Indo-China standoff; the tactical face of strategic contest

The entire Sino-Indian border (including the western LAC, the small undisputed section in the centre, and the McMahon Line in the East) is 4,056 km long and traverses the disputed territory of Ladakh, and four Indian states: Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and disputed Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing has never recognised the 1914 boundary, known as the McMahon Line, and currently claims 90,000 square kilometres — nearly all of what constitutes India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, which was clearly stated to the visiting Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1959 by Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. Subsequently, the border dispute led to the 1962 Indo-China War, in which India was humiliated and lost a lot of territory; Beijing retained Aksai Chin, a strategic corridor linking Tibet to China. India still claims the entire Aksai Chin region as its own, as well as the nearby China-controlled Shaksgam valley in northern Kashmir. Brief and small-scale skirmishes took place in 1967 at Nathu La, India’s highest mountain pass in the north-eastern Sikkim state and in 1975, at Tulung La Arunachal Pradesh. In 2017, India and China had a months-long high-altitude standoff in Bhutan’s Doklam region; however, the issue was resolved after talks. The Doklam plateau is strategically significant as it gives China access to the so-called “chicken’s neck” or Siliguri Corridor, which is a narrow stretch of land of about 22 kilometres connecting India’s seven north-eastern sister states with the mainland (i.e. Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura). These seven states have always remained simmering with independence movements like Indian Occupied Kashmir and have mostly been ruled by local nationalist political parties.

On May 5, 2020, a scuffle broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the Pangong Tso Lake, located 14,000 feet (4,270 meters) above the sea level in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. A video shared on social media showed soldiers from both nations engaged in fistfights and stone-pelting at the Line of Actual Control/Contact (LAC). Three days later and nearly 1,200km (745 miles) away to the east along the LAC, another fight erupted at Nathu La Pass in the Indian claimed state of Sikkim. Since then, the India-China border has seen soldiers from both sides camping along several disputed areas, with each side accusing the other of trespassing. At least 10,000 PLA soldiers are now believed to be camping on what India claims to be its territory – Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley and Demchok in Ladakh, and Nathu La in Sikkim. Reportedly, at least 20 plus Indian soldiers including a commanding officer and a few officers were killed just by stones, clubs and fist fighting and a dozen plus taken prisoner later released by the Chinese in this most recent clash, causing a media frenzy, public outcry and political uproar against hyper self-inflated and extremist far-right nationalist Modi government in India. So far, Modi and his jingoist RSS /BJP fanatics are shell-shocked and thoroughly embarrassed as their saffron brand Nazi Hindutva has been given a bloody nose by the Chinese without firing a single shot. The cigarette-legged-baton-carrying RSS terrorists who were having a free day to kill innocent Muslims all over India seem to have disappeared in their rat holes.

In order to have a comprehensive understanding as to what led to the current clashes between China and India, a strategic appraisal is imperative. For more than a decade, a rising China and re-emerging Russia remained America’s main security and economic concern that led to execution of USA’s Indo-Pacific Rebalancing Policy, bringing in to play the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad); which is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, maintained by semi-regular summits, information exchanges and military drills between member countries. Moreover, the US’ red-faced withdrawal from Afghanistan without achievement of its declared and undeclared strategic objectives necessitated the need for a regional aspirant hegemon who could checkmate China as well as take good care of nuclear Pakistan. Thus, India was brought into the great game by declaring her the new US strategic ally in the region. However, China showed strategic patience to Indian immature overtures and responded to American Indo-Pacific Rebalancing by “The String of Pearls”, which is a geopolitical response demonstrating Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region and in South China Sea. It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. As for Chinese domination of land lines of communication and global trade, China went head over heels for the execution of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), incorporating 64 countries with USD1.3 trillion in Chinese investment.

