Lately, tension has built along the China – India disputed borders. Since the Dokhlam crisis, both sides have gradually increased their number of troops in the areas near Pangong lake and Galwan valley region. The expansion of the battalions in these particular regions, for the obvious reasons, fuelled the fear of an extensive confrontation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Consequently, on May 5, 2020, scuffles broke out between the Chinese and Indian troops. This has been one of the most enduring disputes, grinding on the men on foot. Moreover, the violent hand-to-hand clashes between the troops of the two sides are risking an open conflict.
Will the crisis heighten or the officials will be successful in defusing it through dialogue? What are the official claims of the two states? What are the reasons for increasing the number of troops in the disputed region? Is Galwan valley strategically significant? Does border infrastructure development play its part in stepping-up the conflict? Why both states cannot afford an all-out war, at present? All these questions need a well-articulated and calculated answer. This article tries to explain the strategic and economic aspects of the recent standoff. Furthermore, it endeavours to answer most of the abovementioned questions and present four reasonable scenarios, forecasting the possible outcome of the standoff.
The argument begins with the demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC). China and India nourish different opinions on LAC, as it is not a determined frontier as both the states never agreed on where the actual official border lies (or should lie). The unresolved issue of ‘who owns which part of the land’ has been the exclusive cause of the 1962 war and the 73-day stand-off in the past. This time the 130 km long and 5 km wide Pangong lake became the new battlefield. LAC at Pangong lake is vaguely defined through pointers termed as ‘fingers.’ India claims that the LAC lies with finger 8 (F8) while China claims that it lies at finger 2 (F2) with the grey area laying in between. An unofficial Indian claim is that the Chinese troops have crossed F5. Some experts including Lt Gen (Retd) H S Pang and Colonel (Retd) Ajay Shukla believe that a part of the grey area (F4 – F8) has been captured by the Chinese troops. They have also termed this disturbance in the status quo as ‘intrusion.’ On the contrary, the Indian government is hesitant in admitting the claim. Experts also opine that besides Pangong lake area, situation is also worrisome for the Indian administration in the valley of Galwan.
The Chinese claim that its border defence troops have bolstered border control measures and made necessary moves in response to India’s illegal construction of defensive facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan valley region. This region holds extensive strategic significance. It is believed that whosoever occupies this area first, enjoys the High Ground Advantage. Some experts reckon that the construction of 255 km long Darbuk- Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road near the border in Uttarkhand’s Lipulekh area, was the crucial factor in sparking clash between the troops of the two states. China had expressed its objection to the road at different occasions.
On a cursory look, the patterns through which India is altering the status of the entire region are threatening its immediate neighbours. China has evinced its discomfort in India’s decision of making Laddakh a union territory, unilaterally. Probably it would not be wrong to deduce that the Chinese border activity was a response to BJP’s unbridled horse.
While the Indian government is mum on the issue, the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had initially conceded that a sizeable number of Chinese troops had come into the eastern Ladakh, though later it was claimed as erroneous information. So why the Indian government does not accept this aspect in the first place or why did the government rule-out any presence of Chinese troops on the Indian side of the Galwan valley? The answer is simple. If the government agrees to the claim of the Chinese intrusion, the Indian public would build-up pressure on BJP to take aggressive measures (most favored course of action) i.e. surgical strike against China. Realistically, India cannot demonstrate a jingoistic and aggressive approach towards China. So,if the surgical strike option is dropped, which option is left then? #BoycottChina?
Heading towards the economic aspect of the conflict, to teach China a lesson, Indian people have taken the issue in their hands. To do that, some opportunists have lamely directed the public to boycott the Chinese economy without evaluating how hard it would hit China. Education reformist Sonam Wangchuk, for instance, has asked the Indian public to boycott Chinese software in a week and hardware in a year. It is argued that even with complete boycott, India cannot affect the Chinese economy much because China is not dependent on the Indian market. However, China is the 3rd largest export destination for India. In FY19, for instance, India exported goods worth $16.7 billion to China. In the present state of the Indian economy, what if China boycotts’ in response? It is also argued that if China retaliates and boycotts Indian goods, 67% of drug export and 60% of electronic exports will get affected and Indian businesses will suffer gravely.
Without a doubt, the chances for the crisis to escalate are minimal. If the aggressor would have been Pakistan instead of China, PM Modi and his cabal would have set the stage for a ferocious and macho-styled response by now. So far, kudos to the Chinese and Indian governments in maintaining a stable and controlled environment in the handling of this crisis. As of now, both states are indulged in several rounds of talks to de-escalate the crisis.
Considering all the factors, this crisis could perhaps result in any of the four scenarios:
Scenario 1: Initiating War (Chinese Perspective)
At present, China cannot afford to indulge in an all-out war as it is experiencing acceptance in the western world, by holding its multilateralism agenda. As expressed in the Leipzig summit 2020, the Chinese government believes and extends the notion that the world economy could gain steam through solidarity, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, multilateralism, and strong global governance. Indulging in a severe military expedition would critically dent the Chinese efforts.
Scenario 2: Initiating War (Indian Perspective)
In the midst of an economic crisis and military modernization program, India’s desire to fight a full-fledged war against China may not result in victory. The internal issues faced by the BJP government also do not qualify India to risk a war against China.
Scenario 3: India as a US Pawn
In the international arena, China being the sole hegemon challenger and a threat to the US interest in the Asia Pacific, if not shaken has at least weakened the standing of the US. Considering India’s socio-economic and political problems, the US can covertly encourage India by extending a lucrative offer for the revival of its looming economy. India could be played as a tool and it would help the US to dent the Chinese rise, especially in the post-pandemic world.
Scenario 4: Peace Process Through Military Establishment
Beijing and New Delhi seem determined to proceed with the settlement through their military establishments. It would be a hard task for both the sides to re-establish the status quo they have rearranged. Considering the larger picture, both military forces would preferably secure their interests and de-escalate. However, it may take some time for the military to absorb the recent unilateral changes on both sides.
It would suffice to conclude, as war benefits none, there is a high possibility that the militaries of the two ends would intelligently manage the crisis. But what the outcome would be in reality and how much it would satisfy the interest of either side, will take time to ascertain.