New Delhi: The sudden Chinese transgressions in at least four places in Eastern Ladakh and its heavy troop build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the northern sector, could be part of a larger signaling process by Beijing, intended for domestic as well as external audiences, experts and officials in the Indian security establishment feel.
Indian officials are yet to really pin down the exact reason behind China’s actions at the border but a section feels that Beijing’s efforts to stop Indian construction activities along the LAC is a message to the country’s local population.
“President Xi has been under pressure over his handling of the Corona crisis. In 2017 Doklam, Chinese made sure that the standoff ended before the commencement of the CPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Process). This time the Chinese move has come before the CPCC,” a source in the security establishment said.
Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, the former Northern Army Commander, told ThePrint that what is more important is to know what exactly China wants.
He said multiple face-off points are an indication that this is not related to just one road construction activity in the Galwan Valley.
“Of course China is signalling to a lot of people. But it is building pressure on India. What matters is what China is demanding for de-escalation,” he said.
Timing is troubling: International analysts
Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s military strategy who is also the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT’s Security Studies Program, told ThePrint that he certainly agrees that China is trying to signal that it has not been weakened by the coronavirus and its economic aftershocks.
“While I don’t think this alone would lead China to create an incident with India, I do think it helps to explain the scope, scale, and posture of China’s response,” he said. “In many issues this spring, China has sought to signal its resolve, especially when sovereignty is involved — Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.”
Professor Rory Medcalf, Head, National Security College, Australian National University told ThePrint that the timing of the Chinese military push in contested territory is very troubling.
“It coincides with a critical phase in India’s internal difficulties with the Covid-19 pandemic. So perhaps it is calculated to catch the Indian leadership distracted and off-guard,” he said.
He, however, added that there is a risk here for China too as it is further antagonising India at a time when it has already alienated much of the world over the coronavirus situation.
“From Australia to Hong Kong to the South China Sea to Europe to the deepening confrontation with America, and now India too – how many fronts can Beijing manage without mishap?” he questioned.
‘Could just be reaction to road-building at LAC’
Fravel said the simplest explanation is that China viewed India’s road-building in the area, especially around Galwan and Pangong Lake, as changing (from its standpoint) the situation along the LAC.
However, the scope, scale, and posture of China’s response is something that has not occurred for a very long time, he said.
“China is putting pressure on the LAC simultaneously in multiple areas across a large front in the western sector (of LAC). Although reports vary, in terms of scale, China may have placed an additional 5,000 soldiers along the LAC,” he said. “Finally, in several places, China appears to have crossed the LAC, where it was believed to have been ‘settled’, adopting an assertive posture in specific places.”
Fravel, who has authored Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, said the situation is concerning, especially in those areas where India believes China crossed the LAC.
“The situation, however, remains fluid and is not out of control,” he said. “Large numbers of Chinese forces do not appear to have crossed the LAC, and it remains unclear whether they intend to stay permanently in the few positions they recently occupied or to withdraw, as has occurred in the past.”
Fravel added that if China stays, it risks inflaming Indian public opinion and worsening ties with New Delhi. “So one has to ask whether these small pieces of territory would be worth the price that China would pay,” he said.