There is a sense of inevitability about the news of the latest violent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, where the Chinese side tried to occupy a 17,000-feet high peak and were forced to retreat by their Indian counterparts. It is inevitable that these two countries can never be friends; worse, sooner or later, a kinetic conflict also appears to be inevitable—maybe a limited one, but kinetic nonetheless. The Yanki or Yangtse region in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang, where the hand-to-hand combat took place, has been seeing increasing build-up by the Chinese on the Tibetan side of the India-Tibet border, because of which India too has been forced to increase troops presence in the area. It seems that, to gain a tactical advantage on India, the Chinese have been trying to occupy the peak and its surrounding areas. Significantly, this skirmish did not take place because the two sides bumped into each other while patrolling, but was a deliberate act of incursion by the Chinese—with around 300 troops, which number to half a battalion in the People’s Liberation Army—with the intention to occupy the peak and the surrounding heights. The PLA soldiers had come armed with clubs with nails on them, apart from monkey fists and taser guns. The intention was obvious—to cause grievous injuries to the Indian soldiers. Once forced to retreat, they fired warning shots in the air, even though carrying firearms along the Line of Actual Control is not allowed because of an agreement between the Indian and Chinese sides. It seems the Chinese have been desperate to occupy the area, so more such incursion attempts are likely to be made. Given the history of incursions by the PLA, there is no reason to believe that such decisions are taken at the level of the field commanders. Experts say that such incursions are cleared by the Central Military Commission, the highest defence body in the PRC, headed by Xi Jinping. Experts also say that the Chinese plan out every incursion down to the last detail, including factoring in all possible fallouts, both military and non military.
Hence, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it’s war that is always on China’s mind, not peace. And that is why, in spite of the innumerable rounds of talks, there is still no resolution in certain areas of Ladakh where the Chinese have a tactical advantage. In fact this has been the fundamental problem with India-China relations all through the decades—India thinks that whatever be the differences between the two countries, these can be managed to ensure that peace prevails, when all that its opponent is thinking of is war, both political warfare and kinetic conflict. India needed a wake-up call, which came in the form of the battle in Galwan in 2020, in which both Indian and Chinese soldiers died. Ever since, India has hardened its stance, as clear from External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s statement, “the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship”; apart from standing up to China at the LAC. But then China has already inflicted a “war of attrition” on us, where the deployment at the LAC is bleeding us financially, every day.
The latest attempt to capture the heights in Arunachal also shows that there will not be any respite from China’s efforts to keep the whole 3,000-km-plus LAC in a state of boil. In fact, the next one year is going to be crucial for India to maintain peace at the LAC, because it is the year that India will preside over both the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) and the Group of 20 (G20). At a time when the world converges in India, when the buzz is about how industries from China want to shift to India and how India is the next big story, likely becoming the third largest economy in the world in the next few years, will Xi let go of any opportunity to puncture the India story? Is that why aggression of such a violent nature is returning to the LAC? Also, Xi is a desperate man. In spite of being crowned President for Life and Dictator in Chief for the third time, the recent protests in China prove how unpopular Xi is. What are the chances that he will not create a conflagration at the LAC and try to grab some territory as a diversionary tactics and to rouse nationalist sentiments at home? Many experts believe that it is Taiwan that is Xi’s target, and not India. A counter argument to that is, Xi may do a lot of posturing against Taiwan, but knows that the United States is treaty-bound to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of a conflict with China. That is not the case with India. India knows very well that without any formal security treaty with any major military power, it will have to fight its battle on its own, and it is ready to do so. But in case of a Chinese aggression, will there be any action by the international community against China except for condemnation? Will economic sanctions be imposed on China, the way it has been done with Russia? If the answer is “unlikely”, what are the chances of Xi taking full advantage of that probability? Quite high? But then India is no pushover, and any misadventure on Xi’s part will have adverse consequences for his forces too. Xi needs to internalise that fact.