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Escalation in the Himalayas - the Stakes for China and India

Three questions to Mathieu Duchâtel and Christophe Jaffrelot

Escalation in the Himalayas - the Stakes for China and India
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

The serious incident on the eve of June 15 alongside the disputed border between India and China in the Himalayas resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and a yet unknown number of Chinese soldiers. It represents a sudden escalation of the tensions that have accumulated at several points on the border since the beginning of May. China and India seem to have an interest in de-escalation, but this eruption of violence complicates an already chaotic diplomatic process. Mathieu Duchâtel and Christophe Jaffrelot analyze what is at stake for China and India in their most deadly confrontation since 1967

What are the grey areas in the factual sequence of events?

Mathieu Duchâtel and Christophe Jaffrelot

The sequence of events is complicated to reconstruct, as several important facts are still clouded by grey areas and different versions coexist, in particular in the Indian media.

Though the trigger for the series of incidents is not known exactly, the following seems to have happened. Last month, clashes between the Indian and Chinese armies in Sikkim, Naku La and Ladakh took place at three different points. The first serious incident took place on May 5 on the shores of Lake Pangong Tso in Ladakh. It was a violent confrontation involving nearly 250 soldiers, but no shots were fired. The absence of exchange of fire has been a constant throughout the crisis. It is the result of a confidence-building measure agreed upon in 1996 by the two parties not to open fire within a 2km strip on either side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A similar incident took place on May 9 in Sikkim, more than 2,000 kilometres away. But the epicentre of tensions remained in Ladakh. Indian media there reported that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was deploying tents in an area of the Galwan Valley claimed by both countries, that lies beyond the LAC, a de facto occupation of Indian-controlled territory.

On each occasion, both countries have accused each other of cross-border incursions, knowing that they have different interpretations of their borders in this area, despite having agreed in 1993 and 1996 on the contours of the LAC. This is because the agreement is only very partial, not least because it does not cover all of the disputed areas, particularly in Ladakh. Furthermore, China maintains some ambiguity as to the exact delineation of the LAC from its point of view.

After three weeks of tense encounters, tension suddenly escalated on the night of June 15 in the Galwan Valley, which runs at an altitude of 4,000 metres, below ridges rising to over 5,000 metres. This escalation was a surprise to some extent, given that on June 6 the Chinese and the Indians had announced a gradual withdrawal of their troops, following negotiations which, on June 13, the Indian army chief had welcomed...The toll is heavy. The Indian army has confirmed 20 deaths, including a colonel, and 17 of whom died as a result of their wounds due to extreme weather conditions which made treatment more difficult. We haven’t seen such losses in an Indo-Chinese standoff since 1967. On the Chinese side, the human toll has not been disclosed, but India claims to have inflicted losses on the PLA. Chinese silence is anything but unusual. The People's Republic only communicates on military losses until long after the events have occurred This gives China space to conduct its policy without too much pressure on social media, but also indicates that China has no interest to escalate. On the contrary, disclosing the number of casualties would be a sure sign that China has an intention to continue the border confrontation. 

The incident of June 15 jeopardizes the process of de-escalation that relies on negotiations conducted through diplomatic and military channels. The PLA, over the course of May, advanced to occupy territories on the Indian side of the LAC. At the very least, the Indian negotiating position therefore aims at a return to the status quo ante.

Disclosing the number of casualties would be a sure sign that China has an intention to continue the border confrontation.

Several questions deserve clearer factual answers from China and India if the crisis is to be understood properly. What portion of the territory administered by India on its side of the LAC has China occupied in the Galwan Valley, and on the shores of Lake Pangong Tso? How many men have the two armies deployed along the LAC in its Western part, along Ladakh and Aksai Chin? How many Chinese intrusions have taken place since the beginning of the tensions? How many times has the Indian army crossed the LAC? 

