At the all-party meeting on Friday, June 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a closing statement that sent a jolt of electricity through listeners across the country. He said: “Na wahan koi hamare seema mein ghus aya hai; nahin koi ghusa hua hai; nahin hamari koi post kisi doosre ke qabze mein hai” .
Translated idiomatically, this means, “Neither did anyone cross our border and enter (Indian) territory; nor is anyone inside our territory; nor have any of our posts been captured by anyone else.”
The public reaction was so strong that the Prime Minister’s Office excised the first sentence from the video of Modi’s speech that it uploaded on its website. Its inexplicable failure to immediately reject China’s reiterated claim to the whole of the Galwan valley deepened the impression of haste, followed by indecision at the top.
The hyper-nationalist reaction in India to the Galwan incident is completely understandable.
Since India’s defeat in the 1962 war, successive Indian governments have stoked distrust and fear of the Chinese so assiduously and for so long that to even think of that country as anything but a relentlessly ambitious hegemonic power determined to encircle and politically strangle its only rival in Asia, has become something close to treason.
But on this occasion, Modi has refused to pander to this ingrained fear and, with extraordinary courage, spoke the literal, if unpalatable, truth.
The Indian public has been fed a diet of half truths about our relationship with China that have now become serious impediments to peace. Last week, he said exactly what was needed to set the record straight. And by doing so, he opened the way to clearing the misunderstanding that has grown between us and our giant neighbour over the past six years. The commitment announced on June 23 – to resume the phased disengagement agreed to on June 6 – is the first fruit of this break with long-nurtured past preconceptions.
The significance of the Galwan incident
Regardless of what the media has concluded on the basis of satellite images obtained from abroad, the Galwan valley “face-off” was not a Chinese conspiracy but a tragic accident that ballooned into a lethal unarmed battle. It began with a rude, possibly unintended act of extreme disrespect by a Chinese soldier who pushed or struck Colonel Babu.
This was an insult to their commanding officer that no soldier anywhere in the world would have tolerated. What followed had the inevitability of the Mahabharata.
It is also apparent that when they met, the commanding officers on both sides had absolutely no intention of engaging in a confrontation. The mere fact that Col. Babu chose to go with his contingent to the Chinese observation point, shows how keen he was to ensure that the agreed disengagement of troops went smoothly. The fact that neither side used any arms, in a brawl that lasted for several hours, demonstrates that the Chinese were also keen to limit the damage.
Though the Chinese have not admitted to having lost any soldiers and have officially denied one Indian minister’s claim of over 40 dead, their allegation that the Indian side engaged in acts of “a vile nature” suggests they too suffered casualties.
The Chinese captured 10 soldiers but returned them the next day. None of them had been tortured. Yet the fact that Chinese have refused to discuss their casualties indicates the anger in China was every bit as great as in India – the hashtag “China-India Border Clash’ on Sina-Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, received 740 million hits on June 16 – and that Beijing did not wish to further inflame domestic opinion.
In sharp contrast to our TV anchors, the Chinese government’s semi-official mouthpiece, Global Times, has leavened its nationalist coverage of the incident with many sensible comments from readers who asked that peace and good relations be maintained. It is against this background that we need to assess Modi’s concluding remarks.
First, Modi spoke the truth when he said that the Chinese had not entered, built posts in, or occupied any Indian territory. Modi did not elaborate on how he reached this conclusion, but he was not misleading the people, for apart from setting up a lone tent that Col. Babu’s troops removed, I have been told by military sources I trust that the Chinese had not entered, much less occupied, any territory that was outside their definition of what is undisputedly Indian. The observation post at which the fatal brawl took place was not where the tent had been located, but some distance higher up, where China’s and India’s claims about the LAC presumably overlap.
Grey areas have existed ever since the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Region was signed, because the Chinese have stubbornly refused to exchange maps of the Himalayan border belt. Without these, our differing perceptions of where it runs cannot be reconciled. As a result, over the years these areas of differing perception (ADPs) have taken on a life of their own.
