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The Story thus Far


The year 2020 has been one of the most difficult years for the world. COVID 19 brought the entire world on its knees. India initially took pride in its ability to fight the pandemic until it crossed the figure of one lakh. The figure continues to mount. As if that was not enough, another issue that has made and continues to make headlines pertains to China’s incursion in the Galwan Valley, Depsang Plateau and its forward movement into Indian territory by way of 8 km in Pangong Tso Lake in Eastern Ladakh.


The development in Eastern Ladakh is quite different from the impact of the pandemic. It was a question of national sovereignty! For the national media, it was a field day for a while.  In any event, to briefly recount the events, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at a number of places in Eastern Ladakh sometime in the month of May this year. The most prominent locations are Galwan and Pangong Tso Lake. After the failure to convince the PLA to return and maintain the status quo, the first attempt was by gradual build-up of troops by India and then instituting high-level military meeting on June 6 for disengagement.  Soon after the symbolic extrication began, there was an unfortunate incident of an altercation between the Indian Army (IA) and PLA on the night of June 15. The event resulted in the death of the Commanding Officer of 16  BIHAR (the infantry battalion of Bihar Regiment) and nineteen other ranks. The casualty on the PLA’s side is reported to be more than 40 although this is not yet borne out by the state. What took place thereafter was a massive build-up of forces on either side of the border, taking the two Asian giants almost to the brink of war. While talks to diffuse the situation continued both at military and diplomatic levels, India’s Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi visited Leh and addressed the Indian troops on July 3.


The PM made one important strategic communication to China, “This much is enough and no more. We have enough to stop you from your further misadventure. This is not 1962 and there will be tremendous loss on both sides. So better don’t try to push us anymore.” Modi talked of not letting our soldiers’ sacrifice go in vain.  This however is not about taking military revenge but giving a boost to India’s military capability.


War is not an option. Therefore, as envisaged, slow, calibrated and limited disengagement has begun albeit maintaining deterrence on the border. While there are reports of visible disengagement from the Galwan Valley, the story of the Pangong Tso Lake is slightly different. Over a period of time, the Indian perception of the LAC has been that the LAC runs along Finger 8 and that the PLA has reached Finger 4 (to the West and towards the Indian side). Convincing the PLA to go back to their side of the LAC will be a challenge. Evicting the PLA from Finger 8 (fingers are mountain spurs coming towards the lake) is not an easy decision. It will therefore, depend on how China can be convinced that there are other options to settle our differences than the disastrous consequences of a war.  As at the time of writing, media reports suggest that the PLA has moved back to an area that abuts Finger 5. Whether the PLA would move back to Finger 8 is a moot question.


There are a number of theories about China’s motive behind what it did. The most commonly argued one is its larger geopolitical objectives combined with smaller military gains at the tactical level along the un-demarcated India-China border. Actual reason will probably be known only to the Chinese leadership. But it is for certain that China has made use of the hot spots around the disputed areas of the border to trigger military incidents for strategic gains. The un-demarcated border therefore, is a strategic tool for China, which it would be loath to give up for the sake of settling the boundary dispute in the name of peace and tranquillity. The unfortunate incident of Galwan was tactical but has become a strategic problem, inviting other big powers to enter the scenario. The escalation would hopefully help a stand-down without any clear winner or loser. But to make good of what is left in the end of the de-escalation after the escalation, would be clearly political one-upmanship game, at least for India.

What Next?


Revisiting the question of China’s larger geopolitical motive, it can be seen in the context of how Jacek Bartosiak described the relationship between the US and China as an example of “Thucydides trap”. He explained that the fear of decline of the dominant power i.e. the US and the rise of a competing power i.e. China, makes both nations rivals. This trap however, is not created by the fear and determination of either the competent or the dominant power to defend the status quo but by the belligerent alliances that want others to fight their war. For example, Daniel Falcon spoke of an alliance that could come into being by both the US and India on the one side and China and Russia on the other side. In the context of India and China, such a trap is already there and seems rather deep with a long historical baggage and marked by formidable inner ways and dotted with hot spots all along the un-demarcated India-China boundary. As Maj Gen Alok Deb observed, “Managing relations with China is destined to remain the major preoccupation for Indian strategic thinkers in coming years.”



Doklam after June 2017


The trajectory of India-China relations has been a complicated one after the 1962 war, which was a humiliating defeat for India, but followed by China’s defeat in Nathu La in 1967. The international community’s recognition of India as a regional power is a matter that China has found difficult to digest. India shares more than 3000 km border with China, which is not demarcated and with a number of disputed areas all along the border from west to east. China has been using these disputed areas to trigger incidents resulting in both the IA and the PLA locking horns. So far, quick response mechanisms from both sides have prevailed and prevented many an incident from getting out of control. The Doklam standoff of June 2017 was however, inside Bhutan. Like the India-China-Bhutan boundary, China shares a similar boundary with Nepal in the Kala Pani area. The question therefore, is – would China reconcile to the presence of another emerging power in Asia and live with the humiliation that it encountered vis-à-vis the Galwan incident of June 15? After all, it by all accounts is a retreat by the PLA. For the Chinese President Xi Jinping, inability to restrain the rising power of India and its growing alignment  with China’s arch rival the US, is unlikely to bear silence.


