Current China-India Face-off on LAC: An interview of Major General S B Asthana, (Veteran) by International Affairs Review

Sharing an interview of mine by International Affairs Review on current India-China LAC Face-off and Indo-Nepal border issue and future options. (9 min read). While all its strategic contenders are still busy combating COVID-19, China has unfairly used it as an opportunity to assert itself on multiple fronts, including India China borders. The URL of the interview is given below.

“Chinese actions at the LAC are counter-productive”

The text is reproduced below

International Affairs Review      

Can you please walk us through whatever is happening between India and China on our borders right now?

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

Let me place the events along India China borders in context. China got over the pandemic cycle of Novel Coronavirus earlier than other major countries including India, while all its strategic contenders are still busy combating COVID-19. China has unfairly used it as an opportunity to assert itself on multiple fronts, including India China borders. This is a sequel to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific at multiple places in South and East China sea with greater assertion against other claimants like Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. Besides coercion of Taiwan, it has also taken away the autonomy of Hong Kong. The rationale of China being over assertive at the time of pandemic comes from Sun Tzu’s thoughts of ‘Strike adversary when it’s weak and preserve yourself when it is strong’. China is therefore speeding up its Incremental Encroachment Strategy in South China Sea as well as LAC.      

After a few scuffles at few points along LAC earlier this month, which were cases of response to transgressions, China intruded in Ladakh at multiple points with large number of troops, pitched tents and made some bunkers. Indian troops have also positioned themselves in large numbers and the situation has led to a standoffs, which could not be resolved at local commanders level. There are four standoff points between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh sector’s to include three in Galwan Valley, which was not claimed/patrolled by Chinese earlier, where India was making infrastructure to include road and a bridge to access Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) for better sustainability of its border post, well inside Indian territory. One standoff point is along Pangong Tso area between Finger 3 and 4 which are small ridges along Pongong Tso lake, where both sides have been patrolling. 

As you are aware, in absence of any border treaty between PRC and India post-independence, both countries have own perception of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and in certain areas these perception overlap. Both sides patrol areas up to own perception of LAC; hence in overlapping areas, it is termed as transgression by opposite side. In most transgressions troops patrol and go back to their bases. In case the troops do not go back and make arrangements to stay in particular areas claiming to be their own, it leads to standoff, as the opposing side is also under compulsion to do the same, which is the case in Pongong Tso and most of the earlier standoffs along LAC. In case of Galwan valley, it’s a case of new claims with intrusion, leading to similar action by Indian troops leading to face-off. Currently the standoff continues waiting for further negotiations, with both sides seemingly better prepared for longer stay. Indian Army is continuing with infrastructure development in its own territory, as faceoff continues. From LAC point of view, China has developed its infrastructure up to LAC much earlier, but it wants to deny the same to India, which is only trying to catch up, to protect its sovereign territory. 

International Affairs Review      

By all reports it seems China has begun the aggressive actions. Why would it do so now, when it is under so much of scrutiny and interrogation because off Covid-19 pandemic?

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

Chinese desire to assert at a time when it has passed through the peak of the Novel coronavirus pandemic and other countries including India are still combating it. In the current standoff in Ladakh, Chinese seem to be better prepared and have intruded in larger numbers than the earlier standoffs. China has already developed its infrastructure up to LAC and wants to deny the same to India; hence has carefully chosen this time to assert to block Indian progress of infrastructure development along the borders. The intent seems to be to deter/prevent Indian infrastructure development getting closer to LAC in the region from where the Karakoram highway and route to CPEC is relatively closer, in this limited working season, because once the snowfall commences, not much progress can be made by India in infrastructure build up. 

If we look beyond Ladakh, China is leaving no stone unturned to make quick gains from economic profiteering to strategic advances, when US is struggling with the pandemic, more so in Indo-Pacific where it could have faced US opposition in absence of pandemic. As regards Beijing’s overdrive along China-India borders it can be speculated that it is due to many other reasons in addition to denying India to build infrastructure near LAC. Firstly putting indirect pressure on India to distance itself from South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong issues; secondly avoid being critical of China as international investigation, scrutiny and interrogation progresses related to Covid-19 pandemic under Indian chairmanship of WHA;  thirdly reminding India not to side US as our hips are joint by unsettled common borders unlike other Quad members; fourthly diverting domestic dissent against Communist Party of China due to mishandling of pandemic, economic slowdown and global anger, towards nationalistic cause by igniting potential flashpoints; and fifthly to reduce threat on Pakistan, expecting a backlash from India after Handwara incident. The reasons could be a mix of all.

International Affairs Review      

What are India’s options this time? Should we be worried? How do we reconcile with the fact that while we are engaged in a border stand-off with China, we also received the second batch of medical/humanitarian aid from Jack Ma’s corporation?

