A tragedy has been averted: Chinese troops that had entered the disputed areas that lie between the Indian and Chinese definitions of the Line of Actual Control, have pulled back from three of them. Indian troops have done the same.
But the military build-up in their base areas outside the intermediate “grey” zone continues.
If the talks between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi do not yield fruit, it is certain to increase. The clouds of war have therefore only lifted: they have yet to disperse.
Galwan and Dhola – The similarity between 2020 and 1962
To appreciate how close we came to a war last month, we only need to remind ourselves of how the 1962 war began. Officially, it began when the Chinese attacked Dhola post, not far from Tawang, in the eastern Himalayas on October 20, and ended with a China-declared unilateral truce on November 21. In reality, it began 10 days earlier and, like the conflict in the Galwan valley on June 15, it too started over a cartographic dispute.
How this dispute arose is described in detail in the still proscribed Henderson-Brooks Report of 1963, but can now be downloaded from the internet. In August 1962, Eastern Command informed Delhi that one of its patrols had reported that the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet marked on the McMahon line did not fall on the Himalayan watershed, as McMahon had intended it to do, but four miles south of it .
The Ministry of External Affairs took this up with the Chinese government, presumably suggesting a rectification, but Beijing did not agree. So in September, Delhi decided to correct it on its own, established the Dhola post at a point between the two locations, and manned it with a platoon of soldiers. This post was immediately surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers with the obvious intention of starving the defenders out.
A stalemate ensued during which both sides sent more troops to the area. The first skirmish took place in early October and went the way of India. On October 10, therefore, Delhi asked the army to ‘evict the Chinese from the Thagla ridge’. What followed is history and need not detain us here.
The situation that developed at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley on June 15 is similar to the one that had developed at the Dhola post 58 years earlier. On June 15, it was only the stringent protocols designed to prevent armed conflict, put in place after the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region, that prevented the savage hand-to-hand fighting that took place from tuning into a bloodbath. Had those protocols not been in place, India and China may well have been in the middle of another fratricidal war today.
Who needs another war?
Neither country wants, needs, or indeed can afford, a war in the Himalayas now. So as talks at the diplomatic level begin, it has become imperative for civil society in both countries to understand what brought us to the brink of war and how we can get back to a durable and mutually beneficial peace.
More specifically, we need to understand why the Chinese chose to occupy these particular stretches of the LAC; why the PLA stayed broadly within the limits of China’s definition of the LAC and, having gone so far, why it has now agreed to move back from three of them and thin down its presence in the other two.
The topography of the region answers the first question. The Depsang plains are the closest point on the Chinese LAC to Daulat Beg Oldi. DBO is situated on a finger of land west of the Karakoram range, at only 13 kilometres from the Karakoram Pass, and a little more than 200 kms from the Khunjerab pass through which the Karakoram highway, which links China to Pakistan now, passes.
Till only two years ago, for all but a few months in summer, Daulat Beg Oldi was linked to the rest of Ladakh only by air. But following the completion of a 450-metre bridge across the Shyok river, it is now linked by an all-weather road. DBO also has an airfield now that can take Antonov and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Finally, it is barely 120 kilometres – six minutes in a modern fighter plane – from G219, China’s strategic link road between Xinxiang and Tibet.
Pangong lake, at the other end of the road, is 134 kms long and G219 skirts its eastern shore just as the road to DBO skirts its western edge. It therefore provides a swift route for moving large numbers of troops, artillery and armour from deep inside Tibet to places from which they can cut off the road to DBO within hours. Occupying the heights above finger 4, can give the PLA the capacity to interdict any Indian counter-attack on Chinese landing craft in the lake. A similar dominating position in the heights above the Galwan valley can give the PLA a second choke point from which to target the road from Ladakh to DBO.
These are strategic deployments of the kind usually made in anticipation of war. So why, after having made them, did China take care to remain within its broad definition of the LAC and agree to talks? The only rational explanation is that its purpose was not to annex the land but to force the Modi government into a dialogue to clear the misgivings and distrust that its abrupt change of foreign policy in 2014 had sown in Beijing’s mind.
This was underlined by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who has stated repeatedly since the confrontation began that China’s goal is to forge a strategic partnership, not rivalry with India. It was also echoed by the foreign office’s spokesperson in Beijing: “The Indian side should not have (sic) strategic miscalculation on China. We hope it will work with China to uphold the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”
But what does China mean by ‘strategic miscalculation’ and ‘strategic partnership’? In the second part of this article, we will examine this crucial dimension of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship against the backdrop of wider region and global security dynamics.
Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.
Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).
Note: In an earlier version of this article, a zero was dropped while describing the distance from the Khunjerab Pass to Daulat Beg Oldi. The sentence should have read “little more than 200 km” and not “little more than 20 km”.