When the Chinese soldiers came for their spring exercise in March 2020 to Northern Ladakh after the virus in Wuhan had waned- much to the surprise and chagrin of the Indian army-they did not return to their bases. Instead, they not only stayed on in Ladakh, but also reportedly occupied 1,200 km of our land.
That was unusual and a manifestation of hostile intent. Worse, the presence of its troops had not only been beefed up, but China had also parked sophisticated weapon systems along the border. At places reciprocated amply by India.
Despite suggestions of misplaced optimism emanating from various rounds of talks between the commanders of the two armies about disengagement, there is no change in the status quo. As more than one lakh soldiers belonging to both the armies, stare down at each other, the melting of the snow threatens unimagined escalation of hostilities.
After the Nathu La scrap in 1967, the Chinese troops have not really tested the resolve of the Indian army, nor engaged in a long occupation of disputed areas around the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Hence, the violence by the Chinese army in Galwan Valley came as a surprise; it resulted in the death of 23 Indian troops. Chinese also lost its troops, but true their wont, their casualities were not revealed.
Why did Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government that has invested so much in the relationship with India decided to go for broke? Why did the Chinese government choose to ignore the compulsions and spin-offs of a $80 billion trade between the two countries, decide to amass its troops at the border, and thereby engage in a war of words with New Delhi?
The severe seetback in ties between the two neighbors can be gauged by the fact that the Chinese leadership is willing to bear the consequences of a war with India and destruction of the entire eco-system, which had been created around its mobile phones, apps and consumer goods, rather than end its its intrusion.
They are not even averse to severing their exports of generic drugs that constitute 70 per cent of India’s needs and help in showing it as the ‘pharmacy of the world’.
THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT had earlier expressed its resentment over New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Beijing took the matter to the Security Council, but found little traction from other members. Besides, an aggressive statement of Union Home Minister Amit Shah fuelled their anxieties. Displaying not-so-subtle bravado, Shah had declared that Indian troops would take over Aksai Chin.
At the time of writing, more than 1,00,000 soldiers from both the armies are living in highly inhospitable conditions. No one knows how many soldiers of the two armies have been hurt or have died due to frostbite, but the two armies are standing their ground
The Chinese are generally humourless people. They cannot differentiate between a statement made by a populist leadership for the gallery and those made on the floor of the Parliament in a democracy. Expectedly, they feared an existential threat to their ambitious $56 billion investment, the high priority 3,500 km long China Pakistan Economic Corridor, that spanned from Gwadar to Kashgar (600 kms from India’s Leh).
They seem to have anticipated some form of action from the Indian forces once Shah revealed his government’s fierce desire to recapture Aksai Chin.
China was hoping that the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit- two bilateral meetings between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, would ensure that the differences between the two countries do not spin out of control. Informed sources claim that there was some understanding between Xi and Modi.
The exact contours of this understanding are unknown, but it is conjectured that it had something to do with India giving a level-playing field to Chinese companies like Huawei, allowing retail banking to Chinese banks, and using regional forums like the Shanghai Cooperation to sort out problems with Pakistan etc. Subsumed in this understanding was the realisation that the Indian government would not allow any interference of the US in these disputes.
The severe setback in ties between the two neighbours can be gauged by the fact that the Chinese leadership is willing to bear the consequences of a war with India and destruction of the entire eco-system, which had been created around its mobile phones, apps and consumer goods, rather than end its intrusion.
While the Chinese government was critical of the change in the status of Kashmir and had objected to the move in many forums, they were, it is learnt, stumped by US President Donald Trump’s visit to Delhi and what they thought transpired between the two leaders. Informed sources claim that the Chinese felt that the two democracies in Delhi had agreed to have a military alliance to build a counterpoint to a hegemonistic Chinese. The Chinese leadership, these sources claim, feared such an eventual process happening that could see US bases in the country, and, thus, made military moves to prevent it.
What happened in Northern Ladakh and the unprecedented violence at Galwan Valley where 23 Indian officers and soldiers died made it clear that this was no ordinary stand-off. Since then, more than eight rounds of meetings have taken place, but the troops have not gone to the barracks — despite the frozen temperature falling to Siberian levels of -20 degree Celsius.
At the time of writing, more than 1,00,000 soldiers from both the armies are living in highly inhospitable, difficult and tough conditions. No one knows how many soldiers of the two armies have been hurt or have died due to frostbite, but, visibly, the Chinese army is standing its ground till Xi and the belligerent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fulfil their objectives. The Indian army, too, has retaliated by occupying some key features that the Chinese army habitually took for granted as its own.
Informed sources claim that the window to avoid a war is for a few months only till US President Joe Biden gets sworn in and snow starts melting in the conflict zones. The Chinese want to find out whether there is any merit in their fears that India has become a US ally, which Foreign Minister Jaishankar subtly clarified when he said that it “wasn’t a US ally”.
Indeed, if there is no substance to their fears then they will return to their bases, but, if not, then they will escalate hostilities either directly or through Pakistan, with whom they have deepened their strong defence ties. The presence of Chinese troops at the border could lock in 50,000 of our troops and prevent its deployment at the border of Pakistan. Certainly, the next few months will be critical when it comes to peace between the Asian giants as it would also establish the terms of relationship between India, US and China.