Mid-year 2020 and China is in the world spotlight for two different reasons. COVID-19 pandemic which was first reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan in November 2019 and has spread to the entire globe. The more that is learned about this disease, the more it seems the crisis will be protracted. Major crises have major consequences, usually unforeseen! Economically, a long-drawn crisis will imply more business failures and devastation for industries resulting in job outlays. The political consequences of a lingering pandemic could be even more significant, with job losses, a prolonged recession and an unprecedented debt burden will inevitably create a political backlash. China will benefit from the crisis, at least in relative terms as it has been able to regain control of the situation and is moving on to the next challenges, getting its economy and political clout back. The second major development attributed to China has been large incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto Sino-Indian border in eastern Ladakh in early May. These tactical operations have strategic implications, presently may be an underestimation. The city of Wuhan is common to Indian woes of pandemic and summit meeting in May 2019 between Chinese President and Indian Prime Minister, where both committed to remain neutral and not to work against the interests of each other. An apparently unrelated but intertwined development has been the straining of relations between India and Nepal, and the inclusion of Nepal and Myanmar in the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) of China. All these happenings make an interesting geopolitical mosaic which needs an abysmal analyses for the policymakers in Pakistan to remain relevant to the equation.
The Ladakh Imbroglio
It was the middle of May that Indian media first reported intrusions by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across the LAC. The initial version was of scuffles between troops of both sides in eastern Ladakh and north Sikkim. In an apparently surprising move, starting in the third week of April, according to media reports, more than, 10,000 Chinese troops crossed the LAC, three to eight km deep, at five points in Ladakh; four along the Galwan River and one near the Pangong Lake, and on Sikkim border in Naku La sector. Reportedly the area occupied by the Chinese lies between Finger 8 to Finger 4 besides other peaks 4-5 km to the north of the Pangong Lake. The LAC runs along the land except for the width of the Pangong Lake where it bifurcates through the middle of water. India controlled 45 km of the Lake and China the rest of 135 km. The current site of confrontation is spurs jetting out of Chang Chenmo River valley, an eastern extension of the Karakoram Range. These spurs have been named as fingers from 1 to 8. Indian perception of the LAC runs along Finger 8 while Chinese claim up to Finger 4, which is 8 km deep and the most dominating up to Shyok River. Pangong Tso is strategically critical as it is very close to Chushul Valley, which was one of the main battlefronts in India-China War of 1962. Reportedly, these incursions were later secured by erecting concrete defences, buildup of artillery, tanks, backup forces and roads for reinforcements.1 According to the Indian estimates, Chinese have occupied upto 60 sq km area across the LAC.2 It was not a localized affair, as initially perceived by the Indian Army as the operations were spread across areas of responsibility of different PLA divisions and suggested centralized coordination by at least a theatre command.
The tactical operations into Galwan Valley, hitherto a non-disputed area, have placed PLA in a position to check the Indian Army’s use of the 255 km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) road which traverses at the heights of 14000-16160 ft. This road is the main route to a brigade size garrison of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) and to sustain troops at the Siachen Glacier. It has been under construction for the last 20 years at an estimated cost of Rs. 400 crores. Once completed, this road will reduce the travelling time from Leh to DBO from 2 days to 6 hours. Daulat Beg has an airstrip at 16614 feet above sea level, making it the world’s highest airfield. The reported occupation of Patrol Point 14 by PLA troops at the confluence of Galwan and Shyok Rivers gives them the advantage of observing and, if required, interdicting the strategic artery to DBO. The Chinese moves have created an imbalance for the Indian Army by directly threatening Leh, a pivotal nodal point in the entire Ladakh with irresistible air supremacy and non-contact weapons threats. In response to Indian request for Lieutenant General level talks, a meeting was held on the Chinese side on June 6 in which, “It was agreed that an early resolution of the situation would be in keeping with the guidance of leaders.”
