India’s Ladakh Crisis & China’s grand plan to dominate Eurasia – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 24 Nov 2020 2 Comments

As of this writing, Indian and Chinese military personnel still stand eyeball to eyeball, staring at each other in barren eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso. The tenacity of both sides suggests that the de-escalation talks may turn out to be a long, drawn-out process. Worse, the standoff could end in yet another temporary arrangement to be exploited later by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).


The current stand-off began on May 5 following a scuffle at Pangong Tso that led to fatalities on both sides. Prior to the encounter, the Chinese army had moved the non-demarcated line of actual control (LAC) between the two countries westward, from 1.5 km inside Indian territory in some places to 4.5 km in others, occupying an arc from Depsang to Demchok. Since then, more violence has occurred, military commanders have met a number of times and the foreign and defense ministers of both sides parlayed for hours on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meetings hosted by Russia in Moscow in early September.


In a Sept. 11 joint statement, issued following a two-hour meeting of foreign ministers in Moscow, India and China stated they have agreed on a five-point plan for resolving the border face-off that includes abiding by all existing agreements and protocol on management of the frontier, maintaining peace and tranquility and avoiding any action that could escalate matters. (India, China Agree On 5-Point Plan for Resolving Border Standoff Along LAC: PTI: Sept. 11, 2020) But some analysts, like Pravin Sawhney, believe resolution of the standoff will not be quick; they cite the advantage China has seized and the attitude it has exhibited since the killing of Indian soldiers on June 15. They also point to Beijing’s highlighting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 19 statement: “Nobody has intruded into our border, neither is anybody there now, nor have our posts been captured.” (How China Turned the Tables on India and Converted 1993 Agreement into a Land Grab: Pravin Sawhney: The Wire: Aug 02 2020;Modi Says No Border Intrusion in Wake of Deadly Clash with China: Anjana Pasricha: Voice of America: June 20, 2020)


India’s border with China has never been settled. Following the 1962 India-China war, New Delhi and Beijing spent some three decades in fruitless negotiations to settle the border. The 1993 agreement, the only legal compact governing relations between India and China, was signed with the simple objective of maintaining peace and tranquility along the disputed border so that the two could move on to develop a relationship in other areas. No map, even of the line of actual control, accompanied the agreement, opening the door for all sorts of shenanigans, including land grabs, along the non-demarcated line. And, indeed, “push me-pull you” altercations between the unarmed soldiers along the line occur at the rate of 200-300 incidents per year. This, however, is the first time there have been any fatalities.


While it may seem obvious that the current Ladakh crisis is just another devious, if belligerent, Chinese move to expand its territory, that analysis misses the point. It is essential to raise one’s field of vision to consider the broader strategic implications of what is happening in Ladakh—from both the Indian and Chinese standpoint—to understand what is really going on and respond appropriately. In the following, I will review the Ladakh crisis and its background from the standpoint of China’s evolving geopolitical goals and concerns and explore the ramifications for India’s national security planners.


The Gamble in Ladakh


China’s operation in Ladakh is a gamble, but a calculated one that rests on the assumption that small parcels of land can be captured bit by bit in a process that may not provoke India to justify a wider conflict. China cannot afford to engage in another 1962-type border war. Its military is not capable of seizing and holding any part of that land using force, and such a war would not help Beijing’s long-term plan of effecting a “peaceful rise” to dominance as a world power.


At the same time, India should have realized that the emergence of Xi Jinping as China’s “life-long” president caused a phase change in Chinese policy. His Belt and Road Initiative (some observers have renamed it “Belt and Rod Initiative”) to assert China’s global dominance and steamroll—if possible—any country apprehensive of the plan, was not understood with clarity.


Though barren and virtually unpopulated, eastern Ladakh has significant strategic importance. From New Delhi’s viewpoint, the Indian military needs to ensure control over the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie highway, an all-weather road connecting Ladakh’s capital, Leh, to the Karakoram Pass that acts as a buffer between Ladakh and China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. For China, Gilgit-Baltistan is the only land connection with Pakistan, and it adjoins the 225-km long Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. In Gilgit-Baltistan, China is very active in at least 35 projects, media reports indicate.


China’s Ladakh policy has two objectives. The first is securing its well-funded plan to become the dominant force in Eurasia by cutting India’s land connectivity to that region. By hooking up with Pakistan through Ladakh and ensuring security to its westward transport corridor through Xinjiang, China plans to set up a permanent barrier on India’s north and pave the way for its westward march to Central Asia and then Middle East. India’s building of the Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie Road may, in fact, have prompted the move.


One of the highest advanced landing grounds at an altitude of more than 16,800 feet, Daulat Beg Oldie has been developed for landing aircraft like the AN-32 and the C-130J Super Hercules. In a conflict, India could use this air base to seriously disrupt China’s established transport corridor through Xinjiang. China’s plan is to secure grounds from where it could keep this Indian air base under full surveillance in real time.


More broadly, however, China would like to keep India engaged in the hills, spending its limited defense budget on its land forces and air force, while undermining the growth of its Navy in the Indian Ocean and its bays. One of China’s greatest worries concerns India’s potential to develop a strong Navy that can pose a serious challenge to one of its main trade routes. As we will discuss further ahead, India has the geographical advantage to make China cower in the Indian Ocean.


