Why India needs to be more wary of China after the Ladakh incursion

by Aug 2, 2013

Till a few weeks back, India's top diplomats used to confess that they had no idea why the Chinese did what they did in the Depsang Valley of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir - a 19-km-deep incursion into the Indian side of the undemarcated and unsettled Line of Actual Control (LAC) that began on 16 April and was ended only three weeks later, with troops from both sides returning to their previously held positions.

Now some fog has been lifted from this episode and Indian diplomats claim to be more aware of the dynamics behind China's puzzling move.

Reuters

Reuters

This writer is privy to the thoughts of some key Indian interlocutors with China on the Depsang incident specifically, and the way India-China boundary dispute talks are panning out. At the same time this writer is constrained to not disclose the identity of these Indian interlocutors as this was a prime conditionality laid down by them for sharing their views off-record.

The latest assessment of India's China observers is that the Depsang incident was not pre-meditated and that neither the Chinese Communist Party nor the higher echelons of the Chinese government were behind it. The Indian government also believes that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China was not charting a course independent of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government, though there have been reports from Western countries about the PLA acting in an unusually more autonomous fashion.

At a time when some Western reports have even wondered about the real motives behind the aggressive intents of PLA, the Indian establishment doesn't seem to buy that argument. India believes that some local commanders of the PLA got their timing all wrong when they pitched tents deep inside the Depsang Valley, little realizing that their Premier Li Keqiang was to visit India as the first destination of his first official foreign tour. They blame it on 'poor communication' within the Chinese set up, given the fact that Ladakh, much closer to New Delhi, is actually far off from Beijing!

In other words, the latest Indian assessment echoes "official" formulations emanating from Beijing that the Depsag incident was "an isolated" incident. This implies that India has virtually bought the Chinese explanations for the Depsang incident though some half a dozen incursions were choreographed by the Chinese troops in the same sector - Chumar - since the issue was peacefully resolved without a single gunshot having been fired from either side.

This is a dangerous game by China and India will do well to apply the age-old adage of "trust, but verify" before swallowing the Chinese bait, hook, line and sinker.

The Indian Army is skeptical and apprehensive of the military designs of China. But there is no magic wand that India can wield to exorcise the ghost of China from its national security template. The Indian soldiers look up to their diplomats for keeping the Dragon quiet.

So far, the Indian diplomats appear to have acquitted themselves well. They recount the Depsang incident in this context and insist that whatever has appeared in the Indian media - that India knuckled under the Chinese pressure and that India danced to the PLA tunes to "persuade" the Chinese to lift their Depsang incursion - are all wrong. They insist that nothing was done in Depsang that lowered India's dignity one bit or compromised the Indian national security by an iota.

In fact, the Indian government's China policy-makers take the battle right into the camp of the skeptics who remind them thus: "Look, China is known to spring surprises!" The response of India's China policy czars is pithy and it is this: "True, the Chinese are known to spring surprises; but then why do you think that the Indian Army cannot spring a surprise on China?"

This is a bold, and welcome, belief. The only thing is that the Indian diplomacy needs to walk its talk.

Since the Depsang incursion - and by the way, the Indian diplomats refrain from using the word 'incursion' and instead choose to call it as an 'incident' - the Chinese troops have launched more than half a dozen incursions into the Indian territory. These incursions have repeatedly happened in the same Chumar sector of Ladakh, plus in other states like Sikkim, Uttarakhand and even in Himachal Pradesh.

Why Chumar? The reason is simple: this is one sector of Ladakh where the Indian military enjoys a strategic leverage over China.

But then India is not the only nation to find itself at the end of the stick of Chinese aggressive maneuverings. Japan, Vietnam and Philippines are also trying to read the Chinese tea leaves in their own humble ways.

Some years ago the Japanese Prime Minister had famously asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Tokyo during their summit meeting as to how India deals with China.

On 1 August, 2013, the Philippines ambassador in New Delhi met a key Indian diplomat in the South Block and asked him the same question!

Though it is not known what the Indian diplomat told the Philippines envoy and whether his remedy was found to be of any use, the episode is demonstrative of the fact that virtually the entire world is bamboozled by a resurgent China and does not find the Chinese rise 'peaceful', as repeatedly proclaimed by the Chinese officials.

It also conveys that powers like Japan and Philippines believe that the Indians are better-off than them in dealing with China and are keen to soak in on India's experience of 'handling' China.

Only time can tell how far the world's belief in India's ability of dealing with China is correct! But the Indian government will do well not to lower its guard vis a vis China. After all, the recently cleared $ 11 billion, 50,000-men strong China-specific Mountain Strike Corps would take a minimum of six to seven years to become functional, if the orders were to be issued today, and India has to factor in the Chinese challenge in the immediate future.

But that is a different story.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst. His Twitter handle is @Kishkindha.

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