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The China-India Confrontation in Ladakh: Three Explanations

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The recent border clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers that led to casualties on both sides has raised concerns about hostilities between the two neighboring nations. In considering the reasons behind this flare-up, Kanti Bajpai of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore argues that the incident has significantly damaged Sino-Indian relations and that Beijing and Delhi will have to do much to repair trust, stabilize their border, and promote cooperation in the years ahead.

The China-India Confrontation in Ladakh: Three Explanations

Anti-China protest in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir: Is Beijing’s growing assertiveness and wolf-warrior diplomacy behind the conflict? (Credit: Sajadhameed / Shutterstock.com)

On the night of June 15, Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan area of Ladakh fought in the most serious clash between the two armies since 1967. No shots were fired but in the pitched hand-to-hand combat, up to 43 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and 20 Indian Army soldiers may have died. In addition, ten Indian soldiers were detained by the Chinese for a day. While the figures are not confirmed, these numbers still represent the highest number of casualties on the border – the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – that runs between 2000 kilometers to 3500 kilometers (China and India disagree on the length).

Precisely why, in the midst of troop disengagements from their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the two contingents should have battled each other in a massive melee at 16,000 feet is unclear. But what led to the ratcheting up of tensions in several places along the LAC in Ladakh beginning in early May 2020? Most of the explanations are to be found in the Indian and international media, where at least three major lines of analysis are evident. Here is a largely Indian-derived view of the confrontation.

The context

Beginning in early May 2020 (some say as early as mid-April), China consolidated a military presence in at least four areas at the LAC in the Ladakh area. Beijing claims that those areas have always been part of China and that it has regularly patrolled them. Delhi claims that the areas are on India’s side of the LAC and that even if there were occasional Chinese patrols in the vicinity (because the LAC is not very finely defined), the PLA now looks to assert permanent control. China wants India to stop all road building and other activity in the area. India refuses to do so, arguing that Chinese infrastructure built in the 1990s and 2000s is superior, and Indian infrastructure construction is aimed at reducing the asymmetry and no more.

It is against this set of differences that the clash at Galwan occurred, ironically while both sides were implementing a local disengagement of forces as agreed during a meeting of senior officers on June 6.

The strategic importance of Galwan

The first explanation of China-India tensions focuses on control of the Galwan area. Beyond conflicting historical claims over ownership of Galwan is its strategic importance. While Chinese infrastructure in Tibet had grown in size and quality in the 1990s, India had lagged behind in the construction of logistical roads and bridges. Over the last decade, however, Delhi has sped up its efforts and more or less completed the 250-kilometer road that connects Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to Daulat Beg Oldi, the last Indian outpost before the Chinese border.

Essentially, the strategic gain for China is that from the Galwan Heights (Patrol Point 14) its forces look down at the highway and can monitor and interdict Indian forces with artillery fire, thereby negating India’s catchup. China argues that in building the highway India has violated an understanding on stability along contested areas. India counters that it is only trying to reduce the infrastructure asymmetry in this sensitive area by increasing connectivity on its side of the LAC.

The problem with this line of explanation of Chinese actions is that the road from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldi has been under construction for two decades and is hardly news to China. If Beijing were of a mind to disrupt or negate India’s advancing infrastructure capabilities, it could have done so much earlier.

China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy

A second explanation of the tensions is that they must be seen in the context of China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards various territorial and political disputes in Asia. Beijing’s assertiveness, in this view, can be seen in its changed language on reunification with Taiwan and its air intrusions in Taiwanese air space, the new national security law for Hong Kong, its recent military moves in the East and South China Sea, and even its economic and other moves against Australia.

Beijing’s belligerence in Ladakh is thought to form part of a pattern of signalling to rivals in the region including the US that despite the Covid-19 crisis and economic slowdown in China, it is determined to defend its interests. Indeed, it is determined to take advantage of the relative disarray let loose by the pandemic in the rest of the world to chart its rise, as it did after the 2008 global economic crisis. In the case of India, the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the country’s increasing economic difficulties presented an opportunity.

A rider to this explanation is that domestic politics in China has in part driven its new assertiveness. Observers in India, as elsewhere, have argued that the pressures on Chinese leader Xi Jinping due to his handling of an array of issues – his status within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), relations with the US, the economic slowdown, the Covid-19 outbreak – have attracted criticism. Internal dissatisfaction may have led him to try to distract attention by stirring up nationalist feelings over China’s external quarrels.

There are at least two difficulties with fitting India into this larger explanation of China’s recent foreign policy. First, Beijing is far more concerned with conflicts in East Asia. Even now, after the violence in Galwan, Chinese official statements and media notice of it have been quite muted and have not played up the crisis for both the external and domestic audience. Second, given the array of moves it has made in East Asia, and given tensions with Australia and the US, opening a front with India would seem only to complicate China’s strategic environment and distract it from its primary theatre.

