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Ladakh standoff is crucial


RANJIT BHUSHAN | New Delhi, May 4, 2013 11:42
Tags : Indo-China relations | Sino-Indian ties | Chinese incursion | Chinese military | Ladakh | 1962 war |

What does one make of this latest Indo-China standoff in the fiftieth year of the 1962 border war between the two countries? What could be Beijing’s motive for upping the ante in Ladakh’s Depsang Valley where Chinese troops have intruded as far as 19 kilometers into Indian territory in the Daulti Beg Oldi (DBO) sector? This sector is an old Chinese incursion point and is known to have been violated in 1962 during the brief border war between the two Asian giants.

In the immediate past, aggressive Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) patrols have left behind tell-tale signs to indicate their presence; a few packets of Chinese cigarettes here and a bagful of noodles there, to show that the line of actual control – or the imaginary line – had been violated.

This time it looks different. There are no tell-tale signs, just a few Chinese tents right in the face of Indian troops, pitched provocatively enough to cause consternation, if not firing, suggesting that they are there to stay.

Old China hands in the Indian Army of 1962 vintage remember similar tactics of their period. Unlike the western and northern borders with Pakistan where firing is nearly mandatory from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), the Chinese front turned out to be a different kettle of fish. Chinese troops would just pitch tents across the border and strike anything but aggressive postures: they would merely do their drills and play games. The Indian soldier used to fighting on the northern and western border found he was confused and with no clear cut directions coming from either his political masters or army commanders who knew nothing of the eastern sector in any case, things steadily became bad to worse.

To be sure, 2013 is not 1962 and a lot of water has flown under the Brahmaputra since then. Nonetheless, the present standoff has put India and the world into a quandary. Despite three flag meetings between the two armies, no solution appears in sight.

China wants India to dismantle some of its infrastructure on the border and cut down ``aggressive patrolling’’ insisting that they are not on Indian land, while India wants Chinese troops out of the area to a pre-April 15 position when the Chinese intrusion first took place.

Who will blink? If China - the world's second largest military power - backs off now it would be tantamount to accepting that the DOB sector – or the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) – exists, even if notionally. China does not recognize any British-period demarcation of borders and disputes the MacMohan Line. Christened after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary in colonial India, the line was agreed to by Britain and Tibet as part of the Simla Accord treaty signed in 2014. For New Delhi, that is the official border between the two countries.

On the other hand if India withdraws from an area which was previously uncontested, it could be accused of among other things, weakness - even cowardice - and any government will be under immense opposition and media pressure to get even with China. What happened to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 will repeat itself with Manmohan Singh – or anyone else – should India not manage to get the powerful Chinese out of the DOB sector. Relentless opposition and media-fueled public pressure not well versed enough with higher statecraft or matters military will ensure that.

The two neighbours have held 15 rounds of fruitless talks since the 1990s but have failed to arrive at a consensus and Beijing is keen that talks be expedited. Is it likely that this latest military posturing is keen to hurry India up? Complicating matters are the upcoming visit of Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing and the visit of China’s new premier Li Keqiang later this month to India. Khurshid is under pressure to call off his trip although New Delhi is determined not to let `little irritants’ like these come in the way of the broader relationship between the two countries.

Curiously, China who now values economic relationships perhaps even more than military equations, cannot be unaware that India is a big trading partner. Commerce between the two countries has flourished over the past decade, with bilateral trade increasing 20-fold to over $61 billion in 2010. It is expected to reach the $100 billion mark by 2015.  Hopefully, the coming weeks are going to determine the future course of action but there is no doubt that a lot will hinge on what happens next at the DOB sector in Ladakh.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017