India and China

Line of conflict

Print edition : July 03, 2020

A satellite image taken on June 16 showing the Galwan Valley, which lies between China’s Tibet and India’s Ladakh. Photo: PLANET LABS, INC./AFP

Army personnel pay tribute to the mortal remains of jawans of the Bihar regiment killed in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, at Jaiprakash Narayan Airport in Patna on June 18. Photo: PTI

A convoy on the Manali-Leh highway on June 19. Photo: PTI

An army convoy moves along the Srinagar-Leh National highway in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district on June 17. Photo: PTI

The Galwan Valley incident, one of the most serious confrontations between India and China since the disastrous 1962 war, threatens to disrupt the bilateral relations forged over a few decades.

FOR the first time in 45 years, a sizeable number of Indian soldiers were killed in the line of duty along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China. The Indian Army confirmed in a statement on June 16 that 20 Indian soldiers, including a senior officer, were killed in the altercation and violence that took place in the disputed Galwan Valley in the Ladakh sector.

The statement emphasised that there were many casualties on the other side too, but there has so far been no confirmation from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) about deaths and injuries on the Chinese side. A few critically injured Indian soldiers remain in hospital. Ten soldiers whom the PLA had taken prisoner were released on June 18.

The Indian Army said that the incident happened even as the “de-escalation” process was going on in the area. The PLA’s version is that Indian forces illegally crossed the LAC in the dead of night in contravention of the agreement reached on June 6 between senior commanders of the two armies.

The PLA issued a statement putting all the blame on the Indian Army. “The Indian Army broke their promise and once again crossed the Line of Actual control to engage in illegal activities,” it said. “They deliberately launched a provocative assault, leading to an intense physical clash that caused death and injury.”

Each side was adamant that the other side was responsible for triggering the confrontation. Although no bullets were fired, the June 15 incident is one of the most serious confrontations between India and China since the disastrous 1962 war. Interestingly, it was China that first lodged a complaint about the incident. Vikram Misri, the Indian Ambassador to Beijing, was called to the Foreign Ministry for a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui to discuss the issue.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephonic conversation later. Following the discussion, the blame game continued. Jaishankar said that China was responsible for “the violence and the casualties” and urged Beijing “to reassess its actions and take corrective steps”.

Wang said that it was the Indian military’s “violent” and “adventurous conduct” that had led to the untoward incident. He urged the Indian government to “strictly control” its “front-line troops and immediately cease all provocative actions”.

Addressing the nation on television on June 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed that the sacrifices of the dead soldiers “would not be in vain”. He said that the country wanted “peace but if provoked, India is capable of giving a befitting reply”. However, since the June 15 clash, both sides have committed themselves to disengaging their military forces from close proximity along the disputed borders.

At the same time, the Indian government is encouraging calls for the boycott of Chinese goods and services.

According to reports, instructions have been given to the telecom sector and the Railways to cancel contracts with Chinese companies. Most Indian political commentators, former diplomats and retired Army officers are calling on the government to formally junk its non-aligned policy and join the United States-led military alliance against China.

Tensions along the LAC had started escalating dramatically from the first week of May after Indian and Chinese soldiers had a serious physical confrontation on the shores of the Pangong Tso (lake) situated at an altitude of 4,200 metres. Both sides consider the disputed area strategically important and have been competing with one another in recent years to create new facts on the ground. In the next couple of days, there were reportedly three more physical encounters between the two sides.

Three of the clashes took place along the de facto border separating Ladakh from Aksai Chin. The other clash took place more than 2,000 kilometres away in Naku La along the Sikkim-Tibet border. After these incidents in May, both the Indian Army and the PLA had moved troops forward all along the 3,488-km-long disputed boundary that the two countries share.

The situation along the eastern Ladakh border calmed down after brigade-level talks were held between PLA and Indian Army commanders on June 6. After this meeting, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said that the two sides would keep on talking “to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.

At the same time, Indian officials said that the Indian Army would continue to exert its military strength at the field level until it reached an acceptable agreement with China. Speaking to an Indian news agency on June 12, General M.M. Naravane, Chief of the Army Staff, expressed the hope that through “continued dialogue all perceived differences will be set to rest”. The Indian Army chief had emphasised that the situation along the LAC “is under control”. Three days later, on June 15, the bloodiest confrontation in 45 years happened. Both sides continue to talk of de-escalation, but at the same time, they have been blaming each other for the Galwan Valley incident.

