After almost a month-long Sino-Indian standoff on the Ladakh border, Indian and Chinese soldiers suffered casualties as a result of a scuffles on the intervening night of 15-16 June. Such a tense scuffle occurred for the first time after 1975, but no bullets were exchanged. Despite talks at military, diplomatic and political levels, China continues its salami slicing strategy to nibble off territories from its neighbours.
China’s strategy of salami slicing has been successful in the disputed South China Sea in grabbing the territory of its relatively weaker neighbours. The weaker neighbours of China that could not resist the Dragon militarily were coerced to accept Chinese sovereignty. It is the same salami slicing strategy which China is seen pursuing against India on its 3,488-km-long Sino-Indian border.
China, in the ongoing standoff, has intruded in the Indian territory and is now presenting it to India as fait accompli so as to compel New Delhi to accept it. India has seen through the Chinese game and is therefore demanding the restoration of status quo ante. China is indulging in the chicken game and coercing India to blink. But India has taken a firm stand and is refusing to do so.
This is neither first nor it would be the last Chinese intrusion into Indian territories. While it continues with its repeated intrusions, China is not keen to settle its boundary dispute with India despite 22 rounds of Special Representative (SR) talks. China intends to use the border dispute to put pressure on India, when it suits its broader strategic interests. Beginning with the Sumdorong Chu standoff in 1986, China and India had a series of standoffs at Depsang in 2013, Chumar 2014 and Doklam in 2017. In all the previous standoffs, China eventually agreed to withdraw and restored the status quo ante. India again wants restoration of status quo ante, to which till date China has not agreed.
This incursion of China is different from all previous incursions in the sense that this time unlike in the past, China has intruded at multiple places such as in the Galwan Valley, Hot Spring, Demchok and Pangong Tso. China is following the strategy of two steps forward and one step backward in its current standoff with India. China has agreed to withdraw from the Galwan Valley and Hot Spring area but refuses to withdraw from Pangong Tso. China wants the existing status quo to be the new normal.
China wants to maintain its current strategic asymmetry vis-à-vis India by objecting to India’s development of infrastructure on its side of the border which China has developed on its side. To improve connectivity and to match Chinese infrastructure, India has launched ambitious border road projects along Sino-Indian border, some of which have been completed and others are being completed. The recently completed 255-kmlong Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) strategic road running parallel to LAC in Ladakh is cited to be the main bone of contention in the current standoff. This strategic road can facilitate quick movement of troops from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) near Karakoram mountains bordering Aksai Chin, reducing travel time from Leh to DBO from two days to eight hours. The current Chinese transgression in Galwan Valley threatens this strategic DSDBO road. Galwan Valley and Hot Spring areas are the new disputed areas on Sino-Indian border in the Ladakh region. Earlier, China never disputed these two areas. It seems China wants to make many areas disputed so as to extract more concessions in its boundary talks from India.
A large number of geopolitical factors are also responsible for the current standoff. China is being held responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. The WHO and its chief are accused of being sympathetic to China and of having failed in its duty to forewarn the international community regarding the imminent pandemic. The WHO, under its Ethiopian chief, colluded with China in concealing the outbreak of coronavirus in China. Many countries demanded international investigation into the role of China in the origin and spread of Covid-19. India sided with the majority opinion in the international community rather than bailing Beijing out. India was also one of the signatories to the resolution in the WHO for investigation in the origin and spread of Covid-19.
China is also unhappy over the growing proximity of India with the US. India has already signed three out of four foundational agreements and is in the process of signing the fourth one. The India-US-Japan trilateral Malabar exercises are another irritant. Australia is also keen to join it, making it quadrilateral exercises. India is also part of the USled quadrilateral initiatives popularly known as ‘Quad’ consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia. India is also supporting freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea. India is an integral part of the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which China perceives to be directed against it. To make matters worse, India has been invited by the US to be a member of G-7. All these developments have made China furious and resulted in a hardening of its attitude against India and intrusion at many places in Ladakh.
The current military standoff is also a result of Chinese domestic politics. The mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, a relative decline in Chinese growth, and the rising unemployment and inequality have eroded the popularity of Xi Jinping. Arrogation of all powers in his office, rising personality cult and making himself the President of China for a lifetime by doing away with the 10-year tenure have angered many party bosses in the Communist Party of China. This border standoff has enabled Xi to instigate patriotism and divert national attention from domestic politics to international issues. Globally too, the Sino-Indian standoff has diverted global attention from its mishandling of Covid-19 to border dispute.
What are the options for India? War is neither in the interest of India, nor China. Both are leading emerging economies and aspiring to be global leaders. War will be suicidal and disastrous for both the countries. Any war will pose a big question mark over their claims of being responsible nations and erode their credibility and claim to regional and global leadership. Unlike 1962, China is no longer in a position to score a quick victory and teach India a lesson. India of 2020 is well prepared for any eventuality. Probably, wise sense will prevail and China will agree to restore status quo ante through prolonged military, diplomatic and political talks. That seems to be the only way out of this standoff.
The writer is a professor of Political Science with the Banaras Hindu University