Recent face-off during the withdrawal phase of Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley and other areas where Chinese transgressions took place in Eastern Ladakh, and which led to 20 brave Indian Soldiers Killed in Action (KIA) in the Galwan Valley, including a Commanding Officer of the rank of Colonel, speaks volumes regarding the mistrust that has developed between the two Armed Forces. Chinese soldiers pelting stones from higher ground and targeting the CO of a battalion in addition to soldiers of Indian Army who were overseeing the withdrawal of the Chinese as agreed between two Corps Commanders was a shocking development.
Not only is it non-ethical but also violates the very ethics of warfare. Subsequently, there have been a series of meetings in Raisina Hill amongst the Honourable Raksha Mantri, EAM, Chief of Defence Staff and the Chief of Army Staff. Possibly the military and diplomatic level engagements may not have yielded desired outcomes.
To make matters worse, the spokesperson of Chinese Western Theatre Command quoted the Theatre Commander as stating that Galwan Valley was Chinese territory which is factually incorrect. This area has always been within Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC). It seems that China is desperately attempting to write a new narrative which is in consonance with its salami-slicing policy. This has been a premeditated skirmish, well-coordinated at multiple spots on the LAC from East (Naku La) to West (Eastern Ladakh). The Chinese build-up is huge with artillery and armour backing the infantry.
Reckless and how!
What is driving China to resort to offensive action in complete disregard to the Wuhan and Chennai spirit? The understanding reached during meetings of two very powerful leaders, who enjoy massive public support in their respective countries, seems to have been thrown to the winds at field level.
In China, the Theatre Commanders report to the Central Military Commission(CMC) of which President Xi Jinping is the Chairman. In effect, he is the Commander in Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the CCP. Nothing would have happened without his approval. Is it that President Xi has come to the conclusion that time has come to ignore understanding reached with Prime Minister Modi? Is it that EAM Jaishankar’s assurance to the Chinese Foreign Minister in Beijing that revocation of Article 370 and creating Union Territory of Ladakh does not alter the LAC with China, has not convinced them? There could be other issues which drove China to take this unprecedented step. This would certainly impact post-COVID bilateral relations.
Apart from Ladakh issue, construction of an all-weather road (within its LAC) joining Darbuk-Shyoke-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO), activation of ALG(Advanced Landing Ground) at DBO, India being extended an invitation to join G 7, stepping up of QUAD to QUAD+, agreement to enhance India-Australia bilateral relations to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, intensification of India-US bilateral relations, greater scrutiny of FDI in India etc could be some of the many imponderables, which could explain China’s aggressive behaviour on the LAC.
The economics of it all
It will be instructive to remember that India is a competitor of China in the economic growth story. China-Pakistan nexus and now strengthening of its relations with Nepal are very serious strategic development in the region which could continue to engage India’s attention deflecting it away from its agenda of economic growth.
It has been widely reported in the media that the Western Theatre Commander of the PLA is one of the favourite Generals of the General Secretary of the CCP. The man is ambitious and is seeking to be included in the CMC, which is a big step forward in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is highly probable that the General wanted to signal to the members of the National people’s Congress (NCP), who were meeting in Beijing, that General Secretary Xi is a strong and assertive leader who has full and effective control of all organs of the state.
The new act implemented in Hong Kong, escalating Taiwan Strait tensions, flexing muscle in South China Sea, major military exercise in Xinjiang autonomous region and now aggressive expansion on LAC with India reflects the power that Xi commands. As is evident that these activities have declined after the crucial NPC meeting ended.
The LAC transgression has possibly put a cover on the domestic murmur of poor handling of COVID by General Secretary Xi and declining reputation of China in the world, which could have been brought up for discussion in the NPC. The assertive activities on LAC and inclusion of HongKong in the PRC draconian laws would have earned public support for President Xi. He has two important events ahead of him in coming years, ie, Centenary Celebrations of CCP next year and full congress meeting in 2022 wherein President Xi’s successor is likely to be named (possibly ignoring President Xi’s ambition of lifetime presidency).
