The military standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh has finally shown signs of a peaceful resolution with both sides agreeing to an expeditious and complete disengagement of troops along the Line of Actual Control (‘LAC’). An analysis of what caused this sudden breakthrough will soon be done by experts on the issue and made available in the public domain. Prior to this mutual compromise however, much of the public and intellectual discourse in India has centred around identifying the rationale for China’s unanticipated adventurism along the LAC.
Accordingly, various strategic scholars, former military personnel and foreign policy experts have made attempts at demystifying the trigger behind the People’s Liberation Army’s actions to alter the status quo along the LAC ever since it precipitated the standoff in early May this year. This exercise in speculation serves three vital objectives. First, it initiates an open discussion on the other side’s larger political motives which gives individuals in the upper echelons of the military or government access to the views of experts on the outside and can therefore help steer the formulation of policy and strategy bearing in mind the other side’s motives.
Second, it serves to educate the public of the larger geopolitical implications at play in keeping with the principle of free flow of opinions and information in a robust democracy. Third, it can prove useful in predicting or even preventing similar such incidents going forward. Thus, before public memory fades and public debate moves on to other pressing issues, this piece is aimed at collating and summarizing the different explanations for why the Chinese may have created military tensions along the LAC in Ladakh to begin with and which of those explanations seem the most accurate two months on.
Heightened Domestic Political Pressure on Xi Jinping
The Chinese incursions along the LAC may be explained in the context of the internal political dynamics in China. One may recollect that the Chinese government’s early response to the coronavirus outbreak involved the suppression of information relating to the virus from its own citizens, detaining citizens on the grounds of spreading rumours about the virus and the censorship of a group of doctors that had sought to inform the people of China of the virus. One of those doctors, Li Wenliang, ultimately succumbed to the infection, thereby unleashing widespread public outrage on Chinese social media against the political leadership’s gross mishandling of the situation. The gravity of this public resentment became all too evident as an online letter calling for Xi Jinping to step down as President started doing the rounds.
Furthermore, as Mr. Jayadeva Ranade, President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, notes in his piece, several children of senior members of the political leadership are believed to have summoned an emergency meeting to discuss the successor of Xi Jinping around the third week of March. Therefore, the deliberate stirring up of tensions along the LAC may be seen as a calculated effort by Xi Jinping to reignite nationalistic sentiments and subdue public anger against his leadership by diverting attention towards an external enemy. In turn, this would give Xi Jinping much needed breathing space to reassert his power and authority within the Chinese Communist Party.
Global Backlash due to the Covid-19 Pandemic
China’s failure to take prompt action to contain the spread of the virus domestically was coupled with its negligence in not sending an early warning signal to the rest of the world during the initial days of the pandemic. Therefore, the widespread perception that the Chinese leadership allowed the virus to easily escape its borders along with its seeming disregard for international cooperation has placed China at the receiving end of a global pushback spearheaded by the United States. Donald Trump’s repeated jibes of ‘Chinese Virus’, diplomatic statements from other world leaders calling China out, the adoption of a resolution requiring an impartial investigation into the origin of the outbreak, increasing demands for the return of Taiwan as an observer at the WHO and calls for the exit of foreign businesses and global supply chains from China is likely to have ruffled Chinese feathers. On the other hand, China has chosen to respond fiercely to this backlash by vehemently denying and refuting its role in the spread of the virus and additionally imposing trade sanctions on Australia who initiated the call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus. This assertiveness has manifested itself in what is now being widely referred to as the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. The boldness displayed by Chinese diplomats apart, the belief is that the Chinese leadership has sought to further tackle its vulnerabilities stemming from China’s loss of face in the world owing to the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting a policy of muscular toughness and open defiance. Therefore, the Chinese actions along the LAC may only be one part of its larger game plan to counter the flak it has received on account of the coronavirus outbreak and can be viewed in tandem with the recent Chinese exploits in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The US-India-China Equation
The incursions along the LAC can also be linked to India’s increased proximity to the US given that it could potentially isolate China and hurt its strategic interests in the region. Indo-US cooperation in the formation of the Quad, for instance, is clearly directed at containing China’s rise in the world. Chinese concerns and fears over greater Indo-US collaboration may have also intensified in light of China’s own relationship with the US that is presently at an all-time low. US opposition (or expected opposition) to the extension of China’s national security law to Hong Kong, the ongoing trade war between the two nations and the constant rhetoric emerging from Washington in relation to Beijing’s role in the spread of the coronavirus may even signify the onset of a “new Cold War”. Consequently, the crisis along the LAC may have been triggered to serve as a reminder of China’s potential to create problems for India if it chooses to align too closely with the US thereby compelling India into adopting a more equidistant foreign policy approach amidst the rising hostility between the world’s two superpowers.
