For over six months now, China has occupied more than 1000 square kilometres of Indian claimed territory in Ladakh. People’s Liberation Army soldiers had not only killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured nearly a hundred in a skirmish in June, but they have also been sitting on strategically significant locations at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has amassed more than 55,000 of its troops close to the contested area and to coincide with it, Pakistan has also moved 20,000 additional troops to Northern Ladakh.
Though India’s Prime Minister has publicly denied any Chinese intrusion but no one has any doubt in India about China’s occupation of large areas of Indian land this year. Meeting between defence ministers and foreign ministers of both countries have not managed to bring any solution to the growing tension at the LAC. Seven rounds of talks between military officials of both countries have failed to result in troops withdrawal from the frontline. Eighth Round of Talks scheduled this week, but there is very little hope of any early resolution.
China has not only increased its troops’ deployment, but it has also brought in its fighter planes and a large number of surface to air missiles, helicopter drones, high-altitude friendly tanks, and artillery guns to the LAC. Winter has already arrived in the Himalayas, and China seems to be fully prepared as it has already brought in new and comfortable thermal shelters for its army to survive the terrible winter. While China has not only the advantage of resources, time, and prior planning but also developed infrastructure and easier topography.
There is no doubt that China has become an open and uncompromising adversary and its growing axis with Pakistan has posed a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, particularly in the disputed region of Kashmir
Unlike the PLA, the Indian troops have the long experience of surviving and fighting the war in a high-altitude area like Siachen. Though the Indian Army has been deploying only 5,000 of its troops in Siachen since 1984, as the most recent Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) Report suggests, it has failed to provide proper ration, clothing, and housing to them. The same army is now confronted with deploying more than 35,000 of its troops in similar hostile terrain in only a few weeks. It is still desperately trying to buy winter gears for its troops from Europe and the US.
More than the intrusion, the refusal of China to give India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi a face-saver has caught the Indian establishment completely unprepared. Modi had met China’s President Xi Jinping 18 times in the last six years and had even visited China five times, more than any other Prime Minister of India. He had a strong belief that his equation with Xi would end the crisis, but it has not been.
Though Prime Minister Modi is yet to directly name China and the Indian side is hoping for an amicable troop withdrawal from the frontline, Xi has openly asked his troops to be prepared for the war and China is even refusing to recognise India’s position in Ladakh. While the Indian Army is doing its best to strengthen its position in Ladakh and to stand up to PLA given all adversities, India’s failure to confront China diplomatically has been very glaring.
Policy to coerce smaller neighbours
Banning Chinese apps and boycotting Chinese goods are having no impact on China while bringing more harm to India. Modi’s half-hearted attempt to play Tibet or Taiwan card has its limits because it opens up the possibilities for China to publicly support secessionist movements in India. India has lately woken up to the bitter truth that China has already made it friendless in the region. Not only China and Pakistan alliance has gone from strength to strength, but also China has astutely used its aids and loans as carrots to get other neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka to its side. Modi’s policy to coerce the smaller neighbours has failed miserably, thus there is an attempt at course correction, but probably too little and too late, not with new smart and original ideas but to compete with China in giving aid or military equipment to neighbours.
China is easily outcompeting India in giving these doles. Competing with Beijing in the areas in which it has a distinct advantage is just inviting failure. Being desperate and clueless, Modi is even encouraging the US to enlarge its influence in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This is very likely going to be a self-goal.
The diplomatic perplexity of India is not only apparent in South Asia but also while it is trying to be part of an international alliance to meet neighbour China’s challenge at a disputed border. India has gone overboard to show that the Quadrilateral Security Dialog (commonly known as the Quad), an informal strategic forum between the US, Japan, Australia, and India can act as a second front against China in case of a war.
Nature of China’s superiority
China is not interested in any full-fledged war against India. Its ambition is to show its dominance by strategically and militarily dominating the disputed border areas. Because of the nature of China’s superiority in both conventional and nuclear wars, India will also try its best not to expand the scope and nature of the military conflict. As long as the China-India conflict is limited to border skirmishes, the Quad has very little significance. The Quad can only play its part if there is another World War.
The Quad is not a military alliance like Nato. Japan and Australia have their bilateral security treaties with the US for a long time and they don’t need the Quad for their security guarantee against China. Their armed forces and military equipment have been cooperating for decades. India still buys most of its weapons from Russia and France. The Quad is just a mirage for India in the desert of helplessness vis-a-vis China.
There is no doubt that China has become an open and uncompromising adversary and its growing axis with Pakistan has posed a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, particularly in the disputed region of Kashmir. Modi government was not only caught seriously unprepared militarily, which has led to ceding large areas but it is still clueless over finding the right diplomatic strategy to successfully address its powerful neighbour’s relentless threat. India needs to plan in the long-term instead of looking for a face-saver and must work to restrain China by leading a regional alliance in South Asia rather than hoping to piggyback external powers.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.