India-China Faceoff: Was It Inevitable?

If war is too serious a business to be left to the generals, it is also too serious a business to be left to ignorant politicians. ‘Hot war’ between India and China will lead to a larger regional conflagration with untold and possibly unforeseen consequences for both the Asian giants.
02 Jul 2020 15:55
India-China Faceoff: Was It Inevitable?

Is the force build-up at Indo-China border an outcome of a bigger strategy of Asian powers? There is no simple answer to this unpretentious question. Today’s geo-politics is revolving around new systems with new complexities. As long as we remain caught in generalisation, the fog in our minds will only get thicker. But if we switch to current reality, we might find some plausible answers to the five broader questions that have been preying on the minds of millions.

Is China flexing muscles or securing its trade routes?

Chinese forces are not there on Indian borders for few morsels of territory in Ladakh. That will be too minimalistic for such a risky move. Western world is having its own narrative on Chinese build-up but a holistic picture can be seen only if we look through the Chinese prism.

To accelerate its growth rate in the next decade, China not only requires robust industrial output but they also need safe and secure routes which function as trade arteries and provide inward movement of oil and raw material from West Asia and Africa.

China remains heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, with up to 80 percent of its energy supply passing through the Strait of Malacca. Any disruption – ranging from piracy to fears of a potential naval blockade by the United States or India – will have an adverse impact on China’s long-term food and energy security.

The much debated project of OBOR provided the answer to two persistent problems of China—the alternate route for energy & trade and development of western hinterland. China so far invested close to $400 billion on its flagship program CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) on development of Gwadar port and building of highways across Pakistan (through Gilgit-Baltistan) to connect with Xinjiang and Tibet. China is getting increasingly sensitive about the security of the corridor which is passing under the combat range of Indian Army after the building of new roads along LAC.

Where the interests of two Asian giants clash?

China’s core interests have dictated that India should be firmly dissuaded from considering recovery of Gilgit-Baltistan to fulfil its long-stated goal of unifying Kashmir. From Beijing’s perspective, any Indian attempt to take over Gilgit-Baltistan would wreck CPEC. The Chinese have also been uncomfortable with infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, especially due to the pressure it imposes on Aksai Chin.

By 2008, India had reactivated the airfield of Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) which is in the south of Karakoram Pass and just nine kilometres from Aksai Chin. Advance landing grounds of Fukche and Nyoma had also been revived. India is fast catching up with China in terms of border infrastructure.

Indian road construction activity with the 255-km Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) as the spine has steeled Indian connectivity along the LAC, adding further pressure on Aksai Chin. Chinese PLA was getting increasingly uncomfortable with these infra activities being developed by India.

Is the present standoff an outcome of a planned strategy?

Yes. The simultaneous face off at three different places along the LAC appears not only well coordinated but also part of a plan that could not have been conceived at the local or sub- area level. Trouble was brewing for quite some time and it intensified after 73-Day long ‘Doklam’ standoff in 2017 at the trijunction of Bhutan, India and China borders where India Army stopped road construction activity by China claiming this on Bhutanese land and posing security threats to Silliguri corridor of India which is a 16 km narrow corridor and connects seven North-Eastern Indian states with rest of the country. After Doklam, Chinese think-tank started planning for a long-term solution for securing loose ends on border issues with India.

On the other side, India almost completed 255 km long Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road last year and Indian forces started breathing under the nose of PLA, just few kilometres South of Karakoram pass and important Chinese highway (G219) with enhanced capacity of moving men and heavy equipment by all-weather road and by air. India also taken up road projects which are perpendicular to DSDBO road in Depsang sector, Galwan Valley and in Chip Chap river valley; LAC was not disputed in these areas so far and there were no confrontations between the two armies in the last few decades. Another flashpoint in the present standoff is along Pangong (Tso) lake. This highland lake is 134 km long from East to West at an altitude of 14,270 feet. Its 45 km western stretch is in Indian control while rest of the 90 km is controlled by the Chinese. Present dispute is over its northern bank where both the countries have different perception of LAC which divides the lake between them. This area is called ‘finger area.’ The finger area consists of a series of mountainous spurs along the lake that have been contested by both sides. Roughly 15 km stretch from finger-1 to finger-8 is bone of contention at present. India claims area up to finger-8 (Westwards), whereas China claims LAC passes through finger-2 (Eastwards).

