Long road ahead
Effective disengagement in Ladakh is only possible if India manages to build sufficient political, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Chinese side to stand-down
It was on May 5 that the first clash occurred between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Eastern Ladakh near the Pangong Lake. Five and a half months later, the Indian and Chinese troops are still in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Even after seven rounds of commander-level talks between the two armies, each sitting lasting for hours, no solution is in sight. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has said that discussions with China are going on. It is a "work in progress" and the minister cannot predict the outcome. "What is going on is something confidential and we will see how it plays out", was his cryptic comment.
It is now clear that when the Chinese troops intruded in Pangong Lake area, they had no idea what they were bargaining for. They thought that, as before, India would react mildly, the Chinese envoy in New Delhi would be summoned by the External Affairs Ministry and a note verbale would be given. India will not try to drive out the Chinese troops by force and China will remain in possession of the land it had newly occupied.
Instead, what actually happened was least expected by the Chinese. India responded to the latest challenge with remarkable swiftness. Within days, India mobilised its infantry, artillery, tank regiments and batteries of missiles. The Indian side more than matched the strength of the Chinese in number of troops deployed. In case of a war in the mountainous terrain in the high Himalayas, the Chinese knew they stood no chance of defeating India. Rather, the reverse seemed to be in store. This was the background to the commander level talks.
Meanwhile, in a daring coup de grace, the Indian troops occupied as many as twenty hilltops during the night of August 29-30. Now we were sitting on top, the Chinese were below us, every movement of their troops and tanks were visible to us. The tables had been effectively turned. We were strategically far better positioned. Since then the Chinese have been demanding that any disengagement of troops must begin with the Indian Army vacating the hilltops. India's response has been a firm "No." There could be no piecemeal disengagement or de-induction of troops. The Chinese would have to withdraw their troops first because they intruded first. A stalemate ensued and continues still.
As the talks failed to make a breakthrough, other developments were taking place elsewhere. In a span of forty days during September and October, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) successfully carried out as many as eleven missile tests. Some of the missiles can carry nuclear warheads. Each successful test sent out a stern message to China: don't fiddle with our frontiers any more.
In Tokyo, representatives of India, the US, Japan and Australia, member countries of the 'Quad', held a meeting and discussed how to meet the challenge of China in the Indian Ocean Region. China took note of it and expressed its anger and annoyance.
The present situation in Ladakh has been described by the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria as an "uneasy no peace no war" one while US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien summed up the situation succinctly when he said: "The time has come to accept that dialogue and agreements will not persuade or compel the People's Republic of China to change. There's nothing to be gained from looking the other way and turning the other cheek. We've been doing that for far too long."
With the whole world looking at Ladakh, China knows it is in a tight corner. It is seeking an escape route without losing face. It has antagonised two more of its neighbours — Nepal and Myanmar. Nepal is ruled by the Communist Party of Nepal. The present Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, was known to be closer to China than the other CPN leader Pushpa Kumar Dahal, better known as 'Prachanda.' Recently, Nepal set up six border posts on Sino-Nepal border after it was found that the Chinese army had constructed at least nine buildings on the Nepal side of the border.
It is significant that Prime Minister Oli has extended an olive branch to India on the eve of the Indian army chief MM Naravane's visit to Nepal, by divesting Deputy Prime Minister Iswar Pokhrel of the defence portfolio. Pokhrel was known as an India-baiter.
Myanmar is soon going to get its first submarine from India. It will be a Kilo-class submarine named Sindhuvir, to counter the perceived threat from China. The boat has been recently modernised by the Hindustan Shipyard. The proposed rail link from Kunming in China to two ports in Myanmar is still hanging fire. The Chinese portion of the railway has been built. It is the portion that will pass through Myanmar which has been "under negotiations" for a long time. The people living in the areas through which the rail track will pass have objected because they will be uprooted and also because massive deforestation will have an adverse environmental impact.
To revert to Ladakh again, obviously, the present no-peace-no-war situation cannot continue indefinitely. If India can bring to bear sufficient political, economic and diplomatic pressure on China,
Beijing may back off. If it refuses to do so, India may be left with no alternative other than to adopt the course which it has so long been fighting shy of. Till then it will be a long haul.
Views expressed are personal