Former Chief of the Army Staff
The hope that withdrawal by the Chinese and Indian forces from the north and south of Pangong Tso lake, respectively, to status quo as existing in April-end 2020 would lead to a similar resolution at Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang Plains appears to be gradually fading. This belief is further strengthened not only by a lack of progress during subsequent talks, but also by the statement of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on March 7.
At his annual press conference, while blaming India for the standoff, Wang stated that the border issue was not the ‘whole story’ of the bilateral relationship and seemed to suggest that the Ladakh issue should be left on the backburner while moving on to ‘business as usual’ in other fields. Thus, the ‘salami slicing’ strategy was sought to be shifted out of focus and glossed over in quest of ‘normalisation’ of mutual relationship.
Some aspects of the Ladakh imbroglio stand out. The policy of two steps forward, one step back has been followed by China all along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) while gradually creeping forward over the last 50 years. This is unlikely to stop, considering the aggressive and expansionist approach adopted by China as its power grows. Its actions in the South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea (ECS) and towards Taiwan are clear examples.
Secondly, while healthy competition between the two regional powers is welcome, the reality of such competition harbouring inherent seeds of conflict cannot be wished away.
Sources of raw material and markets for finished products intensify this economic competition, invariably leading to discord. Efforts to retard India’s economic growth by forcing it to divert its limited resources towards defence are a good reason, besides others, to prolong the Ladakh standoff.
It is interesting to note that India has spent a whopping Rs 20,776 crore on emergency purchases to meet the Ladakh challenge. The possibility of further such purchases to guard the entire LAC remains strong with no end to the standoff in sight.
Thirdly, Covid-19 has been a major factor in checking India’s growth trajectory. On the other hand, China has come out relatively unscathed from the pandemic, thus resulting in its economy rapidly bouncing back. Obviously, it felt this was the opportune time to strike a weakened India and achieve a resounding victory, perhaps without even firing a shot.
That subsequent events proved this appreciation wrong is indeed a tribute to India’s defence forces and their ability to defend the nation at all costs. However, loss of face is hard to digest by a Chinese mind, thus increasing the chances of the faceoff continuing.
Lastly, India, having occupied important features on the Kailash Range south of Pangong Tso, had bargaining chips on the negotiating table to ensure the Chinese withdrawal from features north of Pangong Tso as part of quid pro quo.
Disengagement having happened on both sides of Pangong Tso, India now has no such bargaining leverage to make the Chinese withdraw from other friction points in east Ladakh. This aspect heightens the likelihood of the Chinese not moving back from these friction points, thus prolonging the faceoff.
In such a scenario, India has to orchestrate its actions both at the international and domestic levels. At the international level, a consensual approach with like-minded nations is essential to thwart Chinese expansionist designs. Thus, the impetus being given to Quad and its deliberations are a step in the right direction. The Quad’s consensus on observing the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region and resisting any unilateral actions to change quo would be keenly watched.
Likewise, a number of ASEAN countries are affected by arbitrary Chinese expansionist designs in the SCS. They need to come together and collectively resist any subversion of the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) by China. That China has refused to implement the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision on Scarborough Shoal is indicative of a clear breach of the rule of law.
Collective pressure through forums like the SCO, BRICS, EU and UNSC would also help in keeping the Chinese aggressive approach in check.
At the domestic level, experience has shown that a firm stance against China has always paid dividends. Wang Dung, Chumar, Demchok and Doklam are examples. The need to resist every attempt at grabbing territory cannot be overemphasised.
Areas where the Indian military holds a tactical advantage need to be identified and occupied, if required, as a bargaining chip on the negotiating table as was done with respect to Pangong Tso. Conversely, we should be prepared to thwart similar designs by the Chinese where we are at a disadvantage.
An improvement of infrastructure in forward areas along the LAC, matching those existing in Tibet on the Chinese side, is crucial to enabling troops on the forward line to defend the territorial integrity of the nation successfully.
Finally, Pakistan taking advantage of an Indian confrontation with China cannot be ruled out. Its past defeats have left it thirsting for revenge. This raises the possibility of a two-front threat to India. It is, therefore, important to prepare for such an eventuality by raising the defence budget to at least three per cent of the GDP. Important committees in the past have made this recommendation to the government. The sooner it is implemented, the better.
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