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In the global game being played on a gigantic chessboard, the continuing game being played by India and China over many years has a significant place. But the game has been slow and without any results, often the two rivals forgetting their own stakes and working together to balance the others. But the Chinese moves since this April have been more decisive than before, as though they found that COVID-19 has given them a new opportunity to subdue India in its quest to dominate the world. After intense negotiations for several weeks, India has made some moves to indicate that India will not remain passive if efforts are made to alter the status quo on the Line of Actual Control. Consequently, the chessboard is again active with unpredictable results.  


Among the three prongs of the Indian response to the Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region, the most important is diplomacy even after India announced that troops have now been deployed on four strategic hilltops, after an attempted Chinese incursion along the border in Ladakh over the weekend. The deployment of about 10,000 troops along 70 kilometres of the border gives India a commanding view of the Chinese camp at Moldo down below. A Chinese spokesperson accused Indian soldiers of trespassing across the de facto border and conducting what it called “flagrant provocations”. Diplomacy has become more urgent after the Chiefs of the Indian Army and Air Force visited the region and made it known that the armed forces have instructions to deal with any Chinese provocation.


Several China experts in India have been urging the Government to take some action to strengthen India’s bargaining position in the face of China refusing to disengage from the areas newly occupied by them, as agreed between the two sides at the level of Foreign Ministers. Although the talks continued at the military and diplomatic level, the signals emanating from China indicated that no further disengagement is necessary or expected. This placed India in an extremely difficult situation and it became necessary for India to take action to gain a stronger negotiating position, bearing in mind that it may lead to further escalation on the LAC. The Chinese have, as expected, reacted strongly reminding India about the 1962 war.


Strategists are of the view that the recent troop deployment on both banks of Pangong Lake has strengthened India’s position. But for a variety of reasons, including the length of stay, the greater advantage stays with China. But it is significant that the Chinese Defence Minister asked to meet the Indian Defence Minister in Moscow where both of them were present for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).


The two Ministers held a meeting on 4 September for more than two hours, but there was no expectation that this intractable situation will be resolved at one meeting. There was no official word on the outcome of the meeting. Earlier in the day, addressing the SCO meeting, Rajnath Singh said that a peaceful, stable and secure region, “demands a climate of trust and cooperation, non-aggression, respect for international rules and norms, sensitivity to each other’s interest and peaceful resolution of differences.” India stuck to its bottom line that China should restore status quo, as it existed in April by withdrawing its forces from Pangong Tso, Gogra and Depsang, while also reducing its military build-up along the LAC. The confidence gained by India by its deployment on the banks of the Pangong Lake was evident in the Indian position.


The two Foreign Ministers will also be together in Moscow later in September and a meeting could take place between them. The good news is that there is agreement that talks are key to resolving the tensions between the two countries. Speculation is that India planned its move on the border, anticipating the Moscow meetings.


As for the second aspect of the Indian strategy, the strengthening of our defence capacity, India seems to be doing well. Delivery of vital military supplies from different suppliers has been accelerated. In addition, there is considerable international support for India, particularly from the United States. The “Quadrilateral” consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India is showing signs of revival as a bulwark against Chinese domination of the Indo-Pacific. The Chief of Defence Staff has said that the “QUAD” must ensure freedom of navigation and freedom of navigation operations in the Indian Ocean. He also spoke of the possibility of a combined challenge from Pakistan and China at this time.


The unconditional support to India extended by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was diluted by President Donald Trump with his offer of mediation using his favourite word, “nasty” to describe the India-China standoff. If the US condemns the Chinese incursions in the first place, it is unconscionable to offer mediation. Of course, neither India nor China would welcome the offer, but the offer itself places the US as impartial in the situation.


The third strategy of India is economic, but here again, India’s options are limited. The banning of 224 Chinese apps in three instalments must have crippled the Indian market for these Chinese products, but the damage will not be serious enough to change the Chinese policy towards India. Anything more fundamental on the economic front is likely to hurt our telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries. In any event, a trade war is not planned.


The deployment of a unit of India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF) on the southern bank of the Pangong Lake is a new development the Chinese are viewing with concern. SFF was drawn from the Tibetan exiles in India as the country’s covert warfare force. They have been waiting to take on the Chinese, but because of our policy not to antagonise China, we have been refraining from using them within 10 kms of the LAC, but this time, we let them go and also announced their presence. The SFF staged a ferocious attack to occupy the new positions, which changed the game on the LAC. The Commander of the lead SFF company, Tenzin Nyima, was killed by a landmine the Chinese had laid in anticipation of the likely Indian movement in the area. Another soldier has also been reported killed. But the Indian side has not acknowledged these deaths and the body is said to have been kept unceremoniously by the Tibetans. The Chinese have already accused India of using the Tibetans as “Cannon fodder.”


The situation on the LAC and its environs is grave and there is no sign of a solution before winter, which means that India has to keep our troops on the move at a very high cost even if shots are not fired. The greater balance in the situation achieved by the most recent Indian moves may help in breaking the Chinese resolve and if the pressure on China in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South China Sea increases, it may even end the adventure. Even for China, fighting on several fronts may be a grave challenge in these COVID-19 days.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.