By all reckoning, the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control between India and China is likely to extend for months to come. While both countries have reiterated their positions on peace as well as conflict, it is unlikely that the relationship between two of the world’s oldest civilisations would change for the better anytime soon.
The 2020 Ladakh stand-off between India and China appears to be different from the earlier ones in Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014), and Doklam (2017). A Chinese patrol attacked the Army personnel with clubs and stones at Point 14 in Galwan Valley that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers, including the Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar, and left many more injured. Many soldiers on the Chinese side are also reported to have died and received injuries in the retaliatory attack by the Indian forces. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it seems, has junked the principles of all three border agreements signed between India and China in 1993, 1996, and 2003 that were aimed at ensuring conflict-resolution and keeping peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
China playing the victim card
In a major departure from earlier border skirmishes, China is playing the victim card this time around. According to reports and posts on social media, Chinese mouthpiece Global Times’ English editor Hu Xijin put out a tweet saying: “Based on what I know, Chinese side also suffered casualties in the Galwan Valley physical clash. I want to tell the Indian side, don’t be arrogant and misread China’s restraint as being weak. China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it.”
Another tweet by Xjin said, “Chinese side didn’t release the number of PLA casualties in clash with Indian soldiers. My understanding is that the Chinese side doesn’t want people of the two countries to compare the casualties number so to avoid stoking public mood. This is goodwill from Beijing.”
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has claimed that that the two sides had reached an “important consensus on easing of the border situation” when “astonishingly” the Indian side violated the understanding. Giving details of the incident, he also claimed that on 15 June, the Indian troops “twice crossed the border line and provoked and attacked Chinese personnel.” China’s attempts to carry out its publicity stunts before the international community may not have any credibility. After being accused of concealing information on the coronavirus pandemic that first originated in Wuhan, China had played a similar victim card, which did not evoke any sympathetic response from the world.
There is little doubt that Beijing is on the back foot due to its shoddy handling of the coronavirus crisis. And a border clash with India has not gone down very well for China’s so-called “peaceful rise”. Besides this dent in its image, the military setback and heavy casualties in Galwan could be prompting Beijing to stage a tactical retreat and play the victim card.
Chinese ‘retreat’ has deeper consequences
But China’s tactical ‘retreat’ should be understood and responded to with extreme care, caution and alertness. In 1962, China ended hostilities as unilaterally as the attacks had begun. But it did not mean the end of conflict and beginning of peace. A new window to the border row was opened by China.
In 2009 India had sharply protested against China and Pakistan’s plan to upgrade the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and the Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric project in PoK.
In December 2010, on the eve of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, the Chinese state-owned media Xinhua and Global Times for the first time carried reports describing the Sino-Indian border as nearly 2,000 km long.
This, for the first time, contradicted Indian official figure of 3,488 km as the operational border between India and China. Indian map covered the entire Aksai Chin (37,000 sq km) and 5,400 sq km of Shaksgam that was illegally ceded to China by Pakistan after a March 1963 boundary agreement that came barely four months after the 1962 war.
Although New Delhi rejected the 1963 agreement as illegal, the official protest over the upgrading of KKH and changed maps were conveyed to Beijing in 2009 and 2010. By this time, China was well entrenched in Pakistan—first through financial assistance, and later via the CPEC.
Besides the 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin, which China has occupied, Beijing is also claiming about 92,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Southern Tibet. Soon after Sikkim became part of India in 1975, China symbolically lodged its protest by an ambush at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border area.
The last military skirmish between the two armies was in 1967 at the Nathu La pass situated on Sikkim-Tibet border. In 1986, the Chinese intruded at Wangdung on Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border.
According to a report, transgressions have now gone up to 400 on an average per year along the 3,400 km long border, resulting at times, in altering of the LAC. In the backdrop of fresh incursions in Ladakh, borders along Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir could also come under attack.
In a major shift in strategy, Beijing is likely to use Pakistan and Nepal in its aggression against India. While the non-state actors in Pakistan will be abated and aided to carry out increased attacks in J&K and other parts of India, Kathmandu under a Communist dispensation will create more irritants and increase pinpricks. While terrorism needs to be tackled ruthlessly, Nepal will have to be handled deftly, too, with diplomatic finesse. The historic cultural ties and vibrant people-to-people contact between India and Nepal should be insulated from damage, even as the political dispensation is made to pay the price for indulging in anti-India activities at the behest of Beijing.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.