor is extremely aggressive,” said Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force magazine, whose latest book Dragon at Our Doorstep is on China. He is a well-known defence and strategic thinker. He believes that India’s response has so far been “subdued and defensive,” Sawhney said in a video he put out after the incident. China is escalating the situation and is not in a mood to back off.
The Indian army he acknowledges was taken by surprise at the incursions by China in several points in Ladakh. India of course rushed in reinforcements once they realised the Chinese build-up along the LAC, but is not in a position to match Chinese forces. According to Sawhney, since Doklam, China has been strengthing its forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region, training PLA units and generally building an “ecosytem” capable of conducting military offensive if needed. Not that he believes that China is preparing for a full scale war with India. He argues that India is ill prepared to take on China’s well oiled and modern war machinery. This is why India has been defensive in its response. The statement issued by both the army as well as the ministry of external affairs are subdued.
The MEA statement which came in late evening, gave a recount of all that has happened from the start and went on to say, “Given its responsible approach to border management, India is very clear that all its activities are within the Indian side of the LAC, we expect the same of the Chinese side……we are firmly committed to the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time we are strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Former ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha, currently the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, has been saying from the beginning of the crisis that the current transgression across the LAC, is different. China has activated the entire border from Sikkim to Ladakh and has taken an extremely aggressive stand this time.
“It is unusual, this is the first time since 1975, that we have fatalities on the border with China. I was not surprised and I expect there may be more such skirmishes.” But he ruled out a full-scale border war. “The problem is we are not privy to the Chinese demands. Without knowing what they want, I cannot say much,” Kantha explained.
“China is staking its territorial claim to these areas, much as it is doing in the South China Sea,” he added. He did not want to speculate and what exactly was China’s motive were without knowing the demands the field commanders would have raised to the Indian side during talks. He however conceded that one reason behind this new aggressive stand was to stop India modernising its border infrastructure. He emphasised that this had nothing to do with India objecting to building of roads and bridges in POK which is part of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. “Let us not mix up too many issues. This is plain wish to expand its territorial claims.”
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On territorial claims, Pravin Sawhney believes that China is going back on the 1993 peace and tranquility agreement, and is going back to 1959, when former Premier Zhou Enlai in a letter to then India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, set out Beijing’s claim line. In 1993, China changed its stand. But now it is reverting to its old stand and so the bites about India getting into their side. As Ambassador Kantha also pointed out, territory is what China is after.
This then appears to be what China’s game plan is about. How the Indian political leadership handles this will determine relations with China in future. Delhi and the political establishment have taken a non-confrontationist and pragmatic approach, hoping to deal with the crisis without getting emotional. This is in stark contrast with any altercation with Pakistan when threats and words fly high.
Unlike the political leadership, army generals who have got into the habit of making public statements frequently, are vocal about India’s military capabilities. Though India would take over a decade to catch up with China, the army is confident today of two front capability. Simply put this is India’s new war doctrine that says that India is in a position now to simultaneously fight both Pakistan and China. The question is, is it?