Decoding China’s planned aggression
The deaths and injuries to Indian and Chinese military personnel in violent clashes on the night of June 15 has escalated the intensity of the border confrontation, with the statements of China’s foreign minister and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command (WTC) upping the ante. It is curious how these violent, large-scale clashes occurred when Indian military personnel went to the site with prior agreement.
The statement issued by PLA WTC on June 16 expands China’s territorial claims and asserts that China has for a “long time had sovereignty” over the Galwan Valley. This is the second time since the current confrontation began that China has extended its claims over the “entire Galwan Valley”. The statement asserts also that Indian forces repeatedly crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and warned India to “strictly restrain its front-line troops, immediately stop all provocative actions and return to the correct track of dialogue and resolve differences”. China’s foreign minister separately accused India of “crossing the LAC” and “provocatively attacking” Chinese personnel.
Beijing quickly sought to gain the propaganda high ground and portray itself as a “reasonable power” by claiming it has not disclosed the number of PLA casualties “as it doesn’t want people of the two countries to compare the casualty number so as to avoid stoking public mood”. Hu Jixin, editor-in-chief of the official Global Times, warned the Indian side, “Don’t be arrogant and misread Chinese restraint as being weak. China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it.” Later, unconfirmed reports put the numbers as close to 45 Chinese killed and injured. China’s social media is abuzz with netizens asking for the number of Chinese casualties. This will put pressure on China’s leadership. These violent clashes and loss of lives have raised the stakes for the leadership of both countries and will make negotiations for disengagement more difficult.
It is important to remember that since the beginning of May, China has created an arc of sustained military pressure along India’s northern borders stretching over 1,000 kilometres from Daulet Beg Oldi in Ladakh to Naku La in north Sikkim. China’s action blends military, civil and diplomatic instruments. Confrontations between Indian and Chinese troops, or Chinese military activity, have been reported from a number of places including Daulet Beg Oldi, Gogra, Hot Springs, Galwan Valley, Chushul, Pangong, Demchok, Shiquanhe, Rudok and Naku La in north Sikkim. Such a military build-up takes planning and preparation. At least three military sub-districts (MSDs), namely Hetien, Ngari and Shigatse, subordinate to the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Regions, are involved in this. Both Military Regions come under PLA WTC, which exercises operational jurisdiction over the Chinese side of the entire 4,057 km border with India.
Related civilian activity by the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Rudok County administrations pointing to long-term interest in the Pangong Lake has been noticed. On April 21, Dorjee Tsedup, deputy chairman of the TAR People’s Government and head of Pangong Lake Governance travelled to Ngari (Ali)’s Rutok County to inspect the lake and its environment. Hinting at long-term plans for Pangong Lake, Dorjee Tsedup emphasised that law enforcement and protection of the lake “is important for long-term work”. Days later, Rutok County’s judicial bureau and the Ngari regional customs and commerce bureau officials conducted propaganda campaigns to explain the alignment of China’s border in the border villages of Deru and Jaggang also known as Chagkang village, not far from Demchok in Ladakh. In late May, the Ngari municipal public security bureau revealed that all public security personnel in Ngari received “intensive real combat training”.
It is worth noting here that General Li Zuocheng, chief of the joint staff department of the Central Military Commission and the military commanders of the South Xinjiang Military District and the Tibet Military Region have long years of experience in the area. They would have been involved in planning this force build-up and formulating its objectives. After the 73-day face-off at Doklam in 2017, the number of ground and air exercises held by PLA in the high altitude Tibetan Plateau has increased with regular references to India. The commander of the Western Theatre Command and former commander of the Shigatse MSD would also have memories of the disengagement at Doklam.
China is, meanwhile, creating additional points of potential pressure. It seems to have instigated Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli to raise a contentious, emotional claim on a border dispute with India. A report indicates that since May 8, PLA is constructing, or upgrading, a military training base on the Tibet-Bhutan border opposite Drowa village in Lhodrak County, Shannan, TAR. The recent tweet by the spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad suggesting that the standoff in Ladakh may be linked to the revocation of Article 370 is another indicator. He deleted the tweet later.
Viewed in this backdrop, the activity at multiple points along India’s borders is different from earlier intrusions. It suggests a larger objective with the Chinese testing India’s military preparedness, political will and resolve. In view of the domestic and international pressures on Xi Jinping, he will be reluctant to withdraw forces without showing substantive gains, which points to protracted negotiations.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is currently president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal