PM Narendra Modi visits Indian military personnel deployed in forward positions in Leh, Ladakh on July 3, 2020, photo via Wikipedia
BESA Center Perspectives Paper Nr. 1,773, October 12, 2020
SUMMARY: Despite military and political clashes between India and China to reach an agreement on their border dispute, the situation is nearing a hotspot. An estimated 50,000 Chinese PLA troops now control a combined area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers in eastern Ladakh, India. India has few options to counter China’s one-sided LAK reshaping.
In the worst dispute between India and China since the war in 1962, over 50,000 soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) broke the law de facto Border called the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to circumnavigate numerous strategic areas in eastern Ladakh India.
The situation is becoming more and more dangerous. The Indian secret service estimates that China now controls a total of about 1,000 square kilometers in this border region due to its sustained advance. Beijing has therefore redrawn the LAC on one side.
China’s military offensive in Ladakh is not only tactical, but also has the strategic goal of achieving certain long-term goals. The steps of the PLA are ultimately directed by top leadership: the Central Military Commission (CMC), chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese Han culture is goal-oriented. The military may well believe that if they enter an area at will and encounter little resistance, they are under no obligation to withdraw upon request.
India’s fears that the Chinese would not withdraw quickly proved to be justified. There were reports of PLA troops laying fiber optic cables in areas they had occupied. Such a network will enable secure communication channels between front troops and bases in the rear area as well as enable the data transfer of images and documents.
In addition to the worrying situation in Ladakh, there are fears that China could open another front in the eastern sector of India. For a long time Beijing occupied the entire area of 83,743 square kilometers of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls “Southern Tibet”. Ladakh is on the western edge of the 3,488 km long LAC that separates the two nuclear powers. Arunachal is in the east.
China’s thirst for adventure in India could be explained by the pike in Delhi’s completion of the 255-kilometer Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) road last year, which improved connectivity along the 1,147-kilometer LAC in eastern Ladakh. The roadway leads to the highest airstrip in the world and the Indian military base DBO, which is just 12 kilometers south of the strategic Karakoram Pass. Just seven kilometers north is the Shenxianwan post, which is considered the toughest PLA post in China.
China, on the other hand, built a 36-kilometer road in the 5,163-square-kilometer Shaksgam Valley, which was illegally ceded by Pakistan in 1963, even though India contested its claim to the territory. New Delhi expects Beijing to connect the G-219 Lhasa-Kashgar motorway to the Karakoram Pass via the Shaksgam Pass and use this connection to pressure DBO from the north. The Karakoram Pass is north of the 38,850 square kilometer desert of Aksai Chin, which China took over from India in the 1962 war. India still claims Aksai Chin is part of Ladakh.
China was also provoked by the statement by Indian Interior Minister Amit Shah in parliament a year ago, shortly after the repeal of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which ended the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). “I want to make absolutely clear that every time we say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes Pakistani-occupied Kashmir (PoK), including Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Aksai Chin,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that: the entire J&K is an integral part of the Union of India.”
Gilgit-Baltistan in PoK connects to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of the ambitious Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is funded by a Chinese investment of 60 billion US dollars. India says the CPEC is violating its territorial sovereignty by walking through the controversial Gilgit-Baltistan.
From Beijing’s point of view, any Indian attempt to take over PoK or Gilgit-Baltistan would undermine the CPEC. This is unacceptable as President Xi put his personal prestige on the initiative to allow China to access the Indian Ocean through the Pakistani port of Gwadar.
China’s aggression was clearly aligned with the harsh six-month winter that sets in in October in this barren, high-altitude border region. Temperatures can drop to -35 degrees Celsius with the wind chill adding another -10 degrees and testing the limits of human endurance. Beijing is likely to work to maintain the status quo due to the severe cold, which will affect mobility and affect logistics. When the spring snow melts, Beijing may cite other challenges for movement.
Indian citizens have turned to their leadership to remove the threat of war. Many are frustrated that, while the government has no hesitation in persecuting dissidents and political opponents by calling them “anti-national” and “seditious”, it has avoided confrontation with external aggressors. Delhi has not given a resolute response, even as a vast area of the country falls into disrepair and its battle-hardened soldiers are killed and maimed. India is being militarily, diplomatically and politically outmaneuvered by China, which seems to be conspicuous almost at will.
In a grave misinterpretation of the threat of war or a shrewd attempt to disarm the Chinese, PM Narendra Modi appeared on television – four days after 20 Indian soldiers were killed and the nation was waiting for information on developments – and flatly denied that the invasion had occurred or that the invasion had occurred any Indian posts had been injured. As he consistently did during the crisis, he avoided calling China by name.
There were concerns that Modi’s refusal was encouraging the occupying forces and demoralizing Indian troops fighting the PLA. If infiltration did not occur, how – and more importantly, why – did the clashes occur? Is there any implication that the area where the clashes took place is not controversial, nor that of India, but that of China? Should it be inferred that it was Indian troops who broke through the LAC and provoked Chinese reprisals?
In the ongoing talks at the military level, Beijing has used the Prime Minister’s stance not only to consistently deny any Chinese invasion, but also to accuse the Indian side of provocation.
The impression is increasingly being created that the border conflict could have been defused in the initial phase if the Prime Minister had contacted President Xi. The question arises as to whether or not Modi does not have such access or is trusted by the Chinese hierarchy, or whether there is a communication gap between the two leaders that hinders the settlement.
India’s options are limited. A counterattack to evict the PLA could spark a war that no country, especially India, can afford. India has been badly mistreated and is officially in a recession phase. The economy ravaged by COVID has shrunk 23.9%, the worst collapse in the world.
India continues to have the opportunity to raise the issue of China’s unjustified aggression at the United Nations, as Article 35 of the United Nations Charter allows any member state to bring disputes to the attention of the Security Council or the General Assembly.
India cannot expect any country to intervene militarily against China on its behalf should hostilities break out. The country has to take care of itself.
Sarosh i is Executive Editor of Business india.
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