The PLA had altered the status quo in eastern Ladakh, including in the Galwan Valley where the latest clash took place. In the statement issued after the bloody clash, the PLA claimed that the “sovereignty of the Galwan Valley always belonged to China”. The India has strenuously contested this assertion, but China had refused to discuss withdrawal from the area, claiming that it always had control over the mountain ranges on the banks of the Galwan river. The Indian military post in Galwan was the first to fall to the PLA in the 1962 war. Now, with the PLA dominating the valley, it has strategic control over the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road that connects Leh to the Karakoram Pass area.

The External Affairs Ministry said in a statement issued on June 16 that the Chinese side had broken the “consensus” that was arrived at after the meeting between the senior army commanders from both the sides on June 6 to maintain the “status quo” in the Galwan Valley.

Just days before the bloody confrontation, Sun Weidong, China’s Ambassador to India, said that he was hopeful of a diplomatic solution and highlighted the efforts of the two countries to jointly fight the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the international community was surprised that the two countries were confronting each other militarily in the midst of a global pandemic. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also issued a statement saying that actions were being taken by both the sides to “ameliorate the border situation”.

According to the reports appearing in the Indian media, after the June 6 talks both sides had started withdrawing to their earlier positions in the Galwan and Hot Springs areas and that the Chinese troops were staying put only along the shores of the Pangong Tso such as the Finger 4 area claimed by India. (The mountain folds around the 134-km-long lake are referred to in military jargon as fingers.)

It is well known that the two sides have differing perceptions of where the LAC passes through in the Pangong Tso area. India asserts that the LAC starts at Finger 8, while China claims that it starts at Finger 2, which is under Indian control.

The PLA has also established a presence along the road to Daulat Beg Oldi, situated besides the Karakoram Pass, a de facto trijunction between China, Pakistan and India. The all-weather 225-km section of the road, which India finished constructing in 2019, is situated just 20 km from the Karakoram Pass. The new road will help the Indian Army move soldiers and heavy weaponry quickly to areas to which it did not have easy access earlier. Besides beefing up the road and rail network along the LAC in a bid to keep up with the infrastructure development on the other side, the Indian Army has raised two new Mountain Divisions, each with a strength of 15,000 troops capable of launching quick-reaction ground offensives against the PLA.

Big defence budgets

China and India have the second and third biggest defence budgets in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2019 China spent $261 billion on defence and India spent $71 billion. The U.S., in contrast, spent $732 billion on defence last year. The U.S. Congress is preparing to pass the Forging Operational Resistance to Chinese Expansion Act that will authorise an additional $43 billion in defence spending. The Pentagon has again shifted from its “war on terror” strategy to “great power competition”.

The PLA was conducting military exercises in the border region before the events in May. When the PLA made its move on the LAC in April this year, the Indian Army was apparently caught by surprise and was heavily outnumbered. According to Indian military sources, the PLA has effectively taken control of 60 sq. km of disputed land in the area that is claimed by India. Home Minister Amit Shah continues to vehemently deny that there has been any loss of Indian territory under Modi’s watch. While addressing a virtual election rally for the upcoming elections in West Bengal, Amit Shah compared India to the U.S. and Israel. He said that like these two countries that he perceived as his role models India knew how to defend itself. Divisional commanders of the two armies continue to hold talks on a regular basis to amicably resolve the issue.

The Chinese side admitted last month itself that the clashes along the LAC were triggered by India’s construction of a road in the Galwan river valley, an area bounded by Ladakh on one side and Aksai Chin on the other. One of the main reasons for the 1962 war was India’s claim over the Aksai Chin area. After the war China had started constructing the Xinjiang-Tibet road to connect its two remote provinces. This road is even more important to China today as it connects to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important component of its ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI), in which China has invested more than $60 billion. India and the U.S. are the only two notable critics of the BRI. Beijing believes that the two countries are plotting to undermine major components of the BRI such as the CPEC.

