Indian push back to China’s expansionism in the Himalayas

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Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Indian troops, during his visit to Nimu in Ladakh on July 03, 2020.

Ladakh confrontation reflects the turning of India’s defensive realism into offensive realism to counter China’s expansionism.

KeyWords: Ladakh | India China Standoff | Galwan | LAC | PLA | Art of War | Defensive Realism | Modi | Indo Pacific | Himalayas | Doklam | Expansionism | Military | Disengagement

The high-altitude mountainous territory in the remote areas of the Eastern Ladakh region of India witnessed an eyeball to eyeball standoff position on multiple points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the Indian Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The skirmishes which started in the first week of May 2020 turned bloody, after more than four decades of quiet, resulting into deadly clashes on 15 June 2020 in Galwan Valley. India lost 20 soldiers in a planned & pre-meditated attack by the PLA. China also suffered heavy casualties in the Indian counter-attack, and American intelligence sources confirmed the number to be 35 while Indian sources estimated the number of PLA casualties to be 43. China, however, refused to publicly declare its causality figures fearing a public backlash and dissidence in former PLA ranks.

To disengage and deescalate on LAC, there have been four round of talks at the Military level between Corps Commander of Indian Army and the Chinese PLA, along with two rounds of talks at the diplomatic level between the Foreign Ministry officials of both countries under the framework of Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination (WMCC). Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers also had a conversation on 17 June 2020 post-Galwan clashes. It was the dialogue on 5 July 2020 between the Special Representatives (SRs) of India and China on border issues that resulted in disengagement at few points along the various flashpoints on the LAC.

In all the Military and Diplomatic negotiations till now, India has focused on ‘complete disengagement’ with confirmed and constant verification on ground and restoration of April 2020 status quo ante in Eastern Ladakh so as to bring back peace and tranquillity along the LAC. As of now, the disengagement process has been completed in Galwan Valley, Gogra and Hot Spring areas at PP 14, PP 15 and PP 17A (Patrolling Points). However, there has not been much progress in terms of disengagement in the Depsang Plains and Finger areas at Pangong Tso. PLA’s presence in the Depsang Plains poses a critical challenge to the security of Siachen from an Indian perspective while Chinese presence between Finger 4 to Finger 8 in strategically crucial Pangong Tso is a threat for India’s Chushul Valley. India’s strong military response, its readiness to match the Chinese build-up in real-time across the LAC, and India’s strong political resolve have to an extent, derailed China’s expansionist plans in Ladakh.

The PLA’s action and strategy of territorial expansionism along the LAC hint inspiration from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War where Master Sun talks about deception, making forward move in a fight if advantageous, to subdue the enemy without fighting and conquering through stealth.India can still overcome the power asymmetry between India and China through a) building favourable Military Partnerships with Regional and Extra-Regional Powers in the Indo-Pacific, b) economic decoupling from China, c) External balancing and d) Strengthening of Indian hard power by focusing on the Indian economy and Military modernization under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Mission

In the last 6 years under the BJP rule, India had steadily moved away from Nehru’s idealism of 1962 to Modi’s ‘defensive realism’. India’s current China policy is marked by the multipronged approach of investing in political capital in the India-China Bilateral relation through informal summits, engagements through BRICS, RIC, SCO etc. while simultaneously promoting Free and; Open Indo-Pacific and Quad.

Ladakh confrontation reflects the turning of India’s defensive realism into offensive realism to counter the Chinese territorial expansionism along the LAC. China’s expansionism on LAC has resulted in India’s embrace of America along with other Quad partners like Japan and Australia. India’s enhanced cooperation with the US in the field of military intelligence information sharing and the presence of American advance technological hardware in Indian arsenal has been visible in Indian armed forces’ forward deployment in Eastern Ladakh. Russian neutrality amidst India-China standoff and Russia’s commitment to uninterrupted defence hardware supply despite Chinese pressure also reflects India’s successful diplomacy of external balancing in the international arena.

PM Narendra Modi’s unannounced visit to Ladakh, the strategic theatre of the ongoing conflict speaks for India’s political resolve. PM’s speech delivered at Nimu in Ladakh had the philosophical reference of the flute-playing Lord Krishna which reflected India’s willingness to maintain peace. In the same speech, PM Modi referred to Lord Krishna’s Sudarshana Chakra marking India’s firmness in fighting with inimical forces when forced upon. While addressing the Indian Soldiers there, PM Modi stated emphatically that ‘the age of expansionism is over, and this is the age of development. History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.’

On 17 July 2020, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also visited Ladakh and reiterated India’s commitment towards maintaining peace and safeguarding every inch of India’s territory. His statement that ‘whatever talks have happened so far, the matter should get resolved, but to what extent it would be resolved, I cannot guarantee’ were a clear indication that if the standoff is not resolved through dialogues then India will not hesitate to explore other options to safeguard its territorial integrity.

India-China standoff in Ladakh presents a daunting challenge to India at a time when most of the countries in the world are getting bullied by China either in the maritime domain of South China Sea, the land border in the Chinese neighbourhood, economic coercion or through debt traps. Land grabs on lease via the building of unsustainable economic projects under the Belt & Road initiative (BRI) is also a reality in many countries.

China’s insolent approach is no more a subtle message to the world powers. The democracies of the world must show a united front in condemning Chinese expansionist onslaught. India has successfully fought China’s territorial ambitions in Doklam in 2017 and now in Ladakh in 2020. India’s response to Chinese expansionism in Doklam and Galwan mark China’s tactical mistakes in terms of Chinese power projection and ambitions as a global superpower. India’s grit and uncompromising attitude while fighting the PLA’s aggression in the Himalayas will set a long-lasting example in terms of overall Indian leadership, in the Indo-Pacific region in particular, and the world at large.


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Siddharth Singh

Siddharth Singh is a Researcher in Indo-Pacific Studies. He is pursuing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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