On the night of June 15/16, in an attempt to dislodge Chinese from Patrol Point 14, at the mouth of Galwan Valley, Indian Army suffered 20 dead including a colonel and 76 injured.3 Despite its quasi-medieval style, this was the worst casualty-ridden military encounter in the history of the Indian Army. After the Galwan Valley skirmish, Chinese Foreign Ministry maintained that the whole of Galwan Valley is located on the Chinese side of LAC and Chinese troops have been patrolling the entire area.4 On June 19 at an all-party virtual meeting on Ladakh standoff, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi stated: “Neither anyone has intruded into our territory nor taken over any post.” He further stated: “Our 20 bravehearts were martyred in Ladakh but only after teaching lesson to those who tried to intrude.”5 Indian Prime Minister’s statement denying Chinese capture of any territory and the that Indian soldiers have taken revenge, reflects Indian policy of appeasement vis-à-vis China and the unlikelihood of any military retaliation. These events were followed by tri-lateral virtual meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, China and India on June 23 and military and diplomat level parlays without any tangible results. Even after a lapse of almost two months, China has only withdrawn few posts from the valleys while retaining critical heights and has, in fact, opened more fronts across the LAC to consolidate strategic gains.
The LAC is a 4,057 km loose demarcation line that separates India and China and was formed after 1962 War. This was officially accepted in a bilateral agreement in 1993. There has not been any firefight on the LAC since 1975. The current standoff also needs to be seen in the backdrop of Doklam, located on the mouth of Chinese Chumbi Valley and was claimed by China and India’s ally, Bhutan. In June 2017 a standoff took place between China and India as China attempted to extend a road southwards near Doka La pass and 250 Indian troops moved in to prevent. India claimed to have acted on behalf of Bhutan with which it has an agreement of military cooperation and a Division size force of Indian Army is stationed there. The issue was resolved at diplomatic level and armies of both belligerents withdrew from Doklam after around two months. Doklam was an eyeopener for the Chinese. The standoff made plain a quantitative and even qualitative disadvantage against India in the Himalayas. The PLA has ever since rectified its imbalances, reorganized its command structures and have built forces, ecosystem and supporting infrastructures in Tibet and vicinity. The forces employed for the current standoff were trained and acclimatized by the reorganized edifice.
The Ladakh standoff poses the all-important question, whether it was a result of tactical considerations or a strategic move by China. Ladakh as part of the IOJ&K is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan according to 12 resolutions of UNSC from April 1948 to 1957. It is also a bilateral issue between India and China with the latter claiming it as part of Tibet. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s comments on Indian abrogation of special status of Kashmir, after meeting his Indian counterpart, is significant in understanding China’s stance, “India’s moves challenged China’s sovereign rights and interests and violated the agreement on maintaining peace and tranquility in the border areas between the two countries”.6 To make matters worse, Indian leadership issued threats of capturing Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). On the Chinese side, India incorporated parts of areas under jurisdiction of Xinjiang and Tibet into Ladakh maps and Indian Home Minister Amit Shah reaffirmed the country’s claims to Aksai Chin region of China. Besides the abrogation of Article 370 by India, it will be relevant to review other related factors which corroborate Indian policy of continuous coercion against China and Pakistan. At the operational plane, India conducted an exercise by the newly created Mountain Strike Corps in October 2019 on Sino-Indo border and the deployment of Su-30s towards the Chinese front. India has been siding with U.S. in domination of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean; areas of grave concern for China. At diplomatic forums, again in support of U.S., India has been extending support to Taiwan and a U.S.-sponsored move against the World Health Organization (WHO) in its handling of COVID-19 to implicate China. It has also been actively involved in “economic nationalism” to poach U.S. companies from China. Indian criticism of CPEC and open hostilities at all fora is well-known, added to it has been threats to capture GB and opposition to the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam in Diamer District of GB. A review of political, diplomatic, economic and military factors related to India authenticate that in the recent past, especially after the unionization of the IOJ&K and Ladakh, Indian belligerent policies have acted as a catalyst for China to react in kinetic form.
The Nepal Connection
Nepal, a land-locked state, shares 1690 km long open border with India and is dependent on her since its independence. India-Nepal ties have soured in recent years. In 2015, India imposed an unofficial blockade along the border when demonstrating its unhappiness with the newly released democratic constitution of Nepal. This blockade opened the door for China in the Himalayan nation. In recent years, China has invested millions of dollars into many infrastructure and hydropower projects in Nepal. During the visit of the Chinese President to Nepal in October 2019, China pledged nearly USD 500 million in financial aid. The bone of contention has been the recently issued political map of Nepal which displays the regions of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as parts of its sovereign territory, duly endorsed by a constitutional amendment. Nepal government’s move came after India inaugurated 80 km road connecting India to China via Lipulekh. Nepal claims that the newly built road traverses its territory and lays claim to six areas over 400 square kilometers shown as part of India in their version of maps. Delhi is upset with how Prime Minister KP Sharma is using the issue to consolidate his position in Nepali politics and growing trend within Nepal to blame India for internal matters, in particular handling of COVID-19 pandemic.
