New Delhi is maintaining Doklam-like silence, which plays poorly at home but is important too

by Indrani Bagchi

Bertil Lintner wrote in his book, China’s India War, that the 1962 war was China’s way of diverting attention from the failure of its Great Leap Forward programme. In 2020, the ducks are not lined up for President Xi Jinping.

At this moment, those with idle fingers and competing political agendas are fighting an India-China boundary conflict on social media, which include calls to fire top army commanders, satellite images of dry Galwan river bed and everything in between.

But up in the northern bank of the Pangong Tso, an Indian patrol was stopped by the Chinese at Finger 4, where they were patrolling at Finger 8 just last summer. A little distance away, in Galwan valley, an undisputed spot since 1962, Indian and Chinese forces face off against each other at three points, one across the fast-flowing (not dry) Galwan river. Far away in Naku La in Sikkim, Indian soldiers are on alert after an “incident” on May 9 which left a Chinese major bleeding.

We’re in familiar territory – Chinese mission creep, change ground positions, fake outrage about Indian “intrusion”, threaten us with the Stone Age, quieten down with diplomatic negotiations, demand “face” be saved, call for a summit and new border management SOPs, which would be violated by the following summer. This time, it’s much more serious, because the numbers are more alarming.

Rajnath Singh laid the matter to rest by confirming Chinese troops had come “in large numbers”. Indians, after a bruising bout of fisticuffs, have not only mirrored the Chinese deployment but bettered it – an entire division has been moved to the LAC, weapons, equipment, all. India’s supply lines are shorter, troops are acclimatised, we can land huge transport aircraft at Daulat Beg Oldi with reinforcements. India is not too badly off.

The Chinese have been building roads on their side for years. India is trying to overcome its “second mover” disadvantage, by building its own roads, importantly, connecting to the Karakoram Pass. The Chinese don’t like that.

New Delhi is maintaining Doklam-like silence, which plays poorly inside the country but is important at this point. The Modi government is not yet rolling out big guns S Jaishankar and Ajit Doval to negotiate, leaving it to military commanders like the Mandarin-speaking General Joshi and his colleagues in Leh. What is the trigger for Beijing’s aggression?

Let’s see what it’s not – it’s not a response to India’s Article 370 decision of August 2019. China would have taken “steps” in 2019 itself, so that’s not it. Yes, the Indian Darbuk-Shyok-DBO all-weather road is a problem, but that road has been under construction for years, including a changed alignment. China is also unlikely to be using a border stand-off where it may not achieve victory to retaliate against India’s new FDI restrictions. For those who didn’t notice, China has retaliated by banning pork imports from India.

Bertil Lintner wrote in his book, China’s India War, that the 1962 war was China’s way of diverting attention from the failure of its Great Leap Forward programme. In 2020, the ducks are not lined up for President Xi Jinping. China has a credibility problem regarding COVID-19, which has a knock-on effect in global bodies key to China’s place as the presumptive superpower.

“De-coupling” will be terrible, even if imperfect. China’s growth model will be hit, particularly if global supply chains have to be diversified away from China. This might seem like a good time to demonstrate dominance on the only undemarcated boundary, teach the Indians a lesson, give India’s vaulting ambitions a reality check by showing up its inadequacies: struggling with a pandemic, crashing economy and floundering on national security. India shouldn’t get away with “uninstall Chinese apps”.

Two countries have inserted themselves into India-China tensions: the US and Nepal. President Donald Trump, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Congress leaders have publicly ranged themselves on India’s side. Honestly, India could have done without it. But the US offer of help has rung loud alarm bells in Beijing, introducing a new and hostile element into a reasonably predictable dispute.

KP Oli, Nepali PM, played a cynical political game and is now rushing into a confrontation. New Delhi is unlikely to bend now that he has directly challenged Indian sovereignty in Lipulekh. Is it “inspired” by China? Perhaps. Given the volatility of India-Nepal relations, India should consider taking Nepal to the International Court of Justice for a final settlement of the tri-junction.

As for China, India should be prepared for more trouble on the boundary as it continues its infrastructure building activity and improves defence deployments. Indians should step away from talking of “differing perceptions” of the LAC. They are not “perceptions”. They are two claim lines that overlap in certain areas. When we say, “perceptions”, we are essentially giving the Chinese a free pass to change the position on the ground and claim that to be the LAC. India made its boundary alignment clear to the Chinese in 1960, through six exhaustive meetings in Delhi, Beijing and Rangoon (Yangon).

At the political/ diplomatic level, India should reconsider the “informal” summit with Xi where both sides take back very different perceived outcomes. India believes Xi understands Prime Minister Narendra Modi. China believes Modi kowtows to Xi. Neither is correct, of course. But it leads to avoidable crossed wires in both capitals.

In 1960 S Gopal, who negotiated the boundary with the Chinese, found them to be most inconsistent with their claims. He observed, “the Chinese alignment, as was apparent from Chinese statements, was inexplicable on the basis of any geographic principle”. Most places it was merely a “broad line”. That showed to Gopal as it does to today’s officials, that China keeps these lines “flexible” so they can be redrawn on the ground. This year will be a very long summer stand-off in Ladakh. A final settlement is a much longer way away.

Until then, we can keep the peace by following two practical steps – preempt and prevent.