Indeed, that may have already happened. For the Modi-Trump call is not the only sign that India may have tired of the strategic ambiguity it has so far meticulously maintained

by Lt Gen (Retd) S L Narasimhan

India joined the US, Japan and Australia to re-launch the ‘Quad’ in November 2017 to build a bulwark against the hegemonic aspirations of China in the Indo-Pacific region but had done so hesitatingly and only as a hedge. Indeed, as Delhi’s efforts to mend ties with Beijing gained momentum after Wuhan, India tweaked its policy on the Indo-Pacific, stating that its vision for the region was inclusive and not hostile to any particular country.

This week, though, India signed a military logistics sharing pact with Australia – a move, which came amid China’s growing belligerence, not only on the banks of the Pangong Tso, but also in the contested waters of South China Sea and East China Sea. India had already signed a similar pact with the US in 2016 and is set to ink another with Japan soon. Delhi also seems willing now to invite Australia to join India, US and Japan in naval drills, a move likely to rile Beijing.

That’s not all. New Delhi also joined a subtle bid by the US to expand the Quad. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla has been in regular contact with US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun, as well as with his counterparts not only in Australia and Japan but also in Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea. Though the professed objective of the weekly video-conference they have is to share ideas and best practices to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, it is clear that India is not opposed to the US-led initiative to build a “Quad Plus” to pre-empt an expansion of China’s influence in the region in the post-Covid-19 world order.

Under Modi, just like under previous governments, India went the extra mile between April 2018 and August 2019 to respect Beijing’s sensitivities, including on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, to keep the India-China d├ętente on track. It, however, got very little in return. China continues to oppose India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It still defends its “iron brother” Pakistan in the United Nations and other international forums. Its bid to encircle India through a “string of pearls” has been unrelenting. It continues to build an ‘economic corridor’ that passes through territory claimed by India but illegally occupied by Pakistan. And, it continues its salami slice tactics to cut off pieces of Indian territory all along the LAC.

This time, the Chinese seem to have come 2-3 km into the Galwan Valley. If we lose Galwan Valley, the Chinese will come into the Shyok Valley and can then cut off the northern flank, including the Karakoram Pass, Nubra Valley and Aksai Chin. This will make Ladakh vulnerable security-wise.

Some 200-300 incursions take place every year, mostly in Ladakh, but it is the sensitivity of the area this time which is threatening. Galwan is a pivotal, strategic vantage point.

There has been some analysis about China being irked over India’s decision to reorganise J&K and make Ladakh a separate Union Territory last year. It is possible that not only has China used the bifurcation issue as a Trojan horse to factor itself into the Kashmir dispute but also to forward its stakes in Ladakh. Some kind of strategic move or joint thinking between China and Pakistan cannot be ruled out. The issue featured in the

-China Joint Statement Last August

On the ground, the Chinese are trying to push India into the Galwan Valley towards the Shyok Valley. Possibly, China is apprehensive that its flagship regional connectivity projects in South Asia, like the CPEC through Pakistan and BRI through Nepal, may get affected as India has stepped up construction of roads in Ladakh and in the Uttarakhand region bordering China.

Aksai Chin, illegally held by China, is an extension of the dry plateau and is not part of the Himalayas. Now, the Chinese are coming into a water-rich area with three rivers -- the Shyok, Galwan and Chang-Chenmo. This is a hugely strategic move. On the map, it looks very complicated but they have a strategy, design and focus on the big picture.

Right now, all their connectivity is north of the Karakoram Valley, through which CPEC passes. They are, for instance, building a new airport in Tashkurgan, north of the Siachen glacier.

Having declared Ladakh a UT and having decided to build infrastructure and connectivity in Ladakh, India should also have a matching forward objective to push for trade and its strategic interests beyond the Karakoram pass into the Mazar Valley of Xinjiang province and revive the old Leh-Kashgar Silk Road. Through Lipulekh, we should be demanding the reopening of our traditional pilgrimage and border trade routes with Tibet.

The Mantra of The LAC Has Been Chanted For So Many Years That We

react only to Gilgit-Baltistan and not to Aksai Chin. Why has the narrative of Aksai China not been kept alive? Right now, the Chinese show it as part of Xinjiang. It is time to change the narrative with China and not just with Pakistan on PoK. It is important that we should also respond strategically to reach out to the world beyond the Ladakh borders that have remained so far frozen in time.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and an expert in trans-Himalayan affairs