While the debate is very lively in India, the Chinese press, with the exception of the Global Times, has remained very discreet about the events. To date, despite the certainty of losses on the side of the PLA, the official military press has only issued a succinct statement, through the voice of the Western Theatre of Operations Command’s spokesperson, Zhang Shuili. It accuses the Indian army of having crossed the LAC despite disengagement efforts, reports deaths and mentions "historic sovereignty" (主权历来属我) of China over the Galwan Valley, most of which is located in Aksai Chin, occupied by China since the Sino-Indian War of 1962. This position was repeated by the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, suggesting that this could be a tactical gain of territory that China seeks to secure as a result of the confrontation, to deny the Indian military the capacity to access the valley. 

What has been the Modi government’s policy so far, and what is the best and worst scenario for India after this serious escalation?

Christophe Jaffrelot

From the outset, Modi - who had visited China four times when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat - has tried to resolve the territorial disputes that have been poisoning relations between India and China since the 1962 war, and even before that, as evidenced by exchanges between Zhou Enlai and Nehru in 1959. At the BRICS summit in the summer of 2014, at a time when he had been Prime Minister for only a few weeks, Modi had tried to raise the issue with Xi Jinping, whom he invited a few months later for a first official visit. It did not pay off however, with the Chinese army even bursting into Indian territory in Ladakh – according to New Delhi – during this very visit! In 2017, in Doklam (Bhutan), the Indian army faced the Chinese army for 89 days, the former having accused the latter of entering the territory of Bhutan, a country that a defence agreement links to India. Still, Modi persevered and even took the initiative of a tête-à-tête with Xi Jinping. This first "informal summit" took place in Wuhan in 2018 and a second one, last October, near Chennai. Both times, the two leaders welcomed the frankness of their exchanges, even described as constructive. 

In reality, there was little progress. Suspicion continues to reign on both sides. India suspects China of wanting to circle and isolate the country. It is particularly worried by the rise of the Belt and Road Initiative, launched by Xi Jinping in 2013 and to which India has remained an outsider. This has greatly displeased China who has since announced massive investments between $50 and 60 billion in Pakistan, India's hereditary enemy, and where the Chinese are installing a deep-water port at Gwadar, creating suspicion that it could be transformed in the future into a naval base. Beyond Pakistan, China is gaining a foothold in India's immediate neighbourhood. Sri Lanka is on the verge of losing part of its sovereignty to Chinese interests, Nepal is not far from tipping over as well, and several islands in the Indian Ocean such as the Maldives could follow the same track. In its neighbourhood, India struggles to resist Chinese firepower that combines investment, especially in infrastructure, and financial aid in the form of loans that results in these countries’ dependence on China.

China, too, suspects India of trying to encircle it by strengthening ties with its QUAD partners (United States, Japan, Australia), a pseudo-coalition relaunched in 2018. Beijing has been particularly concerned about the deepening of relations between India and the United States, China's rival, and more so since the election of Donald Trump, which has asserted the military component of this partnership more strongly in recent years. Another Indian decision has also alerted Beijing: the transformation of the status of Jammu and Kashmir, an Indian Union state, which in August 2019 was cut in two, with Ladakh becoming a Territory of the Indian Union directly administered by New Delhi.

This decision, coupled with Narendra Modi's nationalist rhetoric, may have led the Chinese to fear that India is seeking to challenge the territorial status quo created by the 1962 war and in particular China's occupation of the Aksai Chin, a loss that New Delhi has never conceded. It seems, moreover, that the triggering factor for the Chinese intervention in Ladakh was the Indian decision to build a road linked to an airport, which would strengthen India's strategic position in the area by facilitating military patrols along the LAC. All in all, India has seemingly reaped the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, Modi has sought to establish a new type of dialogue with Xi Jinping, and on the other, he has sought to counter China, undermining the basis of trust that he said he was trying to establish, though it would probably not have come about in any case, given China's territorial ambitions.

On the one hand, Modi has sought to establish a new type of dialogue with Xi Jinping, on the other, he has sought to counter China, undermining the basis of trust that he said he was trying to establish.

