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10/25/2020 12:19:35 AM

Twenty Indian Army personnel, including the Commanding Officer of 16th Bihar Regiment, lost their lives at the hands of Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh. The incident represents a watershed in India’s relations with China and marks the end of a 45 year chapter which saw no armed confrontation involving loss of lives on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The period of bilateral relations that was inaugurated with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988 also drew to a close in the darkness of that fateful 15 June, 2020 night.
The deaths and injuries to Indian and Chinese military personnel in violent clashes on the night of June 15, 2020 has escalated the intensity of the border confrontation, with the statements of China’s Foreign Minister and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command (WTC) upping the ante. It is curious how these violent, large-scale clashes occurred when Indian Army personnel went to the site with prior agreement.
The statement issued by PLA WTC on June 16, 2020 expands China’s territorial claims and asserts that China has for a “long time had sovereignty” over the Galwan Valley. This is the second time since the current confrontation began that China has extended its claims over the “entire Galwan Valley”. The statement asserts also that Indian forces repeatedly crossed the Line Actual Control (LAC) and warned India to “strictly restrain its front-line troops, immediately stop all provocative actions and return to the correct track of dialogue and resolve differences”. China’s Foreign Minister separately accused India of “crossing the LAC” and “provocatively attacking” Chinese personnel.
Beijing quickly sought to gain the propaganda high ground and portray itself a “reasonable power” by claiming it has not disclosed the number of PLA casualties “as it doesn’t want people of the two countries to compare the casualty number so as to avoid stoking public mood”. Hu Jixin, Editor-in-Chief of the official ‘Global Times’, warned the Indian side, “Don’t be arrogant and misread Chinese restraint as being weak. China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it”. Later, unconfirmed reports put the numbers as close to 45 Chinese Army personnel killed and injured. China’s Social Media is abuzz with netizens asking for the number of Chinese casualties. This will put pressure on China’s leadership. These violent clashes and loss of lives have raised the stakes for the leadership of both countries and will make negotiations for disengagement more difficult.
It is important to remember that since the beginning of May 2020, China has created an arc of sustained Military pressure along India’s Northern Borders stretching over 1,000 kilometers from Daulet Beg Oldi in Ladakh to Naku La in north Sikkim. China’s action blends military, civil and diplomatic instruments. Confrontations between Indian and Chinese troops, or Chinese Army activity, have been reported from a number of places including Daulet Beg Oldi, Gogra, Hot Springs, Galwan Valley, Chushul, Pangong, Demchok, Shiquanhe, Rudok and Naku La in north Sikkim. Such a military build-up takes planning and preparation. At least three Military Sub-Districts (MSDs), namely Hetien, Ngari and Shigatse, subordinate to the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Regions, are involved in this. Both Military Regions come under PLA WTC, which exercises operational jurisdiction over the Chinese side of the entire 4,057 km border with India.
Related civilian activity by the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Rudok County Administrations pointing to long-term interest in the Pangong Lake has been noticed. On April 21, 2020, Dorjee Tsedup, Deputy Chairman of the TAR People’s Government and head of Pangong Lake Governance travelled to Ngari (Ali)’s Rutok County to inspect the lake and its environment. Hinting at long-term plans for Pangong Lake, Dorjee Tsedup emphasized that law enforcement and protection of the lake “is important for long-term work”. Days later, Rutok County’s Judicial bureau and the Ngari Regional Customs and Commerce Bureau officials conducted propaganda campaigns to explain the alignment of China’s Border in the Border villages of Deru and Jaggang also known as Chagkang village, not far from Demchok in Ladakh. In late May 2020, the Ngari Municipal Public Security Bureau revealed that all public security personnel in Ngari received “intensive real combat training”.
It is worth nothing here that General Li Zuocheng, Chief of the Staff, Department of the Central Military Commission and the Military Commanders of the South Xinjiang Military District and the Tibet Military Region have long years of experience in the area. They would have been involved in planning this force build-up and formulating its objectives. After the 73 day face-off at Doklam in 2017, the number of ground and air exercises held by PLA in the high altitude Tibetan Plateau has increased with regular references to India. The Commander of the Western Theatre Command and former Commander of the Shigatse MSD would also have memories of the disengagement at Doklam.
