By N. C. Bipindra
It is not very often, rather never, in the last 45 years has one heard of either Indian soldiers or Chinese military personnel having been killed in the frequent border clashes that happen every summer. That peace record between the ‘blow hot-blow cold’ rivals in the Asian region has been unfortunately broken this year.
As I write this, am saddened by the news that Indian Army on June 15 night lost the commanding officer and 19 soldiers in violent clashes with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel at the Galwan valley, a treacherous terrain, in eastern Ladakh on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The last time there was death during military clashes between the two nations was in 1975.
Both the nations are fortunate to be still holding another peace record. That of not firing a single bullet at the 4,000-odd-km de facto border in the last 53 years. The two sides last fired bullets at each other in the Sikkim sector in 1967.
One disturbing news is that there are rumours, both within military circles and among retired veterans, that the casualties could rise on the Indian side and possibly on the Chinese side too, as there were at least a dozen more seriously injured soldiers from the June 15 clashes. Similarly, there are reports of at least two dozen Indian soldiers held captive by the Chinese or are missing in action after the violence.
That situation is precarious because if it turns true and the number of casualties grow, the Indian political and military leadership will be forced to react to the deaths, and would have to give a befitting military response to the Chinese at a place and time of New Delhi’s choosing.
This sort of chest-thumping has been heard from the Indian political leadership previously when India lost soldiers to violent attacks by Pakistan Army, and also witnessed Sep. 2016 Surgical Strike and the Feb. 2019 Balakot air strikes after terror attacks by Pakistan-based groups on Indian soil.
The nuclear-armed India-China clashes have triggered fears of the two nations going to war over the Ladakh border face-offs, in progress for nearly 45 days now. The Indian military leadership has moved in quickly to prevent any such escalation.
Their efforts are certainly likely to bear fruit, for the simple reason that the Chinese foreign ministry is still talking peace, amidst warnings to maintain restraint. For the last one month, it was the Indian ministry of external affairs that was asking China to abide by the five existing bilateral peace agreements between the two countries since 1993. The wheel has now turned.
That Beijing came about triggering a sector-specific face-off as summer broke this year, amidst the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, did come as a surprise to China-watchers. Why is China opening a new conflict front, when it is facing the ire of the global community? The current round of clashes in Ladakh are strictly local and directly a result of India aggressively pursuing border infrastructure construction over the last 15 years.
Over the last 15 years, India has built three Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) at Daulat Beg Oldie, Nyoma and Fuk Che in Ladakh that can facilitate air operations and quick troop induction. Nyoma and Fuk Che are the closest ALGs to the locations where the current stand-off is in progress. Now, it is vigorously building roads that can take Indian soldiers and their patrol vehicles too close to the LAC that is causing discomfort in the PLA. India woke up to this infrastructure game late.
The Chinese have an advantage of better infrastructure and roads on its side of the LAC, and the PLA wants to prevent India from changing the status quo. Chinese military clearly has an upper hand regarding infrastructure and access to the LAC in eastern Ladakh.
Through the present face-off, the Chinese want to send across a message to India that it will not let its tactical superiority be diluted in any manner. That is precisely why they have influenced Nepal to begin a strategically important geopolitical battle regarding India’s sovereignty over the Lipulekh–Kalapani region in Uttarakhand‘s Pithoragarh district.
Nepal, by passing a Constitutional Amendment and thereby its political-geographical map, has opened a new border battle with its neighbour clearly at the behest of China, which has been investing heavily in the Nepalese power projects over the recent years. China has once again sent a message that through its financial clout over poorer nations in the region, it can trouble India.
No wonder, the Chinese Communist Party mouth-piece Global Times squirmed and reacted angrily to Indian strategic affairs experts calling for a rethink on the ‘One China‘ policy at a webinar in New Delhi organised by the think-tank and a defence news magazine I am part of, warning about the insurgencies that India is already fighting.
China’s annexation of Tibet and Xinjiang, and its troubles with Taiwan and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, are major fault lines that India has failed to exploit over the last 70 years, which has come to haunt New Delhi since 1962.
(The writer is Chairman of New Delhi-based think-tank Law and Society Alliance, and Editor of Defence.Capital magazine)