Image Courtesy: The Financial Express
China resorted to unprovoked incursions in the Indian territories, in Eastern Ladhak, in Apr-May 2020. The border skirmishes raised the tensions between two Asian giants and the unabated standoff continued till Feb 2021, when China agreed for talks related to withdrawal of troops to pre-Apr 2020 positions, with an equivalent response from India. The withdrawal started from 10 Feb 2021 and was to cover various sectors in a phased manner, including the Gogra Hot Springs area.
However, China seems to be going back on its promises and has taken a hard stand on withdrawal from the Gogra-Hot Springs area, which has raised the concerns once again.
This article will examine a brief history of China’s incursions in Eastern Ladakh, China’s hard stance on the ‘Gogra-Hot Springs’ area, reasons for China’s backtracking, implications for India, and some suggested measures.
Broad Perspective on China’s Incursions in Easter Ladakh Area
China’s appetite for courting troubles is well known and India has always been wary of that. Factually, China had resorted, approximately 1100 times, to a drama of border excursions in two years (2016-2018), make a noise, come back, smile and shake a hand, then repeat the same, including the major one in Eastern Ladhak.
Historically, the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1950 became a cause for its renewed interest in Ladakh. This interest became a resolve after the 1959 Tibetan uprising that erupted in Lhasa when the Dalai Lama fled into exile and was granted political asylum in India. It’s a matter of fact that China’s attempts to crush the Tibetan revolt and deny its existence brought China and India into sharp conflict.
China as usual while continuing a dialogue engaged in building a road across Ladakh in 1956-57 which was important for the maintenance of their control over Tibet. Without such a supply route in this area, China would not have been able to maintain its hold over Tibet.
Fig: 1 –Representative Area Indicator-Ladhakk | Image Courtesy: The Indian Express
China perceives the Ladakh Region as important for the pursuance of its long-term goals. It seems that India’s, 05 August 2019, decision to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgrade the state into two Union Territories, has irked China. China perceives it as a reassertion of India’s control over the entire state. Further, Xinjiang which is part of Aksai Chin and very important to China for internal reasons has its own connection with the Ladakh region and further on to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (Roychowdhury, 2020 and Joshi, 2021).
Another study has observed that the Indo-China border dispute (since the 1950s) primarily owes its roots to an unmarked internationally accepted boundary between them and the absence of an agreement on the Line of Actual Control. After initial efforts to resolve the dispute failed, the two sides signed a set of agreements aimed at stabilizing the LAC and normalizing their relationship in other areas.
As we know China and India have overlapping claims at several places along the LAC. Though face-offs have occurred earlier too, they were generally managed through mutually worked out protocols. In May 2020, however, China transgressed into two new areas in the Galwan river valley and around Gogra-Hotsprings. Of these, the one in Galwan on 15 June 2020 was more serious and led to an incident where 20 Indian army personnel died and another 80 were injured; 10 personnel were held prisoner for a brief period. Casualties on China’s side are still uncertain.
Figures 2a and 2b | China’s Claim in Galwan, 1960 vs. 2020
Source: ORF online: China has advanced roughly 0.5 km from the coordinates they had given in 1960, to the bend in the river where the clash took place on 15 June 2020, and which is clearly on the Indian side of the LAC. In addition, China is claiming additional territory till the estuary on the middle left, some 7 km downriver.
To gain a better perspective of the situation let us take look at it through the geographical lens. Figures 2a and 2b clearly indicate the difference between the points based on the coordinates agreed in1960, and the current Chinese claims. What it reveals is that in Pangong Tso, the Galwan River Valley, and in the Chip Chap river/Depsang Plains, China is making claims beyond its 1960 definition of the border. China is also claiming the entire Valley till the confluence of the Shyok and the Galwan, which is another 7 km or so from the bend. It is insisting that India has “trespassed into China’s territory” despite their commitment to ‘not cross the estuary of the Galwan river’ made during the first meeting of the two Corps
Commanders on 06 June 2020. Thus China is renegading on many parameters it had agreed upon- a sign of untrustworthiness. The events of 2020 so far have shown that although India’s borders with China have been largely peaceful in the last 60 years or so, they perpetually have the potential of becoming unstable. Today the Sino-Indian relationship, carefully nurtured since the late 1980s, is broken. Agreements -from 1993, 1996, 2005, 2013- have become redundant, because the underlying sense of purpose that persuaded India and China to take them up has frayed. As for the final settlement of the dispute, that remains in limbo for the same reason that the LAC remains still unclarified.
Both sides are trying to defuse the tensions and a series of talks are going on. Officially, both sides have committed to disengagement and de-escalation of forces that have been arrayed against each other in the region. India wants a restoration of the status quo ante, as of April 2020; China continues to vacillate on the issue (Joshi, 2020). China has now made an issue with Gogra Hot Springs- not conducive for normalization of relations. Let us examine the how and why of the situation.
Gogra-Hot Springs Issue
Fig: 3 India, China Proposal for disengagement at
Gogra, Galwan and Hot Springs
Image Courtesy: Indian Military Review
With a view to taking the disengagement process in eastern Ladakh forward, India and China exchanged proposals on outstanding issues in the region during the 10th round of military-level talks between the two sides on 20-21 Feb 2021. It was agreed that the proposals would be considered at the political level, before being taken forward or discussed in the next round of talks, expected to take place in March/Apr 2021.
