China takes time to react. It reacts at a time, place and manner of its own choosing. Its reaction is backed by full preparations for all consequential contingencies. China’s reaction is always fully considered, well calibrated and unambiguous—as in Depsang,Ladakh in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017. China now has a fully equipped operational base in Tibet carefully built up after the Doklam standoff.
This time the activity in the Hot Springs and Galwan Valley areas of Ladakh is on multiple axes and includes part of the eastern Jammu and Kashmir area. More than twelve flag meetings on the Line of Actual Control agreed between India and China have failed to resolve the issue. The format for flag meetings is well established and the last highest level meeting was between an Indian Lieutenant General and a Chinese Major General and like the other ones it failed. This has been followed by a gag order on Indian media indicating that India is in difficulty and does not want the true situation to emerge. In situations like this the Indian media whips up public opinion and bays for action without considering the issue objectively. This has been the norm during India –Pakistan situations and during the last episode—the botched Indian Balakot operation—India failed but used the media to cover up its lapses.
While the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) is well documented and well known the Chinese claim line beyond the LOAC towards India though clearly stated by China is less well known because of deliberate obfuscation by India. As late as 2018 after the Doklam crisis there was agreement that India would not change the infrastructure status quo along the LOAC. Evidently India did not honor this agreement and the Chinese detected activity that would have given the Indians presence in the area and tactical advantages. In mountainous areas such seemingly low level actions can have significant effects. The Chinese decided to act to preempt further activity, stop ongoing activity and coerce India to restore status quo. Chinese resolve is backed by clearly visible military muscle. They mean to get what they want. In fact, in the background is the Chinese claim over the entire Aksai Chin Plateau but that is not what China is pushing for right now.
Stepping back from the immediate situation it is clear that India’s unilateral action in August last year to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh led to reverberations beyond the India-Pakistan situation because the disputed status of Kashmir has been endorsed in many UN Resolutions. If India thought that by its blatant step it had resolved the Kashmir issue in its favor, then it miscalculated seriously as is evident from the reaction in Kashmir and the brutality unleashed on the Kashmiris including steps to change the demographic reality. The Kashmir situation is not resolved and Indian actions on the LOC and elsewhere will have consequences. Apparently China has not accepted the Indian action to bring Ladakh under New Delhi’s control and India has exacerbated the situation by irresponsible statements about its claim to Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan. This too does not suit China nor does Indian talk of the CPEC going through ‘disputed’ areas. India has also irked China by its stance on the Hong Kong and South China Sea situations. What India has got is what India asked for.
India has the option to confront China militarily but it is likely to face humiliation. So far no shots have been fired and there have been reports of scuffles and Indian soldiers beaten up with nail studded baseball type bats but India has not confirmed any such activity. The gag order on its media indicates that India does not want the situation to escalate. India is playing up the political and diplomatic option to resolve the dispute. This may take time and may lead to unacknowledged acceptance of the new status quo. India may, however, begin a buildup in the area over the longer term to contain the Chinese where they are and they will give serious thought to the Chinese Claim Line. China will not be idle—in fact it has already conducted high altitude exercises. Perhaps India is banking too heavily on its strategic relations with the US.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)
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