CHINA and India have locked horns in the Himalayas, moving towards a military conflict at 14,000 ft above sea level. The border between China and India is over 3400Kms long. It is called the LAC (Line of Actual Control). The history of the LAC goes back to the colonial era of the British when the Qing Dynasty negotiated a vague area border between China and the Indian region. Even today, the border dispute has not been resolved. After repeated diplomatic failures and disagreements, skirmishes and exchange of minor hostilities are a routine matter in the region of Ladakh along the Pangong Lake. But the year 2020, has brought with it the winds of change. On 05 May, there was a hot engagement between the troops of both countries. In a heated exchange of fighting, pelting and inflicted injuries, a standoff began which has not subsided even after a month. Will this lead to all out war? What would be the consequences? And why this is happening now? These are the questions that are perplexing military and economic strategists all over the world. A war between China and India is the only probable incident that could be more disastrous than Covid-19 pandemic.
The border between China and India is 3400Kms long. It is a tri-juncture with rights being claimed by India, China and Bhutan. India favours Bhutan in the dispute. China and India are both giants and together they are around one third of all human population on the planet. Both are nuclear powers but China is far more superior in defence budget and military technology. The quantum of military budget of China is four times that of India. In 1962, there was a war between the two which ended with humiliation and massive casualties for India. There is no misconception that the result would be the same if a war breaks out now. It will be devastating for India but the benefit will go to the economic opponents of China and its attention will be diverted. With being bogged down in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and a cold war with the US, a confrontation with India is not what the Chinese would want at this time.
Apparently, it seems as if the border dispute was the reason for the military clash and stand-off but matters in diplomacy are always complex. In August 2019, India altered the disputed status of India-occupied Kashmir and began construction of ambitious infrastructure and military projects in the area. Without consultation, China has taken the construction of air bases and roads connecting military installation as a threat. Safeguarding the borders and physical territory of China is one of the primary manifestos of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). Further, Indian state media and political circles have stressed the need to conduct a military operation, and to capture Pakistan-administered (Azad Kashmir). Not only does China considers this a threat to a close ally Pakistan but also perceives it as a threat to the One Belt One Road Project. China has based its future progress, prosperity and a foothold in International trade through Pakistan in the shape of Gwadar. Any plan to thwart the “CPEC” or “OBOR” is a major challenge to Chinese aims. A military stand-off in the Ladakh region would move the focus of the Indian Army from any intervention into Azad Kashmir and towards the Dolkham Plateau and the Pangong Lake area. In a twenty plus day military build up, India is clear that it needs to review its military intelligence and strategy in the region. The changing of the status of disputed territory and warming up to US, Japan and Australia is going to have consequences. On the other hands, CPEC and OBOR gives China access to the Arabian Sea, a dream that will unlock limitless possibilities for China and Pakistan.
After the 5th May incident, the Chinese Army has moved into over 50 Kms of area which was previously under Indian control. Both armies have been mobilizing. On the Chinese side, over 2500 troops have been brought in. Heavy military equipment, artillery and surveillance technology is being deployed. Such a kind of military formation has not been observed in many decades. The disputes and skirmishes that occurred in the previous years would be resolved through local military commanders but this time the call for military personnel and equipment has come from the highest echelons of the Chinese Army. China is dealing with multiple fronts at the moment. There is the unrest in Hong Kong, the economic slow down from corona pandemic, the cold war with the US and now this military stand-off at 14,000 ft with India. It appears that China is prepared for all kinds of scenarios. It is wary of the fact that India under the fascist leadership of Modi is capable of making aggressive moves. It is also considering the fact that this is the time when India has to decide whether it will take a neutral role or lean towards the American Government when a cold war is on the horizon. If the latter is the case, China could engage India in a hostile border dispute which would weaken the economy to the brink that India is no longer a threat, or it can develop a deterrence that if India participates in any anti-China activities under the leadership of the United States, the military front would be the first of many factors that India would have to consider. Also, in the event of India siding with the US against China, would result in cutting of trade ties between India and China which would be a serious blow to an already shaken economy because of the Covid pandemic. Although, it is India that has prompted the stand-off, China seems to be determined to use it to its advantage.
The LAC is a loose border with no clear boundaries and vague protocols. If diplomatic means fail, the military options can be catastrophic for the region and for India. It must be kept in mind that if China enters the region along the Pangong Lake and captures the roads built by India to connect Ladakh to IOK, then the grip of the Indian Army in the whole region will be halved. The stakes are high for both countries. With Pakistan moving closer to China with every new step in CPEC and OBOR and India entering military alliances with the United States, a cold war of superpowers can frantically turn into a full blown all out combat. Although, China is keeping a deterrent strategy at the moment, it certainly has the might and the means to initiate and win this fight, only this time with much more sophisticated armaments and strategies compared to those available in 1962. Donald Trump is marching towards the blame game and accusing China of hijacking WHO and the UN, blatantly vilifying Chinese interests in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trying to change the international narrative towards BeiJeing, perhaps it is through Ladakh that the Chinese Government will show their display of military power instead of the soft power they have communicated western world for so many decades.
—The writer is Chairman, Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.