The icy heights of Ladakh are generating a heat that has raised the temperature of public discourse across the country, sparked a demand for revenge in some quarters and a call for boycott of Chinese goods in some others. On June 15, 2020, Monday, the conflict led to a bloodbath with 20 Indian soldiers losing their lives. At an all-party meeting on the face-off on June 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that neither had anyone intruded into Indian territory nor had anyone taken over any post. But a document, uploaded on the Defence Ministry’s website on August 04, 2020, Tuesday, made an official admission of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory in eastern Ladakh in May at the face-off sites in Pangong Tso and Gogra.
It said: “The Chinese side transgressed in the areas of Kugrang Nala (near Patrolling Point 15, north of Hot Springs), Gogra (PP-17A) and north bank of Pangong Tso on May 17-18.” When the media widely reported about it on August 6, the document was taken off the ministry’s website.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar in his forthcoming book, an extract of which was recently carried in a leading daily, has assessed the current global scenario like this: “The world faces an extraordinary prospect of its two leading players (the USA and China) doing what it takes to win, and then some more…The rise of a new global power (China) was never going to be easy, and an order waiting to happen will look like chaos till it does. In an interdependent and constrained world, it can only unfold through tensions and negotiations, adjustments and transactions…The really uncharted territory that US-China frictions will take us into is coping with parallel universes…The key players will themselves struggle with the dichotomy of such parallel existence. Those who have to manage both, as most of us will, may then find themselves really tested.”
Maybe, India has found itself really tested. Since the 2008 global meltdown, China has strengthened its economic muscle helped by a corresponding decline in the USA’s money power on account of its military engagement in West Asia and AfPak regions. Officially, Chinese FDI (foreign direct investment) in India stands at $2.34 billion. But some think tanks estimate it to be between $6 billion to $8 billion. A Kolkata-based daily, quoting GatewayHouse website, reported on April 19, 2020 that “the dragon’s footprint in India” include over $700 million investment in Snapdeal, over $500 million in Swiggy, over $500 million in Ola, over $400 million in Paytm and over $300 in Flipkart.
India’s trade deficit with China has already crossed $50 billion. On April 18, 2020, media reports said China’s central bank People’s Bank of China (PBoC) has picked up 1% stake amounting to 1.75 crore shares in India’s largest mortgage lender HDFC Ltd. On April 18, the same day, the Department for the Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), issued a directive which said foreign investments from countries that share a common border with India will require government approval from now on.
In a press note, the DPIIT said the change in policy governing the FDI was designed to curb “opportunistic takeovers or acquisitions of Indian companies due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.” These restrictions are already in place for Bangladesh and Pakistan. So, this order was clearly targeted at China. On July 1, 2020, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari said Chinese firms would not be allowed to bid for highway projects. In July itself India banned 59 Chinese apps including social media platforms such as TikTok, WeChat and Helo to counter the threat posed by these applications to the country’s “sovereignty and security.” More such bans followed.
And what was the Chinese reaction? Speaking at a webinar on July 30, 2020, China’s Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong called for equal treatment for its firms and described “forced decoupling” between the two economies as being harmful to both. Earlier on July 3, 2020, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by warning against “artificial barriers.” Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “Some politicians in India have kept issuing irresponsible remarks that are detrimental to China-India relations.” Then he added: “China will take all necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese businesses.”
Bruno Macaes, a former diplomat and the author of “Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order,” has said in a recent article that nibbling territory was not the point of the Galwan face-off, it was to condition the Indian mind and tie its hands. In the article titled “Understand China’s India Strategy,” he said: “The strategy is to create a war psychology. If China wants to stop India from taking certain decisions contrary to Chinese interests, it can achieve this by raising the risk of kinetic conflict. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his inner circle come to believe that war can follow upon their decisions, they will be increasingly reluctant to act and/or even become paralysed. In large measure, this is a subtle and repetitive exercise in psychological conditioning.”
Amar S. Bedi, former director general, Defence Intelligence Agency has a word of caution. He says, “whichever way the present crisis gets resolved we are in for a long and hot summer of both action and diplomacy.”
Just after the Galwan stand-off, former Army chief General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, when asked by the media how India should respond to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aggression, said: “India should be prepared for an outbreak of conflict below war, but above (the scale of) incidents of border skirmishes.” India should also handle issues diplomatically at the same time, the general further said. We can see India has already engaged itself in negotiations and at the same time is getting ready for action.
Several rounds of commander-level talks later, with some rounds lasting more than 12 hours, New Delhi and Beijing are nowhere near a solution. Chinese troops have shown no signs of pulling back from Pangong Tso and other patrol points and are continuing to increase deployments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) right till Arunachal Pradesh.
In response, Indian Army has also deployed more than 30,000 troops in Ladakh. Both sides have gone in for troop, artillery and armour build-ups in all the three sectors of the 3,488 kilometre LAC— western (Ladakh), middle (Uttarakhand, Himachal) and eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal). Army sources told the media, “other than Ladakh, the other areas are quiet with normal troop movements.” Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat recently told a parliamentary committee that the armed forces are ready for any contingency.
If war is what happens when language fails and if we remember the July 3 threat of the Chinese foreign ministry that “China will take all necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese businesses,” then we cannot rule out an armed conflict between the two countries, not amounting to a full-scale war as General Chowdhury said.
Ranen Kr Goswami is a political commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: [email protected]