On the Himalayan heights in Ladakh, China faces the truth

Inscrutable China

Srikanth Kondapalli. Credit: DH

It has been eight months since the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Eastern Ladakh-Aksai Chin region was first reported. After considerable pushing, shoving and stone-throwing, violence escalated, resulting in 20 Indian soldiers being killed on the night of June 15. The armed stalemate between the two militaries since has frittered away the 2005 “strategic and cooperative partnership” and 2014 “developmental partnership” and mutual trust between the two countries.

This is despite the talks between the two sides at various levels for disengagement of troops and de-escalation of tensions in the border areas. India had suggested ushering in “peace and stability” in the border areas by restoring the situation that prevailed in early 2020. India reminded China of the 1988 conditional agreement on improving bilateral relations based on border peace and stability.

China wants the border issue to be “decoupled” from other aspects of the bilateral relations. Beijing wants India to “meet half-way” from its recent encroachments in the western sector. China refuses to adhere to the bilateral agreements on peace and stability and continues to mobilise an estimated 60,000 troops despite the onset of bitter cold in the region and is waging a war of attrition against India – unsuccessfully, so far.

China’s initial confidence that it can bulldoze India waned as the Indian Army upped the ante on August 29 by regaining control over five hill tops and now has a commanding position on the Kailash ranges. China’s state-media dishes out psychological warfare – that the Chinese have better winter-clothing, possible use of microwave weapons, supplies of “hotpot” food to front line troops through drones, flying the latest fighter aircraft, missiles, etc. It has all been met stoutly by the Indian mobilisation.

China is fast losing its plot in Aksai Chin. Its strategic objectives since May of initiating conflict have not been met in the face of stiff Indian opposition. The political, diplomatic and military costs for China are rising due to its intervention in the western sector. The more the border stalemate continues, the more it tends to lose on multiple fronts. Beijing’s hands are tied over Aksai Chin and, despite the bluster, it cannot adequately cater to other military fronts on Taiwan, Senkaku Islands or the South China Sea.

Lacking high-altitude training and warfighting experience, China’s frontline troops are suffering. Exposed to “five-star” luxuries, the troops – children of China’s one-child policy -- have lost the soldiering ethos. Combat deficiencies are staring Beijing in the face in Aksai Chin. President Xi Jinping admitted as much recently when he stated, at a commendation conference for national “model workers” and “advanced workers” on November 24, that despite having modern weaponry, China’s military has “a gap compared with the requirement of winning” and is suffering from “low quality…shortage of commanders and professional and technical personnel for joint operations.”

China’s decades-old plan to shift focus towards the Arunachal Pradesh sector of the border has also failed, with the western sector now in global view. Since the issues over this sector were raised by former Prime Minister Vajpayee at a commanders’ conference in 2000, China had refused to discuss them in border talks.

With the heat generated by the Trump administration on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, South China Sea and on tariffs, China’s interlocutors are reviving the old multipolarity and “strategic autonomy” prescription for India. They express concern about the consolidation of the Quad and the full-fledged Malabar Exercises recently, without first addressing India’s concerns in Eastern Ladakh.

To resolve the border stand-off, India resorted to diplomacy, confidence-building measures, military mobilisation, and reaching out to the stakeholders in China and abroad. The two foreign ministers’ five-point agreement to de-escalate, signed on September 11 in Moscow, has not been realised. Eight rounds of Corps Commander-level talks have been held till November with no visible progress on the ground. The foreign ministries’ working level mechanism on the border met as well, with no improvement.

Indian leaders fanned out to Myanmar, Afghanistan and Nepal in the light of alternative incentives being provided by China to these countries. China’s defence minister visited Nepal and Pakistan but was reportedly snubbed by Bangladesh.

Over the past two decades, China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Aksai China and Tibet, while it has put out a demand currently that India should desist from doing the same. New Delhi not only brushed aside this double standard but quickly inaugurated 44 strategic roads in the border areas in October, providing much-needed connectivity and bolstering the troops to the border areas.

While China recently raised the Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council, and declared the new Ladakh Union Territory “illegal”, India has desisted so far from revising the “One China” policy on Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and other territories. India’s patience may be running out.

(Srikanth Kondapalli the JNU Prof has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years  @SrikanthKondap8)