An elaborate protocol has developed for ADPs in which, during normal times, patrols meet, wave placards at each other that they are trespassing and part amicably, to the occasional accompaniment of shouts, yells, or a few stones. The Chinese have also used the frequency of these patrols and the intensity of confrontation to send signals of their disquiet on specific issues. One such spurt occurred in the weeks before President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2006. A second bigger spurt took place during, and after the uprising in Tibet and three adjoining Chinese provinces in 2008 on the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet. The Chinese put the blame for it upon seven Tibetan groups in exile who, it claimed, had planned the uprising in Delhi.
Modi’s statement at the all-party meeting was intended to remind everyone that the sending of regular Indian patrols into this grey area is not the equivalent of an Ashwamedha Yagna, and does not make the territory they patrol indisputably ours.
China’s change of strategy
Since neither at Galwan nor at Pangong have the Chinese moved beyond the grey area of overlapping LACs, their sudden decision to dig in on the ridge above Finger 4 of the Pangong Lake in brigade strength with artillery and armour, and now their aggressive claim to virtually the whole of the eastern bank of the Shyok around the Galwan confluence, needs to be read not as an act of aggression, or prelude to expansion, but as another signal – admittedly the strongest they have ever sent – of their growing discomfort with India’s recent policies.
It is, in short, their way of signalling the need to reset relations. We may not like it, but we cannot afford to ignore it.
From where has this disquiet arisen? Its single cause, that I have tracked in several earlier columns since 2015, is Modi’s abrupt reversal of India’s policy of equidistance from power blocs and its use of soft power to promote peace in an increasingly chaotic, post-Westphalian, world.
This commonality of purpose was discovered in the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, requested by the latter, at Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2009. This became the first of a succession of meetings, which were held under the auspices of BRICS, at which the Chinese made it clear that they sought strategic cooperation with India in the building of a multi-polar world order to counter the US’s attempts to impose a unipolar order upon the world through wars designed to destroy “rogue states”.
In tacit exchange, the Chinese offered to ‘settle’ the border issue by allowing it to ‘fade away into history’.
Since India was equally disturbed by the attacks on Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Syria and the prolonged sanctions on Iran, its long term strategic goals outside South Asia increasingly matched those of China. The resulting increase in cooperation reached its high point at the Delhi meeting of BRICS in 2012, and Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi — the very first foreign visit by any leader of the Xi Jinping era, in the following year.
Modi, however, reversed this painstaking build-up of mutual confidence within days of coming to power in 2014 when, with his characteristic “impulsiveness” (for lack of a less charitable word) he rubbished India’s post-Cold War policy of ‘equidistance’ and exercise of ‘soft power’ and threw us, lock, stock and barrel, into the American camp.
Starting with the signing of the US-crafted ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ in January 2015, every action by the Modi government showed hostile intent towards China. His single most disturbing action was to send four warships in 2016 to join a US-Japan task force in the South China Sea to disrupt China’s bid for hegemony over the sea. After that, unnoticed and unlamented by our US-centred foreign policy analysts, BRICS became a dead acronym.
There followed a succession of actions by India, designed to assert its sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, that the Chinese made only pro forma protests against. Their restraint was another clear signal, if there was anyone in Delhi willing to receive it – that despite its pre-2008 references to Arunachal Pradesh, as South Tibet, Beijing had no intention of reneging on the 1993 Agreement.
China’s shift to coercive diplomacy
So to what can we trace Beijing’s sudden decision to convert its definition of the LAC into a heavily armed, hard border, backed with artillery, armour, missiles and a cyber capability to jam our responses? The only explanation is China’s growing belief that the Modi government does not feel itself bound by the premises upon which the 1993 agreement was signed, and cannot therefore be relied upon to honour it.
Two recent actions are responsible for this loss of faith: the first was India’s military incursion into Bhutan to stop China’s unilateral and admittedly high handed decision to build a road through it. The Doklam plateau was one of several Bhutanese territories that Beijing claimed and was negotiating over with Thimpu.
