India–China Conflict – Issues Involved and Options for India

The violent clash on the night of 15th-16th June at Galwan valley has brought to light the fragile relationship between India and China. The bigger concern is that China has reportedly moved its positions forward at several other spots along the line of actual control (LAC) and is attempting to change the status quo. So, why what is happening is happening and what are India’s options. Here is an attempt to build a perspective.

India and China share a long boundary totalling close to 3,500 km beginning from Ladakh in North to Arunachal Pradesh in North-East. The problem arises with China because the boundary between the two nations is not defined. Despite efforts by India on various occasions, China has refused to enter into a dialogue to demarcate the boundary. This serves its purpose to keep India on tenterhooks and keep making incursions.

While there had been numerous instances of China’s incursions in the past those were largely localized and were resolved through dialogue. The current flare-up is happening at several places simultaneously and can be cited to two major developments – construction of a road called Darbuk-Shyok Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) road and change in the status of Ladakh as union territory after repeal of Article 370 last year. While several other reasons are being cited such as India’s growing proximity to USA, India’s becoming a part of QUAD, China’s need to quell its internal resistance after Covid mismanagement and so on, the fact is, even if these issues were not present, China would have acted in the same manner.

The DS-DBO road, about 255 km long, is a critical infrastructure for India connecting Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to India’s air base close to Northern border called Daulat Beg Oldie. The base, at a height of over 15,000 ft, was recommissioned in 2008 after 1965 and was cut-off, otherwise, for several months during the year. The road has immense strategic importance as not only it provides connectivity to the air base but also provides connectivity to LAC at several points on its way up. One of these is the area where Galwan river meets Shyok river. Galwan river originates in Aksai Chin, takes a sharp left bend and then flows nearly east to west to meet Shyok river. The point where it takes the bend is demarcated as LAC also called patrolling point 14 (PP14). This is the area where DS-DBO road becomes closest to the LAC, a point not gone unnoticed by China. While there is no official confirmation, Chinese army possibly pitched tents at the bend on Indian side of LAC, bringing DS-DBO road within its sight. As per various reports, clashes began when Chinese army refused to remove these tents, as per the agreement reached on 6th June, and Indian army forcibly removed them. While Indian Army lost 20 of its soldiers, China has not declared its casualties. By most accounts, Chinese Army suffered more than the loss suffered by India. This should be a huge morale booster for Indian Army and help shed the defeatist mindset.

However, this is not the only area where China has attempted to change status quo. All along the LAC, right from Depsang, close to DBO air base to Galwan, Gogra (or hot spring), Pangong Tso etc, Chinese army seem to have moved its forward positions and blocking usual Indian patrolling path. Pangong Tso, nearly 135 km long, has special significance as LAC passes through the lake and both India and China have partial claim over it.

So, what are the options available for India to resolve the dispute? Before looking at that, it would be pertinent to add a quote, “For a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy”. Looking at its expansionist action across all the regions, it would be foolhardy to believe that China is a peace-loving nation. And all the efforts to engage with China over last 3-4 decades in other areas, while leaving the boundary dispute aside, has only postponed the inevitable. Whether the political establishments seriously believed they would be able to make China act rationally or were only biding their time is difficult to answer.

That brings us to the core question on what are the options available with India. While India appears to have managed to be firm in its negotiations so far, it would be too early to say if China would back out. And if it doesn’t, India needs to be prepared to restore status-quo by force if push comes to shove. China may not hold major advantage on ground combat and in fact, Indian Army may possibly, have a slight edge. However, if the battle moves up the escalation ladder and China resorts to aerial combat or opens new battle front across other border areas, India would need to have a back up strategy. China may have an edge in aerial combat. While the likelihood of a conflict in today’s time escalating to that level is not high, India should not shy away from enlisting the support of USA in these exigencies. It is the only country having superior strength than China and it would be foolhardy for India to believe, it can fight China all alone up the escalation ladder. Whether US would be ready to join or not, the deployment of three US naval ships in the region, first time since 2017, possibly gives some clue to that.

And of course, it is essential to de-couple the trade relations which is heavily tilted in China’s favour. (Next article on this).

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