Asif Haroon Raja l
Mao Tse Tung described Tibet and Himalayas in 1950 in these words. “Tibet is China’s right hand palm, which is detached from its fingers of Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunchal Pradesh (formerly NEFA). All five are either occupied by India or are under its strong influence. It is China’s responsibility to liberate the five to be rejoined with Tibet”. India is gateway to all five landlocked fingers.
China-Tibet had signed 17-point agreement in 1951 by virtue of which China claims Tibet as its sovereign country and giving it the right to build roads in Doklam at the border of Sikkim. India considers Tibet an independent state.
Indo-Sino rivalry dates back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s forward policy in the 1950s in Himalayan region. Claims were made over Tibet, Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh by both the countries. India made forward military posts as well as intruded into Arunachal Pradesh, which led to a border conflict in 1962. On October 20, 1962, China’s PLA forces undertook a short and swift offensive in Ladakh and across McMahan Line in Arunachal Pradesh and made 35 km deep penetrations in Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), Demchuk, Chushal Lake, Pangong Tso areas. In the one-month conflict, after giving sound beating to Indian forces deployed in the region and killing over 2000 soldiers, PLA unilaterally declared ceasefire on 19 November and withdrew.
China achieved its objective of acquiring control over Aksai Chin. Although Arunachal Pradesh was voluntarily vacated, but China has continued to lay claim over it and hasn’t recognized McMahan Line. Thereon peace prevailed between the two except for lingering points of frictions over Tibet, which China didn’t accept as a sovereign state, and claimed Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh to be its parts, and Ladakh a disputed territory. In 1989, China initiated CBMs to settle disputes. Line of Actual Control (LAC) was drawn as a military border between Aksai Chin, Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and Ladakh in 1993.
US-UK massive arms support to India after the 1962 debacle was resented by Pakistan, which at that time was touted as the most allied ally of USA, and India was the camp follower of former Soviet Union. Receipt of arms from both the camps had swung the military balance in favor of India, which impelled Ayub Khan to tilt towards China. From that time onward, Pakistan-China relationship grew from strength to strength, particularly after Pakistan settled the border dispute with China in Shaksgam Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in 1963.
Indo-China points of disputes
While Indo-China border is 3488 km long, LAC between China and India in Ladakh is 800 km long which has five points of disputes. These are Chumar, Demchuk, Pengong Lake in Eastern Ladakh bordering Tibet, and two points near DBO, a small town 8 miles away from Karakorum Pass. Galwan River runs close to the LAC.
In Chumar, China claims 80 sq km but for India, Chumar is critical for safety of Manali-Leh route.
Points of Friction
China begrudges asylum given to Buddhists spiritual leader Dalai Lama by India and making of Tibet govt in exile.
China perceives India to be a threat to Tibet and has stationed 200,000 PLA troops in Tibet region.
China oppose India’s entry in UNSC and to become a member of nuclear suppliers group.
China resents deepening of Indo-US relations and India’s involvement in containment of South China Sea.
India oppose OBOR, particularly CPEC and views China-Pakistan friendship a threat to its security.
India resents China’s role in preventing blacklisting of JeM leader Azhar Masood by the UN, and its support to the Kashmiris.
In 1967, two skirmishes took place at Nathu La and at Cho La in Northern Sikkim.
China started making inroads in disputed Eastern Ladakh since 1980s and over a period of time gained control over 640 km in Depsang area in Eastern Ladakh. Depsang corridor leads to Siachin Glacier and Tashgurgan junction wherefrom CPEC crosses into GB. Such a move would be disastrous for Indian X1V Corps at Leh, and hold over Siachin would become untenable, and make strategic Nubra Valley vulnerable. Maximum intrusions were made by China between 2010 and 2013 during Manmohan Singh’s rule and the LAC was shifted forward.
In 2013, China demanded removal of India’s fortifications in Burtse and at Demchuk in 2014.