India had a right to ask why the Chinese were building a road that brought them closer to the Indian plains. But it did not have the right to take preventive action because the Doklam plateau was a part of Bhutan. India crossed an international border to interdict a Chinese project. Beijing’s analysts would have been remiss if they had not asked themselves where, under Modi, it might do this again and at whose behest? One single answer leapt out: the Karakoram pass.
Why is Daulat Beg Oldi suddenly so important?
Ignoring 75 years of history, the Modi government had already vowed to take back Gilgit, along with the rest of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The message from Delhi, in essence, was that unless China recognised Gilgit as occupied Indian territory, India would not be joining China’s Belt-Road Initiative.
We in India know that the talk of retaking PoK was pure political theatre, designed to capture votes in our never-ending series of elections. But the Chinese have too much at stake in the CPEC corridor to leave things to chance and whimsy.
They are acutely aware that unlike the British and American hegemonies, theirs is based not on industrial and military might, but on international trade. They also know that the easiest way to disrupt international trade is through war. And they have seen how, for the last two decades, the US has been using trade sanctions, not weapons, to bring smaller countries to heel and create the unipolar world that is its goal.
Beijing also knows that India is a regular participant in ‘Operation Malabar,’ in which the US, Japan, and Australia annually play war games. China knows one of the scenarios involves the closing of the straits of Malacca, through which 40% of its exports and 90% of its oil imports flow. Its way of reducing its vulnerability has been to build the CPEC and the six railroads of the BRI. CPEC, in particular, is not only its shortest route to South Asian and African markets, but also to Middle Eastern oil. It is therefore not only the guarantor of its economic survival but of peace, because it will make a future oil or trade embargo infructuous.
CPEC and BRI are therefore defensive, not offensive projects. They are designed not to increase China’s dominance of the world economy, but to reduce the temptation, now being voiced almost daily by President Trump, to destroy its trade predominance and plunge it into domestic turmoil through the collapse of its industry.
China needs CPEC and BRI for its very survival, so one can only imagine the alarm that the Modi government’s talk of retaking Gilgit Baltistan must have created. In the resulting threat re-assessment, their eyes have inevitably fallen on Daulat Beg Oldie, and on the modern road and bridges that India has constructed over the past six years linking it to Durbuk, Pangong and Leh.
DBO, which is at an altitude of 16,000 feet (5,000 metres) is only 13 kms over relatively flat country from the Karakoram pass. Therefore, in the thin air of this high altitude, it is within easy reach – not only of the Bofors 155 mm howitzers, but also of the much more portable 110 mm howitzers.
In the past few years, the Indian Army has not only raised the base at DBO to brigade strength but rebuilt and modernised a runway that had earlier fallen into disuse because the middle portion had subsided. Today aircraft are bringing mountain artillery and other heavy weapons into DBO. The Durbuk to DBO road has completed its integration with Leh and Northern Command.
The Chinese know that even under Modi, India in unlikely to launch an attack on the Karakoram pass from DBO. But defence planning is always based upon the worst possible contingency. Thus, unless there is a meeting at the highest level between Indian and Chinese leaders in which the Chinese are re-assured that India will respect its vital interests in the region, the Chinese will continue to ‘straighten’ the LAC, by force if necessary, until it runs along the heights above the Shyok valley from where they can destroy the Durbuk to DBO road at will.
Road back to peace
None of this needs to happen, because Modi’s June 19 statement has opened another road to peace and security. This is to re-open discussions on the implementation of the 1993 agreement not only in Ladakh but along the entire LAC, and formalise conduct in the grey areas where the LACs overlap, and ensuring no structures for troops or armaments are allowed.
The width of this buffer can be determined through frank, periodic discussions of each other’s threat perceptions. In areas like the Galwan valley, which is regularly used by shepherds to graze their flocks in the summer, the buffer area can be expanded to allow free access from both sides. To lower China’s threat perception from Daulat Beg Oldie, India can enter into an agreement not to ferry in heavy artillery and limit the use of the air strip to re-supply, replace and evacuate military personnel. This, needless to say, was its original purpose. So, no tangible step back is required.
China, on its part will need to move all its armed forces back beyond the present Indian LAC on the eastern edge of the buffer zone. That should be India’s litmus test of its intentions.