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New Gambles in Ladakh

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • September 25, 2014

    Given the high degree of national mandate Xi and Modi carried, people had expected statesmanship from the two leaders to break the ice on the India-China standoff. The opportunity seems missed and instead mistrust has grown. One reads the familiar media overtone ‘we told you so’, ‘China can’t be trusted’, ‘India takes tough stance’, ‘Chinese troops back down’, so on and so forth. These sound apologetic. Sign of a failure?

    To begin with both leaders exuded self-confidence, despite misgivings, they seemed serious and upbeat about forging a win-win partnership, deepening trade and investment links. Xi saw opportunities to build upon on Modi’s economic agendas, sought reciprocities and India-China congruence to build a “multipolar” world.

    Until they walked the Sabarmati bank things looked fine. But, when media suddenly stirred up Chumur and Demchok crises, enthusiasm started to wane. One is not clear whether Modi and Xi even anticipated the flare up but both came out with foul mood after their press briefings – they were clearly being trapped into a narrative that is neither Chinese nor Indian.

    To be sure, while President Xi came with the aim to focus on economics but sensing the Indian toughness, he would have come prepared with a Plan B. This is where things started to drift. It appeared the visit was fixed; it was a game of nerve. Xi had inkling into India’s new perspective on China. A number of Chinese experts visited New Delhi and tested the waters in advance through their interface with think-tanks like VIF, ORF and India Foundation.

    Beijing may have taken Modi’s Bhutan and Nepal visits into its strategic calculations, but also carefully observed a series of other actions – Arunachal leader Kiren Rijiju’s entry into Cabinet; appointing former Army Chief to oversee border infrastructure; inviting Tibetan leader Lobzang to Modi’s oath taking function; Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, giving clearances to building roads within 100-km of the LAC; decision to install a radar station at Narcondam Island; decision to set up additional 54 ITBP posts along borders; Modi’s "expansionist mind-set" swipe in Tokyo; Sushma’s “One-India” thought and finally Pranab Mukherjee’s Vietnam visit close on the heels of Xi’s visit.

    Modi’s assertive style, his ability to spring surprises through duality of friendship and toughness, like he did on Pakistan, may have gone into the making of Xi’s India strategy. But most critically, Beijing would have certainly calculated on India’s shift in thinking on the ground in Ladakh, where the Army adopted “assertive posturing” to “interdict” Chinese troops along LAC. Daily border patrolling since the last two months led to increased face-offs, frequencies going up from once or twice a month to almost daily. The transgressions figure is over 400 already this year. 

    But the crisis at Tibli (Chumur) began on September 8, 2014 when the Indian army erected a storage hut near the zero-border on the Indian side of the International Border (IB). No official statement came from the government though the media reported extensively about the PLA incursions since September 10. Xi’s order to pull back PLA troops did not work and since September 21, the Chinese workers have entered at 31-R point to build a road up to Tible Mane (a mini Stupa) located inside the IB.

    Another flash point in Demchok erupted simultaneously after the J&K authorities suddenly ordered on August 18 to construct a small irrigation canal at Nilung Nalla under the NREGA scheme that had been a sour point with the Chinese. Surprisingly, the PLA this time mobilized villagers from Tashigong to pitch Rebos (tents) at Charding-Ninglung Nallah (CNN) Track Junction to protest Indian action.

    It all appears that the Indian army this time got clear orders to hold the ground and undo what the previous UPA government did – dismantled huts, bunkers and observation posts in exchange of PLA moving back from the Indian territory. The Depsang crisis last year triggered off after 77 Brigade constructed a fortified post in Chumar. The stand-off was resolved after the structure in Chumur was removed.

    The Chumur crisis relates to China’s strong objection to the erection of a hut at Tible. But the NDA government is unwilling to repeat UPA’s ambiguity in dealing with repeated Chinese intrusions. All these years, China drew the red-line but this time India upped the ante by sending a tough message that it would not dismantle its fortified positions. Having been used to browbeat the Indian army in the past, the PLA may have been surprised by India's swift counter build-up and firmness at the commander’s flag meetings.

    Modi through his talks with Xi made it clear that India can no longer have uncertainty along borders. China though is more focused on the Scottish referendum and gives no attention on border face-offs in Ladakh. However, Chinese experts accused India of "instigating" and using "offensive" approach to gain leverage on the border. It viewed India’s toughness “superficial” and “symbolic”. So far, the flag meetings at Spanguur has failed, diplomacy has not worked either. Escalation is likely and the Indian forces seem well prepared.

    China has long moved to make economics central to its foreign policy, but showed unwillingness to compromise on territorial claims and does not fear danger of a confrontation in the South China Sea with the US, Japan and others. It is a game of nerves and for India dealing with the Chinese demands adroit thinking. Phraseologies and nice acronyms will not suffice. Surely, the handling so far portends less strategy but more tactics, it reflects less diplomacy but more operation.

    Author is a former Ambassador and honorary President of Ladakh International Centre

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India