BRI is a major project under China’s global policy with the core objective of building the community of common destiny among countries in Eurasia and beyond. It was introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013. The conceptualization envisages six major corridors excluding the neighboring Nepal. To redress this situation, a Nepal-China economic corridor has been proposed under BRI and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in May 2017. The MoU is aimed at collaboration to promote connectivity of trade, financial integration and people. Rail, road and air links are the anticipated outcomes. Another interesting factor is that the shortest distance between Nepal and Bangladesh is just 27 km and every year more than 30,000 tourists visit Nepal. A Chinese link to Nepal would pave the way for direct access to Bangladesh primarily by land route, where Chinese investment is projected at USD 50 billion in a decade. As China’s political influence grows in Nepal, few experts are of the view that Beijing may at least have indirectly encouraged Prime Minister Sharma to take a bolder stance against India. The bilateral relations between India and Nepal have plummeted to an all time low after a resolution passed by the Nepalese parliament showing six areas claimed by India to be a part of Nepal followed by publication of the maps.
China, in a shrewd application of stratagem, has converted tactical operations into a multiple strategic expansion. Its timing also reflects an adept understanding of geostrategic implications, when the entire world is pre-occupied with COVID-19 and, to a large extent, dependent on Chinese medical supplies and in many cases its expertise, in its treatment. Consequently, the world’s reaction was mostly muted, restricted to expression of condolences on the killing of Indian troops. The Chinese bold maneuvre in Ladakh has practically revoked the status of the LAC. At the time of its formal recognition in 1993, Indians failed to define it in physical terms and a group was formed, with no representation of Indian Army, to determine its geographical alignment. China has all along claimed the LAC to be 2000 km, implying Ladakh as part of China. This has been reiterated after the current standoff. In the tactical realm, alleged Chinese operations across the LAC and the ability to observe and control the DS-DBO road give it a massive strategic and operational advantage. Besides linking DBO the northern most corner of India, it provides access to Tibet-Xinjiang highway that passes through Aksai Chin. DBO is merely 9 km northwest of Aksai Chin and 17 km southwest to the Karakoram Pass and highway on Pakistan-China border. Occupation of heights at Fingers 4 to 8 dominate both the road and Shyok River and have forestalled any Indian operations towards Chinese Chushal Valley. Aksai Chin is critical to Chinese control of Western Tibet and important for the control of all of Tibet. The area of DBO and Depsang Valley is strategically important to both India and China, and by implications to Pakistan, from the perspective of both defensive and offensive operations. The most potent threat to Ladakh including Siachen Glacier emanates from Northern Aksai Chin, DBO and Depsang Plains as the area offers options for a collusive Sino-Pak military operations against India. An offensive by China through Depsang into Shyok and Nubra Valleys across Saser Pass and a determined effort by Pakistan from west towards Thise and Pratapur could envelop all areas north and east of Kardungla including Siachen. By launching current operations, the Chinese have not only addressed their own sensitivity, but blocked Indian options of a thrust from Depsang area towards Karakoram Pass, Northern Aksai Chin and Xinjiang, the only opening available to India to Central Asia and Pamirs.
Chinese tactical operations along the LAC have virtually made DBO Indian garrison inoperable, thereby precluding the possibility of any Indian operations towards either Gilgit-Baltistan or Aksai Chin. China had conveyed its displeasure in explicit terms on the revocation of Article 370 of Indian Constitution. Chinese scholars have described abrogation of special status of J&K and Ladakh as a challenge to the sovereignty of China and Pakistan and the main reason for the current India-China standoff.7 India has also repeatedly voiced its opposition to CPEC and construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam. In strategic terms, Chinese domination of eastern Ladakh will also safeguard manifestation of any threat to CPEC, the only bilateral Chinese BRI. In operational terms, it would force on the Indian troops at the Siachen Glacier a battle of ‘Reverse Front’ and containment besides threatening its base. The Chinese move has also forestalled any Indian attempt to build hydro projects on the Indus River and its tributaries, namely the Shyok, the Nubra and the Chang Chenmo rivers. The Chinese endgame could even imply, securing all these rivers in Ladakh and to push India west of the Indus.