A Clear Pattern


Many in India were taken aback by China’s aggressive posture in Ladakh. While authorities realized long ago that Beijing has no intent to ever resolve the border issue, the 1993 agreement inspired a belief that China would nonetheless respect the non-demarcated LAC. As subsequent years proved that belief wrong, New Delhi continued to miss one important element of China’s behavior: China is ruthless in pursuit of its goals. China does not have friends; its foreign policy is based entirely on a carrot and stick approach. Since expounding the One Belt, One Road policy, and even before, Beijing has gone about accumulating “friends” by handing out loans to those countries that do not have access to loans from multinational institutions. In return, China secures a strong economic and physical presence in those countries.


China’s ruthlessness is not exactly a secret. In 2003, during his visit to China, the late Indian premier, Atal Behari Vajpayee, formally signed an agreement recognizing Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” It was an extreme expression of goodwill on India’s part, if not an outright mistake. How did China return the favor? Three years later, in 2006, China went on record claiming the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” or, in effect, a part of China.


A year earlier in 2005, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Lok Sabha: “In the Joint Statement, we have agreed to establish a ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.’” It codifies the consensus between us that India-China relations transcend bilateral issues and have now acquired a global and strategic character.” (PM’s statement in the Lok Sabha on the visits of Chinese Premier and Pakistan President: Embassy Archives: April 20, 2005)


Did India forget that in 1986-1987, Chinese troops intruded into the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Somdurong River in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh? At the time, China rejected Indian requests to withdraw, forcing New Delhi to undertake an urgent military mobilization, rushing a Brigade of India’s 5 Mountain Division to the area to occupy the ridges dominating the Somdurong River. India successfully rebuffed another two attempts by China to alter the status quo, in Daulat Beg Oldie in 2013 and Chumar in 2014.


Other portents of China’s aims were either undetected or ignored in India. In 2015, for instance, the commanders of the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions were promoted to generals, both exercising operational jurisdiction across India’s borders. While the Lanzhou Military Region’s jurisdiction includes the Ladakh sector, the Chengdu Military Region covers the rest of the Sino-Indian border. Interestingly, both commanders were in position at the time of earlier intrusions in the Depsang Plains and the Chumar area in Ladakh in April 2013 and September 2014, respectively. General Liu Yuejun, commander of the Lanzhou Military Region is a member of the 18th Central Committees of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on Army, Ups Pressure on India: Express News Service: Aug. 7, 2015)


The Doklam standoff was another clear and bold statement by Beijing. The 73-day long Doklam crisis that started on June 18, 2017, occurred in an area spread over less than 100 sq. km. comprising a plateau and a valley at the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China. Surrounded by the Chumbi Valley of Tibet, Bhutan’s Ha Valley and Sikkim, Doklam is strategically located close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor that connects mainland India with its north-eastern region. The corridor, also called Chicken’s Neck, is a vulnerable point for India. The crisis began when the Chinese were trying to construct a road in the area, and Indian troops, in aid of their Bhutanese counterparts, objected to it. Despite several rounds of engagement between China and Bhutan, the dispute between the two was not resolved. (What is the Doklam issue all about?: The Hindu: Josy Joseph: Jan. 27, 2018) For China, building roads through the rugged 14,000-foot Doklam plateau would support a more entrenched Chinese presence in the region, allowing China to hand Bhutan a fait accompli in the territorial dispute, ending years of inconclusive border talks. (Doklam, One Year Later: China’s Long Game in the Himalayas: Joel Wuthnow, Satu Limaye and Nilanthi Samaranayake: War on the Rocks: June 7, 2018)


Following the stand-off, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an informal summit at the city of Wuhan in April 2018. Beside the routine call for stepping up cooperation, the two leaders also agreed to “handle all differences” through peaceful means and “endorsed talks between the Special Representatives on the border issue,” according to Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. (Modi-Xi to give ‘strategic guidance’ to militaries to ease tensions along India-China border: Sudhi Ranjan Das: India Today: April 28, 2018) Modi and Xi held yet another informal meeting at Mahabalipuran on India’s southeastern coast in October 2019 to further the so-called Wuhan spirit. While Beijing had no intent of giving up its deceptive policy in the Himalayas, China’s propaganda-machine, led by the Global Times declared: “We believe, guided by leaders from the two sides, ties between China and India would become a significant factor in defining international relations in the future.”


It quickly became evident however, that the highest-level talks at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram were undertaken by Xi to cool India’s heels and buy time for making his next moves. In June 2020 at the United Nations Development Program’s Global Environment Facility, China refused to fund Bhutan’s Sakteng sanctuary, claiming it is situated in “disputed” territory. According to the GEF Council Chairman’s summary of the virtual meeting released on June 16, Aparna Subramani, the World Bank official representing Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka, had stated: “Bhutan totally rejects the claim made by the Council Member of China. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral and sovereign territory of Bhutan, and at no point during the boundary discussions between Bhutan and China has it featured as a disputed area.” (China doubles down on claims on eastern Bhutan boundary: Suhasini Haider: The Hindu: July 6, 2020)


While the Chinese intent on the border has been clear, why has India chosen time and again to look the other way? Why was there any expectation that China would play fair on the border issue? What was it? Some claim the current Ladakh conflict was the result of structural problems that exist within India’s security apparatus. Or was it because the intelligence bureau was eager to support a policy designed to limit defense expenditures and therefore downplayed the imminent danger of Chinese aggression to policymakers? (China Is Taking Advantage of India’s Intelligence Failures: Foreign Policy: Sumit Ganguly, Frank O’Donnell: Aug. 27, 2020)


(To be continued…)

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