The Chinese focus area was limited to Aksai Chin – from Depsang Plateau to North-South of Pangong Tso, and pointed towards an apparent desire not to be involved in larger conflict

by Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (Retd)

2020-21 Became The Year of Clarity For India!

2020 was the Year of the Gengzi in China as per the sixty year cycle of the Chinese calendar. Gengzi years presage disaster, and are always calamitous in popular Chinese superstitions and imagination. In the previous Years of Gengzi, in 1840 the First Opium War broke out beginning China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’, 1900 brought the Boxer Uprising and foreign military intervention, 1960 was the high point of the great famine, that resulted in tens of millions of deaths of starvation. In the latest Year of Gengzi, China exported the COVID 19 that caused immense devastation worldwide, while clamping down on internal information!

Again, in 2020 China stated the Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains were theirs historically, as were Nepal’s Mount Everest, Japan’s southernmost Okinotori Island and Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary! In 2020 China showed its expansionist vision in Eastern Ladakh! The Dragon was awake, and was vigorously seeking to establish Pax Sinica!

Taking many steps back, India and China have had parleys since 1981, meetings from 1988 to 2005 of Joint Working Groups, 22 of Special Representatives Talks thereafter and in addition many summits and visits at Apex political levels. The two countries had also accepted Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), functional protocols and drills on the border with bilateral agreements signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013. In a very large number of face-offs on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the protocols had been followed to the hilt, the troops disengaged and moved to their respective bases. There were sporadic incidents of scuffles and fisticuffs, the long drawn stand-offs in 2013, 2014 and 2017, which were later discussed at the Border Personnel Meetings and diplomatic levels and resolved.

Out of the blue, in May 2020, with the pandemic raging, China attempted expansionism at multi-points in Aksai Chin in Eastern Ladakh, after side-stepping two mechanised and motorised divisions to the area, a rarity by itself. The fallout was the 15 June 2020 incident at Galwan, in which 20 Indian brave hearts and undeterminable PLA soldiers laid their lives, belied China’s expectations of a repeat of successful subterfuge of South China Sea. The incursions clearly indicate coercion and intimidation as part of Chinese geopolitical ambitions.

The Chinese focus area was limited to Aksai Chin – from Depsang Plateau to North-South of Pangong Tso, and pointed towards an apparent desire not to be involved in larger conflict. However, the eventology sums to PLA having deliberately and in a well-planned manner broken the systemic understanding and behaviour based on varied Agreements, protocols and norms. Obviously, China undertook the transgressions in Eastern Ladakh surreptitiously, exactly like it had occupied islands, shoals and reefs in South China Sea without firing a shot, attempting to fix a new Line. Chinese are masters in employment of strategic ambiguity to retain flexible policies, and banked on the history of three decades of discussions, inferring that India will continue to engage in further protracted, laborious negotiations to no end.

It must be recounted that despite the diplomatic parleys over three decades, there were often hints that all was not hunky dory. In 1998, after two major agreements had been signed, Indian Defence Minister had called China “potential threat number one.” Since 2009, with intricate collusion between China and Pakistan together, the spectre of two-front threat has been repeatedly highlighted by Indian military hierarchy. To say the least, in this confused environment, there was a generalised feel that though the LAC was a flawed concept and seemed intractable often, the continued discussions at multi-fora signified the unlikelihood of any escalation to conflict. China threat theory was not back-burnered, but obviously was not on forefront too!

It is logical to imagine that Indian Armed Forces and the polity were immensely surprised by the events of May and June 2020. Subsequently, eleven rounds of Corps Commanders Levels talks and the discussions between the External Affairs Minister and Chinese Foreign Minister took place.

What PLA had not probably anticipated was the robust and strong response by the Indian Armed Forces, on establishing an eye-ball confrontation at all locations transgressed and the ferociousness and tenacity of Indian soldiers at Galwan on 15 June 2020, without even using firearms. In an exemplary mobilisation the Army and the Air Force picked the gauntlet, brought in a strong force to Ladakh, and accepted the challenge. Indian Armed Forces appreciated that PLA will react vehemently, and yet occupied areas North and South of Pangong Tso and on Rezangla-Rechini on Kailash Range. Even the likelihood of escalation, did not deter the Indian Armed Forces. All this was being undertaken while continuing laborious negotiations at Chushul-Moldo, to obtain a verifiable disengagement, de-escalation and return to status quo ante.

Consequently, in a candid statement in the floor of the Parliament on September 15 and 17, 2020, the Raksha Mantri (RM) had stated that there is no common delineation or perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and that China was unwilling to pursue LAC clarification exercise. It is now apparent that older CBMs and Protocols have outlived their utility, and their reiteration may be counter-productive. Buffer zones with moratorium of patrolling, to avoid escalation stands created at the friction points in Aksai Chin in Eastern Ladakh and selective, limited disengagement was agreed upon in February 2021. There is seemingly permanence in positioning of reserve formations in proximate areas on both sides of LAC, indicative of an escalated scenario.

The whys and wherefores of the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh are immaterial at this stage. Whether CCP/PLA had decided and achieved its political and military end-state is also of lesser consequence, as no further step-forward is possible without many steps up the escalatory ladder.

It is relevant to examine the trade relationship between India and China in this duration of the Eastern Ladakh stand-off. Trade from January to December 2020 stood at $77.67 billion, with China having overtaken the US to become India’s largest trading partner in 2020. As per China’s Global Times, trade grew further by over 70 percent in January and May 2021 to $48 billion. Indeed, a large part of the increase in trade was due to the import of medical equipment from China to India to combat the second wave of pandemic.

A couple of years ago, President Xi Jinping, focusing on friendship and cooperation, had envisioned that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.” Xinhua, the Chinese official news service, quoted President Xi Jinping as seeking “… focus on setting the tone right, be open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” A major turnaround in the revanchist attitude will be mandatory to take a baby step towards being ‘lovable’!

There may be opinions that rely on economic relationships, as panacea and likely a futuristic bridge between India and China. However, at this stage, one year into the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh, there is 180 degree transformation across the LAC. In mid-2021, there was an absolutely clear vision of adversarial border relationship, which, pre-May 2020 was marked by total ambiguity.

Distrust is complete, there is realisation that China is a quintessential expansionist country, and trade relationships must be disaggregated in form and substance. It has taken three decades of extensive negotiations, but one year of aggression, to comprehend that China’s underlying policy remains far from benign.

They say in Mandarin, those who know the storm, dread the calm before it. Hence the first Fundamental of General Funk, the Commanding General of TRADOC in the US rightly states, ‘always secure yourself first!’