China is, meanwhile, creating additional points of potential pressure. It seems to have instigated Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli to raise a contentious, emotional claim on a Border dispute with India. A report indicates that since May 8, 2020, PLA is constructing, or upgrading, a Military training base on the Tibet-Bhutan Border opposite Drowa village in Lhodrak County, Shannan TAR. The recent ‘Tweet’ by the spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad suggesting that the standoff in Ladakh may be linked to the revocation of ‘Article 370’ is another indicator. He deleted the tweet later.
The Lessons of 1962: In the India-China interactions leading up to the 1962 China-India war, India had demonstrated friendliness without reciprocity and firmness without force. Despite deteriorating India-China relations in the late 1950s, neither Jawaharlal Nehru nor Krishna Menon had contemplated a war between the two countries.
A contemporary observer, Raj Thapar, Founder-Editor of the Journal, Seminar, described in her autobiography how Mr. Menon, “firmly opposed moving a single man from the Kashmir front, so convinced was he that Pakistan would attack at any opportune moment”. She wrote that it was his immutable belief that Pakistan was the threat, not China. Krishna Menon could go to any lengths to convince others of this point of view. He asked India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, Rajeshwar Dayal, to brief a group of senior Indian Army officers about Pakistan’s war preparations against India. Warned that projecting a danger from Pakistan was part of the Defence Minister’s larger plan, in the meeting Ambassador Dayal said that he had detected nothing about the Pakistani preparations. According to witness, Krishna Menon was visibly annoyed.
Nehru too shared the view that Pakistan posed the greater threat to India. He and Krishna Menon reinforced each other’s slant in this respect. “To be frank about it”, Nehru had acknowledged in Parliament soon after the 1962 war, India’s defence dispositions “were based on our unfortunate position ‘vis-à-vis’ Pakistan”. He was misled also by the good equation he had developed with Premier Zhou En-lai, forgetting that countries seldom predicate their security interests on the personal predilections of their leaders.
India’s complacency and misjudgment in 1962 were not for want of warning signs from China. India leaders had apparently convinced themselves that the Chinese would not attack. Indeed, it was Nehru who told Krishna Menon and India’s Chief of the Army Staff that he had reliable information that the Chinese forces would not offer resistance if there was a show of force from India. Well over a year before the outbreak of hostilities, Krishna Menon took to denying that there was any problem with China, or that China was in occupation of what the Government of India considered Indian Territory. Addressing officers of the Indian Air Force Station, Agra, he had declared: “I am not aware of any aggression, incursion, encroachment or intrusion by the Chinese of any part of Indian Territory.”
The then Chief of the Army Staff, General P. N. Thapar, had told Krishna Menon that the Indian Army did not have the necessary strength to evict the Chinese from their posts. With the troop deployment of six Chinese soldiers to one Indian, the Indian Army could have been facing an adventure. Krishna Menon reassured him that the Chinese Deputy Premier, Chen Yi, had told him that China would never fight India over the border issue. General Thapar had wanted to share his misgivings with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but was dissuaded by the Cabinet Secretary on the ground that Nehru might consider that General Thapar was “afraid to fight”. Later, when a prominent Indian Journalist checked from Krishna Menon whether General Thapar had brought up his concerns, Krishna Menon had replied with an acid tongue: “That toothless old woman; he did not know how to fight a war.”
Full Aggression: On October 20, 1962, the People’s Liberation Army struck simultaneously, all along the India-China frontier – a move smacking of long preparation. The 13 forward Indian posts, from Galwan Valley up to north of Daulat Beg Oldi were attacked by the Chinese forces. Concurrently, in the eastern sector, they launched an attack on Indian forces deployed along the Namka Chu river and at Khinzemane, eventually enveloping in their attack on four out of the five frontier Divisions of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), namely Kameng, Subansiri, Siang and Lohit Divisions.
In his biography of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Professor Sarvepalli Gopal suggested that when Nehru issued instructions in November 1961 for the management of the India-China Border, it was based on advice from the Intelligence Bureau that while the Chinese would move into areas where there was no Indian presence, they would keep away where Indian personnel had established themselves. It was assumed that the Chinese would not do anything against Indian forces when “even in a position to do so”. Professor Gopal also suggested that Nehru was perhaps unaware of the warning by the Indian Army’s General that the Indian Army was in no position to sustain an operation across the entirety of the India-China Border.
