Amid the standoff on Line of Actual Control (LAC), China has responded to India’s charges of what is euphemistically called ‘changing the facts on the ground’ with denials and counter-accusations. But satellite images taken on June 22, a week after the June 15 brutal clash in the Galwan Valley that aggravated weeks-old tension between the two, clearly demonstrates naked Chinese aggression.
Chinese military structures have sprung up in the middle of nowhere in the territory claimed by India. Bunkers, tents and storage units for military hardware are visible in an area overlooking the Galwan River where last month there were none. The Chinese now claim that Galwan Valley was on the their side of the Line of Actual Control.
The satellite imagery provided by American space technology firm Maxar were released on the day Indian and Chinese military commanders agreed to de-escalate the surging tension at several locations along the LAC following the June 15 clash. This is how China changes facts on the ground, as India has alleged. The world has been witnessing such deception after the Xi Jinping era began in 2012, as China set about pressing territorial claims using a mix of skewed logic of sovereignty, bullying and intimidation.
India realized the magnitude of danger an assertive China posed during the 2017 Doklam standoff and began executing military infrastructure upgrades along the border to counter China’s own buildup and aggression. The deadly June 15 clash occurred as China repeated its ignoble pattern of the past two years of pushing territorial claims and refusing to vacate the occupied land.
By cementing its occupation in the Galwan Valley as it has done, China is signaling India to refrain from buttressing its military capabilities along the LAC while also indicating that its incursions will continue. It is a signal meant to warn that China will assert its claims by intimidating India as it does other neighbors, even as it attempts to build a network of client states in South Asia selling its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will pass through areas claimed by India is a key project.
The Wuhan and Chennai summitry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi appears to have done little to moderate China’s belligerent behavior. The Modi government is shaken by the June 15 clash and its aftermath because it did not expect personal diplomacy with great powers, in which it has invested heavily, to fail spectacularly in case of China. The government knows that military confrontation with China is unlike one with Pakistan, where cross-border terrorism makes a retaliation enjoying greater international legitimacy. The poorly demarcated and often-undefined nature of the LAC might bring India to pull punches or risk an undesirable escalation.
Standing up to Chinese threat calls for deft diplomacy and recalibration of ties with Beijing on India’s part while remaining on its guard. However, if China is intent on annexing more territory in the Galwan Valley style in future, it could spark more clashes, risking a limited or even full-blown war.
If that comes to pass, India might have to reckon a grim reality where it has been thrust into fighting a two-front war. It is foolish to expect the impetuous army generals who indirectly control the country sit idle when the country that they consider arch-enemy is in peril. China may even instigate Pakistan, already a puppet. Therefore, it is quite possible that Pakistan will waste no opportunity to turn its covert war of thousand cuts into an overt one, or at least a Kargil-style one, to humiliate India and to obtain maximum territorial advantage in Kashmir.
After the Doklam affair, Indian Army has acknowledged that two-front war is a real and present danger India confronts. In 2018, the then Army chief, now the Chief of Defense Staff, has declared that a two-front war is a real scenario and India’s military is very much prepared for such an eventuality. However, in spite of such poise, it is likely India would find odds stacked heavily against it, more so as both adversaries are nuclear-armed. We have to bear in mind that a war with each country—with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in Kargil war in 1999—had shattered many comforting myths our military top brass believed in as viable strategy until then.
In a hard-hitting interview with PTI on 26th June 2020, Indian Ambassador to China Vikram Misri warned China that trying to alter the status quo by resorting to force will not just damage the peace that existed on the border areas but can also have ‘ripples and repercussions’ in the broader bilateral relationship. He demanded Beijing to stop its activities in eastern Ladakh, saying that the only way to resolve the current military standoff was for Beijing to not alter the status quo by resorting to force or coercion.
“The resolution of this issue is quite straightforward from our perspective. The Chinese side needs to stop creating obstruction and hindrances in the normal patrolling patterns of the Indian troops,” Ambassador Misri said. He also rubbished China’s claim of sovereignty over Galwan Valley in Ladakh as “completely untenable”, and asserted that these kinds of exaggerated claims are not going to help the situation. “Whatever activities we may be carrying on have always been on our side of the Line of Actual Control LAC, so the Chinese need to stop activities to alter the status quo. It is very surprising that they should attempt to do so in a sector which has never before been a sector of concern,” he added.
On the Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong’s assertion during an interview with PTI that the onus is on India to deescalate tensions, Ambassador Misri said, “I think we have been very clear, and very consistent in pointing out that it has been Chinese actions over an extended period of time, that are responsible for the current situation.”
In fact, with its policy of territorial aggrandizement, China has set its relations with India back. The worsening of ties with China came as Nepal stirred a row with India, many believe at Beijing’s behest, over a map of its border regions with India. Fraying of our ties with Nepal is another symptom of India’s diplomatic failure to counter China in South Asia.
For its part, Nepal has not read China’s intentions in the South Asian region and it will seriously suffer if it falls prey to Chinese advances to turn it into a third front in a Sino-Indian war. When it comes to Lipulekh or the matter of sovereignty at large, Nepal has every right to act. However, those acts are supposed to strengthen Nepal’s position rather sensitizing the main plank and letting go the options in engagements and dialogues for normalizing its ties with India. Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli should come to terms with the sensitivities and positively reciprocate on India’s concern for China’s move to open the third front through Nepal for countering India’s geo-political and economic interests.
Given the authoritarian and militaristic impulses of China, the vision for ‘Asian Century’ is being hollowed out. India should reassess its priorities in international relations and realign them with an outcome-driven approach. China has reasons to be upbeat about its plans but India has no option left but to answer China through different means. Just selectively banning the apps is not suffice, India’s response has to rise above petty considerations that otherwise shape the priorities of Narendra Modi government.
Though the de-escalation has started at borders near Galwan but both India and China have to think deep about the strategic failure that led to terrible moments. China must think for ‘Asian Century’, it should not keep a flawed notion for attaining a ‘Chinese Century’. A normal India-China relation would do well for entire continent and humanity.
Written by: Atul K Thakur and Rajiv Jayaram
Thakur is a Public Policy Professional and Columnist; Jayaram is a Journalist and Political Commentator. They can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org