For long time both the armies were patrolling up to their claim area with warnings from the opponent. Although the ground position was changed in 1999 when PLA built road till finger-4 and strictly resisted to Indian patrolling beyond finger-4. In 2019, to checkmate the Chinese soldiers, an Indian patrol party is reported to have climbed the peaks from finger 4 and came down to finger 8, much to the surprise of the PLA.

As per analysts, infrastructure development on Indian side of LAC, Doklam standoff in 2017, completion of DSDBO road, construction of major bridges on the arterial roads and revival of air strips along the border by Indian army, raised alarms in Chinese establishments.

It’s well established now that PLA moved its forces to the western borders with India directly from a massive military exercise by Western Theatre Command to strengthen tactical locations.


Is there a possibility of full-scale war?

For the time being, neither side seems eager to escalate into a shooting war. Though, Galwan like local skirmishes cannot be ruled out.

India and China are divided by natural borders of high mountains. Both the countries know that it’s not easy to retain the captured territory by either of them, because harsh weather and rugged mountains will cut-off their supply lines for major parts of the year.

Militarily, both are nuclear armed countries and cannot be pushed by each other beyond an extent. Even in conventional war, no side has a clear edge in mountains.

In the current situation, both China and India may try to secure favourable locations on the high mountains. China would like to have access over the ridges overlooking DSDBO road to thwart any future attempt by India to disconnect CPEC or G219 highway connecting Xinjiang with Tibet. India will ensure development of infrastructure to move troops and machines on the borders to protect its territory in case of war with China or Pakistan. A complete disengagement may take very long this time.

Is the world heading for ‘New Cold War’ era?

Many analysts are trying to portray the crisis as part of superpower gameplay in the so- called ‘New Cold War.’

Some media experts see U.S. support as one of the main drivers behind India’s firmness and aggression in dealing with its border issues with China, but thatseems far from the truth.

In reality, business interests are playing a major role in the international arena and these arenot favourable at the moment for a bipolar world. It is difficult foresee a return to a bipolar world, even amid the sharpening contradictions between China and the West. Half of the twenty largest economies of the world are non-western now. Diffusion of technology and demographic differentials will also contribute to the broader spread of influence.

China is fast becoming self-reliant in terms of weaponry and remains no lucrative market for Russia. In fact Russian arms industry is facing stiff competition from China globally. Russia would not like to lose India a lucrative buyer for its weaponry. Israel is having warm
relations with China but cannot afford to drift away from India, a big market for its technology and weapons and among the very few trusted friends.

The growing voices in the West that the U.S. should forge a deep strategic alliance with India. This also gels with the emerging view of India being a natural ally of the United States and thus a bulwark against China in Asia. While this may come as a big boost to India’s
position in the region, New Delhi must tread this path cautiously. The “New Cold War,” if it ever becomes a reality, would be completely different from the Cold War of the twentieth century.

The U.S. no longer enjoys the same hegemonic status as it did decades ago. Its position as the leader of the liberal international order has long been eroded. It may thus not be advisable for India to put all its eggs in one basket. India must, as it is trying to,
handle its bilateral issues with China in an independent manner without falling prey to any narrative or any alliance. Alliance with third country from either side may ignite multi-front war for India as well as for China. Multi front war zones may further lead to massive losses to both the Asian powers with a severe blow to their flourishing economies. Both, India and

China will lose confidence of the investors and the crown of biggest ‘lucrative markets’ in the world. It’s absolutely in the interest of the two Asian giants to not to shift war theatre from West Asia to East and South Asia. Eastwards migration of the war zone will only revive
‘Arms & Ammunition’ industry of the West.


Jai Kumar Sharma is Fiji Sun’s consultant Editor based in New Delhi. He is among few journalists who have travelled across length and width of Ladakh in last three decades and understand strategic importance of its frontiers with Pakistan and China

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