It is a contradiction that China cannot be ignored in the economic front. The world moves on China’s manufacturing industry of global supply chain. China is also aggressively pushing for entry of Huawei in 5G technology in which it has an edge. Artificial Intelligence, Space-based technology, cyberspace field, solar energy etc, are some areas in which China has a competitive edge. Will these continue to progress on accelerated path post COVID and US trade war? China’s declining acceptance by the European Union and Australian effort to decouple from China are some of the worries that China has.
The road ahead, for India
What are India’s options? There is a trade deficit of approximately USD 50 billion with China. China’s economy is four/five times larger and military weapon capabilities have overtaken that of India. Rather than resolve the boundary issue, China will in all likelihood use it as a pressure point to retard India’s economic progress. Breach of trust between the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President would have grown with China’s recent coordinated military assertions on multiple locations on the LAC despite summit level understanding at Wuhan and Chennai.
China’s eyes are probably set on the Karakoram pass, which is in Indian territory, across which lies highway G 219 which China built through he Aksai Chin, to connect Tibet with Xinjiang province. With the completion of the DSDBO, which connects up to the Karakoram Pass, China fears a threat to its G219 highway which is just 150 kms East of the Pass. If the highway is cut, Chinese ambitious CPEC project is also threatened, which appears to be a source of worry to China and to Pakistan too.
China’s eyes are probably set on the Karakoram pass, which is in Indian territory, across which lies highway G 219 which China built through he Aksai Chin, to connect Tibet with Xinjiang province.
China is aggressively securing its energy source and routes to mitigate its Malacca vulnerability. It is on the verge of signing an agreement with Iran for investment of USD 400 billion in the next 25 years in infrastructure, communication, port, financial etc sectors in return of continuous oil supply. There would be a refinery nearby. Also, the port of Bandar e Jask (350 km west of Chabahar) will be leased for development and operations.
This port is right on top of the Straits of Hormuz. Iran has also announced that Chabahar-Zahedan railway track, which was contracted to Indian company IRCON, will be built by Iran due to slippages in the project. This track would have ultimately been a link between Zahedan and Zaranj ( Afghanistan) to facilitate trade to and from Afghanistan. This is a serious strategic challenge for India for its trade connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
It is pertinent to mention that in future China would have a presence in all three chokepoints of Indian Ocean due to its presence in Malacca Port, Bandar e Jask and Djibouti. This is a very significant strategic advantage to China. It is quite likely that Iranian oil for China could flow through a pipeline between Bandar e Jask and later from Gwadar to Kashgar where the railway track is being built along the CPEC.
CCP Navy and Pakistani Navy would increase their activities in the Western Arabian Sea after the delivery of 4 frigates and 8 AIP submarines beginning next year. This wou interfere with Indian Navy’s manoeuvring space in the Arabian Sea. Effectively China would have lured all neighbours of India and increas India’s security paradigm.
It is pertinent to mention that in future China would have presence in all three chokepoints of Indian Ocean due to its presence in Malacca Port, Bandar e Jask and Djibouti.
Time seems to be right to reset India’s China policy. Should it be tit for tat along LAC, gradually evicting China from Aksai Chin area or increasing activities along two SLOCs in the Indian Ocean which are lifeline for China’s energy security. Over 60% of oil imports and 58% copper imports traverse through choke points in the IOR. Both these are essential for China’s economic and military technology growth. Tibet and Taiwan are another two sensitive issues for China which could be looked at. Strengthening QUAD as economic and security architecture is another possibility.
Inclusion of Australia in this year’s MALABAR exercise could be indicative of that resolve. Or is it time to hard negotiate with China and smoke peace pipe for assured mutual growth? These are some of the complex strategic options which India has to deal with. These are tough options but time for strong political and diplomatic decisions which will keep India on the trajectory of economic growth and development.