What can India do now? We must make the distinction here between the short and medium term. In the short term, New Delhi is going to be subjected to strong domestic political pressure. The opposition will mock the government’s weaknesses if nothing is done to regain the tens of square kilometres that it says have come under Chinese control. But a military operation would be quite adventurous and, this is the most likely scenario, New Delhi will probably try to smoothen the situation. While Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar had asked the Chinese government, on June 17, " to reassess its actions and take corrective steps", Prime Minister Modi, during the all-party meet he convened two days later said "Neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured". If this is the official stand of India, the risk of escalation is minimal. This scenario would then replicate the post-Pulwama episode when Pakistan denied that India had attacked an islamist training camp in Balakot: you do not need to respond to attacks which have not happened. A more unlikely scenario would result from a return of India to a more nationalistic attitude under pressures, not only from the opposition, but also from the public opinion and the awks of the Hindu nationalist movement. India, then, may reciprocate and - like it did in 2013 - occupy part of the Chinese territory where it will be in a position of strength. In 2013 this reaction had paved the way for a quick settlement, but China has changed in 7 years and may not be prepared to compromise easily this time.
A third, intermediary scenario would consist of keeping a low profile militarily, with the advantage of improving India’s image as a responsible state and victim of Chinese hegemony, but to bring the matter to the Security Council, that the country has just joined last week. But this is probably the last resort scenario because India would prefer to sort out the matter bilaterally rather than internationalize it that explicitly - showing its need for others’ help without knowing, on the top of it, who is prepared to take its side: after all, most of its partners, so far, have not done more than expressing their condoleance... 

Aware of its dependence on China in the pharmaceutical sector, India decided to make all investments from neighbouring countries subject to authorisation by the central government.

In the medium term, three developments are possible. While India does not have much room for manoeuvre in financial terms, given the economic crisis that it is currently facing, it is likely to nevertheless increase its defence budget. Secondly, it would seek to protect itself further from Chinese economic influence. As early as last April, as it became aware of its dependence on China in the pharmaceutical sector with 70% of active ingredients used by the Indian pharmaceutical industry coming from China, India decided by ordinance to make all investments from neighbouring countries subject to authorisation by the central government. But to emancipate itself from Chinese investments and imports will be very costly and a long process for India. 

Finally, New Delhi will probably turn to its QUAD partners (United States, Japan, Australia) and, beyond that, to potential partners interested in a version of "Indo-Pacific" which would be synonymous with "China containment". In that sense, the current crisis may be a turning point as other countries in the world, including European countries, are reassessing the magnitude of the "chinese threat" for world stability. But which countries might be ready to take the risk of annoying China by siding with India, in a context where most of them have emerged weakened from the Covid-19 crisis and are above all concerned about their domestic, economic, political and social situation?

What has China's policy been so far, and what are the possible gains and losses for Beijing as a result of this escalation?

Mathieu Duchâtel

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) provides very little explanation on ongoing operations in the border area, and it does not disclose much on their objectives and the perception of threats and opportunities on which these are based. The fact that operations have taken place at four points along the border since May, suggests strategic coordination in the service of political objectives, rather than highly localized skirmishes related to risk-taking by units located in the border areas. Tensions come at a time when, in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the tone of Chinese foreign policy has hardened considerably. Yet, the PLA is a more powerful organisation than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an organization often constrained to operate as a mouthpiece for decisions in which it is not involved and for which it may have only limited information.

Three hypotheses can be formulated to explain China's play in this border crisis, explanations that are not mutually exclusive. The first interpretation emphasizes the local balance of power, particularly around infrastructure issues that allow for regular border patrols. In Ladakh, India is finalizing the construction of a 255-kilometres road between Darbuk, Shyok and Daulat Beg Oldie. The climatic and geographical conditions of this Himalayan region make patrolling very difficult, especially during the coldest half of the year. The aim is to link the border posts. The confrontations at Pangong Tso Lake and the Galwan Valley are the result of Chinese operations aiming to prevent this connectivity at specific points where both sides claim different boundaries of the line of control. In 2013, the construction of the same road had already generated an incident provoked by the PLA. China's operational objective would appear to be maintaining logistical superiority over the Indian army, allowing for the mobility of border units. This logic of a local balance of military power across the border also explains India’s efforts to correct a weaker position when it comes to land mobility for its army. 

