Updated: June 18, 2020 9:19:20 am
The death of 20 Indian military personnel, including the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 16 Bihar Battalion deployed in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in an altercation with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops on June 15, has sent shock waves throughout India. For weeks, the nation has been following the standoff in Ladakh in the western sector that started after an incident on May 5. There were reports of a Chinese military build-up at multiple points, eliciting a robust mirror response by India. Desolate locations such as Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Galwan, Hot Springs, Pangong Tso, Spanggur, Chushul and Demchok became household names. Few are aware of their evocative and emotive history as places where Indian troops of 5 JAT, 1 JAT, 1/8 Gurkha Rifles (GR), 13 KUMAON and 7 JK MILITIA fought valiant battles in 1962.
The two sides had made statements in the first week of June indicating their commitment to resolving differences through diplomatic and military channels, in accordance with the institutionalised framework already in place. There were encouraging signs, especially after the productive meeting of senior commanders on June 6. Just when it appeared that tensions were abating something went terribly wrong.
The Indian Army has confirmed that the loss of lives took place during the disengagement process. It appears the CO was leading a confirmatory patrol to monitor compliance when the retreating Chinese troops attacked them with rods and stones. In the melee, large numbers of troops from reserve echelons on both sides reportedly fell upon each other, leading to casualties on both sides. Matters were made worse due to the darkness and the sheer cliffs from where a number of soldiers reportedly fell into the freezing waters of the Galwan river and died of grievous injuries and exposure. Reports indicate sizeable casualties on the Chinese side, but an opaque system that routinely camouflages facts can hardly be expected to inform the world of its own casualties.
The border row between India and China could not have erupted at a worse moment. The world is grappling with a once-in-a-century coronavirus pandemic and a global recession that promises to leave none unscathed. China, which is increasingly censured for obfuscating the origins of the pandemic, appears to have chosen bellicosity, sacrificing all norms of responsible international conduct, as is evident in its aggressive stand on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
For many years now, China has used a flexible, expedient and self-serving concept of the Line of Actual Control to gradually inch further up to its specious boundary claim lines. Maintaining a duplicitous position on the agreements reached in 1993 and 1996 to clarify and confirm the LAC, it has dragged its feet on the exchange of maps to identify differences, which is the first step in the delineation and demarcation of the LAC. Meanwhile, China has built vast modern infrastructure all along the LAC to facilitate its patrols and forward presence. Despite China’s first-mover advantage, India has also stepped up its game in recent years. It has considerably improved its infrastructure, such as the Darbok-Shyok-DBO road, Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) and tracks up to its traditional patrolling points. Areas where Indian troops earlier were obliged to undertake long range patrols on foot are now accessible much faster. Advanced surveillance technologies reduce the warning time and both sides often scramble to reach the same spot to stave off the other.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and drills for run-ins have been painstakingly worked out by the two sides over the years — banner drills and flag meetings — to maintain peace and tranquillity and disengage. The panoply of confidence building measures includes regular border personnel meetings, ad hoc flag meetings and hotlines for communication. These have worked well until now, given that run-ins by the two sides are a common feature in all the sectors. Going by the number of stone-pelting incidents and physical scuffles between the two sides in recent years, it is obvious that many of the protocols are not fully adhered to by the Chinese troops. Unbridled nationalism and arrogance permeates the Chinese system and the PLA is hardly immune to that contagion.
The last incident involving loss of life was in 1975 when an Assam Rifles patrol was ambushed by the PLA on the Indian side of the Tulung La Pass in Arunachal Pradesh (then North-East Frontier Agency). Since then, there were occasions when things had threatened to escalate, as during the long-drawn eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation along the Sumdorong Chu in Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh, sparked off by China in 1986 and resolved only in 1994. Face-offs have also taken place at DBO, Deepsang, Pangong Tso and Chumar over the past decade, but both sides have stayed their hand, with no loss of life. It takes great discipline on the part of soldiers to observe restraint in the face of grave provocations. The Indian side has been scrupulous in the observance of protocols during face-offs, but that cannot be said of the Chinese troops.
India is committed to a dialogue for the peaceful resolution of differences. However, no self-respecting nation can be expected to cave in to China’s irredentism, least of all India. What is the way forward? The first step is for China to restore status quo ante in all the areas where it has created new de facto situations. Second, China must respect the existing agreements between the two sides and refrain from any unilateral action. Third, China must work together with India to clarify and confirm the LAC through exchange of large-scale maps. Fourth, ineffective border management protocols and drills should be reviewed and improved upon through discussions. Fifth, both sides should rein in their media and encourage more responsible reporting. Sixth, China must particularly instruct its “wolf warrior” nationalists to eschew arrogance and cooperate with India in maintaining peace and tranquillity. Lastly, the Chinese side should match India in adhering to the strategic guidance that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have agreed to provide to their respective sides through informal summits to ensure that such incidents do not occur.
After all, China should follow its own dictum, “he who tied the knot should untie it”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2020 under the title ‘Untying the India-China knot’. The writer, a former ambassador and head of the Indian side of the Expert Group of Diplomatic and Military Officials (1996-2000), is director general, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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