Bhutan, a vassal of India
Bhutan as an independent state had signed treaty of Panakha with the then British India in 1910, authorizing the latter to run its foreign affairs. After independence of India in 1947, the treaty was revised by India in 1949. Using its coercive tactics, India forced landlocked Bhutan to revise the old treaty in 2007, by virtue of which India took control of security and defence affairs of Bhutan and stationed its troops there permanently. India has been treating Bhutan as its vassal. China has no diplomatic ties with Bhutan and has reconciled to India’s annexation of Bhutan, but Tibet being contiguous to Bhutan, China remains watchful of this flank.
Scuffle at Doklam Plateau in 2017
PLA had built a road up to Sinchela Pass in undisputed territory. In June 2017, Indian troops crossed into Chinese territory claiming to be their territory. China maintained that the area had been ceded to Tibet in 1890 by the British. In August 2017, scuffle took place at Doklam plateau between Indian and Chinese troops, which is at the tri-junction of Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim and is part of Bhutan.
Trouble started when India objected to the road constructed by PLA in Doklam which China claims to be part of its Donglang region. China stated that starting point of Tibet-Sikkim border was Mount Gipmochi on Bhutan’s Frontier, and Doklam was located in Xigaze area of Tibet, bordering Sikkim.
PLA troops dismantled Indian bunkers in Doklam and blocked Hindu pilgrimage route to Kailash-Mansarovar through Naka Lu Pass. After 73-day standoff, the matter was resolved by China with Sikkim through talks, but China has continued to build military structures and the road across the plateau close to Doka La which is 5000 meters.
Doklam plateau is spread over 100 sq km, and is strategically important to India since it is situated very close to India’s Siliguri Corridor, also known as chicken neck, which connects seven northeastern states of India (Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and Meghalaya). Completion of the road will give China easy access to vulnerable chicken neck where full-blown insurgencies are raging.
Development works in Himalayas
In the year 2000, Vajpayee regime sanctioned building road infrastructure and defence works in Northern Areas but progress was minimal since focus of successive Indian army chiefs remained on Pakistan. From the available force level, 80% of Indian strike formations are poised against Pakistan.
To deal with China and to oversee Siachin, a new XIV Strike Corps with its HQ at Leh was raised.
India reactivated world highest landing strip at DBO in 2008.
When Modi took over in June 2014, he appointed ex-army chief Gen VK Singh in-charge of development of northern areas. India constructed only 21 roads of the proposed 73 roads for Indo-China border. Conversely, China initiated gigantic OBOR in 2014.
In 2015, China carried out structural reforms in PLA and created India-focused Western Theatre Command plus two auxiliary Commands in Tibet and Chongjin.
China’s olive branch not reciprocated by India
President Xi Jinping met Modi at Wuhan in 2018 and next at Mamalapuram in October 2019 and emphasized upon the need for a trilateral cooperation between China, India and Pakistan. But Modi at that time was flying high and was viewing Pakistan and CPEC as thorns in flesh of India. Misled by USA, he and his colleagues fantasized India as a bulwark against China, policeman of Indo-Pacific region, super power of South Asia and a global power. Instead of reciprocating the confidence building measures, India stepped up development of roads in northern areas.
India an expansionist State
India has a history of expansionism. After gobbling 562 Indian Princely States in 1947/48 including those which wanted to join Pakistan, as well as Muslim dominated two-thirds J&K, India annexed former Portuguese colonies of Goa, Diu and Daman in 1961, broke Pakistan into two in 1971, and occupied Hindu Kingdom of Sikkim in 1975. It intervened militarily in Sri Lanka and Maldives, stationed troops in Bhutan permanently, and has water disputes with Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.
Indian Army Chief Gen Bipen Rawat, now Commander CDS, boasted of taking on China-Pakistan-Nepal simultaneously. The new Indian army chief Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane bragged that AJK could be bagged within 10 days.
Malacca Strait on which China is dependent for its trade is dominated by USA-India. It is not only long, circuitous and vulnerable to interdiction, it is time consuming and highly expensive. To offset Malacca dilemma, China included CPEC in its OBOR in 2014, which is shortest, cheapest road-rail link to reach markets in Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and beyond to Europe. Besides taking 3 billion people in its loop for mutual benefit, China would be able to shift its trade through CPEC worth $ 5 trillion. From this, one can visualize the economic benefits accruing to China-Pakistan and the huge loss to US-India as well as Australia and Japan. The stakes over CPEC of both sides are momentous, former wanting to complete it soonest, and the latter wanting to disrupt it at all cost. Failing to disrupt CPEC through proxies, India-US consider seizure of GB as the only way to dig the last nail in the coffin of this project.
