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A stalemate favours India, exposes Chinese limits

India cannot withdraw from the Galwan valley, and if China refuses to budge from its new positions close to the LAC as a new pressure point, a prolonged standoff lasting through the summer is possible.

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Last Updated: Jun 16, 2020, 01.57 PM IST
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By Kanwal Sibal

China as the first mover in developing military infrastructure on the border with India has long enjoyed an advantage. This is being progressively balanced with development of border infrastructure by India, which means easier and more border patrolling by Indian forces, and thus increased room for frictions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Improving the infrastructure on its own side is not changing the status quo by India as China self-servingly claims.

The 2005 Agreement on the Parameters and Guiding Principles for the settlement of the India-China border speaks of “the principle of mutual and equal security”. Equal security means that India has every right to reduce the long-standing unequal security situation on its Himalayan border.

The current Ladakh standoff is much more serious than those at Depsang and Chumar, and different in nature. It is not a patrol triggered event. China has consciously decided to put pressure on India at various points in Ladakh with large-scale mobilisation of troops and equipment, including artillery and some tanks on its side of the LAC, and digging defences there. Such a decision must have been taken at higher military and political levels, not at local or regional command levels. The PLA is unlikely to take a decision with serious escalation potential if only to avoid becoming answerable politically if things went wrong.

India will stand its ground in the Galwan valley. It has completed the intended infrastructure in the area, and so any concern about obstruction by China is misplaced. India has positioned troops and equipment that more than match the Chinese deployments. With the onset of summer, both countries conduct military exercises, which explains the concentration of high troop levels on both sides. The other hot point at the Pangong Tso lake is in some ways more serious, as posts there are very close to each other, which creates conditions for increased frictions. But there too India is determined to hold ground. The recent incident at Naku La in Sikkim, an old irritant, has been settled. Reports on Chinese pressure in the central sector seem without substance.

The standoff is being addressed at military level in accordance with the 2013 Agreement on Border Defence Cooperation (which reiterates the principle of mutual and equal security) and at diplomatic level but not as yet at political level, which from India’s viewpoint can wait because China has deliberately instigated the current standoff to browbeat India. China thinks in hierarchical terms and does not accept India as an equal. It is frustrated that India does not recognise its superior status as other Asian countries do.

India has been low key at the WHO and elsewhere on China’s responsibility for the coronavirus, as also on Hong Kong. Why China should initiate this major face-off without provocation is unclear. That the Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO)-Darbuk road built by India threatens the Aksai Chin road built by China is an absurd argument. In reality, China seeks to position itself better to cut off the DBO-Darbuk road through the Galwan valley to endanger India’s hold over Siachen.

Restoring the status quo ante as a solution to the current crisis does not seem possible. India cannot withdraw from the Galwan valley, and if China refuses to budge from its new positions close to the LAC as a new pressure point, a prolonged standoff lasting through the summer is likely. A stalemate favours India as it would show that China cannot bully India and would expose the limits of its standard play book in dealing with other countries.

(The writer is former foreign secretary)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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