International Booster- India China Relations: Ladakh Conflict

India China Relations: Ladakh Conflict

For more than 100 days, tensions have been high between India and China along their disputed Himalayan border. This tension has been most acute in eastern Ladakh, where, in mid-June, 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed in the Galwan Valley, the first fatalities along the de facto Line of Actual Control in 45 years. Even supposing a de-escalation will eventually occur — whether by diplomacy or by seasonal necessity — the likelihood of future cycles of conflict underscores the importance of examining the deeper roots of India and China’s missing border.

Over the last two decades India-China relations had been witnessing tangible improvement and increasing warmth. Tourism was increasing, student traffic from India to China was gaining in significance, academic visits and think tank conferences were becoming more frequent and friendly, Chinese investments — though not huge, was on the upswing just as trade was enormously expanding though much of it was not in India’s favour. Indications were there that India’s perception towards China was perhaps gaining in positivity. Facilitating these developments were the different agreements India entered into with China between 1993 and 2013 and her decision to continue to warm up towards China in the following years. This was also possible because Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping onwards, invested their time and interest in improving relations with India.

The top leaders since Prime Minister Modi’s coming to power in 2014 met innumerable times in India, in China and elsewhere on different bilateral and multilateral platforms. Post Doklam, Modi-Xi meeting in Wuhan in April 2018 generated the phrase the “Wuhan spirit” promising a new era in relationship between India and China. It was followed by Mamallapuram meet in as late as October 2019 encouraging the Economic Times of 13 October to comment that Modi and Xi’s “strategic communication is deepening.” Prime Minister had also encouraged several chief ministers to visit China more than once to secure investments in their states, visits which did produce some results. Earlier, Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat, had set his eyes on China as a source of investment for his state when in 2011 during his visit to China he declared that “the two great countries will make Asia the centre stage of global economy.

During Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 , he and Mr. Xi inaugurated a ‘State/Provincial Leaders’ Forum’ and in its first meeting he declared that in India “the states have a vital role to play in the national development’ and appreciated that both countries are ‘taking our relationship outside our national capitals to state capitals and cities.” In other words, there were clear signs that the new leaders were committed to inject new blood in their bilateral relationship taking advantage of the agreements and informal interactions of the recent past.

In this context, the events of May-June along the western sector of our border come as a surprise, or indeed as a shock. The events are only gradually making their way to the public. Questions such as when and where did they start, what exactly was the nature of the events, how did the two sides respond and with what consequences are still not very clear. What we know is the tragedy of what happened on 15 June. There are still considerable haziness about what really produced this outcome leading to the tragic end to the lives of our twenty soldiers and an unknown number of casualties on the Chinese side.

China suddenly feels globally isolated and criticised, even if covertly, for its ‘neglect’ in promptly reporting the occurrence of novel corona virus within China. Coupled with that is the accusation of exporting defective protective and test materials for fighing the virus. This isolation is leading China to renew its assertion of power both in South and East China seas as well as in India-China border. Secondly, it is being argued that China is taking advantage of India’s deteriorating relations with South Asian neighbours. Pakistan apart, our relations with Nepal is backsliding since the blockade of 2016. India’s domestic policies, such as, implementing National Population Register and Citizenship Amendment Act, have miffed Bangladesh. Bhutan has not shown any interest in BBIN. With Rajapaksha in power, Sri Lanka will have no love lost for India. Even the new regime in Maldives, supposedly friendly towards India unlike the earlier regime, is lately warming up to China.

Thirdly, there is also the apprehension that Chinese assertion on the LAC in Ladakh could be a response to India’s changing the status of Ladakh by deleting Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Change in Ladakh’s status took place in August 2019 and Chinese activities on LAC reportedly started in early September that year and more decidedly right after the end of the following winter, an interesting coincidence indeed. Finally, it could be an attempt by Chinese PLA to gain strategic advantage by coming closer to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie all weather road that India has built over twenty years to strengthen access to DBO airport. It could then block or cut the road if and when it wanted to. Underlying any or all of these could be the Chinese intention to prevent India from getting close to the US and to pull India away from playing a leading role in the Indian Ocean in collaboration with the United States and Japan.

Way forward for China and India

The border agreements and confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the military field along the India-China border areas were based on the premise that maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC is in the fundamental interest of the two countries and will contribute to the ultimate resolution of the boundary question. They also affirmed that neither side shall use/threaten to use force, or seek unilateral military superiority. These existing agreements and protocols now stand completely compromised and negated. There would thus be a requirement to redefine the norms of border management and lay down revised rules of engagement to be followed along the LAC (or the line adopted for defusing the border standoff). Violation of these norms should be made subject to punitive retaliation, as would be expected along a live border.

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