This can explain clashes and is very much present in the PLA's communication. It could even be argued that their communication is in fact limited to it, for example with the staging of high-altitude equipment. This includes the Type 15 tank and the PCL-181 self-propelled artillery, designed to manoeuvre on high plateaux, a version of the Z-20 and Z-8 helicopters to operate in oxygen-depleted environments, the capacity for border surveillance by armed reconnaissance drones, and so on. The recurrent message is one of military superiority with the aim of deterrence and probably submission.

China's operational objective would appear to be the maintenance of logistical superiority over the Indian army, allowing for the mobility of border units.

The second interpretation refers to "reactive assertiveness", a term created to qualify China's behaviour in territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and East China Sea in the 1990s. The principle is that every action taken by a rival, no matter how small, gives rise to a disproportionate response that brings China closer to an objective clearly defined by its strategists: effective territorial control. This is what happened in the Spratly Islands, with the construction of artificial islands and the generalisation of coast guard patrols, or during the conquest of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. This interpretation extends the first. The construction of transport infrastructure by India would provide an opportunity for the PLA to extend territorial control and create a new status quo, under the pretext of a prior change in the status quo triggered by India, thus creating a fictional narrative of a return to equilibrium. Such an approach could be encouraged by the Chinese perception, real or imagined, of an Indian effort to change the balance of power in Ladakh, following the change in administrative status in 2019, and in reaction to more communication from the Modi government on the stated objective of retaking Aksai Chin. These are preemptive future actions that the Indian army could carry out, thanks to the greater land mobility permitted by the completion of the road.

The third interpretation highlights China’s broader strategic objectives, and the idea of a signal to India and the international community, in line with the power logic underlying Chinese foreign policy. Beijing's grievances against Modi's India are numerous. They relate to India's rapprochement with an Indo-Pacific front that is being set up around the United States, Australia and Japan, and with France’s support, in order to counter China's growing influence in the area, through unbridled efforts to build naval power and the expansion of its economic presence. The main determinant of China's actions would then be to send a signal to the world regarding the balance of power and China’s determination to use force to support its foreign policy objectives.

Xi Jinping has stated that "Great historical progress always happens after major disasters". This suggests that he sees Covid-19 as a strategic opportunity.

This suggests that he sees Covid-19 as a strategic opportunity to accelerate the agenda announced at the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017 and, in his own words, open a "new era" of a China that is "a global leader in international power and influence". Imposing arm wrestling serves this purpose, if it results in China projecting the image of a political victory achieved through military strength. 

What would, from Beijing’s point of view, constitute success in the wake of this crisis? Extending Chinese territorial control by a few dozen square kilometres at the cost of recurring tensions and reputational damage may seem like a Pyrrhic victory. However, regular patrols by the Chinese coast guard in the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands since 2012 are precisely conceived in Beijing as a step forward for Chinese interests. The demonstration of China's determination to inflict military casualties in sovereignty disputes is a message that goes beyond the Sino-Indian conflict. Such a signal is communicated with less risk than if it were imposed on countries allied with the United States or Taiwan. Once this message is communicated, China has no obvious interest in further escalation because the centre of gravity of its geopolitics remains in East Asia, where American pressure is strongest. On the other hand, it can withstand a limited degree of conflict persisting along the border, poorly contained by insufficient confidence-building measures, without too great a cost on the country’s international relations. This Chinese option of inertia puts the Indian executive in the unpleasant position of having to seek a way out under strong media pressure.


Copyright : Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP

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