At the 2019 informal summit between India and China at Mamallapuram, on the periphery of Chennai, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2020 by deepening exchanges at all levels — between the legislatures, political parties, cultural and youth organisations, even the militaries of the two countries. The two leaders also decided to organise 70 activities, including a conference on a ship that would trace the historical connect between the two civilisations.
No one expected that rosy diplomatic picture would turn as grim as it has now, with the spread of the coronavirus that was first reported from Wuhan — ironically, the site of the 2018 informal summit between India and China — and with war clouds gathering over eastern Ladakh. This has happened within seven months of the Mamallapuram meet, which saw the reiteration of a desire for peace and tranquillity in the border areas and a commitment to work on additional Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Yet, today, the Indian Army is facing two aggressive Combined Arms Brigades of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso patrolling points along the 3,488-kilometre-long Line of Actual Control (LAC).
In May, PLA first activated LAC at Naku La area in north Sikkim and then at three points in Galwan and one point at Pangong Tso. While the Chinese defence ministry spokesperson has said that the situation in Ladakh is “stable and controllable,” this appears to be a gross understatement as the two armies are literally at each other’s throats. This fragile situation does not augur well for bilateral relations. It has already turned the normally-dormant LAC active, forcing India to deploy troops on the northern border and prepare for the worst-case scenario. Much as India’s detractors would like to remind it about the 1962 border skirmish with China, the fact is that even PLA would have to move troops from the hinterland to protect its own territory if the red flag goes up. As of now China has 76 and 77 group armies (around 45,000 men) along with an option of six to eight divisions of troops from Tibet and Xinjiang military district holding the Western Theatre Command facing India. With India rapidly building force levels in eastern Ladakh, it will be only a matter a time before PLA calls for reinforcements from the hinterland if status quo ante is not restored.
Given that India’s lines of communication and air bases are closer to LAC, the scenario may not favour PLA. For instance, its Russian copy fighters will suffer severe load penalty if they take off from the rarefied Tibetan plateau. The PLA has already lost the element of surprise after days of stand-off, and the next question facing Chinese generals would be whether their troops can force a decisive victory. The PLA generals, who have studied the Kargil war more seriously that anyone, know that the Indian Army can and will fight against all odds. Even though China is now sabre-rattling at the border, it also knows that India has a very strong leader in PM Narendra Modi, who has not named China for spreading the Covid-19 virus, maintained a studied silence over the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, not commented on the draconian laws in Hong Kong, and stayed silent while others have pushed for an observer status for Taiwan at the World Health Organization.
By openly favouring a direct dialogue with China on the border issue, India has also kept its ally, the United States, at bay as it does not believe in hyphenation and fiercely guards its strategic independence. PM Modi’s move to restrict foreign direct investment from neighbouring countries — a move clearly aimed at China — shows that India has the capacity and capability to react. But it is also not catalysing the resentment against China at the behest of the Trump administration. The fact is, it is Beijing which is using neighbours such as Pakistan and, more recently, Nepal to project its dominance in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The argument that the Ladakh stand-off is a result of the Modi government abrogating article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir does not hold good as no less than Foreign Minister S Jaishankar flew to Beijing last August to reassure China that India was not raising any additional territorial claim on contested areas in the region. By aggressively posturing on the border, China has added insult to injury as Beijing has hardly addressed India’s demand to reduce the trade deficit, which stood at $51.68 billion from January-November 2019 before the pandemic struck the world.
Still, with both leaders previously committing to not turning bilateral differences into disputes, it would be in the interest of both parties to withdraw to their respective base camps in Eastern Ladakh as there is no way that India is going to allow China to make unilateral changes in either of the sectors. The Modi government will also not come under pressure from China on its legitimate border infrastructure upgrade, which is happening well within its own territory. After 21 rounds of hardly productive Special Representative Dialogue on the resolution of the boundary issue, it is time that the two sides at least exchange maps of the western and eastern sector so that the two armies know each other’s positions on the ground. The two leaders need to keep their communication channels open as both their bureaucracies and militaries carry a huge historical baggage and cannot think beyond protecting their silos. The direct channel will assume further importance as the succession of the Dalai Lama is on the horizon with China expected to come up with its own candidate as it did in the case of the Panchen Lama. The two most-populated nations in the world, the countries with the first and second largest armies in the world, cannot be adversaries forever.