From 1959 to 2020: Nothing on this scale was witnessed even in the run-up to the conflict between the two countries in 1962. In October 1959, there was a face-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Kongka La. Nine Indian soldiers were killed and three soldiers were detained then, including the legendary Karan Singh, the leader of the group who recorded after his release the ill-treatment he and his colleagues had been subjected to at the hands of their captors. It was after Kongka La that the national mood turned against the Chinese in full measure in an atmosphere already complicated by the revolt in Tibet and the granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama in March 1959. There was very little room for a reasoned, negotiated settlement being reached on the boundary question between the two countries after that juncture. The rest is history. The conflict in 1962 inflicted gaping wounds on the national soul and prestige from which India took time to recover.
Is the country at a similar juncture today? 2020 is not 1959. India and China are in a very different place in their history as nations today. They have grown immensely in strength and stature on the world stage and their relations have substance and a diversity of content in a manner absent in the 1950s. To assume that India is on a steep descent from here towards a full-blown conflict with China may therefore be an oversimplification. Both countries must stop that fall despite the terse messaging of statements issued in the two capitals after the incident. The statements are mutually accusatory, with each country disclaiming responsibility for the tragic turn of events. The mood is very somber.
The Tibet Issue: For the third prong, India’s policy towards the “palm” or Tibet, itself should be looked at more closely as well. While New Delhi’s decision to shelter the Dalai Lama and lakhs of his followers since 1959 is a policy that is lauded, it does not change the need for New Delhi to look into the future of its relationship, both with the Tibetan refugee community in India, which has lived here in limbo for decades, as well as with its future leadership.
At present, the Dalai Lama has the loyalty of Tibetans worldwide, but in the future, the question over who will take up the political leadership of the community looms large. The Karmapa Lama, who lived in India after his flight from China in 2000, and was groomed as a possible poltical successor, has now taken the citizenship of another country and lives mostly in the United States. Meanwhile, China will without doubt try to force its own choice on the community as well. Given that it is home to so many Tibetans, India must chart a more prominent role in this discourse.
On Jammu & Kashmir Issue: Finally, it is necessary to introspect on how India’s own reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 has changed the security matrix and threat parameters for India, and its neighbours. While Pakistan’s extreme reaction to the move was expected, China’s reaction was perhaps not studied enough.
Beijing issued a statement decrying the impact on Jammu and Kashmir, and another one specifically on Ladakh, calling it an attempt to “undermine China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law” and warning that the move was “unacceptable and will not come into force”.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s vow in Parliament, in August 2019, to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai Chin was not taken lightly either, as China’s stakes in PoK now go beyond its historical closeness with Pakistan, to its investment in the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that runs through it. The impact of the new map of Jammu and Kashmir on ties with Nepal as well, is no coincidence. There is proof enough that now more than ever, as the government readies its hand on dealing with China; it must not lose sight of every finger in play.
The Strategic River: Though just about eighty kilometers in length, Galwan River in the eastern part of Ladakh has been of immense strategic importance for India. It was at the turn of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the last one that a certain Ghulam Rasool Galwan, a young man, an adventurer and an explorer who was a frequent traveler to Tibet along with the traders had come in contact with Capt. (later Col.) Younghusband. Ghulam Rasool had remained attached with the British expeditions as a guide. In the later years he also guided other expeditions from France and Italy into Tibet. It is understood that in order to cross Kongka La Pass from Shyok, he frequently used a river valley route. Though it is quite unusual, but this small torrent of a river was later named after Ghulam Rasool Galwan as the River Galwan.
In order to have a better appreciation of the current scenario, it would be useful to go into a bit of contemporary history focused on the Galwan River. Events had moved rapidly after the Chinese occupation of Tibet during 1950-51. That the quiet cold of the high Himalayas would be getting noisier and hotter was realized for the first time in 1957. It was the discovery of the Aksai Chin road, built in a record time by China on our territory. The presence of this road was not discovered by any of our patrols, for there were none, but was conveyed by Indian Ambassador in China, who had seen the press reports claiming building of this high altitude road in a record time to be an extraordinary feat. This was the beginning of rapid deterioration in our relations with China.