During the talks, it was also agreed that some forward and positive movement on discussions related to friction points at Hot Springs and Gogra Post should to achieved before moving on to more contentious Depsang Plains (Kaushik and Tiwary, 2021). However, China has unilaterally gone back on its words creating a difficult situation.
Thus in Hot Springs and Gogra Post areas, Chinese and Indian troops are still in a faceoff, nine months after the military standoff began in May 2020. Disengagement of troops in these two areas was attempted but Chinese reluctance to complete the process has led to a stalemate.
There are also reports that the PLA has been digging in along the LAC and enhancing its infrastructure even further, especially all along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Some of this is in the form of additional housing in the Aksai Chin area, suggesting that the PLA intends to stay put for a while. Similar accretions are occurring at Galwan Valley and the Gogra/Hot Spring area. In addition, it has been observed that China remains deployed in significant strength at Gogra, Hot Springs, and Kongka La areas, with a large PLA logistics facility supporting troops there. Elements from a motorized infantry division, an artillery brigade, and an air-defense unit also remain deployed in the area ( Joshi,2021 and Aroor, 2021).
The reasons for China going back on its words, its hard stance related to Gogra-Hotspring areas and its build-up actions in the area are not immediately clear. But it is presumed that it may have something to do with India deepening its Quad engagement despite Beijing’s admonitions and a refusal to consider any rollback of several decisions like bans on Chinese apps until the status quo returns to LAC. Though never quite so spelt out, China’s repeated remarks that the borders are only a part of bilateral ties indicate a desire for some concessions before a complete pullback (Veer, 2021).
However, the ground reality remains that India has given enough leeway to China, which it has misused. Therefore, the time has come for India to show the mirror to China and let it know that withdrawal of Chinese troops to Apr 2020 positions is a pre-requisite for normalization of relations.
The implication of China’s Hard Stance on Gogra Hot Springs
Gogra- Hot Springs area is the region that saw the most significant military build-up on the Chinese side in Apr-May 2020 (beginning of the stand-Off). The Chinese build-up involved armored vehicles and over 1,000 troops, indicating a serious intent.
Fig: 4 shows the location of the Gogra region with respect to Pangong. The details were sourced from Chinese mapping company AutoNavi and were superimposed on OpenStreetMap to get the relative clarity. . The red arrow points to the Gogra region. Near the arrow is a faint grey line, which is the Indian interpretation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and a red U-curve, which is the Chinese interpretation.
Fig: 4- Gogra Region | Image Courtesy: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Factually, Gogra has seen the least cross-border activity – be it drive-throughs or longer incursions. But China’s going back on its words and the hard stance related to Gogra spells a most worrisome situation for India, given the recent large-scale build-up in the area, which still continues and does justify the concerns(Iyer-Mitra,2020).
Conclusion and Suggestions
China’s aggressive posture in Easter Ladakh has hampered Indo-China relations. In view of constant needling from China India came up with an unusually firm response from India which took China by surprise. After a wait and watch prolonged stand-off, both sides engaged in talks and agreed to a phased withdrawal of troops and put the plan in operation. Withdrawal for the Gogra Hot springs area also was part of the agreement. Initial adherence to the withdrawal plan by china did spark hopes of some normalcy. But during the round of talks held in Apr 2021, China suddenly reversed its stand in the Gogra-Hot spring area and refused to withdraw.
This flip-flop (not uncharacteristic on part of China), has once again put a break on the nominalization of relations. This surely gives India a reason for worry. India, therefore, needs to be firm on its stand that withdrawal of Chinese troops for all sectors to Apr 2020 positions would be a precursor for normalization of relations.
As China is not amenable to reason, India needs to use every trick in its bag to turn the situation in its favour. The efforts to that end may involve:-
A strategic engagement with QUAD, to formulate a plan for containing China.
Opening a strategic dialogue with Russia, as could be one very effective counter against China. But this would be easier said than done as closeness to the USA could create glass barriers here.
Strengthen relationship with ASEAN through Act East Policy
Upgrade its military prowess including its maritime power to build a credible deterrence in the region.
Build internal consensus on effectively challenging China in view of India’s national interests.
It is understood that the challenges posed by China for India are humungous and well-articulate. Facing those challenges is not going to be easy for India, given the demands of simultaneously manning the LAC with China and LOC (Line of Control) with Pakistan. But India has no other option than to this tight rope walk.
Some of the concerns which would need to be probed further emanate from:-
USA’s surprising FONOPS near Lakshadweep and a subsequent statement by Seventh Fleet- impacts of which are not yet clear.
The situation in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a sudden spurt in terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir
The situation with China Pakistan Economic Corridor and Pakistan’s uncertain reaction to it.
(Commodore SL Deshmukh, NM (Retd), has served the Indian Navy for 32 years and Member, C3S. An alumnus of the prestigious Defence Services Staff College Wellington, he has served on-board aircraft carriers and is specialized in fighter aircraft and ASW helicopters. He held many operational and administrative appointments including Principal Director at Naval HQ, Commodore Superintendent at Naval Aircraft Yard, Director, Naval Institute of Aeronautical Technology, and Project Director of a major Naval Aviation Project. Post-retirement he was with Tata Group for 5 years and is currently working with SUN Group‘s Aerospace & Defence vertical as Senior Vice President. The views expressed are personal and does not necessarily reflect the views of C3S)
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