An unusually sharp exchange between India and China on Monday, going by the irreconcilable statements issued by the two armies, has led to fears of a military escalation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in case the situation is not resolved quickly through bilateral talks at a political and diplomatic level.
These statements followed the moves by the two armies on the southern bank of Pangong Tso.
Unlike the northern bank of Pangong Tso, where the Indian Army only carries out patrolling, the southern bank is strongly held by Indian troops very close to the LAC. China’s PLA is fully aware of the Indian deployment and has not attempted any transgressions, even though it believes the LAC lies 8 km west of Indian posts.
The attempted ingress by the PLA to occupy dominating heights in this area, which was thwarted by Indian troops in a peremptory move, is a clear indication that the PLA is trying to change the status quo in all areas up to its perception of the LAC. If this trend continues, the PLA is likely to attempt similar moves in places like Demchok and Chumar. With the situation already on a tinderbox, any misapprehension or misunderstanding can lead to a quick escalation between the two sides.
As the latest round of tensions involve a new area on the LAC — away from the friction points of last 17 weeks — it also says that the whole disputed border in Ladakh is open for any military moves now. This expansion of the frontage of tensions, with both sides constantly trying to gain an upper hand in areas manned heavily by troops of both armies, is inherently unstable. In such a charged environment, with a heavy deployment of troops on both sides, such an unstable structure is a recipe for a massive military escalation. The statements issued by the two armies did not agree even on the date of incident, leave alone the nature of the incident on the LAC. This points to a complete breakdown of trust between the two sides, where every single move will be viewed with suspicion and can easily lead to an over-reaction. In its statement, the Indian Army said PLA had “carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo”. It stated that while it is “committed to maintaining peace and tranquility through dialogue, (it) is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity”. This is in line with CDS General Bipin Rawat’s view stated last week that “military options to deal with transgressions by the Chinese Army in Ladakh are on but it will be exercised only if talks at the military and the diplomatic level fail”.
People in India are already angry with China over its moves in Ladakh, and Monday’s exchange is bound to further inflame public opinion against China.
After alleging that “this move by the Indian side seriously violated China’s territorial sovereignty and severely undermined the peace and stability of the Sino-Indian border area,” the PLA statement said it is “taking necessary countermeasures, (and) will pay close attention to developments and resolutely safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty and peace and stability in border areas”.
The mood in China is no better. About 70 per cent respondents in a recent survey conducted by the ‘Global Times’and China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) had advocated that the Chinese government should be tough in fighting back against India’s provocations. The survey reported 89.1 per cent respondents supported military retaliation, with 50.4 per cent of them “strongly supporting” self-defence and counterattacks.
If these statements and the public mood is confrontational, reports from Monday’s flag meeting at Chushul between the two brigade commanders suggest a ‘stormy’ interaction which would not have helped matters.
While the Chinese side insisted that Indian troops move out of the heights they had occupied on the southern bank of Pangong Tso, the Indians refused, arguing that the Chinese would occupy those areas in case they were vacated now.