As more details of clashes between Chinese and Indian forces in Ladakh region emerged, it became clear that the Chinese had beaten the Indians to pulp. In the June 15 fracas high up on the frosty mountain peaks, the first casualty was Indian colonel Santosh Babu. Since both sides have a long-standing agreement not to use firearms, Colonel Babu was clubbed to death and thrown into the fast-moving Galwan River hundreds of feet below. Other Indian soldiers followed him to their watery grave.
Initially India admitted that three soldiers including an officer were killed. Later, it revised this figure upward to 20 but added that Chinese soldiers had also been killed.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Indian troops of crossing the border twice on June 15, “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel, resulting in serious physical confrontation between border forces on the two sides”, according to AFP news agency.
The Chinese also reported capturing a number of Indian soldiers, including a major and a captain. China released all 10 captured soldiers several days later. India confirmed its soldiers were returned.
The Indian media, resorting to its customary jingoism, demanded that Delhi must “teach China a lesson”. There were also anti-Chinese protests in India with angry mobs burning effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The military was much more guarded. It knows that taking on China militarily is not a realistic option. It will result in another fiasco like that of November 1962 when India lost Aksai Chin, territory it had illegally-occupied. Hundreds of Indian soldiers were also killed. It is better to swallow one’s pride than get a bloody nose, again!
Beyond the death of soldiers—an occupational hazard—it is important to understand what led to the latest round of deadly clashes. The Indian military has for many years been involved in what can best be described as creeping annexation of areas in and around the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These clearly pose a threat to China’s security. The LAC separates the two sides in the unmarked border region.
In 2008, India re-opened the Daulat Beg Oldie air base close to Siachen and the Karakoram Pass through which the crucial China-Pakistan road passes. Indian troops had fled from the base during the 1962 war with China. The Indian Air Force upgraded the airfield in 2013 to a level that heavy transport aircraft can now land there.
India also built, over a 20-year period, the 255-km long Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) all-weather road. This reduces travel time between Demchok in the south to the air base in the north from two days to six hours, a crucial factor in sending reinforcements or deploying troops and equipment in forward positions.
Chinese strategic planners viewed these developments with concern but apart from issuing warnings to India, did not take any retaliatory steps. In August 2019, when Delhi unilaterally abrogated the special status of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir by abolishing articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, China became even more alarmed.
India declared Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as ‘union territories’, meaning their absorption into India. Chinese concerns were further heightened when Indian officials declared that they would also reclaim Aksai Chin from China. Beijing’s warnings to India to desist from such provocations went unheeded.
Indian rulers misread Chinese reluctance to initiate conflict and continued with their provocations. Beijing would rather concentrate on economic development but there is a limit to their patience. Further, US hostility toward China has also emboldened the Indians to believe that they have the backing of a superpower and could challenge their long-time rival.
From China’s perspective, the Indian threat is real. The Daulat Beg Oldie air base is merely eight km south of the Chinese border. It is also only nine km northwest of the Aksai Chin Line of Actual Control between the two countries. Indian planes and troops are now just 10 km from the Karakoram Pass that separates Tibet from Xinjiang and the NH219 (a treacherous mountain highway linking the two).
Indian moves in Kashmir and deployment of troops so close to the Karakoram Pass through which the crucial road for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes could no longer be ignored. CPEC is the lynchpin of China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. Beijing could not allow India to get away with its belligerent policies and troop deployments so close to its border.
China has served notice that it would take strong action if India threatens Chinese interests. Having received a bloody nose with the loss of so many troops, the Indians will back off for a while but it would be wrong to assume that this is the end of the matter. The Indians are devious to the core. Following the 1962 border war, the Chinese unilaterally withdrew from some territory they had captured in the north leaving it as no-man’s land. Since then, the Indians have crept back into those areas.
For China, Aksai Chin is of strategic importance. Beijing cannot allow the NH219 highway to be blocked or threatened because it connects Xinjiang with Tibet. Recent Indian military moves attempted to do just that.
Further, the presence of a large number of Indian troops at the Daulat Beg Oldie air base so close to the CPEC corridor poses a serious threat to China’s BRI project. This was precisely the Indian plan for its forward troop deployments taking advantage of Chinese patience. Without pushing Indian troops out of these forward positions, prospects for peace in the region would remain low. More clashes can be expected if the Indians are not slapped back into reality now.