Consolidation: The PLA is unlikely to relinquish the tactical advantages it has garnered and fortified over the last two years. Contradictory posture embedded in New Delhi’s policies apropos of Galwan@2

by Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (Retd)

The second anniversary of the Galwan ‘incident’ will be observed on June 15 to recall the death of Col Santosh Babu and 19 other Indian Army personnel killed in a scuffle with the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in eastern Ladakh. The occasion is an opportune moment to review the contradictory and opaque nature of the troubled India-China bilateral relationship, wherein agreements going back to 1993 have been transgressed — with each side blaming the other.

India does not want to rock the boat and has continued its reticence by making restrained statements about the LAC and the bilateral with China.

Galwan remains a significant punctuation in the long-festering territorial dispute between the two Asian giants whose genesis goes back to the 1950s and over which seemingly intractable issue, the two nations engaged in a brief war in 1962. At the time, India was ‘surprised’ and humiliated and has since lived with an unresolved LAC that spans over 4,000 km.

The opacity about the Galwan incident stems from the fact that India has not formally issued any details about the nature of the PLA transgression over the last two years and the degree to which India has had to forfeit patrolling rights along the Pangong Lake and in some other tactically important areas. In the intervening period, the PLA has fortified its own positions along the contested part of the LAC in Ladakh and has invested in improved connectivity and infrastructure to enable a quicker movement of troops and equipment — should the exigency arise.

While Indian reticence is in keeping with the overall orientation that the Modi government has adopted in not sharing information about Chinese transgression and activities since Galwan 2020, the US has made two specific references to the India-China bilateral in the last week.

On June 8, Gen Charles A Flynn, Commanding General of the US Army Pacific, on a visit to Delhi, cautioned India about the LAC, stating: ‘I believe that the activity [PLA] level is eye-opening. I think some of the infrastructure that is being created in the Western Theatre Command is alarming.’ This was reiterated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 11, where US Defence Secretary General Lloyd Austin, while dwelling on China’s military assertiveness and ‘destabilising’ activity apropos of Taiwan, added that: ‘We are seeing Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.’

Indian media reports have highlighted intense bridge construction activity by the PLA across the Pangong Lake and enhancement of air bases proximate to the LAC to enable the PLA air force to blunt what Beijing perceives is the Indian edge in air power.

Clearly, Delhi does not want to rock the boat with Beijing and has continued its reticence by making restrained statements about the current status, both in relation to the LAC and the bilateral with China. MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi noted on June 9 that while India was cognisant of the PLA activity, it had been in contact with China and that ‘this has led to some progress as both sides have successfully disengaged in a number of areas along the LAC in eastern Ladakh.’ He added, ‘We have always maintained the restoration of normalcy will obviously require restoration of peace and tranquillity along the LAC which had been disturbed by the Chinese actions in 2020.’

Earlier, soon after assuming office as the Army Chief, Gen Manoj Pande, while referring to the PLA activities, noted that both sides had deployed around 60,000 troops along with heavy weaponry and that the standoff at Depsang, Hot Spring and Demchok continued. He added: ‘Our aim and intention is to restore the status quo ante.’ How this status quo will be restored to the pre-Galwan status is a major challenge. It does not appear that the PLA will relinquish the tactical advantages it has already garnered and fortified over the last two years. Both sides appear to have arrived at a tacit understanding that an outright military escalation – even if limited in geography – is not a viable option. Hence, keeping the LAC issue ‘alive’, but on a slow simmer without committing itself to any consensual modus vivendi, seems to be the Chinese strategy, even while encouraging India to distance itself from the US and Quad in particular.

The post Galwan contradictions in the India-China bilateral are contained in the trade and diplomatic domains. Despite the territorial dispute, two-way trade has seen an uptick over the last two years, Covid notwithstanding. In the calendar year 2021, as per Chinese trade data, total trade increased by 43% to $125 billion – making China the second largest trading partner for India, after the US. The deficit (in China’s favour) is estimated to be $69 bn, with Indian exports at a modest $28 bn and in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, Indian dependency on China is very high.

At the politico-diplomatic level, India’s engagement with China continues in multilateral fora. The next virtual summit of BRICS is to be held later in June, with Beijing as the host. Given the kind of geopolitical discord and flux that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered, Beijing would not like a breakdown in its ties with Delhi at this stage – more so when President Xi Jinping is preparing for a third term in office.

Delhi, for its part, has not joined its Quad partners in projecting China as a threat in the maritime domain. At the Singapore dialogue, the Indian representative, Vice-Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta, FOC-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, remarked that while China maintained a naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region for anti-piracy purposes, it did not pose a major challenge to the Indian Navy.