China’s near-simultaneous incursion into two areas of Ladakh, one of which it has recognised in the past as being on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, has caught the government by surprise. The media, especially television, has reacted with its usual mixture of incomprehension and bravado, but fortunately, both the Army command and South Block have exercised a mature restraint. Apart from rushing reinforcements to the two areas of Chinese incursion – the Galwan river valley and Pangong lake – the Northern Army command has continued to try and resolve differences through flag meetings between progressively higher levels of command in both armies.
Unlike similar confrontations in the past, these are unlikely to bear fruit. The reason is that, from China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise upon with the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, was based. This is that, with the end of the deep freeze in relations that had existed since 1962, China and India would go back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed between them at the height of the Cold War.
That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all. It became explicit during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference at Hua Hin, Thailand in 2009. The meeting was triggered by a period of rising tension between the two countries over Delhi’s permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in what Beijing then frequently referred to as South China.
To the Indian media’s uncomprehending surprise, it was China that took the initiative to hold the meeting. India did not withdraw its permission to the Dalai Lama but so managed his visit that it did not become the international spectacle that China had feared. Delhi’s unqualified success in allaying China’s long term anxieties both over immediate border issues and India’s continued adherence to its policies of equidistance laid the base for the strategic cooperation that China was seeking. This became apparent in the content and tenor of the annual meetings of BRICS, at Sanya, in China, in 2011, and more unambiguously at Delhi in 2012
At Delhi, in a joint statement that was twice the length of its predecessor, the member countries voiced the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been articulated by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.
At the Durban meeting of BRICS the next year, Xi Jinping, who had replaced Hu Jintao as president of China, accelerated the development of Sino-Indian cooperation by stating explicitly that it was his intention to settle the border dispute ‘as early as possible’, instead of the previous formulation of ‘gradually over time’.
Modi’s China policy
Unfortunately, when Xi came the following year to discuss long term strategic cooperation and possibly suggest some form of closure to the border dispute, Narendra Modi had replaced Manmohan Singh. Instead of taking up the reigns where Manmohan Singh had dropped them, Modi turned the visit into a Gujarati tamasha designed to enlarge his own image, and discussed nothing of consequence. This was because, less than a fortnight earlier, he had met President Brack Obama in Washington, sacked his foreign secretary, committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US, aligned India with the US on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on which the US and China had come close to conflict, and invited Obama to be the state guest at the next Republic Day.
In spite of all these disquieting developments, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi during his return visit to China in June 2015. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Prime minister Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region (emphasis added)”. But aside from that, it was barren of content.
A year later, in May 2016, Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea.
The subsequent rapid deterioration of relations has been described by me in earlier columns and will take too long to describe. Suffice it to say that China avoided blaming India directly, preferred to accuse the US of playing a ‘divide and rule’ game to create a schism between the two countries, and waited to see if time, or the next general election, would bring about a change of policy.
When, to the delight of the US, Modi also brusquely rebuffed every enticement by China to send at least a representative to the inaugural Belt Road Initiative (BRI) conference in Beijing, China put its relations with India on hold till the next elections. One suspects that the BJP’s second victory ended that and made Beijing start looking for an alternative policy towards India.
The sites for confrontation are not a random choice
Only against this background does the current Chinese military action make any sense. Its choice of Pangong lake and the Galwan river region as the sites for confrontation is not random. For Pangong lake is the starting point of a road India completed two years ago that runs along the west side of the Shyok river past its confluence with the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldi.
From a cartographic point of view, this gives the road considerable strategic importance. The Galwan river starts in the south of Xinjiang, and runs a long way through a narrow valley before joining the Shyok river in the Nubra valley. It could therefore become an access route between Xinjiang and Ladakh.
The valley is an old flashpoint. In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, Army HQ in Delhi ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and urged that this be done only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route.
When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 or more Chinese soldiers. The Chinese forced the supply columns back, day after day, for four days and withdrew only after 12 days. In October, when the Sino-Indian war began, the Chinese overran Galwan in hours. 33 of its 68 defenders were killed, and the rest taken prisoner. As the Henderson Brooks report pointed out, this was part of the Forward Policy adopted in November under defence minister Krishna Menon in November 1961, which became the trigger for the 1962 war.
After the Chinese withdrew again, the Indian army could have left the valley alone as part of a no man’s land between the two countries. The 1993 agreement gave it an added reason for doing so. But the Chinese had, over the years steadily expanded their claim to the Galwan valley, and the surrounding region, so to pre-empt further changes the army had set up a post once more. In the last year, it had been building a road to connect it to the Pangong-DBO road.
Daulat Beg Oldi sits at the foot of the Karakoram range on its eastern side, but only a short distance away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the Karakoram pass. This seems to have become a source of unease for the Chinese military, so much so that in 2013, three weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, a Chinese platoon had penetrated 10 km into Indian territory to create an incident there. At that time, there were only a few buildings there, but recent satellite photos show that it too has been expanded into a substantial forward base with a large number of sheds and buildings.
None of these three recent developments poses any military threat to China. The Pangong-DBO road is a supply road for light vehicles similar to the ones that now link every Chinese outpost on the other side of the LOAC. The connection across the Shyok to the Galwan post is a footbridge. The post itself has no more military capability now than it had in 1962.
Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldi is a jumping off point to nowhere because, although only a short distance from the Karakoram pass, any military action there would involve a war with both Pakistan and China.
No sane government in India, or for that matter any country, would take on two powerful adversaries at the same time. But Modi has been harping upon Pakistan’s illegal occupation of two-fifths of Kashmir, and opposing the creation of CPEC ever since he has come to power. So DBG too has acquired a strategic significance to China because it is now convinced that it faces a government that not only does not respect the commitments made by its predecessors, but is driven by the impulses of a prime minister who has made a habit of leaping before he looks.
The purpose of China’s choice of this particular area for its intrusions is therefore clear. Although it has not formally abrogated the 1993 agreement, it believes that the Modi government has thoroughly undermined the underlying premise upon which it was based. It has therefore gone back to the age-old strategy of minimising potential risks when faced by a potential enemy.
But, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has made clear, the door back to 2014 is not closed. It lies in rediscovering “our strategic mutual trust”. These are not idly chosen words. They require a rediscovery of our common strategic aims, as were enunciated in BRICS’ Delhi declaration, and a rebuilding of mutual trust. If that does not happen, then China will treat the 1993 agreement as no longer binding and do what it feels is necessary to safeguard its long term best interest.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.