Belligerent and fascist policies of Modi regime, dreaming to establish Akhand Bharat which encompasses Afghanistan, seven South Asian States, Aksai Chin and Tibet, and India having teamed up with USA, Australia and Japan to dominate South China Sea, were viewed with concern by China. India’s 5 August 2019 act had affected both Pakistan and China, particularly when Ladakh and next door Aksai Chin were declared integral part of India and shown as such in the new map issued in November 2019. China took the issue of Ladakh to the UNSC.
China loses its cool
China watched the aggressive acts of India quietly and coolly for 10 months after 5 August 2019, but lost its cool when Indian soldiers increased their activities in Galwan River Valley. The company post at DBO established some years back had been converted into a brigade size military garrison equipped with tanks and artillery guns in 2019.
India had begun building two major roads in northern areas 2007, one through Nubra River Valley and the second 255 km long road along Shyok River Valley from Darbuk via Murgo and Depsang to DBO close to LAC. The Indo-China scuffle in 2013 was a result of this road. Work on this road was fast tracked in October 2019 in order to make it a supply route for the garrison at DBO. Western ridgeline of Galwan Valley covers this road. Beijing protested but India paid no attention. India also constructed a road through Chenmo River Valley to connect it with Hot Springs, 3 km short of Kongka La which provides access to Aksai Chin.
It was learnt that India had made plans to use DBO as a forward spring board to seize GB, stop work at Bhasha Dam and cut off CPEC at Karakorum Pass. It was further learnt that in order to cook up an excuse to invade GB, India was preparing to launch another false flag operation. While objecting to construction of Bhasha dam in GB saying that it was in Indian Territory, India announced on 3 May 2020 that it will take over AJK-GB.
Since these offensive acts were aimed at jeopardizing the flagship project of OBOR, it impelled China to come out of its defensive mode and take appropriate action to forestall nefarious designs of India.
PLA’s ground ingress
In 3rd week of April 2020, some skirmishes took place between the patrols of PLA and Indian Army along the LAC opposite Ladakh. On the night of May 5/6, PLA soldiers suddenly crossed into Galwan River Valley in southern Ladakh and made a 4-5 km deep penetration. Western ridges were occupied. The other incursion was in Pangong Tso Lake in Eastern Ladakh bordering Tibet at a distance of 10 km, where the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the northern bank was captured. Other points of intrusions were in Hot Springs in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River Valley and at Demchok. On May 9 yet another attack was put in on Naku Lu Pass in Northern Sikkim.
Intrusions in Pangong Tso and Naku Lu were bloody. Batons fitted with protruding nails were freely used by PLA soldiers injuring 72 Indian soldiers. Dozens of abducted Indian soldiers were tied with ropes, spanked and then released. An Indian helicopter carrying Corps Commander X1V Corps was chased away by two Chinese helicopters. PLA rebuffed requests of Indian military for a flag meeting.
While Indian troops deployed in the area didn’t put up any resistance and begged for reinforcements from Northern Command HQ at Udhampur, PLA soldiers secured 15-20 sq km area in Galwan Valley and 10 km in Pangong area, pitched tents, dug bunkers, brought forward large number of combat and earth moving vehicles, heavy guns, artillery and tanks, and fully activated the Ngari airbase in Indus Valley, 50 km away from LAC and Demchok, and 180 km away from Pangong Tso, where fighter jets are parked. India had no idea when the jets were brought in. Chumar is the only Indian location which can threatens Ngari.
