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China’s Ladakh incursion is war minus the shooting

The squawk-fest in the media over the incursion by Chinese troops deep inside what India considers its territory in the Ladakh region may have conveyed the impression that this was a one-off affair. So did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s initial characterization of the episode as a “localised” affair.

But, in fact, over the years, there have been numerous such instances of Chinese troops testing the limits of Indian fortitude all along the Sino-Indian border. Indian diplomats claim that the transgressions are almost always one-way – by the Chinese side – and that Indian troops, having learnt their lessons from the foolhardy ‘Forward Policy’ of 1961 which led up to the war of 1962, are doubly wary of crossing the Line of Actual Control.

Reuters

Reuters

But more neutral observers of the Sino-Indian border region say that since there is no clear demarcation of the line, Indian troops too make occasional forays, sometimes knowingly, before returning to their side of the ‘fence’. Some strategic analysts liken it to a game of kabaddi in the high Himalayas, although of course given the rarefied air at that altitude, neither side can hold its breath for long!

That said, however, this time around, it is different insofar as the Chinese have signaled their intention to stay, and not pull back after a reconnaissance mission (as they typically do). Even three rounds of flag meetings have failed to break the deadlock, with the Chinese side insisting that on the demolition of temporary Indian posts at Chumar and Fukche – which serve as shelter stations for Indian troop patrols – and on abandonment (and reversal) of the re-activation of the advance landing grounds at Daulat Beg Oldie, Nyoma and Fukche.

The realisation is slowly dawning on Indian policymakers that perhaps they were wrong to have downplayed the incursion in the first place. There is a lot more seriousness of intent to this Chinese manoeuvre than had been earlier conceded.

The timing of the Chinese incursion too comes inlaid with clues to the motives that underlie it. Strategic analyst Jayadeva Ranade points out that it comes just weeks ahead of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan – and is perhaps intended to signal a warning to India against expressing any support for Japan in its ongoing dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea.

Early in February, India’s Army chief Gen Bikram Singh visited Tokyo, signaling an upswing in the strategic-military partnership with Japan, at a time when that country has been facing the full force of Chinese nationalist assertiveness over the disputed islands.

In much the same way that India is wary of Chinese efforts to ‘encircle’ it by establishing bases in and winning over India’s immediate neighbours, China too is wary of an emerging alliance among virtually all of its neighbours – from India to Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan and even Australia, in a process overseen, China suspects, by the US.

In fact, China’s Defence White Paper, released in mid-April, makes a pointed allusion to the efforts of “some country” (read: the US) in strengthening military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and expanding its military presence in the region – all of which were contributing to heightened tension in the region.

China’s wariness about an emerging security alliance between India and Japan, while real, may account only in part for the recent incursion in the Ladakh region. A more proximate rationale may relate to the balance of forces in the Himalayan region, as strategic analyst B Raman notes.

China, he writes, “is seeking to impose a change in the ground situation that had prevailed since 1962 by unilaterally imposing a new perception of the Line of Actual Control, which will expand Chinese claims to Indian Territory in this area.”

Taken with its demand for the demolition of Indian temporary posts along the border, and for the de-activation of the advanced landing grounds, it amounts to China’s seeking to expand the area over which it claims sovereignty. All without firing a single bullet. In other words, it is war minus the shooting – and a very successful one thus far – to the extent that the troops are still in notionally Indian territory and are looking to extract a price for their withdrawal.

Looking for motives for the Chinese action, Raman points to the strategic significance of the area at the centre of the recent incursion, and the Pakistan angle to the whole enterprise. The area is proximate to the Karakoram area in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan “where the Chinese have stepped up their construction activities and inducted Chinese protection troops to protect the construction teams with the acceptance of the Government of Pakistan, which has been in illegal occupation of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).”

India considers PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan as part of its territory, but has been helplessly watching the presence of Chinese troops, at the invitation of the Pakistan government, to assist in its commercial operations in the region. That has effectively ‘ legitimised’ the Chinese presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

If India doesn’t persuade the Chinese troops to withdraw – at the risk of escalating the conflict – or even if it does secure their exit, but by consenting to demolish its temporary posts and de-activating the advanced landing grounds, it would amount to a “strategic defeat without a war,” notes Lt Gen H S Panag. “I am not sounding the trumpets of war,” Panag added, “but a humiliation will set us back by a decade.”

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