The Galwan road will give easy access to the Indian Army to the Karakoram Pass. China’s overall aim is to wrest this area from India.
India’s attempt to build a conducive environment in its neighbourhood has always been defeated mainly by Pakistan and by China. Pakistan has been working with the single minded aim to destabilise India. China has been attempting to create disturbances across Line of Actual Control (LAC) for years because of a lack of consensus on the definition of LAC. China has tried its best to change the status quo a number of times, despite attempts made to create a positive atmosphere in India-China relations. China perhaps is the only country in the world which does not have any regard for any agreements both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. China failed in abiding by and implementing the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC in the India-China border areas signed in 1993 and the agreement on confidence building measures in the military field along the LAC in the India-China border areas signed in 1996. The declaration on principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation between India and China signed in 2003 was again never followed by China.
Both India and China had agreed to give due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests and follow the principle of mutual and equal security as enshrined in the Article IV of the agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China boundary question signed in 2005 could not help in building consensus in the last 15 years. The two sides had agreed to strictly respect and observe the LAC and work together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.
The recent standoff is testimony to the fact that China does not adhere to agreements it signs formally. The ongoing India-China standoff has defeated the purpose of the Wuhan Spirit, which was set forth after the Doklam standoff.
The ongoing crisis has completely vitiated the atmosphere along the Sino-Indian border. Almost a week after the Chinese foreign ministry stated that the situation along the border in Ladakh was “stable and controllable”, the two sides have initiated military level talks and prepared a roadmap for de-escalation of the situation. Going by the statement of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, and reports emanating from Ministry of Defence sources, it would be safe to assume that the two Armies are preparing to commence a “limited disengagement” in eastern Ladakh to end the month-long standoff. After the first round of talks, a series of meetings is planned to move the respective Armies back to “peace positions”.
Needless to say, both armies reflect the views and strategies of their respective political establishments in New Delhi and Beijing. New Delhi’s stand has been that the onus of de-escalation lies with China as the prime mover in the standoff and related offensive moves. The Army high command in Beijing replaced the Army Commander for its Western Theatre Command ground forces responsible for handling the border. Lieutenant General Xu Qiling was appointed as the new Commander of the PLA to take part in the talks.
The immediate provocation for the present face-off is to register China’s stiff opposition to India constructing an important all-weather road near the Pangong Tso lake besides constructing another road connecting the nearly 255 km long Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldi road in Galwan valley. This road will facilitate the Indian Army to easily access its post in the Karakoram Pass, which oversees Chip Chap river, Trig heights and Depsang plains. China’s overall aim is to wrest this area from the Indian Army and then build its proposed road connecting Tibet with Gilgit-Baltistan, weakening India’s position in Siachen Glacier. This will join the Karakoram Highway (KKH) running from Kashghar to Islamabad via Khunjerab Pass and Gilgit. China needs to protect its assets in POK to ensure unhindered passage to Gwadar in the Indian Ocean. It is evident that given the woeful military strength of Pakistan, any Indian action in POK will jeopardise Beijing’s strategy.
Beijing’s aggressive posturing in Doklam in 2017 and the present standoff in Ladakh are as per plan and in keeping with its overall geopolitical objectives of regional expansion and aggressive trade, undercutting global rules and regulations and also contain India’s rise.
The 73-day Doklam standoff appeared to spin off into a serious conflict between India and China, but both countries showed maturity and decided to de-escalate. It was in this background that the Wuhan informal summit between the two top leaders happened. India downplayed invitation to the Tibetan leaders and Taiwanese representatives to Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony. China on its part lifted its earlier objection of inclusion of Pakistan in the “grey list” of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Both leaders agreed to give “strategic guidance” to their respective Armies, improve border level communication, work seriously on confidence building measures and strengthen mechanisms to manage border tensions.
But it was not easy for New Delhi to secure China’s nod for the UNSC resolution to designate the Pakistan-based chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, as a terrorist. Though Beijing relented at the last moment, it was clear that the level of bonhomie was slowly but surely receding. Modi government’s bold decision to abrogate Article 370 giving special status to J&K and creation of two Union Territories came in for sharp criticism from Pakistan and China. But both countries could do very little harm to India in the international arena. Much to the chagrin of Beijing, the government reiterated that Aksai Chin was part of Ladakh and therefore an integral part of India (a position stated by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Parliament). New Delhi also took a pro-active stand in the Quad meeting held in US, though China views the platform as an anti-access security net against it.
It was certain that the Wuhan Spirit was slowly evaporating and none of the confidence building measures was working. China continued to block India’s participation in the Afghanistan reconstruction projects, where Pakistan has a greater say. China also blocked India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
The second informal summit planned in Mamallapuram near Chennai in Tamil Nadu came under the cloud. Beijing confirmed the itinerary just 48 hours before the scheduled summit was set to begin. Even as both countries were trying to reset the bilateral relationship to normal level and insulate it from minor irritants, the Covid-19 crisis has taken the remaining spirit out of the two summits.
The last whiff of the Wuhan Spirit vanished with the standoff in Ladakh which took almost more than a week to reach the negotiating table. Meanwhile, as the anti-China coalition gathers momentum there will be pressure on New Delhi to take a clear side, while Beijing will continue to accuse India of colluding with anti-China forces.
The genie of mistrust is out of the bottle. Sooner or later, India would need to understand China’s intentions, its behavioural patterns and fundamental goals. It would help India in enhancing its preparedness for managing such eventuality emanating from China frequently.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor and Heads the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. Seshadri Chari is a well known Political Commentator and Strategic Analyst.