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A year since Ladakh The Excelsior 07 Jun 2021
What were Chinese intending to convey by intruding into Ladakh in May last year remains a mystery. Its intentions could have varied from occupying claim lines to warning India against moving closer to the US or militarizing the QUAD. It could also have been projecting superior capability of the PLA or announcing their arrival on the global stage. However, there is no doubt that the Chinese had planned and prepared, as also surprised India by their speed and violence. The Indian counter was equally hard and swift, stalling the Chinese in their tracks.
It has been over a year since troops first clashed on the north bank of the Pangong Tso, commencing the standoff in Ladakh, resulting in rapid induction of forces. The Galwan clash of 20th Jun left 20 Indian and far more Chinese soldiers killed, though China belatedly admitted to four casualties. In Aug, India occupied the Kailash ridge, gained tactical advantage and refused to vacate despite multiple rounds of military and diplomatic talks.
In Feb this year, disengagement was accepted, and withdrawal took place on both banks of the Pangong Tso. To a large extent, this was facilitated by Indian occupation of the Kailash Ridge. Claim lines of both nations on the banks of the Pangong Tso are currently no patrolling zones, aimed at avoiding clashes. Subsequent talks for disengagement in other areas have run into rough weather, due to varying perceptions.
The Chinese insist that de-escalation, implying withdrawal of additional forces, is done prior to any further disengagement. The Indian perception, guided by mistrust, is the opposite, where disengagement must precede de-escalation. The army chief stated over the weekend, ‘We are very clear that no de-escalation can take place before disengagement at all friction points.’ For the Chinese, disengagement and de-escalation, post attempting to grab territory and pressurize India, will be a failure and severely dent its global image. It therefore projects options which India is unwilling to accept. Hence, the Chinese will continue delaying, while adopting their three steps forward and two steps back philosophy.
Currently, Ladakh is experiencing a stalemate. Neither side can patrol their claim lines in standoff regions, due to blocks by the other. It is not a one-sided story. India has simultaneously beefed up its deployment along the LAC, reoriented its force structure, recreated its offensive formations specifically for its northern borders and strengthened capabilities to monitor and dent any future Chinese attempts to ingress. It has also passed directions, conveyed to the Chinese, that its forces will open fire, in case the situation warrants. The message being sent, is that for India, China is an enemy and India is prepared to counter it.
The announcement of four casualties by the PLA, months after the incident, led to a strong anti-India wave. This was evident when the website of the Chinese Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a major CCP controlled body in China, apart from others, pasted an anti-India post titled ‘China ignites, India ignites’ comparing launching of the Chinese spaceship with Indian funeral pyres. It was removed after 48 hours, after obtaining 1,50,000 hits.
China also sought to project fake news, through its embassy in Delhi, that Beijing supported India by medical aid, during its second wave, whereas India had turned down all official Chinese offers for aid, though permitting companies to import. Herein again, China played dirty by enhancing cost, supplying faulty equipment and delaying cargo flights.
Intelligence inputs indicate that China, apart from rotating two formations in Ladakh, has replaced some tanks with infantry fighting vehicles to enhance mobility in the region. There are also reports of it building additional military camps in Tibet. Intelligence inputs indicate increased Chinese presence in depth areas. Currently, Chinese annual exercises in Ladakh region are in progress, monitored by India. With stalled talks and increased presence of troops, it is unlikely Ladakh would witness status quo soon. Indo-China tensions will remain, even if there is easing of tensions in Ladakh. China resorted to disengagement only when it realised that India will not back down. This lesson must be carried forward.
In India, the anti-China wave has remained high since Galwan. The trust created by the Wuhan and Mahabalipuram summits has eroded. Multiple suggestions by China to de-link border issues with trade and diplomacy has had no impact on the Indian government.
India banning Huawei and ZTE, two Chinese telecom giants, from participating in its 5G trials has hurt Chinese ego. Comments by the Chinese ambassador, Sun Weidong, on the subject, were ignored. The statement by the Chinese spokesperson in Beijing, ‘The Chinese side hopes that India could do more to enhance mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries, and provide an open, fair, just, and non-discriminatory investment and business environment,’ was laughed away.
India also joined the US in demanding a comprehensive investigation by the WHO into the origins of the virus. India’s military, economic and diplomatic reactions including militarizing the QUAD added to Chinese concerns. Fearing other nations joining the movement, led to China threatening Bangladesh. India has displayed that it will stare down the dragon and it has.
China sought to project itself as an alternative to the US. It claims its autocracy is a better option to democracy. It also attempted to project its military might to nations in the region, with whom it has disputes over islands in the South and East China seas, enabling it to grab islands it demands, without a fight. For this, it had to subdue India, the sole power in Asia, capable of challenging its hegemony. This failed.
For India, the myth of the Chinese being a superior military force has been broken. The Indian army has given China its second sounding in as many misadventures that it attempted, the earlier being in Nathula in 1967. For the Chinese, overcoming its defeat in Vietnam in 1979, by achieving its claim lines in Ladakh, has been another failure. Stalemate is not a win for China. Hence, India needs to be prepared for the next attempt by China to regain its stature.