Border security near Ladakh: The most serious clash between Indian and Chinese troops since 1967 (Credit: Sajadhameed / Shutterstock.com)

Border security near Ladakh: The most serious clash between Indian and Chinese troops since 1967 (Credit: Sajadhameed / Shutterstock.com)

Beijing’s unease over India’s foreign and security policy

This leads us to a third explanation doing the rounds in India which relates specifically to China’s irritation over a series of Indian foreign- and security-policy decisions. This irritation apparently goes back to India’s criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015. Beijing’s discomfiture was compounded by the 73-day military standoff in Doklam (Donglang) in July-August 2017. In the Doklam confrontation, China eventually agreed not to extend the road it was building there, leading to an Indian pullback as part of a disengagement deal.

The Wuhan and Mamallapuram “informal summits” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi in 2018 and 2019 seemed to arrest the slide in relations, but India’s decision to change the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir state, which includes Ladakh, led to a sharp retort from China.

On August 6, 2019, while moving a resolution to abrogate the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah stated: “I want to put on record that whenever I say state of Jammu and Kashmir in the House, then both PoK [Pakistan Occupied Kashmir] and Aksai Chin [the area in Ladakh on China’s side of the LAC] are part of it.” Beijing immediately said that the Indian decision was not acceptable and warned Delhi "to be cautious in its words and actions on the boundary issue”. Soon thereafter, China sought “closed consultations” on the matter in the UN Security Council (UNSC). It followed up by raising the Kashmir issue in the UNSC once again in January 2020. These were the first times since 1971 that Kashmir was placed before the Council.

Beijing’s unease over India’s foreign and security policy continued over Delhi’s growing strategic relationship with Washington. There were several signposts of warming India-US ties. The “Howdy Modi” event in Houston in September 2019 had the Indian Prime Minister and President Donald Trump speak to a raucous overseas Indian crowd of 50,000. This was followed by Trump’s return visit to India in early March 2020 and his “Namaste Trump” rally in Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which was attended by a crowd of over 100,000.

More materially, despite a series of economic and other disputes with the US (over trade, professional visas for Indians, India’s economic relations with Iran, its military purchases from Russia), India signed the last of three key logistics, communications, and technology agreements with the US military in 2019/20. During Trump’s visit, it also cut a US$3-billion defence deal. In addition, after having shown a good degree of ambivalence to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept in 2018, India agreed to the upgrading of FOIP discussions to the ministerial level. More recently, it joined those countries, including the US and Australia, that demanded an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In short, in this view, China’s actions in Ladakh have nothing to do with either the strategic importance of Galwan or Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy in the wake of Covid-19. Rather, they are related to a perception of threats and challenges from various Indian foreign-policy and security decisions over the past five years. The PLA intrusions are a reminder to Delhi and to those who would partner Delhi that India is as safe as China allows it to be and, when the chips are down, it is a paper tiger.

The road ahead

The argument that Chinese intrusions are related to the strategic challenge of India’s new road to Daulat Beg Oldi leaves unanswered the question, “Why now?” Equally, the wolf warrior argument cannot explain why China would want to open yet another front in a secondary theatre when its main concerns are in East Asia.

The policy implications for India of these two arguments about Chinese motives is that there is nothing Delhi can do to stabilize relations. It cannot, and insists it will not, stop the road to Daulat Beg Oldi: stopping it will be tantamount to surrender. If the Ladakh confrontation arises from China’s new wolf warrior diplomacy, then too Delhi has few if any options since Beijing’s aggressiveness arises out of a new grand strategic posture that goes well beyond the relationship with India.

On the other hand, if Chinese perceptions of India’s foreign and security policies in the past several years are the cause of tensions, then there is some policy space for Delhi: there is room for persuasion and reassurance and for clarifying intentions. Clearly, though, this will not be easy. The degree of distrust is high, on both sides. And reaching out after the incident of June 15 will require some climbing down.

China’s unequivocal assertion of territorial ownership has limited its room for maneuver. It would be helped by Indian gestures. At a meeting of Indian political parties on the Galwan incident, Prime Minister Modi mollifyingly said that Chinese forces were no longer in Indian-claimed territory in the area. He also noted that despite the clash, India wants peace. The Chinese media praised Modi’s comments. This suggests that both sides are already looking for a way to get past the events of June 15.

Having said that, most of the agreements and understandings from 1988 onwards have been reduced to tatters. China and India will have to construct a new set of norms, principles, and practices to repair trust, stabilize the border, and promote cooperation in the years ahead. This will be no easy diplomatic task and will probably require a decent interval before it can begin.

One of the features of the past decade has been the frequency of summits. Beijing and Delhi should probably step back from these high-level meetings until the professionals have worked out a truly viable set of accords. Ill-prepared summits can cause more harm than good. In retrospect, the informal summits of 2018 and 2019 may have raised expectations that could not be met. And when subsequent actions did not match expectations, distrust and conflict followed. China and India must move forward but lightly and cautiously.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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