K N Pandita
Reporting that the embattled commanders of India and China in Ladakh have agreed to disengagement of troops at the Pangong Tso watershed, the Hindustan Times of 16 February quoted an official source making a cryptic remark which no policy planner can afford to ignore. The commentator had said that the speed at which China has moved back its armoured units is not only surprising but it also shows their capacity to deploy the tanks and heavy vehicles again. In case there is a breach of agreement, has India a corresponding plan which she can put in place? For quite some President Xi has been exhorting the PLA to be in battle readiness for any challenge of which he has the apprehension. PLA commanders have been conducting field exercises on the land and sea.
Started on February 10, the disengagement in Pangong Tso region — Phase I of agreement— is scheduled to be completed by 20 February Forty-eight hours after the completion of disengagement under Phase 1, the two sides will resume interaction for disengagement at other friction points along the border. The intention expressed by both sides is to return to their respective positions that existed on 20 April 2020.
Indian field commanders noted that China completed Phase 1 of the agreement within 4 or 5 days of signing the deal. The speed and smoothness with which China undertook this withdrawal baffled them and the media reporters. Why are they somewhat sceptical about China’s speedy withdrawal much ahead of the agreed time frame? Soon after cobbling the disengagement deal, China began pulling back 200 of her main battle tanks and no fewer than a hundred heavy vehicles that ferried troops from friction points on the north bank to the Srijap sector, the East of Finger 8 (mountainous spur). Observers are rather mystified by a surprising speed with which Chinese commanders have not only withdrawn men and material from the existing point of friction but have also dismantled the bunkers earlier than the expected date.
A former top Indian diplomat is of the view that harsh winter conditions in Ladakh could be the reason for China to agree to disengagement policy. Furthermore, as this year marks the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing thought it desirable to reduce the tension along the border with India and send a message that China wanted peace in the region. However, as far as the harsh winter theory, it is rather an implausible argument since the Chinese army is well equipped and well-conditioned with assured logistic support to fight mountain warfare in a cold region. The more severe part of the Himalayan winter is already over.
China began pulling back from Phase I region of the agreement and the troops on both sides are supposed to return to pre-April 2020 position whereas the Indian army will hold its traditional base Dhan Singh post at Finger 3 and PLA will be at Finger -8. No patrolling between F3 and F8 will be allowed.
Some China watchers think that Beijing’s Eastern Ladakh move has a strategic underpinning. It had taken a position vis-a-vis the Indo-US combined sensitivity of the Ladakh border scenario. This position had met with a change as Biden took the reins of administration in the US. China could reinforce its claim to improving relations with India by agreeing to the withdrawal of troops to their traditional position along Sino – Indian border all along the Himalayan mountain line.
The agreement may be interpreted by China as an expression of the intent of ultimately going back to their permanent bases as existed in April 2020. But history tells us that such agreements have been there even before the Chinese made the adventure in Eastern Ladakh. What is of importance is honouring the agreements and maintaining their sanctity at any cost. India complains that Beijing has been vacillating on McMahon Line and thus finding a pretext of breaking agreements. China may have rejected the McMahon Line but as long as the British were in the subcontinent, China did not dare to trespass into the Indian side of the Line. How come that no sooner the British left India than China raised the border issue all along the Himalayan line and adopted a belligerent posture in 1962. It was the bullying tactics. We believe the heroic retaliation by the Indian lion-hearts in 2020 has presumably changed the entire landscape of the six-decade-long Sino-Indian border dispute. Its repercussions will be far-reaching.
The second narrative of China is that India is building infrastructure close to the Chinese positions along the Himalayas that poses a threat to her security. The ground situation is that much ahead of India China was engaged in raising formidable infrastructure like roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, pumping stations, and even launching pads very close to the Indian border. To bring railway line to Lhasa which presupposed raising huge infrastructure and military build-up, China obtained five thousand square kilometres area at Aksai Chin from the illegal control of Pakistan. The present standoff began after India had inaugurated road connectivity leading to the China border from Lipulekh between India’s Uttarakhand State and the Tibet region of China in April 2020.
The disengagement pact has come into existence after at least nine rounds of talks between the commanders of the two sides over about six months. Protracted talks, mostly conducted by army commanders and not by political leaders, merit to be analysed from a broad perspective of regional strategy. Chinese agreement to withdrawal is, at least, an indication that China has made a significant shift in her perception of India from disparity to parity. In all probability, it appears that apart from the local tactical issues, the sides might have broadened the canvas to cover the entire gamut of Sino-India border dispute, and its fall out in the region.
Some Sinologists consider Ladakh disengagement a notable turn in China’s unremitting expansionist designs in the Himalayan region. The Eurasian Times of 12 February bluntly said, “As India and China start disengaging their troops from the contested border in Eastern Ladakh, how will New Delhi position itself in the US-led anti-China bloc, QUAD? Political punditry will reflect on the subject. In the first place, the disengagement under discussion pertains to only one intrusion viz. Pangong Tso and standoff at other points remain intact. Secondly, China’s known anti-India posturing has served as a clarion call to Indian border policy planners. It will escalate the arms race between the two sides. China has already begun to produce the counterfoil to India’s Rafael arsenal.
Indications from sections of the western press are that with the signing of disengagement deal in Ladakh and the promise of carrying the disengagement full circle, India has been rethinking her position in the Quad which, for all intents and purposes is anti-China movement. Can India bailout China provided China concedes its expansionist and Middle Kingdom Utopias?
Secondly, the Quad is a must because it reflects the convergence of joint responsibility of shielding democracy against authoritarian dispensation. The world is standing on the crossroad of rivalling ideologies that specifically would draw the nations to the war of civilizations. Humanity has paid a heavy price for the sustenance of democracy and it must preserve it against a new pattern of a threat today. Indian nation opting for democratic dispensation has made the most significant contribution to the universal growth and strengthening of Indian Sanskriti.
Generally speaking, the foreign policy of big countries is guided by pragmatism or what is technically called realpolitik. International relations are seldom subservient to moral or ethical laws; national interests reign supreme. China has to be suave if she wants to understand the spirit of India. In a way, modern India is thankful to China for helping her rise from the deep stupor of non-violence. China taught India the truth that “power flows from the barrel of the gun.” How can India overlook the vicious anti-India policy of China in which she erroneously thinks only of rivalry and not of peaceful coexistence is the choice?
Leaving these assumptions aside, there is unquestionably the economic factor that is playing a role in formulating the contours of a long-term friendly relationship between the two Asian giants. It was Deng Xiaoping, the former President of China, who gave the idea that China’s rise to proverbial Middle Kingdom status was only through reforming China’s own and controlling world economy.
The May 2020 standoff between the two countries resulted in NDA Government imposing tariffs on Chinese goods. Ever since Galwan Valley clash on 15 June 2020 Indian Government has banned more than 100 Chinese apps on the plea of a threat to national security. To thwart dependence on China, Indian Railways cancelled Rs. 471 crore worth deals with a Chinese firm. Government of India instructed the state-owned telecom firm BSNL not to use the gear from a Chinese firm Huawei for a network upgrade in the backdrop of a military standoff. The GOI made it compulsory for all products to have the ‘Country of Origin’ tag on the shopping website to identify China-made products. Import of colour TV sets was placed under restricted category and air conditioners were placed under the prohibited category. Besides these and other measures, many Indian State Governments imposed curbs or ban on a partnership with Chinese firms in manufacturing finished products in India. There has been a wave of resentment among the Indians against the aggressive attitude of China and its flexing of muscle power to showdown India. Cool thinking must have cleared the atmosphere for China to understand how much loss she willingly brings to her people and her government.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University)
K N Pandita