On the other hand, to prove equal to the task as US’ strategic ally, India found it convenient to incorporate her RSS/BJP agenda of turning India into Hindutva led Maha Barat, got emboldened but blinded by self-haughtiness. Modi quickly abrogated article 370 and 35 A of the Indian constitution, changed the status of Kashmir and Ladakh, went on quick pace to change the demography of Kashmir by allowing illegal domicile of Kashmir to Indian Hindu National, introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act depriving Muslims immigrants of Indian nationality, heightened escalations along the LoC and conducted an open massacre of Kashmiris and Muslims all over India. Then came the belligerent Indian claims to take over GB and Azad Kashmir as announced on 03 May 2020, Indian’s repeated attempt at stopping the Bhasha Dam construction, which is a CPEC project and claims that the CPEC route passes through disputed territory.

What became an immediate reason for Chinese action in Ladakh was development of new infrastructure at small town called Daulat Beg, where India had developed a brigade size military base with military landing strip, only 8 miles from the Karakoram Pass and construction of road Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg in October last year, which  became last straw on the camel back. After moving into Galwan Valley, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said, “India must not misjudge the current situation or underestimate China’s firm will to safeguard its territorial sovereignty” in the Valley. The area is strategically crucial as it overlooks India’s Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, which connects Leh to Karakoram Pass. Thus, Chinese military response without firing a bullet became a tactical manifestation of a strategic contest in which the Indian military intelligence’s failure, inadequacies, mismatch and ill-preparedness in conventional military capabilities has been badly exposed. While the belligerent Indian military stands as a wet cat, Modi and his fire-spitting gang have gone under the table and are begging Russia to come to their rescue. Nevertheless, China’s state state-owned ‘Global Times’ warned India recently to give up “misjudgments” and “misperceptions” about their northern neighbour and said Beijing had “the ability and wisdom to safeguard every inch of its land.”

While India is still licking its minor wounds, embedded Indians in western print and electronic media, who had spent three decades falsely projecting India as a potential global power and an existing regional sheriff, are now sheepishly spreading fresh narratives of ‘China losing India to America’, ‘America not doing enough for India’, and ‘Russia as a time tested ally’ etc. Needless to mention that post-1990s, the two countries have focused on economic cooperation with bilateral trade going up to $92 billion, but a large trade deficit has kept India concerned. Last month, the Modi government put curbs on Chinese investments, a step Beijing called “discriminatory”. India’s support for Tibet and its growing defence and security ties with the US, Japan and Australia have resulted in further suspicion from Beijing.

As for Pakistan, the Chinese move came as a blessing in disguise as it unquestionably proves the point that Kashmir is an international unsettled dispute as per UN resolutions, Ladakh is a part of Kashmir and thus regionally it is a tri-lateral issue among Pakistan, India and China; all three being nuclear powers and thus this flashpoint has to be addressed on priority by the UN Security Council. India will now have to think many times before any false-flag or stage-managed operation along the LoC or elsewhere as it will provide Pakistan justification for executing a response more aggressive and meaningful than the Kargil offensive and that too in sync with our time-tested friend, China, which shall settle the Kashmir dispute once and for all.

Above all, the current situation will surely provide impetus to not only the freedom struggle in the valley of Kashmir, but other movements of independence in India, especially in the North East seven sister states, Khalistan, forcefully annexed Junagadh and Hyderabad states.

Modi, BJP and its saffronised military junta will have to pay a politico-military price for getting their country humiliated. While India is at a loss on the failure of the Indo-Pacific policy, she will continue to run around to leverage Quad as well as the old Russian connections. China is least likely to budge on its territorial gains and claims. It goes without saying that China has taken only one solid step in Ladakh that is bound to permanently remove the threat to Karakoram Pass, Gilgit-Baltistan, KKH/CPEC land route and gives room to the Pakistan military to manoeuvre to link up to overcome the Siachen-Drass-Kargil-Leh-Ladakh unfinished agenda and finally help in the resolution of the lingering Kashmir issue preferably as per UN resolutions or by military means. Let’s see how long UNO and the international community can ignore Indian atrocities in Kashmir and in rest of India targeting Muslims in particular and all other communities in general.

Saleem Qamar Butt

Saleem Qamar Butt

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