China’s motives in provoking the Depsang valley incident in Ladakh are not easy to decipher. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the undemarcated India-China border is not defined on the ground, unlike in the case of the Line of Control in J&K. We have our own perception of the areas we control and the Chinese their own. One way to signal territorial control is patrolling, which both sides undertake in contested areas. Until the sovereignty over these areas is determined through an agreement, both sides want to maintain the appearance of actual control, with periodic patrolling serving as proof in future negotiations. Neither side, however, as matter of practice, sets up posts in the disputed areas- a noteworthy point.
In Depsang valley the Chinese have violated this practice. Since the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident in the eastern sector, this is possibly the first major one of this nature. The implication of setting up a tent and staying put for almost two weeks is that the Chinese are now frontally and unilaterally asserting their sovereignty over an area that India too claims. If all these years they did not feel the need to do this, why now? The question is all the more pertinent because the purpose of the 1993 peace and tranquility agreement and the 1996 agreement on CBMs was not to bar patrolling but to avoid any headlong clash between patrols and observe a certain protocol if they did come face to face.
What is puzzling is that, purely militarily speaking, the Chinese move makes no sense. They can be easily dislodged by the Indian army. The Chinese platoon has limited provisions and there is no evidence of any planned logistic support. Even if that was there, their lines can be easily cut off, forcing them to retreat. Alternatively, India could set up a similar position outflanking the Chinese one and wait for the stand-off to run its course. If, as some speculate, the Chinese move might be a riposte to aggressive Indian patrolling in eastern Ladakh in the Chumar area, then why choose such an ineffective counter in military terms?
The argument that this could be an action by a local commander, without any larger military or political design, no longer holds because apart from two flag meetings on the spot, the demarche to the Chinese Ambassador by the Foreign Secretary hasn’t resolved the stand-off. The top leadership in China has now been seized of India’s protest through the Ambassador, but the Chinese government is asserting that they have not violated any agreement with India and that their platoon is within their side of the LAC.
Some argue that the Chinese have decided to pressure us in order to dissuade us from participating in the US pivot towards Asia, about which they are deeply concerned. Firstly, India is quite reluctant to join for larger reasons relating to doubts about the capacity and willingness of the US to seriously confront China. Secondly, such intimidating steps do not make any sense as the more China takes them, the more opinion in India would look favourably at forging partnerships with US, Japan, Australia and South-East countries that too are threatened by Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. With China already embroiled in such maritime disputes in the east, common sense would dictate that they do not open up another front with India in the west, as this will only to serve to deepen concerns all round about Chinese assertiveness as the country grows stronger. Such does not seem to be China’s thinking, however.
It is difficult to believe, as some suggest, that the communist party and the PLA might be at odds with each other after the change of leadership in China and that this adventure in Ladakh constitutes independent muscle-flexing by the PLA. The latter supposedly wants to send a hard signal about India to the political leadership in China before Premier Le Keqiang visits us in May. If this were so, the PLA would have chosen to provoke us in a location and with means that would make their action more credible. As things are, the Chinese have exposed themselves to an effective rebuff by the Indian armed forces, which could cause them great embarrassment potentially. The assessment of those who believe that our forces are not capable of dealing with this incident and any likely escalation thereafter by the Chinese seems erroneous.
China’s action is also at variance with the general improvement of India-China ties, notably in the economic domain but also in terms of maintaining high level political exchanges bilaterally and working together in multilateral groupings. Defence contacts and regional dialogues, including the recent one on Afghanistan, are other signs of positive engagement between the two countries. This incident comes in the wake of the supposedly friendly exchanges between our Prime Minister and President XI Jinping at Durban on the occasion of the BRICS Summit. But then, despite the intensity of US-China economic and financial ties, the adversarial element in their relationship is sharpening. With Japan too, despite the huge trade and investment relationship, China is being aggressive on territorial issues. Clearly, the Chinese logic allows slaps and a friendly handshake simultaneously.
One explanation that may not be wrong is that China has begun to believe that India can get easily intimidated, that its leadership is weak and prone to temporize and concede. Past Chinese presidents like Jiang Zemin were privately contemptuous about the fibre of the Indian armed forces. Our lack of reaction to Chinese provocations in recent years, our overly conciliatory political discourse and eagerness to reach out to them may have convinced them that a little show of force will prod us to find ways to placate them.
Our political reaction to their latest provocation would confirm this. We are downplaying its import, calling it a local affair, shielding the Chinese political leadership from responsibility even after our failed demarche to the Chinese Ambassador and the Chinese spokesperson’s repeated statements that they are blameless. We don’t want the relationship built up with such effort to be damaged, as if we have provoked the present crisis. We have taken the responsibility for defusing it before the Chinese premier visits India next month. We seem to be more keen than the Chinese themselves to ensure that Li Keqiang comes and the atmosphere becomes congenial for this visit.
We are describing the Depsang valley incident as part of a growing up process, as acne on the beautiful face of India-China relations. Our six decades of differences with China have, some may say, outlived the phase of adolescence. From China being India’s enemy number one and, more moderately, India’s biggest strategic adversary, the ugly visage of the relationship has now become beautiful. Rather than the Chinese Foreign Minister visiting India to prepare for his Prime Minister’s visit, our Foreign Minister is, most unusually, going there, as if we owe China an explanation for the face-off in Ladakh. If now China withdraws it will seem a friendly gesture in the face of appeals by India.
Why have we lost our nerve? Prudence, yes, but appeasement, no.