The situation took a turn for the worst when Indian patrolling party of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was fired upon near Kongka La on 21 October, 1959. Ever since then in order to commemorate the sacrifice of these 11 CRPF Jawans, this day has been observed as the Police Commemoration Day. As this incident made the aggressive designs of the Chinese very clear, post this incident all the check posts in the area were taken over by the Indian Army. In the meantime frequent Chinese intrusions into our territory, besides road building had been coming to notice. It was then decided to station posts in the forward areas which had hitherto remaining unpatrolled.
It was in response to this policy that on 26 September, 1961, the then Deputy Director of Intelligence Bureau (IB), Mr. Dave, sent a detailed note to the Ministry of Defence, it was recommended that “We should reconnoiter the Galwan River Valley and open posts as far eastwards as possible, because this valley was connected with Shyok Valley through which River Shyok provided access to Indus and onwards to Pak-occupied Kashmir. It was further recommended that if the Chinese commanded the Galwan Valley, it would give them easy access towards Skardu and our routes to Murgo, Daulat Beg Oldi and Panamic would be cut. Further the unoccupied area between Pangong and Spanggur Lakes was recommended to be covered by new posts.”
Finally a ‘Platoon of 8 Gurkhas’ was moved from Hot springs, who after trekking for a month came to a point overlooking the Galwan River on 5 July, 1962. Our post was established by this Platoon close to the Chinese post of Samzungling in such a manner that it cut off their supply route. Not only that, it also briefly detained a small Chinese patrol, Galwan River also being strategically important for the Chinese, their reaction was almost instantaneous. Their protest note of 8 July, 1962 was followed up by a company strength of troops which surrounded our Galwan Post on 10 July, 1962. This was followed by more troops and ultimately we had a situation where our Galwan Post of one Platoon was completely surrounded by a battalion of Chinese, with loudspeakers blaring all the time.
Over the decades, on Galwan Valley the situation has undergone a vast change. Today we are not only numerically stronger in the Galwan Valley, but also have weaponry which would be more than a match for the Chinese. Accessibility to Indian Border Posts used to be a serious handicap.
Today we have airfields at DBO and Chushul, which are capable of handling the heaviest of loads. Besides minor airfields have come up at Nyoma and Fukche. The most important point is the construction of the road from Dabruk to Shyok and then to the northernmost point of DBO. This road runs almost parallel to the LAC and is of a very high strategic value besides virtually acting as the lifetime for Indian Border Posts.
This road cuts off completely the future plans, if any, from the Chinese side to intrude westwards through the Galwan River Valley. This situation had been foreseen way back in 1961, when a forward post was located in Galwan Valley but today India have a road. The Chinese had at that time reacted to the location of Galwan Post, it is understood that now they are reacting to this road which more or less blocks their westward passage through the River Galwan Valley.
The geography of the area has not changed since 1962 but the high Himalayas are no longer impregnable. The Galwan River, which is located very centrally, connects to Shyok on the roadunder construction. Lying in between the Chushul airport and DBO, it continues to be of great strategic importance providing direct and a convenient access to Shyok and areas beyond. It is expected that as earlier and even now, the events around Galwan River are going to be the main focus of the ongoing talks between India and China.
Unanswered Questions: While the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had claimed on June 20, 2020 that “neither has anyone intruded into the Indian Territory nor has anyone captured any military posts”, the Ministry of External Affairs’ Press Note of June 17, 2020, had said that “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC”. Adding to this confusion, India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said as recently as in early September that it “cannot be business as usual” with China until the status quo is restored on the disputed Border. One thing that emerges from these and other contradictory statements is that something is not adding up vis-à-vis the India Government’s claims about the LAC. Basic questions continue to remain unanswered.
Soft Steps, Domestic Politics: What is also becoming clear is that the Indian Government is seeking soft measures in stitching together a response to China. The India Government’s approach, as the External Affairs Minister stated the other day, is that “a solution to the situation has to be found in the domain of diplomacy”. Put differently, the Narendra Modi’s government has, on the one hand, decided not reveal the exact nature of the situation on the LAC and, on the other hand, is attempting to negotiate Chinese withdrawal from Indian Territory rather than using kinetic means cr tit-for-tat measures to reclaim its territory.
