Multi-speak is a Chinese time tested weapon. After June 15, it has become a Saddam Scud. And gloves are off in the Sino-Indian face off in eastern Ladakh … writes Dr Aditya Sharma
It is bravado, stupid. To save the corona hit skin at home. To impress the old and new acolytes in the Himalayan belt. To scare the enemies in South China Sea, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Above all, to ward off perceived threats in Ladakh neighbourhood from RIP van Winkle marching from New Delhi!
The White House has every reason to sport a smile in the ‘I said so’ mode. Its May report to Congress, titled “US Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, observed: “Beijing contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbours by engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the Sino-Indian border area.”
Recent weeks have seen much action – all by the Chinese in the areas the White House has mentioned. A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in the South China Sea; the Chinese swarmed a Malaysian offshore oil rig, tightened their grip on Hong Kong, and severely menaced Taiwan.
Now comes the border face off with India (the border is 3,488km long, mostly un-demarcated), as the fourth flare-up since President Xi became the new Chinese helmsman at the end of 2012.
The Galwan valley clashes(June 15) are a clear manifestation of Xi Jinping epoxy. The skirmish was physical in nature. Death toll (20 Indians, 43 Chinese, according to U.S. News & WorldReport)is a brutal enough signal that China has sets its eyes on a Line of New Actual Control (LNAC). Otherwise PLA would have carried out the disengagement agreed to by both sides after the May 5 violent hand-to-hand scuffles at the nearby north bank of Pangong Tso (Tso means Lake).
Over the years, Beijing has signed as many as five agreements with New Delhi for border peace. It has demonstrated no commitment to any of these pacts as yet. Nor did it show any regard for the “Wuhan Spirit” (outcome of first informal Xi-Modi summit at Wuhan, April 2018) and the “Chennai Connect” (second Xi-Modi summit at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, Oct 2019).
Frankly, the Chinese trespass into the Galwan Valley and the aggression into the adjoining Pangong Tso area, particularly its north bank are no more than work outs that are neither nor there. Moreover Galwan Valley and the area around are largely settled Indian territory for the last several years.
The XI egg-heads will do well, therefore, to return to the drawing board for a relook at the timing of their actions. Also on the restrictions Modi government has put on Chinese investments in a clear signal that India is not a hostage to the Chennai summit outcome if the trade remains a one-way street even at $100 bn plus. There is no debunking Newton’s laws, whether one likes or dislikes.
Apparently China is tapping its strengths by deepening the border impasse in the Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso and adjoining areas. Its immediate objective: Scuttle India’s ongoing construction of feeder links and bridges to its new Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road. The region is snow-capped. It has a limited working season from May to November. Hence the early May intrusions of the PLA. And also the latest provocative skirmishes. Both actions ‘departed from the consensus’ to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley.
Put simply, China focus is not peace on LAC. Not narrowing of differences on competing territorial claims. It is stalling India’s upgrade of its road and air infrastructure, connecting the border with an all-weather Daulat Beg Oldi road.
India has been building the 255-km long road for over a decade. No objections were raised earlier because India’s border road quest appeared as a mirage. Not any longer. Certainly after President Xi Jinping embarked on his most ambitious highway through Gilgit (Pakistan-held Kashmir) and mainland Pakistan to Gwadar on the Arabian coast of restive Baluchistan province on the border with Iran.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a 65 billion dollar venture. It is a show piece of Xi’s multi-nation Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which is refusing to make any headway. Consider these facts. Pangong Tso area allows easier movement to Aksai Chin that links the Tibetan plateau withXinjiang, the home to Uighur-Muslims in an insurgency mode. It is a 2000-km highway.
For the uninitiated, Aksai Chin in northeastern Ladakh was part of Indian Kashmir once. Part of it has been under occupation of China since the 1962 war it waged against India. The remaining part landed in China’s lap as a gift from Pakistan out of its occupied Kashmir territories during the Ayub Khan era. The Chinese road through Aksai Chin took shape in the 1950s. As their presence increased in the area, the road became a vital strategic link.
Now cut to new Indian border road infrastructure within Indian land mass. A bridge over the Shyok River, Colonel Chewang Rinchen Setu as Indians call it, opened last October. It has become an eyesore for the Chinese; they see it as a threat to CPEC and Tibet-Xinjiang highway.
For two reasons.
One it is strategically located on the road from Leh towards the Karakoram pass, which is vital for the Chinese. It cuts travel time between Leh and the pass by half. Two the bridge is 4.5m wide, and can take vehicles weighing up to 70 tonnes.
There is yet another factor – Indian wedge between Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam valley. It is preventing a military and territorial link up between China and Pakistan. And China see it as a security risk to CPEC and all the related investments – construction of a multi-billion dollar Bhasha dam on the Indus including. The Indian wedge is not a new possession; it dates back to the 1962 war. On its western flank lies Siachen glacier, where India is entrenched since 1984 and checkmatedChinese and Pakistani designs for uninterrupted terrain domination.
The unfolding game is aimed at undoing history in any way possible – by capturing the land north of Pangong Tso or by grabbing the Galwan valley to link Aksai Chin with Karakoram and Gilgit. This way China can guarantee for itself land access to Pakistan, and provide an unhindered link for Xinjiang with Tibet. And, deny for ever to India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Hence the shrill demand for the removal of Colonel Chewang Rinchen Setu. As a natural corollary, Beijing has closed ranks with Islamabad to demand a roll back of New Delhi’s re-organisation of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly carving out of Ladakh as a federally administered territory. On its part, Pakistan has allowed itself to be sucked into Dragon’s embrace deeply for Yuans as greenbacks have become scarce. It has allowed China to turn Gilgitand Pak held Kashmir as its colonies.
China is loath to lose its sway. Firstly for strategic interests. Secondly for fear of North-west Pakistan based Islamist militants making a beeline to the restive Uighur belt. Both iron friends are worried about India’s influence in Gilgit, a Shia Muslim region that refuses to be integrated with the Sunni Pakistan.
The scuffles, PLA warriors are indulging in Ladakh, are a clear give away that Beijing is not ready to go to war with India, more so after in-house commentators like Huang Guozhi (senior editor of Modern Weaponry magazine) have hailed Indian army as the largest and most experienced force trained for high-altitude battles.
In short, China’s new norm for Ladakh is not about a boundary nor is it about a work to alter territorial status quo either. It is all about China’s CPEC fears.It carries the imprint of President Xi Jinping. Because he sees India’s Ladakh as standing in the way of CPEC, which is his Pakistani BRI, and Pakistan’s albatross.
The question is no longer where does that leave India but to what extent China is willing and ready to stoop even for short-term sweepstakes.