PLA deployed a brigade each in Galwan River Valley and Pangong Tso areas. Troops were also deployed at Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, Spangur Gap and Chumar as well as in Naku La, DBO area. In the Central sector as well as opposite Arunachal Pradesh, another brigade was deployed. This force level of about 10,000 includes reserves as well. India has deployed 3-4 brigades in the contested areas and reportedly Brahmo cruise missiles in Arunachal Pradesh. These brigades have been pulled out from eastern border facing Pakistan.
After 1962 skirmish, this is the most serious intrusion by China which has completely baffled India. The senior civil and military leaders of India are still to recover from mental paralysis. Intrusion into Ladakh have created far reaching strategic effects and has placed India at a huge disadvantage. Bridgeheads made by PLA in the Shyok/Galwan River Valley and Pangong Tso have forestalled India’s plans to invade and annex GB, disrupt CPEC, and pose threats to Aksai Chin and Sinkiang-Tibet Highway.
Occupation of constricted Shyok/Galwan Valley by PLA leaves no space for India to carryout outflanking maneuver towards GB or CPEC route. For all practical purposes this route of invasion through Shyok Valley to DBO, or Indus Valley have been effectively blocked/dominated by PLA duly backed by Ngari airstrip in close vicinity. This air-field prevents India’s Leh air-field to launch air strikes in GB. Forward posture of PLA in Ladakh pose a threat to lone supply route to Siachin-Leh. Isolated DBO cut off from supply base has become irrelevant.
China is now in a position to divert waters of Rivers Shyok, Galwan and Cheng-Chermo to Aksai Chin.
Tiny landlocked Nepal which converted from monarchy to democracy in 1990 has remained at the mercy of India and had docilely accepted India’s hegemony. However, a gradual change took place under democratic era. Indo-Nepal relations nosedived with Oli coming to power in 2015 and promulgating a new constitution. India reacted by blockading trade of essential supplies. Oli started tilting towards China and signed a trade and transit agreement to end India’s monopoly. India tried to mend fences with Nepal in 2018 when Left Alliance govt under Khadra Prasad took over power. However the new govt while maintaining cordial relations with India, continued to build relations with China and signed hydro power project. Due to overbearing attitude, and failure to build promised hydro power, India has lost the goodwill of Nepalese.
Recently, Kathmandu objected to the 80 km road built by India along Kala Pani River in Nepal for the ease of Hindu pilgrims to visit a temple and also to open trade with China. Hidden objective of India is to interdict China’s OBOR running from West to East from this road. Nepal maintains that the road has been made inside its territory and that too without seeking permission.
Nepal issued a new map in which 300 km area has been shown as disputed. The map shows the border with India along the bigger western tributary of Kala Pani instead of the smaller eastern tributary which had been marked by the British in 1816; and Lipulekh, Kalapani, Limpiyadhura areas within its territorial jurisdiction. The plea taken is that the historical wrong which had been accepted by the kingdom has been corrected by an elected govt. India claims Kalapani and Lipulekh as its territory. Indian army chief said, Nepal couldn’t have dared to stand up against India without full backing and assurance by China which is keen to spread its BRI tentacle to Nepal, as it has already done in Bhutan. Nepal’s defiance has come at a wrong time for India which has locked horns with Pakistan and China.
The US is going through monumental crises. Foremost is the worst economic crisis in its history since the Great Depression. Declining economy coupled with Corona virus having caused 106,000 deaths has rendered 41 million Americans jobless. The debt has surged to $25 trillion. Its pride and prestige have been badly bruised owing to Trump’s blunders and failures on all external fronts. Ongoing riots as a result of broad daylight murder of black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer has put 29 cities on fire and there is mini-civil war like situation. Trump’s desire to bring in army and tanks to shoot the blacks and quell the riots has been sabotaged by Pentagon. Curfew has been imposed in disturbed cities and emergency declared in Los Angeles where National Guards are deployed. Army has been inducted in Washington after the mob attack on the White House. Like Modi in India, Trump has become the most shamed president of USA and his chances of winning in November elections have dimmed. These limitations have minimized the possibility of USA coming forward in support of India against China.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, former Defence Attaché’ and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches’ in Cairo, defence & security analyst, international columnist, author of five books, Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Center, Member CWC PESS and of Veterans Think Tank, and Member Council TJP.