Options for India and China


India’s rise, together with its partnership with China’s rivals and a status quo in the region is a hindrance to China’s struggle to come out of the trap. India does not fit into the China’s strategic calculi because the sum game does not add up to China’s favour and Xi simply cannot afford to lose. The algorithm that China is likely to use to correct the geopolitical anomaly would be to continue its crusade against India, albeit in different forms. China is aware that in the event of a major conflict, support from its (India) strategic partner – the US is not guaranteed. John Bolton, the former U.S. National Security Adviser also observed that President Trump is unable to make a distinction between bilateral issues from international issues and, personal relations from political leaders. Hence, relying on the support of the US when there is a military confrontation would be asking for too much. China therefore, will use a multi-directional approach, combining strategic and tactical means. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma, the former Commander of Leh based corps and with a hands-on experience on the subject, mentions that among others, the use of cyber war, and long-distance precision fire strikes on selected Indian targets will be on the card. Learning from its (China) experience in the Galwan Valley, he commented that the status quo management of the border would be likely but he did not rule out recurrences of similar incidents elsewhere on the long, variegated India-China border.


Opportunities always accompany challenges. India’s quick mobilisation of its reserve army formations and the staging forward of advanced air assets provided a prospect to validate its military’s operational readiness and send an unambiguous warning to China. It however, would not be possible to respond with similar promptness along the entire border. There are areas in Arunachal Pradesh (other than Kameng sector and Lohit Valley in Walong sector) that are still underdeveloped. While the PLA is poised rather close to the passes on their side of the border, response time for the IA to reach the passes will be a minimum of 20 days from the road head. The terrain beyond the road head is so treacherous that even to preposition the IA troops near the border would pose to be a logistical nightmare. These areas are India’s Achilles heel and such a number is larger on the Indian side than on the other. Those responsible with security management of the border are aware of the weaknesses and are hopefully working overtime to find ways to mitigate, and to counter any PLA misadventure.


The prospect of unsettling India from its “friendship turf” in its immediate neighbourhood is another lucrative option for China. China has already done this in Doklam in 2017. By intruding into the Bhutanese territory, the PLA probed India’s response, disengaged, and thereafter, occupied around 59 sq km out of 89 sq km of its claimed area in the Doklam plateau.


While the Ladakh standoff heat continues, Nepal’s parliament approved a bill to alter Nepal’s map by showcasing a portion of Indian territory as that of Nepal. A former foreign secretary of India writes “On June 10, Nepal’s House of Representatives unanimously approved the tabling of an amendment to the country’s constitution which will now formally depict nearly 400 sq. km of Indian territory extending west from the Lipulekh Pass, and including it, as part of Nepal’s sovereign territory.” He observed that Nepal has waved a Chinese card on India’s face to advance its own interest. Biswas Baral, the editor of Nepalese weekly The Annapurna Express however, refutes India’s claim and states that China has nothing to do with it.


If this was not enough, “Beijing objected to the grant for Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district bordering India and China, claiming that the location was disputed, during the virtual meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in the first week of June.”


Sakteng sanctuary is located in the far east on the Indo-Bhutan border. This area and other adjacent areas of Bhutan, which are closer to Bhutan-Tibet border, have never been disputed. But for China, the word “dispute” has become irrelevant. Therefore, were the PLA to get a foothold even in the northern part of the sanctuary, i.e., the territory west of the India-China-Bhutan Tri-Junction, it would be tantamount to being a military threat that the IA would have to factor in. When China refers to Sakteng, it does not refer only to the sanctuary. Like Galwan and the Fingers of Pangong Tso Lake, Sakteng is also another tool that China used as a means of achieving its larger geopolitical objectives.



In the current geo-strategic environment, where COVID 19 pandemic has compelled the world to brace itself, India’s options are rather limited. Enhancing its military capability and speeding up logistic infrastructures in the neglected far Eastern Sector should be the first priority. Politically, it would do India well to be more practical and recognise the benefit of good relations with her immediate neighbours who are trying to shift their respective goal posts towards China in order to advance their own national interest.  The time is not far, when the only neighbour that India can rely on, may change sides. This would be a price that India would have to pay for its pathologically big brotherly attitude towards its immediate neighbours. As suggested by Maj Gen Deb, it is better to look at mutually beneficial issues, decided in an atmosphere of transparency to make the relationship stronger.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.