Prem Shankar Jha

India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension

f political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension
Map of the Galwan Valley region. Credit: Google Maps

It is 1962 all over again. India and China are heading for war, and this time it is not an insecure defence minister (Krishna Menon) and a gung-ho army chief who had never seen a shot fired in action (B.M. Kaul) who are driving India towards it. This time, it is a bunch of retired army officers, many of whom have not even served in the Ladakh region, egged on by television channels that see in the tragedy in Galwan valley an opportunity to increase their TRP ratings and increase their revenues in the future.

The dominant narrative has it that the hand-to-hand fight in the Galwan valley on June 15 took place because the Chinese never intended to honour the disengagement agreement reached on June 6 and were pursuing their seven-decades old policy of slicing off whatever territory they wanted in the Himalayan region. So when a small Indian contingent set off up the Galwan river to confront them and demand that they withdraw, the Chinese responded by ambushing it and killing 20 of our jawans, including their colonel.

What this narrative ignores is that both sides have differing perceptions of where the line of actual control (LAC) runs. In some areas, the lines overlap, creating a grey zone to which both sides lay claim and where the two armies have developed rules of engagement that occasionally come unstuck.

That is why the army’s official statement on the incident was matter of fact:

“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”

The MEA’s first statement on June 16 blamed the incident on Chinese attempts to alter the status quo: “On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.”

On June 17, the MEA’s readout of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s conversation with his Chinese counterpart went one step further,

“The Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC,”, the MEA spokesperson said. “While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

While the increase in the temperature of India’s official statements is noticeable, so is the careful calibration. Regrettably, the electronic media is showing no such restraint. Virtually every channel except NDTV has been ending its programmes by forcing political dignitaries from both the Congress and BJP to choose between advising caution and thereby condoning the death of the Indian soldiers, and demanding a reckoning from China.

Needless to say, nearly all party representatives on TV agree that China has to be taught a lesson, and that the best way to do this is to break every international trade agreement and convention India has signed, drive every Chinese product and every Chinese company out of the Indian market and be prepared for war.

The storm of jingoism that the media has created has already forced Prime Minister Modi to abandon some of his initial caution and say that India will give “a befitting reply to provocation”. It has also given him an opportunity to merge his atma-nirbharta (self-reliance) campaign, conceived to divert public attention away from the failure of his COVID lockdown, with the clarion call to nationalism which has served him so well before. Should he now decide to ‘stand up to  the Chinese dragon’ it is difficult to see any political party that will have the courage and strength to oppose him and advise caution.

War is therefore only one fatal misstep away.  Should that step be taken, India will once again be embroiled in a conflict that, given the nature of the terrain, it cannot possibly win.

What happened at Galwan

The only way the government can avert this is by telling the public everything that had been decided on June 6 and June 13, set the record straight about what happened at Galwan on June 14-15, and hope that better sense will prevail. This, to the best of my knowledge, is what happened:

At the corps commander-level meeting on Saturday, June 13, the two sides had agreed to withdraw their forces to a distance of two kilometres from where they were then. Where the Chinese were then, both in the Galwan river area and above Pangong lake was not indisputably on the Indian side of the LAC but on the Chinese side as defined by them, and thus in the grey zone. At Pangong it was the ridge above Finger 4 of the lake. In the Galwan valley it was at a point the Indian army called PP (Patrol Point) 14. The Indian definition of the LAC was some distance east of the Chinese  at Pangong, and pretty much contiguous with it at Galwan except at a few places.

It is important to make this clear because at no point, except for the location of one little tent, did the Chinese try to “slice off” any fresh territory, as TV anchors are claiming. Everything they did was within their understanding of the de facto LAC established after the 1962 war and accepted in principle by both countries in the Agreement On Peace And Tranquility In The Border Regions, of 1993.

This is also true of the Chinese military build-up at various points in Aksai Chin since May. In fact, the support base of the troops in the Galwan valley is 40 kms to the east, beyond even the Indian definition of the LAC in the area. This is equally true of the support bases for the build up at Pangong lake and the three other points in Ladakh.

When the 14th corps headquarters realised on June 15 that the Chinese had not only not begun their withdrawal as stipulated in the agreement, but had set up a tent on the Indian side of PP14 and a fresh observation post on the Chinese side, it sent a detachment to remove the tent, and request the Chinese to withdraw from the observation post in line with the agreement of June 13.

Indian soldiers removed the tent on the 15th. The same day, Col Babu and his men proceeded to the observation post at the China-defined LAC, reaching there at 4 pm. When he asked the Chinese why they had set up the observation post after the June 13 agreement, he was given the possibly disingenuous answer that it was to make sure that  the Indian troops were withdrawing to the stipulated distance first, before doing so themselves. As of now, one can only speculate on how this discussion turned into an altercation and then into the lethal battle that followed. Suffice it to say that the Chinese were prepared to fight with improvised weapons, and a tragedy ensued  that can end by changing the course of Indian, and possibly world history in the months and years to come.