Infrastructure Building near the LAC
The local level army talks between the two sides highlighted China’s unhappiness over India’s construction and infrastructure building activities on its side of the LAC in recent times. In particular, the construction of the Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie road, which was completed in April 2019, appears to have caused great consternation among the Chinese political and military leadership. This road connects Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie which is at the base of the Karakoram Pass and gives India access to the portion of the Xinjiang-Tibet highway that cuts across the disputed territory of Aksai Chin. Accordingly, Chinese presence in the Galwan Valley restricts the ability of Indian troops to access this road and may therefore be seen as an attempt to quell any prospective Indian threat to the Xinjiang-Tibet highway and to further get India to limit its construction activities near the LAC.
Securing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor
The Chinese incursions in various places along the LAC also suggests a well-planned and calibrated effort designed at securing China’s larger financial and strategic interests in the region, as has been noted by Mr. Jayadeva Ranade. He further states that the Chinese over the last few years had been trying to convince India through diplomatic talks at various levels to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan and thereafter focus on mending ties with China. Thus, while a festering India Pakistan conflict is ordinarily in China’s best interests, the shift in Beijing’s foreign policy can be attributed to its desire for peace in the region so as to ensure the safety and security of its investments in Pakistan as part of the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Notably, the Thakot-Havelian highway, an Early Harvest Project under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor was at a distance of only 40 kilometers from Indian hit terror camps in Balakot. Further, whilst India has firmly maintained its objections to the CPEC on the ground that it passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, there has also been a growing clamour over reclaiming these territories in recent times. For instance, apart from statements by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to this effect, the symbolic decision to include the areas of Pakistan occupied Kashmir under the ambit of India Meteorological Department’s daily weather forecast additionally signifies renewed political intent in this regard. Therefore, as former Lt. Gen. HS Panag argues in his piece, one of the larger political aims behind China’s military actions along the LAC might have been to avert any danger to the CPEC by negotiating a peace deal between India and Pakistan or alternatively obtaining certain peace guarantees from India.
Abrogation of Article 370
The abrogation of Article 370 which repealed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir within the framework of the Constitution and the consequent bifurcation of the (erstwhile) State of Jammu and Kashmir into two separate Union Territories – Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh has also been cited to explain China’s actions along the LAC. Notably, Home Minister Amit Shah also stated in Parliament at the time that the Centre’s definition of Jammu and Kashmir included Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Chinese controlled Aksai Chin. These moves immediately witnessed protest from China who described it as a unilateral attempt to undermine its territorial sovereignty. Additionally, in November last year, India issued new maps of Jammu and Kashmir which showed Aksai Chin to be a part of the new Union Territory of Ladakh.
Therefore, this theory is premised on India’s sudden boldness in asserting its claim on all of Jammu and Kashmir including Aksai Chin which seems to have made the Chinese suspicious of India’s actual intentions in the region. Resultantly, irrespective of whether India actually possesses the military capabilities to reclaim Aksai Chin, there exists the possibility that China may have viewed such internal constitutional changes and statements as serious messaging that warranted not just a diplomatic but also a military response in order to comprehensively weaken India’s new found resolve and conviction over Jammu and Kashmir at large and Aksai Chin in particular.
