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China’s Ladakh Gamble - June 09, 2020

The unresolved border question between India and China is flaring up again. There is almost an unanimity amongst the strategic thinkers and former military and diplomatic officers of India that the Chinese incursions since last week of April 2020 have led to encroachments on Indian claimed territories. A consensus is that the happenings along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) vis-à-vis China are not regular or usual stuff. According to general estimate, the Indian and Chinese patrolling teams face each other nearly 500 times every year only in Ladakh sector. Some of the face-offs turn into stand-offs almost each year. But the developments since last one month are not only unusual but unprecedented as per most of the strategic thinkers in India.

There is, however, a differing opinion amongst the strategic community on how good is the reaction and response of Indian government to the current crisis on LAC. While Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh acknowledged presence of few thousand Chinese troops, which is not normal; he tried to calm down the tempers by use of the well-established phrase – differing perception about the LAC. Many in the defence community has a grudge that the minister has not accepted effective control that the Chinese troops have established over few square kilometres of disputed territory. They demand full disclosure of the ground situation, particularly the changes that happened since 1st April 2020. On the other hand, good number of members from defence and diplomatic community believe that government is rightly underplaying the situation in public. According to this line of thought, government must have manoeuvring room while dealing with China. The question is what would make the Chinese to withdraw from the advanced positions that they have established in last one month?

What does China want? Primarily, China wants to grab as much of the disputed territory as possible to strengthen its claims in the border negotiations with India. The timing of Chinese moves, nonetheless, indicate greater demands than merely strengthening its position in the negotiation. This motive would make China to keep the newly encroached space with it till the final settlement of the border dispute. Perhaps, this is one of the key messages emanating from Chinese behaviour.

The second message that China is conveying is about its resolve and strength in the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic. This message is not only for India but for the entire world, and more specifically to countries in South Asia. It is conveying in no uncertain manner to India’s neighbours that China is not a diminishing power and certainly not on its borders. Thus, the present crisis has prestige issues involved in it for both India and China.

The third message that could be read in Chinese posturing along LAC is with regard to Indian cosiness with United States. China is clearly conscious of and concerned about increasing closeness between India and the US. India’s cosiness with the US, has made China conscious of its ramifications in the Indo-Pacific region. This is certainly a position of strength for India wherein New Delhi can take advantage of Beijing’s concerns. India must utilize this position to nail down the Chinese in negotiations without which the advantage is meaningless. The overall message from the current stand-off on LAC is loud and clear. India has to deal with China in entirety and not merely on the disputed territory between two countries.

- Prof. Parimal Maya Sudhakar