Through the standoff, China has manifested coercion at its peak. India has been forced to send reinforcements along the 4057 km of the LAC, deploy air assets with serious logistical and financial implications. China has also upped the ante in the Indian Ocean compelling Indian Navy to deploy its seaborne assets both against the Chinese threat and to support large size U.S. buildup. In diplomatic and military terms India is forced into a ‘three fronts’ readiness against China, Pakistan and even Nepal. China’s reprisal of claims on Arunachal Pradesh and entire Ladakh has put political pressure on India, especially in the context of ongoing insurgencies in eight northeastern states and could give it a fillip. The announced ban on Chinese goods is likely to hurt India more as they will be compelled to manufacture or import the same items at much higher prices, placing further strain on the population. In 2019, India-China bilateral trade was USD 92.68 billion with Indian share of USD 17.95 billion. In the same context, China’s exports to India are only 2.5% of its total annual export of USD 2.8 trillion, while India’s export to China is 14.5% of its yearly export of USD 322 billion.8
India and the U.S. have relations with China that have elements of cooperation, competition and potentially conflict – though in different degrees and times. India’s strategy towards China perceives strengthening India internally (security-wise and economically) and building a range of partnerships externally – and it envisions a key role for the U.S. in both. In the same realm, the strategic Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) between U.S., Japan, Australia and India was revived in 2017 to checkmate Chinese economic and military power, especially through domination of the South-China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India’s policy of acting as a proxy of U.S. in the region has piqued China which is in particular sensitive to the South-China Sea, with volume of trade over USD 3 trillion. Besides the military counterweight to China, India has also followed U.S. dictates of warming to Taiwan, weaning away Chinese influence from ASEAN countries, voicing support to agitations in Hong Kong and opposition to Chinese BRI to name a few. India has all along been violating Chinese sensitivities in harboring government in exile of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. This was another message which the standoff is meant to communicate to the Indian leadership that where India stands militarily and its inability to project its power beyond a limit. China is very deliberate and adept at sending a message and this is a clear call to India to desist from anti-Chinese policies in the region. The standoff and the resultant humiliation of India when paired with strained relations with most neighbors, Nepal inclusive, have diminished Indian aspirations for a permanent seat in UN Security Council. Indian much boosted diplomatic clout has also received a severe setback in that no major power, including the U.S., has condemned China nor denounced its claim over Ladakh. Russia, considered a close ally of India, in foreign minister level talks on June 23, has refused any mediation between India-China rows. Through shrewd diplomatic and economics maneuvers, post Indo-Nepal border dispute, heavy investment in Bangladesh and likely rapprochement with Bhutan, China has virtually isolated India in the region.
India, by abrogation of Article 370 and continual violation of the UN resolutions on Kashmir has forfeited the offices of the UN and relegated the standoff to a bilateral or may be trilateral issue. The rhetoric built around symbolic political decision of BJP led government to revoke Article 370 has altered the reality concerning international conflict of IOJ&K. The current standoff between India and China is inter-related to this phenomenon. When co-related with Indian repeated opposition to CPEC, its threats to capture GB and Aksai Chin and building strategic DS-DBO road along the LAC, give both capability and intent to Indian threats. China had without ambiguity immediately denounced Indian unionization of Ladakh and IOJ&K and has termed it as a threat to peace in the region. It was Chinese pre-occupation with COVID-19 pandemic and the weather that possibly deterred them from teaching India a lesson earlier. In historical context, previous China-India standoff at the LAC in 1975, 1997, 2007, 2013 and the Doklam skirmish in 2017 have resulted in easing of tensions and withdrawal after few weeks. In my reckoning, it is different this time due to geostrategic dictates explained earlier, stakes of the Chinese leadership and image of China as a superpower. The Chinese are not likely to forego the tactical and strategic advantages accruing from the standoff and regular buildup of their forces, fortifications and opening of more fronts across the LAC are indications of their intent. As a corollary, India will build a narrative where they can diffuse the situation on the pretext of dialogues and Chinese withdrawal but the ground realities would not substantially change. It would also suit China to promote Indian narrative of no encroachment of Indian territory, dialogue process and the Chinese withdrawing from encroached areas to let India claim a success (like in case of Doklam). PLA will most likely not use its kinetic war capabilities until attacked by the Indian military. In the standoff while demonstrating its military prowess, the Chinese have exposed Indian Army’s outdated concepts of network-centric warfare. PLA war doctrine is based on flexible architecture of Wi-Fi, cyber, space and electronics with cross domain, known as ‘algorithm warfare’, for which the Indians have no answer in the foreseeable future.9
