K V Thomas
When the whole world has been virtually locked down in the COVID-19 pandemic threat, the armies of China and India were locked in a battle of nerves, in the snowy wilderness of Eastern Ladakh blessed with high peaks and lakes. The Corps Commanders of the two Armies were engaged in serious talks to break the ice, but the situation abruptly escalated into a clash between the soldiers on the night of June 15, 2020 in the Galwan Valley. Initial reports indicated that no shots were fired, but in the skirmishes—which were physical in nature using batons, spikes, stones and barbed wires—20 Indian soldiers including a Colonel were killed. There were casualties of more than 40 soldiers on the Chinese side too. The brazen Beijing blamed India for the clashes alleging that the Indian troops crossed the border and launched “provocative attacks”. Naturally, India reacted against this allegation and blamed China for the border intrusion and clashes.
The Galwan Valley clash was due to a confluence of geo-strategic reasons. But the crucial issue was on the status of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the construction of strategic infrastructure on nearby areas. India has a long border of around 3500 kilometres with China stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Though attempts had been made since the 1950s to arrive at an agreement on the border between the two countries, no final consensus could be arrived at due to the recalcitrant approach by China. The 1962 conflict was the result of China’s refusal to accept the Man Mohan Line as the demarcating border. The Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin and certain areas of Arunachal Pradesh in 1962 had further complicated the border issue, with China interpreting the border question to suit its geo-strategic interests. After many rounds of negotiations, India and China had signed the Peace and Tranquilly Agreement in 1993 to defuse the tension along the borders/LAC. But this had also been violated by China by making intrusion into areas like Depsang (2013), Chumar-Donchuk (2014) and Doklam (2017). Over the years, China had constructed sensitive and strategic infrastructure on its side of LAC without any resistance or opposition from the Indian side. Even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is considered to be the most economically advantageous infrastructure project of China, that connects its Xinjiang province with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Baluchistan, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK).
As compared with China, India’s efforts to augment its strategic infrastructure on our LAC side is of recent origin, especially after the Kargil conflict. The Ladakh sector received special attention due to the long mountainous terrain and unsettled border disputes with China. The Siachen Glacier located on the east Karakoram Range of Himalayas, the highest battleground on earth, is now under the control of India. Over the years, India has developed this highly strategically sensitive area with helicopter landing facilities improving the connectivity/communication of our defence forces. Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldie—located on the eastern Ladakh, near to Siachen Glacier, Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake—has been developed as a mini airbase with landing facilities for G-17 Transport aircraft which can carry heavy consignments. Added to these infrastructures was the construction of a link road from Galwan Valley to Siachen Glacier which would considerably reduce the journey time of our troops in exigencies. The construction of these infrastructures was a matter of concern for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployments in the area.
Just like the LAC issue, other geopolitical factors too had compelled China to adopt a confrontational path with India. Following the COVID-19 episode, China has been virtually isolated in the international community with a virulent attack by US President Donald Trump. Trump in one of his recent addresses castigated that the whole world is now suffering due to the malfeasance of the Chinese government which while restricting the movements of the Corona patients from Wuhan to other cities of China, allowed them to travel to many European countries and the US. Moreover, Trump declared unconditional support to Hong Kong in preserving its autonomy against China’s ongoing moves to extend its full control over that country. The virtual blockade declared by many countries including the US on Chinese goods and financial services has created a serious crisis in the Chinese economy.
These developments have shattered the ‘Chinese dream’ of emerging as a superpower sooner or later. In fact, the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in Beijing from October 18 to 24, in 2017, had elevated Xi Jinping to the status of Mao-Zedong and given him absolute powers to take the country as the sole super power by 2021, coinciding with the Centenary of the Chinese Communist Party. In pursuance of this dream, China has established its logistical bases (‘Pearl of strings’) such as naval facilities, ports or Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the Indian Ocean Region, especially in Djibouti (nicknamed as ‘Horn of Africa’), Gwadar (Baluchistan province of Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Kyaukpyu port (Myanmar). The US withdrawal from strategic bases in the Indian Ocean has given added advantage for China in establishing bases in the East and South China Seas. Similarly, ambitious projects such as ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21st Maritime Silk Road project’ were launched to deepen China’s economic cooperation with a number of Asian and European countries. The Chinese leadership has genuine concern as to how it would successfully go ahead with these projects in the light of isolation in the international community and mounting opposition from countries like the US.
The pioneering role played by India in checkmating the designs of China, especially in strategic areas, was a major factor for straining the India-China relations. New Delhi played a crucial role in reviving ‘The Quadrilateral or Quad’—an international grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the US—that was in limbo for the last 10 years. The ‘Quad’ through mutual interaction and mobilisation of international opinion could create a strong lobby against the aggressive policies of China in the Indian Ocean, particularly in Asia-Pacific region. Another irritant in India-China relations was the new diplomatic/foreign policy strategies of India like the ‘Act East policy’ which are meant to augment India’s economic and security integration with the South East Asian and East Asian countries, thereby blunting China’s influence in those countries. Side by side, India—through economic packages, developmental projects and military assistance—tried to woo neighbours like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka, thereby checkmating the designs of China to strategically encircle India.
These geo-strategic issues had also created ripples in Chinese Political leadership, especially the omnipotence of Xi Jiping—the reincarnation of Mao. Though Xi, through a thorough ‘purging’ had contained the threat of ‘rebels’ or ‘dissidents’ within the party and the PLA after the last Party Congress, dissenting voices have come up in many provinces such as Xinjian. Many sections of the Chinese society, especially the youth, appear to be disenchanted with his slogan of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a panacea to resolve all the socio-economic and cultural issues. The COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the Chinese system. Thus, the leadership is struggling to bolster its eclipsed image. Perhaps, the best solution, they found, is to spread anti-Indian sentiments, as Pakistan is accustomed to whenever it faces any serious internal crisis. Thus, Bertil Litner had rightly commented that China’s War with India in 1962 was to camouflage the failure of the Chinese Communist Party’s much trumpeted ‘Great Leap Forward programme’. The recent clash in Galwan Valley may be yet another attempt of the Chinese leadership to get out of its present imbroglio, an offshoot of COVID-19, at the international and domestic fronts. Let us hope that these would not precipitate as a major conflict detrimental to the interests of India and China.
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
A version this article was published in Chandrika Daily malayalam newspaper on June 19, 2020. Click here to read.