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June 2, 2020

Standoff in the Himalayas

Opinion

June 2, 2020

The latest military standoff between China and India at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Eastern Ladakh and Sikkim region is one of the most serious military developments between the two Asian neighbours.

Starting with a faceoff early this month leading to sporadic fistfights, it has culminated into a military standoff in Ladakh's Galwan valley. The developing situation is unprecedented as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has moved into the territory claimed by India especially in Galwan river valley and Pangong Tso lake. Reportedly, the PLA has captured a significant area, with almost 10,000 PLA soldiers and heavy machinery on the ground, thereby changing the territorial status quo.

While small-scale intrusions were a routine matter in the region, the recent Chinese action seems to be more assertive in approach, aggressive in nature and calculated by design. The initial silence from New Delhi and its desperate attempts to downplay the PLA’s advancements clearly manifested confusion and inability to deal with the situation in an effective manner. In stark contrast to India’s shrieking jingoism against Pakistan during the Pulwama/Balakot crisis, New Delhi’s muted response to Chinese advances is a clear sign that the Indian government is already making space for some offramps.

Since the 1962 Sino-India war in the Aksai region, China and India have displayed extreme caution and mutual restraint in dealing with their border issues. The signing of the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) in 1993 was considered a major step in transforming the LAC into a normal border. Later, under the 2005 Protocol on Modalities for Implementing Confidence-Building Measures and the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, both countries agreed to follow certain protocols for border patrolling to avoid any clash.

The latest development at the LAC is a major shift from previous patterns in terms of intensity and magnitude. According to some Indian analysts, this shows China’s attempt to be more assertive in pursuing its territorial claims in all contested areas. However, Indian government sources are consciously avoiding a reference to the larger pattern debate and calling it merely a Chinese attempt to deflect global attention from the alleged poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the Chinese perspective, however, the action seems to be a direct consequence of India’s unilateral revocation of Article 370 in 2019 and the formation of Ladakh as a Union Territory, followed by massive construction of road links. The latest Chinese advances are seemingly meant to undercut the utility of India’s new road infrastructure and to provide the PLA with a strategic edge over Indian military positions in the region.

Notwithstanding the serious nature of the current crisis and persistent risk of an inadvertent escalation, it is highly unlikely that India and China will enter a major confrontation. There seems to be a clear realization in China that engaging India militarily may offer some short-term tactical value, but it may put China’s strategic objectives at risk, be it its military objective in the South China Sea or the regional connectivity through its flagship Belt and Road initiative.

Pakistan is not indifferent to what is happening at the LAC, especially at a time when its own situation with India at the Line of Control (LoC) is extremely tense. However, there is visible caution in Pakistan’s behaviour, aimed to rule out any possibility of initiating India’s proverbial two-front war scenario by opening another front, either to help China or to wrestle away Kashmir. On the contrary, there is a serious concern that after having failed to take any significant action against China, India may redirect its anger towards Pakistan and initiate a military offensive at the LoC under the pretext of a false flag operation, to ward off growing psychological pressure and humiliation faced by the Indian military.

Recent statements from China, India and the US indicate the onset of a potential de-escalation process. Notwithstanding a mutual willingness to de-escalate, it would be quite challenging to determine the original provocateur in this crisis who should hold the onus to act first. In this regard, a potential end of hostilities may lead to the following four scenarios.

First, a stalemate with a looming risk of inadvertent future escalation. Second, acceptance of fait accompli with no further risk of escalation. Third, enforcing a status quo ante, and fourth, escalating horizontally to de-escalate vertically – the aggrieved party may open a new front to have a better bargaining position and also to gain some face-saving.

Furthermore, regardless of the outcome, the crisis has brought to surface important dynamics for future consideration. One, it has exposed India’s inability to engage China militarily, thereby further eroding India’s purported position as the net security provider in the region. This will result in a propaganda campaign from India nonetheless, portraying India as capable of standing up to the dragon’s awakening. Second, even if the current hostilities were managed successfully, recurrent tensions would be a new normal in the region as the grievances of the parties are likely to outlive any temporary solution. The US-China competition will also intensify and continue to add more heat.

Third, it will put a strain on India to choose one of the two different roles it is playing simultaneously – exercise hedging or claim strategic autonomy, placing it more centrally in any future US-China confrontation. Fourth, Pakistan will have to remain vigilant and beef up its alert level at the LoC as well as the international border, as India may escalate at the LoC and even target Gilgit-Baltistan to seek Chinese de-escalation at the LAC. Pakistan will have to show resolve to carry out its stated policy of Quid Pro Quo Plus if it becomes a target of India’s misplaced anger.

Lastly, in view of growing American presence in the region and the blurring line between competition and confrontation, China will have to reassess its cooperative security policy as a tool to advance its interest in the region.

The writer is a senior researchassociate at the Centre forAerospace and Security Studies.

Twitter: @NoorSitara