The face-off at Naku La could not have been accidental and was probably a deliberate probing exercise on the part of the Chinese that the Indian soldiers cut off

The recent face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Naku La in Sikkim is worrying. Soldiers on both sides are reported to have suffered injuries. Apparently, the confrontation did not last long as local commanders acted swiftly to bring the situation under control. China has denied that such an incident took place and has dismissed Indian media reports on the matter as ‘fake news.’ It is likely that the Xi Jinping government is reluctant to admit to its people that its soldiers suffered in the confrontation with India. Beijing’s dissembling to its people isn’t surprising; the PRC is known to be opaque on most issues, especially those that show it in a poor light. It is a matter of concern, however, that the Indian Army may also be downplaying the magnitude of the Naku La face-off. Indian and Chinese soldiers may not have used weapons in the confrontation and even if it was only a ‘physical brawl’, it was serious enough to cause injuries to soldiers. Any face-off along the Line of Actual Control, especially when the Indian and Chinese armies are deployed eyeball to eyeball in large numbers and when the situation is volatile cannot be dismissed as a minor one.

In May last year, when Chinese soldiers had begun occupying territory under Indian control, and even after the horrific Galwan Valley skirmish on June 15 in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, the Narendra Modi government trivialised the intrusions. It emboldened the Chinese to persist with more intrusions and weakened India’s position on the ground and at the negotiating table, until the Indian Army wrested some tactical advantage by occupying heights in the Kailash range at the end of August. The face-off at Naku La could not have been an accidental run-in. It was probably a deliberate probing exercise on the part of the Chinese that the Indian soldiers cut off. After all, Naku La was the site of a major clash between the two sides last year as well. We must expect more such probing in other areas along the border. The possibility that the Chinese sought to extend the conflict to the eastern sector to heap additional pressure on India, perhaps in a bid to wring concessions during the ninth round of corps commander talks that followed a few days later, cannot be ruled out.

The Chinese Communist Party will be marking its centenary in July. It could be trying to speed up talks with India to end the border tension ahead of celebratory events marking that anniversary. India must make it clear that it cannot achieve that goal by probing exercises and provoking skirmishes, much less by attempting to get India to cede ground in any sector of the border.