Widening Power Imbalance & Sense of Opportunism
The Chinese political leadership’s foreign policy goal of making China a “world power with pioneering global influence” may also have had a role to play in driving its military aggression along the LAC. The last decade or so has witnessed the rise of China as an economic and military superpower that is now starting to spread its tentacles across the globe. Consequently, the argument is that the China of today under Xi Jinping strongly believes that its economic and military superiority over its neighbours (including India) gives it the leverage to push them around be it along the LAC in Ladakh or in the disputed islands of the South China Sea. Resultantly, the widening gulf in regional power in favour of China, the Chinese leadership’s burgeoning self-belief in its own capabilities and its instinctive belief that the distraction caused world over by the ongoing pandemic provides it with the perfect opportunity to re-organize its land and maritime borders may indeed be at the heart of the military crisis in Ladakh.
The Most Probable Explanation(s)
What then did the Chinese actually want given their sudden decision to agree to an expeditious disengagement? It may well be the case that the military activism witnessed along the LAC was an outcome of all or at least some of the reasons aforementioned. After all, none of these explanations are mutually exclusive and can be read together to derive a holistic understanding of the bigger picture at play. However, analyzed individually and separately, some of the explanations listed above are not without flaws or free from possible counter arguments.
The argument that the standoff was a calculated attempt to assuage growing domestic dissatisfaction with Xi Jinping’s leadership seems slightly dodgy when compared to the risks arising from such an operation. Apart from the possibility of the situation escalating and leading to a localized war entailing high costs, a solid military pushback from India or even a deadlock at the LAC with no tangible gains for the Chinese leadership to show for would only result in further loss of political face for Xi Jinping.
Additionally, as some scholars have noted, even the rhetoric of the Chinese State media relating to the present crisis has been kept to a minimum. It is also difficult to believe that the Chinese leadership would not have foreseen an economic retaliation from India which would only exacerbate the condition of China’s already slowing economy. Thus, the decision to agree to a tentative disengagement after a long drawn effort on the part of the People’s Liberation Army to move men, equipment and material to unprecedented areas seems to vindicate the argument that the military escalation was not motivated by political gains.
The argument that China acted out due to the global backlash on account of the spread of coronavirus is prima facie counter-intuitive for two reasons. First, given that India hardly had a role to play in the backlash against China, targeting India so specifically would make little sense. Second, such unprovoked military aggression would only further worsen China’s global image of a country that has little regard for international rules and regulations. Similarly, with respect to the explanation that New Delhi’s closeness to Washington was proving to be uncomfortable for Beijing, the crisis in Ladakh is likely to drive New Delhi even closer to Washington or alternatively make it even more wary of Beijing moving ahead. In fact, this standoff may even force the Modi government to reconsider its policy of indulging in the unconditional appeasement of China.
While the abrogation of Article 370, the resultant change in the status of Ladakh as a new Union Territory and the issuance of fresh maps may have come across as a strong statement of political intent, the Chinese leadership could not have been unaware of the fact that the ground realities of India retaking Aksai Chin is a different matter altogether. It therefore seems difficult to accept the argument that the Chinese leadership saw these stated moves as a real threat to its presence in Aksai Chin given the military clout and resources at its disposal. Additionally, India’s stance on Aksai Chin being a part of Indian territory is nothing but a mere restatement of a well-established historical position.
I would therefore contend that the purpose behind the Chinese orchestration of the standoff in Ladakh was in all likelihood to coerce India into exercising restraint in relation to its development of infrastructure near the LAC and to safeguard the China Pakistan Economic Corridor from any prospective Indian threat. However, the dramatic nature of the mutually agreed disengagement has meant that the possibility of this entire crisis being mere Chinese posturing to gauge India’s response whilst it simultaneously coped with the Covid-19 pandemic internally cannot also be ruled out. Time will reveal to us in more detail what China’s true objectives were, whether it managed to achieve any of them and whether India made substantial strategic concessions for obtaining peace in Ladakh. For now though, we must be content with the truce that has been negotiated.