While there are multiple triggers for this latest Chinese incursion, building of at least two major roads near the border and upgrading infrastructure by the Narendra Modi government are the principle catalysts

by Ranjit Bhushan

Relative newcomers to the Ladakh scene can be excused for believing that the question of Chinese intrusions through the snow-bound, high mountain passes in this largely inhospitable and inaccessible terrain date back to the Narendra Modi era or slightly beyond.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told Parliament in November 1961 that he did not think that the situation in Ladakh had changed to the “advantage of the Chinese”, adding for good measure that “we shall continue to take steps to build up these things so that ultimately we may be in a position to take action to recover such territory as is in their possession.” This statement came roughly a year before the ill-fated Sino-Indian border war in 1962.

The anecdote is a pointer to the fact that Ladakh, like nearly the entire 4,056 km Sino-Indian border, including the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the west, the small undisputed section in the centre, and the MacMahon Line in the eastern sector, is a boundary where both India and China have, over the last several decades, broadly agreed to disagree. And this time is no different. If there is a difference, it could be in its outcome.

Premeditated Intrusion

The big picture is clear. India faces the most serious Chinese incursion in the last few decades. This is not a routine summer standoff between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Nor is it like Doklam in 2017, triggered by a local provocation that involved a third country, Bhutan. This is a premeditated intrusion at multiple points falling in different army zones. Thousands of Chinese soldiers have entered the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including areas that were so far routinely patrolled by Indian troops and acknowledged by China to be on the Indian side. The Chinese have made it clear that they may stay put – maybe even permanently. They have dug trenches, put up tents, brought vehicles, built roads and fortified themselves on their side of the border. This is a calculated move to alter the LAC in some sectors by sheer force. To be sure, India has answered in kind; with improved infrastructure, Indian Army has been able to quickly move her battalions, even if not as swiftly as China.

This latest build-up has come as a surprise to many, and not just in New Delhi. Why would China choose to antagonise India now when President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have held several summits, both in India and China? China’s relationship with the United States is on a downward spiral and Beijing is already drawing flak from the international community over the Coronavirus crisis, facing new challenges in cross-strait relations and the South China Sea, and in the middle of an unprecedented social unrest, particularly in Hong Kong.

China’s top leadership – much like India - has been tight-lipped about the development. Unlike Doklam, China’s state-run media has been rather restrained in its coverage of the incident, with just a handful of articles, mostly parroting the official stance that India is illegally trespassing and constructing defence facilities across the border into now-claimed Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) no other option but to make necessary moves in response.

In India, a largely uninformed and excitable electronic media has taken upon itself to defend the frontiers – safely ensconced in the safety of their TV studios. If anything, there have been some lively debates and discussions on China’s state-controlled internet, which does offer cues about Beijing’s strategic thinking, according to Indians living in China.

China’s Post-COVID ‘Assertive Foreign Policy’

Observers in New Delhi have mostly read the current crisis as a continuation of China’s post-pandemic ‘assertive foreign policy’ across the world, from South China Sea to Hong Kong, and as a fallout of the overall souring of Sino-Indian ties in the recent past. Some, if not all, believe that the simultaneous breaking out of a high-voltage drama between India and Nepal over Kalapani is a subplot to the broader China-India differences in Ladakh and Sikkim. However, in the Chinese view, the India-Nepal border row seems to be the main plot, which has acted as an impetus raising tensions along the disputed border between China and India.

While there is little doubt that there are multiple triggers for this latest Chinese incursion, clearly building of at least two major roads near the border and upgrading infrastructure by the Narendra Modi government during the last half-a-decade are the principle catalysts.

In India, quite correctly, the focus has remained sharp on the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi Road (DSBDBO) along the Galwan River — which runs more or less parallel to the LAC and improves India’s access to the Karakoram Highway — a fact not particularly appreciated by Beijing. From the map maker’s point of view, the strategic importance of this road can scarcely be underestimated. Beginning south of Xinjiang, it joins the Shyok river in Nubra Valley and has the potential to become an access route between Xinjiang and Ladakh. Some experts believe that China covets this road. Historically, in 1962, Galwan Valley became one of sites of India’s ill-fated Forward Policy when the Chinese overran a post there; 33 of 68 Indian defenders were killed, and the rest taken POWs.

Of equal concern to Beijing is the newly constructed 80-km stretch from Dharchula to Lipulekh (the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar, a site for Hindu pilgrimage in Tibet), completed on April 17 and inaugurated on May 8 by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. In the Chinese scheme of things, India’s construction activity in the disputed areas with Nepal has affected her border security in Tibet. By building the 80 km stretch (76 km remains completed and the last 4 is expected to be finished by the end of 2020), India has moved its frontier vis-a vis China, gaining direct access to the concrete highway in Purang county in Tibet, and has thereby changed the status quo in the region. China already has border defence roads in Purang county on the middle border and Cona county on the southern border with India and a Chinese airport in Purang is scheduled to be completed in 2021. Despite its preparedness on its side of the border, China is concerned that India still has much room for manoeuvre, using Nepal’s geographical advantage to challenge its dominant position in the region. In other words, while China is free to construct roads on infrastructure on its side of the border, India does not enjoy the same liberty, being a smaller military power.

Veteran analyst Prem Shankar Jha offers the theory that India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise of the 1993 Sino-China Agreement: going back to strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed at the height of the Cold War. "That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all,” writes Jha in his blog.

But when Modi became premier in 2014, he committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US and aligned New Delhi with Washington on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a sore point with China, if there is one. By May 2016, writes Jha, “Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea.” In his estimation, this was the beginning of the break with China.

Several other complications have since then come in the way. A new map for Jammu and Kashmir, post the abrogation of Article 370, with the assertion in Parliament that come what may, India will re-take Aksai Chin, which New Delhi claims. That was followed by new maps, objections to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) going through Indian territory and weather reports on PoK. A broad status quo that had existed in Ladakh-Aksai Chin since 1962, was in China’s view, being challenged by India.

What Will Happen Next?

Even if we assume that China has, indeed, altered the LAC by coming a few kilometres inside Indian territory, can India expect them to go back on their own? An all-out conflagration looks difficult, given China’s vast infrastructural investments in the CPEC, which will come within the range of Indian guns, should push comes to shove. Over the years, China has nibbled at Indian territory and then offered the olive branch - the Sun Tzu school of The Art of War. Earlier Congress governments looked the other way when intrusions took place, but the present dispensation, indeed, thrives on nationalism. If India finally decides to cut its economic umbilical code with China, as some have been threatening, it is then the actions in Ladakh and at other points along the Sino-Indian border will become more manifest.

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University