The PLA action could be a precursor to try and foreclose any future possibility of Indian troops impeding the rapid development of the CPEC.
Recent developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Eastern Ladakh region and Sikkim are a cause of concern. Since April, China has made multi-pronged aggressive moves along the un-demarcated section of the Sino-Indian border. They have been comparatively larger in scale, deploying a significant number of troops with indicated intent. The transgressions in the Naku area of Sikkim were significant. In the Pangong Tso area there was continued attempt to restrict Indian Army patrols from going up regularly to Indian claimed territory; and it was the Chinese PLA incursions in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs region and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) region that brought in a significant new element in the nature and depth of the transgressions. These aggressive moves exacerbated tension in the region and call for an in-depth analysis.
The use of words like “stable” and “controllable” to describe the current situation at the border by the Chinese in their official briefings suggest that a compromise is being offered to the Indian side. The intrusion in the Galwan valley—the first since the 1962 conflict—is significant in both nature and scale. The use of air assets like helicopters flying close to the border albeit on their own side of the perceived LAC, and fighter activity further inland, although attributed to routine summer flying duties, manifest a diabolical intent.
Several rounds of bilateral talks have taken place at the levels of Colonel, Brigadier, and Major General. The level of rhetoric and jingoism on both sides is now subdued as both work furiously but quietly to defuse the tension. The Chinese posture is one of digging in at their present positions, some of which are in Indian territory. Meanwhile, the Indian side is pressing for a return to status quo. With both sides signalling an unwillingness to escalate the situation, the level of talks to resolve the stand-off is being raised to the level of Corps Commander. It is rare if not for the first time that Lieutenant Generals from both sides will be meeting to find a solution to the imbroglio.
Meanwhile, there is much debate in the media and among China watchers here about the reasons for the premeditated and predetermined Chinese actions along the Sino-Indian border. They range from the leadership’s attempt to create a diversion from internal pressures building around the opposition to Xi Jinping. This is evident on social media platforms, where participants speak out boldly, unafraid of being identified. As the economy slows down leading to soaring unemployment, there is growing restiveness among the Chinese youth. Joblessness is estimated to have risen from about 30 million to almost 70-80 million; the GDP growth rate is expected to decline significantly—it is noteworthy that this year, the Chinese did not declare their estimated GDP growth at the recently held annual Two Sessions. To add to this, China is facing international opprobrium for being the source of the Covid-19 pandemic and there are calls to “punish” China by relocating businesses through new supply chains. All these factors pose new challenges to the Chinese export-led economic growth model, which is the mainstay of its phenomenal modernization and development story. Growing tensions in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are stated to be other contributing factors.
But there is more to the aggressive Chinese moves on the Sino-Indian border. PLA’s recent incursions appear to be carefully coordinated attempts by troops belonging to two erstwhile military regions—the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs—under the Western Theatre Command. They are charged with responsibility of military operations against Indian targets stretching opposite Xinjiang in the north to Sikkim in the south, and further east. Viewed from a strategic angle, the aim seems to be to cut off Indian Army access to the LAC leading up to the Karakoram Pass. It could also serve to obstruct the emerging network of feeder roads and infrastructure development by the Indian Army in the region. This could also be part of an attempt to isolate Sub Sector North of the Indian Army. This will allow the Chinese to protect the occupied Aksai Chin area and to outflank Indian troops based on the Siachen Glacier.
More importantly, this action could be a precursor to try and foreclose any future possibility of Indian troops effectively impeding the rapid development of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through the Karakoram Pass, Gilgit-Baltistan and the POK. Added to this is the timing of the moves. They are notably close to the Pak Supreme Court order for holding elections in Gilgit-Baltistan. This coincides with simultaneous moves by Pakistan for extending constitutional control in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and strengthening control over POK. The decision to go ahead with the Kohala hydro power project and construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam by a Chinese company in POK, the latter at a cost of $5.8 billion (which is an economically unviable project), will likely push Pakistan into a severe debt trap. And we are all too familiar with the template of how China settles debts with those who cannot repay!
At the same time, Pakistan is facilitating greater involvement of the Chinese in the region through the aegis of the CPEC. An estimated 10,000 PLA personnel and several thousand Chinese “advisers” are reported to be involved in Chinese aided projects in the POK, Gilgit-Baltistan region. In the foreseeable future, it is possible that the heavily indebted Pakistanis may eventually cede control of the whole or parts of the Gilgit-Baltistan region to the Chinese as compensation. For the Chinese, it will be a fulfilment of their not so hidden agenda to extend the territory of Xinjiang province southwards into Pak controlled territory, the underlying and unstated strategic raison d’être for the CPEC. Although currently this assessment might seem to be only a remote possibility, it is an eventuality which should be seriously engaging the minds of Indian strategic thinkers and policymakers.
The timing of the heightened Sino-Pak collaborative moves and the basis of the above assessment can be traced to the August 2019 statements made by the Home Minister in Parliament when he declared the UT status for Ladakh and the J&K. Amidst thunderous applause, he stated that India would regain the Pak controlled areas of POK and the Chinese captured areas of the Aksai Chin, in time. Although there are confusing signals about the actual ground situation emanating from so-called reliable sources, with some claiming that the Chinese troops have withdrawn from areas from within acknowledged Indian territory, and be that as it may, the Chinese may have assessed correctly that this government has the grit and determination to defend its territorial sovereignty and “walk the talk”. This was seen in Doklam, and in the historic annulment of Article 370.
The question to consider is this: are the Chinese moves in Ladakh only part of continuing probing attempts to incrementally seize Indian territory and bolster their claims over tactically advantageous pockets of disputed or Indian territory? Or are they working in partnership with an indebted Pakistan to eventually annex chunks of Pakistani controlled Indian territory south of the present borders of Xinjiang? Are the current incursions a sinister move in a classic game of Weiqi?
The long-term Chinese aim to annex Pak controlled territory in Gilgit-Baltistan area and POK under the garb of the CPEC, without having to fire a single bullet, must be factored into our security calculus.
Krishan Varma is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.