Over the last fortnight, as Indian and Chinese soldiers beat each other up at a remote, god-forsaken site in the eastern part of the Union Territory, which also saw action during the 1962 border conflict, the world has speculated why Asia’s largest nations are squabbling in this unseemly way.
Here are five reasons why India and China are locked in a fresh ‘battle’ at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in this part of Ladakh.
First, because the world – read, the US – is exhausted with the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, China thinks it won’t be challenged in Hong Kong — where it recently announced new security legislation — Taiwan or Ladakh. Except, the Americans are fighting back, blacklisting an additional 33 Chinese firms for trying to access US technology, while the Senate last week passed a bill delisting Chinese companies.
Second, China is determined to expand influence in South Asia. Nepal’s recent act of releasing a new map showing disputed Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani as part of its territory is being widely seen in Delhi as Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s attempt at rebalancing the time-tested “roti-beti” relationship with India in favour of Beijing. None other than Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi is said to be behind this move.
Third, Beijing is smarting from being forced to return to the status quo in Bhutan’s Doklam plateau in 2017, after India moved its troops to stop Chinese soldiers from building a road that could have potentially compromised Indian security.
Four, on the eve of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s election as Chairman of the World Health Organisation’s Executive Board, India supported 62 other nations in moving a resolution that called for an independent investigation into the WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus. The Ladakh face-off is said to be a warning shot to India to be careful in allying with Western nations like the US and Australia.
Five, the Chinese have been building border infrastructure for decades, all along the contested 4,206-km-long boundary from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, making it easy for Chinese armour to roll across these highways if the need arises.
A road got built, and China was put off
But when India took a leaf out of China’s book — by starting construction work on a feeder road that would connect with the road built last year from Darbuk-Shyok in Galwan Valley to the historic site of Daulat Begh Oldi in eastern Ladakh — Chinese soldiers saw red.
The Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Begh Oldi road was rightfully hailed as an achievement. For several years, Indian soldiers had been thwarted by the fast-flowing Shyok river; but last year, the engineering corps managed to throw a bridge over the Shyok, immediately opening up access to Daulat Begh Oldi.
The importance of these new roads is that they have been built right up to the LAC; in fact, they run right along the LAC’s alignment in these parts. This is a far cry from the bad old days when it took several days for military help to reach in case of a face-off with Chinese soldiers.
That’s why the Chinese are angry in Ladakh. These days, when a Chinese PLA soldier looks through his binoculars, he spies the tents of Indian soldiers — on the other side of the LAC. Now, he must share the never-ending sky with them.
The great game in inner Asia is changing. The Silk Road town, Daulat Begh Oldi, is today an Indian military base, located just 8 km south of the Karakoram Pass, an all-weather route built by China for its all-weather friend and ally Pakistan.
It is also the highest airstrip in the world. It saw action during the 1962 conflict with China and was upgraded in 2008 to allow Russian-made An-32 planes to land and the much-larger US-made C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft five years later.
And when the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road was thrown open last year — merely two years after Doklam — allowing a brigade-strength of 3,000 Indian soldiers to be deployed right along the LAC, a sense of accomplishment was apparent in South Block.
The 1962 conflict is buried far too deeply for present-day politicians to experience emotions like humiliation. But as China not just grew in the intervening decades, but galloped and raced ahead on every socio-economic indicator in comparison to India, a sense of both fatalism as well as competition took clear shape.
Then came Doklam. India’s intervention on behalf of another country, Bhutan, laid to rest the ghost of another failed adventure in another country – Sri Lanka in 1990. It also took the sheen off China’s hubris as the second most powerful power in the world.
Demarcating though stand-offs
The problem with the ongoing face-off in Ladakh is that because the LAC is undemarcated, it’s not clear whether the Chinese are intruding into “Indian” territory or not. Both China and India have a claim line; both have their own perceptions of where the LAC is.
The blame for this lack of geographical clarity must be placed on China’s door. For 17 years, the Chinese have stalled the mechanism of the special representatives set up to discuss the boundary dispute in 2003, when then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to China. There has been no progress at all – or if there is, it has not been made public.
Beijing has resisted even exchanging maps on the Western sector, which encompasses the current site in Ladakh, as well as in the Eastern sector, which includes Arunachal Pradesh.
Maps have only been exchanged in the Middle Sector – incorporating the region in Uttarakhand where Lipulekh lies, but which the Nepalis, China’s new best friend, have now claimed in a new map.
You get the niggling feeling that the Chinese don’t want to settle the boundary issue with India, a country they perceive to be much poorer and far weaker. They don’t like the fact that Indian soldiers are ready to stand their ground, in Doklam and in Ladakh.
So, are the Chinese taking revenge for Doklam in the Galwan valley of Ladakh? One thing is clear: In both places, Indian soldiers have quietly asserted themselves and claimed the high moral ground.
Views are personal.