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran)

Regarding military option Indian troops should continue with standoff and infrastructure build up activities, because a number of such activities are well behind the sites of standoffs.  India should not back down from the stand it has taken, should not bring back its troops and wait for Chinese to blink, even if it amounts to holding such positions nearing snowfall. We must prepare ourselves militarily and logistically to achieve the same. India has matched the China army’s deployment in terms of troops, capacity and resources in all earlier standoffs and I am sure, will do so this time as well. In fact the troop density of India has generally been higher than Chinese in these areas. India is well within its territory and free to construct infrastructure in own country. India is a strong country, capable of protecting its territory as well as its strategic choices. Although the Indian troops must be prepared for worst case scenario, but the battle indicators do not show any intent for any conflict by either side, considering China’s over-engagement at multiple points. The standoffs are a cause of concern but not a cause of worry. 

On diplomatic front India as well as China must get into dialogue immediately to resolve the issue. It is my firm opinion that Chinese actions on LAC are counter-productive because India is a strong sovereign nation, will not let anyone manipulate its sovereign strategic choices. While both countries agree that it’s a bilateral issue and doesn’t require any mediation, however China must walk the talk and pull back its troops to pre-standoff position. The conciliatory message by Chinese Envoy on 27 May 2020, regarding China-India standoff following similar remarks by Chinese foreign ministry the previous day, are welcomed developments amidst rising rhetoric. It’s better to delineate, delimit and demarcate the LAC and commence talking on it, to avoid such standoffs in future. The hard fact is unless the Line of actual control LAC is demarcated, the transgressions and face-offs will continue, whenever divergences between both countries become eminent. The present face-off is neither the first nor the last one, unless LAC is demarcated, and it is doable if China shows the political will. 

The trade and humanitarian aid need not be linked with faceoff, because China is picking up approximately  one CPEC worth of money from India in trade surplus and will not like to disrupt it in strained economy. Similarly India imports raw material for pharmaceutical industry from China and will not like to disrupt that supply chain. Both countries have been able to manage this balance in past along with divergences and I am sure it will happen in future as well. 

International Affairs Review      

Why is Nepal suddenly being hostile to India? Does this have anything to do with the India-China standoff?

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran)

The timing of Nepal raking up an border issue which was under discussion with Eminent Persons Group gives rise to such suspicions. Nepal’s unilateral releasing a map encompassing Indian territory, knowing fully well that it would be unacceptable to India, suggests unprecedented pressure on Nepalese Government domestically, as well as from outside. When India released its map after abrogation of Article 370, there was no change in position as far as Indo-Nepal border is concerned. The border was demarcated by Kali river as per 1816 Treaty of Sagauli, signed between British India and Nepal, which placed Kalapani, Limpiyadhura  and Lipulekh pass on Indian side. The map released by Nepal recently, cleverly interprets one of the tributary to Kali river as main Kali River and wrongly indicates the above mentioned areas as part of Nepal. India has been constructing road to benefit travellers to Amarnath as it happens to be the shortest route to Mansarovar. Lipulekh Pass has been trading point between India and China, and Nepal has also been using it on account of open borders. The area as well as the road is strategically important to India and in Indian territory, it will be defended by India notwithstanding what map Nepal publishes. This infrastructure development is also uncomfortable to China as the area around Lipulekh dominates some areas of Ladakh.  

The ground position mentioned above has not changed since many decades. The reason for Nepal aggressiveness stems from Communist Party aligned to China coming into power and insecurity of the leadership of Prime Minister Oli, who faces a threat to his leadership from within. He tried to use this issue to divert attention of domestic constituency towards spirit of nationalism by revoking the border issue with India. The other reasonable speculation is Nepal cosying up to China by being part of BRI and getting assistance in infrastructure projects, aids and investments through ‘Purse Diplomacy’ including rail and road connectivity to Nepal from China. Media reports have been indicating that Chinese helped PM Oli in political survival, but he is still not on a firm ground and needs Chinese help to remain in power. In such  circumstances Nepal Government playing proxy for China to attempt blocking Indian infrastructure development is a possibility which cannot be ignored. 

A disruption in time-tested Indo-Nepal friendship  is a bad news for both countries and Nepal may find it very difficult to divorce India for Chinese sake, because its dependency on India is much more than China, so far.  Nepalese have almost all rights of Indian citizens except voting rights in India and enjoy freedom of movement through porous borders. Over 600,000 Indians live in Nepal and many have cross-border family ties. The Gurkha Rifles (about 30,000 soldiers recruited from Nepal) is honourable part Indian Army, and nearly 130,000 of their pensioners in Nepal derive their remittance from India. 

PM Oli tried to get constitutional amendment passed on new map, which seems temporarily halted due to inadequate support from other political parties, a development which New Delhi has to watch very carefully, because such amendment will harden Nepalese position on the issue. It therefore requires proactive diplomacy from both sides to resolve the issue through talks at the earliest.  

Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)

(The views expressed are personal views of the Major General S B Asthana, and do not represent the views of any organisation or Government). He can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn   My Youtube link

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