Implications for Pakistan
After the abrogation of the special status of IOJ&K, the conflict had received international attention, soon to be diverted by the global spread of the pandemic. The standoff between India and China has revived its claim of Ladakh as part of Tibet. This also reflects China unilaterally revoking 1993 Treaty with India, which identified the present status of the LAC. The August decision of India and standoff has brought China and Pakistan closer on the Kashmir issue than ever before. In the past a success of Indian foreign policy has been that despite Sino-Pak strategic relations, India dealt with both separately, especially on contentious issues. This is no more relevant and has synergized the strategic alliance. Pakistan and China can now jointly contest the Kashmir dispute at international forums. In the case of Pakistan, Simla Accord of 1972 – which forms the basis of bilateral relations including the management of the Line of Control (LoC) is invalid after India’s Kashmir decision. By implications, it would make the agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1949 at Karachi as the governing arrangement of border management. Chinese example of the LAC has implications for the LoC which requires serious analysis. In military terms, isolation of Indian garrison of DBO and Chinese domination of DS-DBO road has precluded any Indian misadventures towards Siachen or GB. Chinese opening of Depsang front to the base of DBO is also an indication of strategic importance which China attaches to this sector both from the perspective of CPEC and its access to Central Asia. In other words, Indian opposition to CPEC is now merely academic. In military terms, Pakistan’s position at Siachen has been further consolidated by the threat of isolation and possible disruption of supplies to Indian troops stationed there. The China factor, as another aggrieved party, has also vindicated Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and its repeated iteration to resolve the dispute in line with UN resolutions. Brokering of the peace process between U.S. and the Taliban has enhanced the diplomatic standing of Pakistan, while creating qualms about India’s ability to checkmate China.
India-China standoff has compelled India to move its forces and reserves to defend the LAC, denuding its force levels in IOJ&K. This would give a fillip to the indigenous freedom struggle in Kashmir and could perpetuate violence already at its peak since 2019. To divert attention of its public from the humiliation on the LAC and international forums, India is likely to intensify its engagement at the LoC besides creating a diplomatic row with Pakistan. There is also a possibility of creating a fake incident implicating the involvement of Pakistan. In most of the encounters projected on Indian media involving the so-called ‘militants’ in IOJ&K, the already jailed Kashmiri youth are forced to participate. A diplomatic row is already simmering between India and Pakistan after Indian expulsion of staff of Pakistan High Commission from New Delhi. The present commotion in Ladakh also provides an opportunity to internationalize the Kashmir issue in concert with China through a pro-active exterior maneuver like never before. Depending on the duration and the level of coercion of the standoff, India could also become amenable to a political settlement preferably through backchannel diplomacy away from media and public galore. Resumption of a formal dialogue process with India, without conditions, may not be in the interest of Pakistan.
India-China standoff is tactical in nature but has profound strategic and geopolitical implications. It has enabled China to not only address its vulnerabilities but also put it in a position to effectively dominate Indian strategic artery to Daulat Beg Oldie. The standoff was in the offing due to Indian policies to antagonize China. Indian action of abrogation of Article 370 and amalgamation of IOJ&K and Ladakh as union territories have irked both Pakistan and China, and can be the main cause of ongoing standoff across the LAC besides India’s opposition to CPEC. However, China has been careful in avoiding implicating Pakistan publicly with the standoff. The standoff and the resultant coercion has serious political, diplomatic and financial fallouts for India and its military. China’s joining foray has vindicated Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and its principled stand on resolving the dispute according to the UN resolutions. It has also opened multiple opportunities at various planes for Pakistan which need to be analyzed.
The writer is a former Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He has also been Commander Lahore Corps and remained Military Secretary to the President. He is the author of 'Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan' (published 1983).
E-mail: [email protected]
Note: The article on India-China standoff is based on the events taken place and their analyses till June 29, 2020.
1. BBC News, Satellite Images, show China structures on India border, June 25, 2020.
2. The Daily Telegraph and Lt Gen (Retd) H. S. Pang, May 28, 2020.
3. India Failed to Read the Chinese Tea Leaves in Time, June 21, 2020 by Lt Gen (R) Ashok K Mehta.
4. CNBC- TV 18, June 20, 2020 by Parikshit Luthra.
5. Press Trust of India, June 19, 2020.
6. China Daily/Reuters, May 24, 2020.
7. Dr. Wang Shida, Dy Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
8. India-China Trade dips by nearly $3 billion in 2019, Business Line, January 14, 2020.
9. Pravin Sawhney, Editor Force Magazine, June 7, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?
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