Are the ghosts of 1962 lurking again over Ladakh? Does a Nehruvian death wish haunt us? Well, 2020 is not 1962, not by a long shot, and luckily there are no left-leaning Krishna Menons around to add to our mortification. It would, however, be churlish to deny that the violent bust-up with Chinese troops in the Galwan valley of eastern Ladakh on the night of June15-16 has yet again exposed our flanks. The killing of a young commander of the 16th Bihar Regiment and more than 20 or more jawans cannot and should not be taken in our stride.
Pushed to the forefront has been the scandalous neglect of the nation’s defenses, especially the absence of a long-term strategy in dealing with the Dragon. That 43 or more Chinese soldiers have also been killed going by reports, cannot be a source of consolation. It is also immaterial whether the soldiers were felled by bullets or stones pelted during the protracted scuffle. The fact is that the lives of Bhartiya soldiers have been lost amid tensions which have been rising ever since Chinese troops barged in to the Bharatiya side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the PangongTso area in mid-May.
Regardless of who says what, the bitter reality is that the Chinese action has put us on the backfoot. Evicting the squatters now will be next to impossible in the short-term. There is a point beyond which adopting a confrontational posture will not work unless a conscious political decision is taken to catch the Chinese by their collars and drive them out, whatever the cost. This seems unlikely given our tactical disadvantage. Negotiations too will now have to be conducted from a position of relative weakness.
The ground reality is evident from the statements issued by the Bharatiya and Chinese armies. The official statement from our side said the face-off was the fall-out of a “violent face-off during the de-escalation process”. Compare the placatory wording with the mendacious charge of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that the physical quarrel was the result of the Bharatiya army’s unilateral decision to cross the LAC and launch a provocative attack. But more glaringly, the open assertion that the Galwan valley had always belonged to China. Repeat, always! This is the kind of faux assertion which needed to have been immediately countered, but was not.
Any military strategist will tell you the reasons behind the confrontation, the first in over five decades, are factors both short and long term. The immediate provocation is the PLA’s strong objection to the Bhartiya army’s ongoing effort to construct a nine km feeder stretch in the Galwan valley linking the 224 km long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) road. Overlooking DBO is the Siachen glacier. The feeder road when complete will cut travel time to the valley from eight hours to 35 minutes. To prevent further work, the PLA plonked 250 of its men, cutting off our access to Fingers 4-8 of the undefined LAC in Pangong Tso area.
The more important reasons behind the stand-off, however, originate in the Modi regime’s landmark decision in August 2019 to cold storage Article 370 and splice the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories, one of them being Ladakh. It is not as if the Chinese were unaware of the strategic impact of Bharat’s decision to ramp up its infrastructure along the LAC. Work on over 60 arterial roads has been on since the days of NDA1.
Widening the divide with China was the decision to plumb for the “iron clad and enduring” Indo-Pacific strategy, the so called Hollywood to Bollywood initiative, unfurled by the United States in 2018. This, coupled with the resumption of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD/Quad) with Japan, Australia and the US set Chinese pants on fire. Quad’s pointed aim, first spelt out by Japanese premier Shinzo Abe in 2007, was to contain the Dragon’s growing maritime power in the Pacific. Global perception of a Chinese hand in the spreading the novel coronavirus has rattled Beijing, and exacerbated its threat perception.
Military experts say China’s mischief mongering is fully in consonance with its objective of harassing Bharat by nibbling away at its borders. We, on our part, have never really had a China policy worth its name. Assuaging, pacifying, humoring, mollifying has been the basis of the relationship. Bharat has been shy of looking Bejing squarely in the face, much less admit that it is the Godzilla at our door.
The Chinese are no fools. They know our reluctance to take them on upfront, and have never been averse to exploiting the diffidence. Even the few chances that came our way of stabilizing, if not solving, the border problem was thrown to the winds. Time was when the Chinese had wanted the border issues along the central corridor comprising the Uttarkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim belt resolved. But the babus at South Bloc thought it wiser to defer it till a solution was found to the elusive Kashmir problem.
It is surprising that none in either the Defense or External Affairs establishment sensed Beijing’s shifting views on the LAC. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had visited Bharat in 2010, he referred to the “2000 km” border with Bharat. This should ordinarily have perked up the ears of the egg heads at Videsh mantralaya used to intoning the figure of 3,800 kms as the length of the border. China, in other words, had made a conscious decision a decade ago to consider Ladakh as a borderless zone and renege on the 1993 pact which outlines the parameters of the LAC. Implicit in this was the plan to go back to the claim lines of 7 November 1959. None, unfortunately, had the gumption to see through the ruse.
It will be facile to think that Beijing will not escalate tensions to avoid being branded as a warmonger with its attendant consequences on the quest for economic domination. This is the kind of pacifist view which has plagued our China policy, and could invite more embarrassment. China understands power. The message that Bharat can fight back despite its back to the wall has to be conveyed in no uncertain terms.
Much of China’s greed for territorial gain has to with the degradation of its national character under communist rule. Maoism wrought havoc with the nation’s Confucian values. Materialism, money and superficial success have become its ruling passions. The desire to dominate the world both politically and economically stems from this mindset. Time was when Taoism with its stress on unseen strengths and humility was integral to Chinese character. Alas! no more.
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