India and China are sitting on a tinderbox and any misunderstanding can spark off a deadly chain of events that will prove costly for both.
The tensions that first broke out in May along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh reached new heights on Monday with the Chinese firing warning shots near the southern bank of Pangong Tso in a bid to bully Indian soldiers.
This was officially the first time that shots were fired along the LAC since 1975. Back then too, it was the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that had first opened fire in Arunachal Pradesh.
Both sides have issued multiple public statements warning the other of stern action. And it is now impossible for Indian and China to climb down from the stand each has taken. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks haven’t yielded much and only high-level political talks can now ensure things don’t go out of hand.
This is why it is important for both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping to have a face-saver to make sure that they are not seen as weak when they initiate total de-escalation and disengagement.
Dial for peace
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said this week that the LAC situation called for “very, very deep conversations” between the two sides at a “political level”. And that is exactly what is needed – Prime Minister Modi and President Xi need to pick up the phone and talk. But the problem is that neither side wants to dial first.
So, finding a face-saving solution is imperative for both countries.
And that face-saver could be a broader understanding and agreement on border issues, a give-and-take kind of deal on areas being currently dominated by both sides, and creation of an equal buffer zone.
There is no doubt that the Indian Army was taken by surprise when China diverted troops from its exercise to capture Indian territory in Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Gogra, and Hot Springs area in May.
However, since then, the Army has doubled down along the entire LAC and has now captured dominating heights in the southern banks of Pangong Tso even as the soldiers climbed up the ridgelines in the northern bank and are sitting at a dominating position against the Chinese who have captured territory up to the ridgelines of Finger 4.
Both sides have also amassed over 80,000 troops together at the LAC besides hundreds of artillery guns, tanks, armoured personnel vehicles and air defence systems. India has also put its Air Force and Navy on full operational alert.
Neither New Delhi nor Beijing is looking at a war situation, and even if there is one eventually, neither is going to defeat the other hands down.
War will help none
There is no doubt that the Chinese have a larger and stronger military, which is backed by new technology and state-of-the-art systems, albeit untested but it still looks good on paper. India, too, is no pushover and has a large military. It is the only country in South Asia capable of standing up to a belligerent China.
Any armed conflict between the two sides will look bad on China, which is already facing a global pushback over the coronavirus pandemic and its expansionist agenda. Casualties of Chinese soldiers will dent President Xi’s image.
China — which has not seen death in conflict since the 1979 war with Vietnam, notwithstanding the death of its soldiers in the Galwan Valley that they are yet to acknowledge— has more to lose than India since body bags back home will not only bring in sorrow and bitterness, but also affect its global ambitions.
It is not that India can afford a war with China either. Despite the fire in the belly of Indian soldiers to stay put and give a befitting reply to Chinese aggression, war at this juncture would be costly — both for Modi as a leader and the Indian economy, which is already weak.
But does this mean that India should not stand up to China? No. India is doing the right thing by putting its military on high alert and preparing for the long haul.
But the only icebreaker in the high Himalayan mountains will be political talks. And to talk, both India and China need a face-saver.
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