As the senior commanders met for the second time since the beginning of the Ladakh crisis to find ways to ease the Himalayan tension caused by the China-India face-off, a large part of India’s strategic community and public suggested a befitting riposte. The tense face-off turned out to be the bloodiest since China and India went for a limited war over the same dispute in 1962. Since both sides seem to have taken up hardline positions over their territorial claims, the issue may potentially escalate to a dangerous limit.
The Ladakh face-off continues to remain unclear as there are claims and counter-claims by both sides. Indian media reports suggest that Chinese troops moved to what is considered to be Indian territory and crossed over to Indian territory, after India built several hundred kilometres of road that connected to an airstrip. The first confrontation took place in early May. China, as India claims, intruded several hundred kilometres inside Indian territory and occupied key posts in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso. The June 16 clash between the troops with wooden staves and nail studded clubs was the severest in decades that left 20 men dead including an Indian Army colonel.
There is a history of skirmishes and standoffs between China and India. Limited war in 1962, Nathu La and Cho La clashes in 1967, Tulung La killings in 1975, Sino-India skirmish in 1987, Daulat Beg Oldi incident in 2013, and Doklam military standoff in 2017, besides other confrontations and transgressions that have taken place between China and India along the long Line of Actual Control (LAC), over which both countries have overlapping territorial claims. As reported in a section of the Indian press, transgressions by Chinese military stand at 273, 426 and 326 in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively. This suggests that there is continuous confrontation on LAC by troops of both countries.
What are the lessons drawn? Some Indian analysts believe that there is “no conceivable solution to this problem” but there are, of course, some conceivable lessons or conclusions from the ongoing China-India standoff. First: India’s political leadership was found lacking in dealing with the crisis. Second: Indian military might stand exposed. Indian military leadership has somehow come to terms with its military inferiority. They have realised their inability to win an outright war with China and there is an obvious fact that China’s national defence budget stands at $261 billion which is almost thrice that of India’s $71.1 billion. Third: the China-India Ladakh face-off has created a divide amongst the strategic community and public. Those driven by nationalistic sentiment want a “befitting response” of humiliation caused at the hands of China while saner elements suggest “calm” as they think war with China would be an unwinnable venture. Fourth: territorial disputes may be shelved at some cost but must be resolved at all cost. Living with a flawed status quo or sitting over the dispute will only make matters worse. Fifth: territorial disputes are dangerous flashpoints and global powers must find an appropriate mechanism to address them. Sixth: confrontations over disputes give rise to nationalism which negatively impacts globalisation.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration struggles to regain what they lost on the political and military fronts, his Ladakh dilemma gets murkier, so do his foreign policy choices. PM Modi’s dream of spearheading the Asian century together with China has shattered, at least for the moment, with Ladakh showdown. Whatever may be the outcome of this confrontation, India has few myths broken and some realities exposed. For an aspiring regional power, there is a dire need to carry out comprehensive appraisal of its issues with China and other neighbours. Advice: When you decide to carry out a generous appraisal of issues, begin by first reconciling with your ego.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2020.