The Ladakh impasse, border negotiations and the future of Sino – Indian military relations
Ever since Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surprised the Indian armed forces in May 2020 by unilaterally crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto Sino – Indian border, Sino – Indian bilateral relations have metamorphosed into a permanent state of hostility. In this context, the deliberations from the 14th round of local army commanders talks between the two countries affirms the creepy progress in last one and half year towards a complete Chinese withdrawal from Eastern Ladakh. It is quite evident that hostile relations may become the ‘new normal’and consequently, normalization of bilateral relations may not be possible in near future.
Why Chinese military adventure in Eastern Ladakh is different?
The Chinese PLA has been known to use trans-LAC intrusions from time to time. While part of the reason could be the very un-demarcated status of the LAC on the ground and the variable perceptions of the same by the two countries, the PLA has also used the intrusions to up the ante against India in recent times by using intrusions as regular policy mechanism. Perhaps that speaks why PLA intrusions have increased in frequency in recent years. At the same time, these intrusions have not been permanent and were resolved by the Indian army through a mix of show of force and diplomatic parleys. However, the May 2020 intrusions were significant since China made simultaneous entries into several areas such as Pangong Tse, Galwan, Gogra, Depsang and Hot Spring. In the previous rounds of negotiations, India has managed to negotiate Chinese withdrawal from many areas. However, the Chinese continue to remain in the Hot Springs area. Additionally, they are building new bridge over the Pangong Tse that would connect its northern bank with the southern bank. These developments remain a concern for India.
There are many reasons to believe that the Chinese intrusions into the Eastern Ladakh sector mark a fundamental departure in the bilateral relations. Some of the representative reasons are identified below:
- While China and India did not lose soldiers in earlier rounds of Chinese intrusions, the Eastern Ladakh saw as many as 20 Indian soldiers attaining martyrdom. Additionally, unspecified numbers of Chinese soldiers were also killed. Thus, the use of force is a new departure that robs the LAC of its ‘relative peace’ status.
- Until recently, the two countries had gradually built up political relations and the border differences including the un-demarcated LAC were not allowed to dilute the relations. However, after the Eastern Ladakh intrusions and death of Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley incident in 2020, there is a domestic resistance in India about pushing political relations with China at the cost of unresolved military differences.
- In past, the bilateral trade was one of the most cited features of the Sino – Indian relations. While the bilateral trade , currently pegged at $ 125 billion, is still a notable progress, it is debatable if the momentum would be sustained in future since there is a gradual realization in India about reducing trade dependence on China and diversification of the same to other countries. Critical areas such as semi-conductor chips, power sector appliances, toys, retail products etc. may be insourced from other countries along with enhanced domestic production.
Indian response to Chinese military shenanigans
India’s response to the Chinese military adventures in Eastern Ladakh has been commensurate and commendable. As soon as the intrusions were detected, the Indian Army responded robustly to China’s attempts to change the status quo along the LAC. The strong military determination and response thwarted the Chinese shenanigans to a great extent. China did not accept its soldiers’ deaths but a subsequent Russian intelligence leak showed that it did loose many PLA soldiers. Subsequently, India positioned an additional 25,000 troops along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. Most importantly, India reviewed the operational plans vis-à-vis China and a number of infrastructural activities were undertaken all along the LAC to boost the confidence of Indian armed forces. Today, if the Chinese have done an excellent infrastructure expansion job in Tibet, India is not a laggard and is matching its northern neighbor step-by-step. It would be fair to say that India is evenly positioned with China on LAC and an outright military attack may not yield any dividends to the Chinese PLA.
However, India has still not closed dialogue platforms with China, both on bilateral as well as multilateral front. This is best evident that as many as 14 rounds of local level military commanders meeting have taken place so far. Given the vast differences of perceptions between the two countries, it is but natural that the progress may be creepy and slow. It is important, therefore, that the two sides continue with the local commanders meet for better understanding of each other’s viewpoints, perceptions and differences. At the same time, the ministerial level dialogues have taken place as and when opportunities came. For instance, the foreign ministers of the two countries have regularly interacted with each other on many multilateral platforms.
Eastern Ladakh and the future of Sino – Indian military relations
Until the Eastern Ladakh incident took place, strategic experts ruled out an outright Sino – Indian war in the absence of unresolved border issue. The booming growth in the bilateral trade was often cited as evidence. However, the military developments in Eastern Ladakh since then have brought this proposition into debate and discussion. Now, there is an increasing realization that a powerful China, led by an aggressive political leadership under Xi Jinping, may flex more military muscle on LAC, if not resorting to an outright war. The asymmetrical gap between China and India in economic and military fields is often cited as evidence of growing Chinese confidence. However, such pessimists often forget that great power wars in this century may only lead to stasis and wide ranging damages on both sides. The critics would do better to remember what the Chinese faced in the 1967 Nathu La crisis when a confident India gave a strong reply to Chinese military adventures. Therefore, it would be prudent to conclude that Indian military is capable of defending the country against any future Chinese military mischiefs.
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