Chinese commentators naturally put the blame on India for the rise in tensions along LAC. “According to the Chinese military, it is India which forced its way into the Galwan Valley. So, India is changing the status quo along the LAC,” said Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs. The latest incidents along the LAC are the most serious since the Doklam standoff between the two militaries that lasted more than two months in 2017. India had rushed troops to the Bhutan-China border to stop the PLA from building a road there. China was taken by surprise by the Indian Army’s move, which came just before Prime Minister Modi and the President Xi Jinping were to meet at a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in China.

After the face-off ended, the PLA remains ensconced in an all-weather permanent military complex in Doklam. Modi had met with Xi in Wuhan in April 2018 to defuse tensions along the LAC and put bilateral relations back on track after the Doklam episode. The two leaders solemnly agreed not to jeopardise their core national interests. China expected India to stay away from military groupings and alliances aimed at derailing its peaceful rise to superpower status. Modi stuck to the script for some time, talking about the need for India to retain strategic autonomy in foreign affairs and staying away from military alliances. But soon after, India further deepened its strategic alliance with the U.S. by agreeing to a series of defence agreements, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which gives U.S. forces access to Indian military bases.

In the first week of June, India signed an agreement with Australia giving that country a similar military basing agreement. The Modi government is negotiating a similar agreement with Japan. India has become openly supportive of the U.S. stance on the South China Sea. India has also strengthened relations with Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province. Under the Modi government, India has been transforming itself into a virtual front-line state in the military strategic offensive that the U.S. has decided to launch against China. The Pentagon is now giving more importance to India than it does to the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military alliance.

Trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir

The Indian government’s decision to change the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir had come in for strong criticism from China. Incidents along the Ladakh sector of the LAC have increased since the Modi government unilaterally changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir last year and converted Ladakh into a separate Union Territory. A map the Indian government published last November after the trifurcation of the State shows Aksai Chin as part of Indian-administered Ladakh.

Senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party openly talked of recapturing the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir along with the Gilgit-Baltistan area through which the CPEC passes. Amit Shah made a statement to this effect in Parliament last November. In the new map, the Indian government also included the disputed Kalapani area claimed by Nepal as part of its territory, dramatically reopening a festering territorial dispute with another neighbour. The government in Kathmandu had claimed at the time that the Government of India had with one cartographic stroke stolen 2 per cent of Nepalese territory.

After the recent incidents along the LAC, the Donald Trump administration, which has seemed keen on triggering a new cold war with China for some time, was quick to issue statements branding China as an aggressor. Alice G. Wells, the U.S. State Department’s top official for South Asia, said that China was using the same tactics it used to make territorial gains in the South China Sea. In a statement issued in May, she termed the Chinese behaviour “as provocative and disturbing”. She said that at the end of the day it would only be the U.S. that would stand with India against “the constant Chinese probing of Indian sovereignty”. Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. diplomat who had played a key role in the signing of the India-U.S. nuclear deal and the forging of close military ties between the two countries, said that India and the US should work together to force an “authoritarian” China to follow “the rule of law”.

During the Doklam crisis, the Trump administration had pointedly refrained from supporting India and had asked for an early settlement of the issue. This time, the Trump administration is pointedly asking India to take an uncompromising stand on the border impasse with China.

President Donald Trump, to the surprise of the Indian establishment, offered to mediate in the “raging border dispute” along the LAC in the last week of May and claimed that he was in touch with the governments of India and China. He also told the media that he had a talk with Modi on the issue and that the Indian Prime Minister was “not in a good mood because of what is going on with China”. Both India and China were quick to issue statements saying that they would resolve their issues bilaterally and that there was no need for any third-party arbitration.

Indian officials were quick to deny at the time that Modi had asked Trump to mediate or had, for that matter, spoken to him on the issue. But the two leaders did speak to one other a few days later, on June 2. The Indian side admitted that the recent incidents on the border and the controversy generated by the Trump administration on the functioning of the World Health Organisation figured in the discussions. After the June 15 incident, the U.S. State Department said that it was “closely monitoring” the situation. “Both India and China have expressed a desire to de-escalate, and we support a peaceful resolution to this dispute,” the statement said.

Modi has accepted Trump’s invitation to attend the G7 summit he proposes to host as a special invitee. China has been excluded from the summit despite being the second biggest economy globally. Trump wants to create a new G12 that will include India and Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that it made no sense for such a grouping to be created if China was not part of it.

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