China tamps down rhetoric, somewhat

The Chinese government has made it clear that it does not want the incident to derail China-India relations any more than they have already been derailed in the past six years. To do this, it has, in addition to its official statement on Wednesday, resorted to its unofficial mouthpiece on foreign policy, Global Times, to cool tempers in China and send a message to India that it does not want a war.

In an article titled “Chinese netizens call for restraint and reason in wake of China-India border clash”, the author, Chen Xi warned his readers against the wave of xenophobia that was sweeping China and highlighted message after message that did the opposite:  “Some Chinese netizens took to social media Twitter to state that the incident should not undermine the common development of the two countries” .

He particularly  singled out one from a Chinese netizen who calls himself  Hubei_Peasant: “I really hope friends and comrades don’t provoke Indian people on Twitter or engage with any bad-faith provocations. It tarnishes what soft power we have left, and any inflammation of Indian public opinion is contrary to our interests. Silence is golden”.

China has sent a second signal by agreeing on June 17th to release 10 soldiers whom they had captured at the observation post.

While the soldiers were indeed freed within 24 hours of the agreement, some hardening of the Chinese stand was evident too by June 18 with the Global Times editor putting out a video and tweet warning India not to underestimate China’s resolve.

China’s aims

In all this, there is a question that needs answering: If Beijing is not following a policy of cloaking incremental expansionism in subterfuge, and genuinely does not want the conflict to escalate, why did its soldiers do what they did in Galwan, bringing the two countries to the brink of war?

There is one other possible explanation: It has been apparent for some time that China’s sudden hardening of stance over the boundary issue is designed to warn Delhi against reneging on  the implicit and explicit understandings that have  sustained peace in the border region since 1993. Foremost among these is the maintenance of equidistance from all power blocs in the post Cold War world.

India has gone back on this in  the past six years. It has signed an agreement with the  US to force freedom of navigation in the south China sea, sent warships to join a US-Japanese task force to do so; joined Operation Malabar with the US and Australia – one of whose “ war games”  is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 90 percent of China’s imported oil passes; and signed three military logistics agreements with the US that have made India a de facto military ally of the US in a future war.

Had Modi stopped there, China might not have reacted. But he has also reneged on past understandings with China over Indian non-intervention in its construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit, and on the understanding reached with Pakistan by two Indian prime ministers,  Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, that the LOC in Kashmir will be turned into a ‘soft border’ between the two countries, thereby leaving the CPEC alone.

Under Modi, India reneged on this understanding  not only in words but deeds, for in 2018 he made China’s acceptance of India’s claim to Gilgit a precondition for signing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). By doing this, he literally cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face, because the Chinese  were depending upon India’s insatiable need to modernise its  infrastructure to fill the order books of the  huge ‘mother machine’ heavy industries that  were lying idle after its 2009-14 domestic fiscal stimulus ended.

The end of Article 370

Mod did not stop there. Not only did he and defence minister Rajnath Singh state more than once  that India will take back every inch of its territory including PoK and Aksai Chin.

Following on from the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and its division into two union territories, India released a new political map in November 2019.

Like all official Indian maps, it shows neither the line of control with Pakistan nor the LAC with China and did not alter the external boundaries of India in Ladakh in any way. Its purpose may have only been to remind the faithful of the BJP’s great achievement in eliminating Article 370 and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir into two but its release may have also been misunderstood by the Chinese. This was not the first time New Delhi was reasserting its stand that Aksai Chin is a part of India. But when the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi – barely 20 kms as the crow flies from the Karakoram Pass –  has just been been repaired and a fairly good modern road linking it to Pangong,  Durbuk and Leh has been completed, Beijing may well have convinced itself that Modi could no longer be relied upon not to try to put a spoke in the CPEC project.

China’s sudden decision to unilaterally define the LAC, by militarising its side of it, is therefore a political message. A return to the status quo ante required political discussions, and these had begun at both the diplomatic and military headquarters level. But military commands do not explain the political rationale of the orders they give to soldiers on the ground. The Chinese troops at Galwan were no doubt told to hold their territory without using firearms until they received further orders. That they made elaborate preparations to do so, including damming rivulets to provide water for the use of water cannons, is now apparent.

Col. Babu and his men were similarly not kept in any political loop. They too had been given simple orders: clear the tent, find out what the Chinese are up to and persuade them to withdraw as per the June 13 agreement.  The rest is now history. If political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

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