Two-And-A-Half Front Situation: Yet another reason why there is a deliberate attempt to refrain from disclosing full facts of the Chinese action on the LAC to the public is also the recognition within the establishment about the reality of a “two-and-a-half front situation”. Not that the Indian military and political leadership have not spoken about it before; but it is far easier to talk about fighting a two-and-a-half front war than actually fighting, and winning, it.
Today, we are literally facing a “two-and-a-half front situation” – a restive Kashmir, an aggressive China and a Pakistan that never misses an opportunity to get at India – together forming a formidable ‘National Security’ challenge. While Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir is too well-known to be mentioned here, China may have emerged as a third key player in the Kashmir conflict. This has diplomatically emboldened Pakistan, and it would be unwise for us to rule out more China-Pakistan military and diplomatic coordination against Indian interests in the years ahead. Not that the two had not collaborated before, but this might see an increase in the days ahead.
New Delhi’s strategists may have read this situation correctly. If so, it makes perfect sense for the political masters to underplay its gravity and seek a diplomatic solution to address the most dangerous piece in the “two-and-a-half front situation” – i.e. Chinese aggression on the LAC. In doing so, a confusing narrative is certainly helpful for domestic signaling.
West’s Support is Limited: India’s inability to clearly articulate, identify and address the Chinese threat is also a function of another sobering realization within the establishment regarding the limited utility when it comes to Euro-American assistance in checking China in South Asia. In an international system that is preoccupied with the domestic political, economic and public health worries of COVID-19, there is little enthusiasm to resolutely stand by India in pushing back China. The unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump adds to Indian woes, and until a new President is sworn in, in January 2021, Washington DC’s ability to make up its mind and act on it vis-à-vis China-India affairs would be limited. New Delhi does recognize this lukewarm global mood, and so does Beijing. Picking a fight with China, therefore, is not the wisest strategy; obfuscating the exact nature of the China threat is indeed a much better strategy. In democracies, sometimes partisan political interests trump national interests, and a deeply divided political landscape accentuates such partisan considerations.
The Narendra Modi’s diplomatic approach to deal with China’s aggressive land grab also stems from a capacity deficit. While a bean counting of the Chinese and Indian military capabilities might lead us to believe that we are not militarily far inferior to China, what might offset this consideration is China’s growing capabilities in domains such as cyber and space. While India’s naval capabilities may be stronger in the Indian Ocean, growing Chinese naval capabilities and its increasing reach in the wider region around India are also likely to dampen India’s enthusiasm about the Euro-Atlantic focus on the Indo-Pacific and the Quad (or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is an informal strategic dialogue between the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) as tools to check China in the maritime space.
If India is serious about checking China’s maritime influence in the region, it would need to invest in more resources to improve its naval capabilities. But where will the money come from? The combined effect of a pre-existing economic slowdown and the impact of COVID-19 on the economy means that the government would struggle to meet its basic expenditure needs for the foreseeable future. Defence expenditure is bound to take a back seat, and the China threat is unlikely to make a difference.
Taking the Long View: But beyond all this is the outside world. India’s leverage and balancing power within the Indo-Pacific and the world beyond stems from its strong democratic credentials, the dynamism of its economy, its leading role in multilateral institutions, and the strategic advantage of its maritime geography – an asset possessed by few other nations, and which must be deployed much more effectively to counterbalance the Chinese ingress into this oceanic space that surrounds us. The events in Galwan Valley should be a wake-up call to many of India’s Asian friends and partners enabling a high-resolution envisioning of Chinese aggressiveness. This is also an opportunity for India to align its interests much more strongly and unequivocally with the U.S. as a principal strategic partner and infuse more energy into its relations with Japan, Australia and the ASEAN. The time has also come for India to reconsider its stand on joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If India is to disengage from economic involvement with China, and build the capacities and capabilities it needs in manufacturing, and in supply chains networks closer home, it cannot be a prisoner of the short term. It is time to boldly take the long view in this area as also on its South Asia policy. Good neighbourhood relations are crucial for national stability and well-being.
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