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Representational Image.

China tries to open new front with Naku La clash, test India’s defence: Experts

The January 20 incident came close on the heels of aggressive Chinese action related to Japan’s Senkaku Islands and an incursion into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese warplanes – which experts said appeared to be signalling towards the new US administration
UPDATED ON JAN 25, 2021 05:51 PM IST

The latest face-off involving Chinese troops at Naku La in Sikkim appears to be part of a larger effort to both test India’s defences and open a new front amid the stalemate in Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), experts said on Monday.

The January 20 incident at Naku La, described by the Indian Army as a “minor face-off”, came close on the heels of aggressive Chinese action related to Japan’s Senkaku Islands and a large incursion into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese warplanes – which experts said appeared to be signalling towards the new US administration.

The Indian Army confirmed Indian and People’s Liberation Army troops had faced off at Naku La, a pass located at a height of more than 5,000 metres in Sikkim sector, and that the incident was resolved by local commanders. Officials familiar with the development said soldiers from both armies sustained injuries in the brawl that was triggered when Chinese soldiers attempted to intrude into Indian territory.

Also read | Committed to peace, says China after PLA’s aggressive moves at Sikkim’s Naku La

The efforts to intrude into the Indian side went against understandings reached during several rounds of military and diplomatic talks over the past few months, the officials cited above said. An Indian statement issued after talks between Indian and Chinese commanders on November 6 had said that both sides agreed to ensure their frontline troops exercise restraint and “avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation”.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said China had sought to open a new front amid the stalemate in Ladakh sector, where tens of thousands of troops have dug in for the harsh winter. “There is nothing the Chinese can now do in Ladakh which they can portray to their advantage,” he said.

“Unlike previous standoffs, where the Chinese stepped back after intruding, there has been a fundamental change in the attitude of the Chinese. They aren’t stepping back this time after they were repelled and faced resistance,” Patil added.

Also read | Naku La face-off and Taiwan show of force are part of Beijing expansionist plans

Former ambassador Vishnu Prakash said China’s latest moves appeared to probing India’s defences by attempting to intrude into Indian space. “I thought the use of the word ‘minor’ was best avoided. A clash is a clash. Just as we were awaiting the outcome of the ninth round of talks between military commanders, an intrusion into Naku La represents an attitude that is anything but minor,” he said.

The Chinese side appears to be expanding its efforts across the spectrum and looking for openings where it can “gain some strategic advantage”, Prakash said.

The face-off in Sikkim came days after China passed a bill on January 22 that allows its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in alleged illegal activities in waters claimed by Beijing fail to obey orders. The legislation can be used to target Japanese vessels around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China.

Japan also lodged a diplomatic protest with China last week over Beijing’s repeated intrusions into waters surrounding the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

On January 24, Taiwan reported an unusually large incursion into its air defence identification zone by eight nuclear-capable Chinese bomber planes and four combats jets. China has conducted almost daily flights over waters between southern Taiwan and Taiwan-controlled islands in the South China Sea in recent months but most of these involved reconnaissance aircraft.

New US defence secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday reaffirmed his country’s commitment to defending the Senkaku Islands during his first phone call with his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi. A US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently in the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas” amid the spiralling tensions between China and Taiwan.

Patil said all of these moves by China appeared to have been made with an eye on the new Biden administration in the US. “The world has pushed back against China on Covid-19, the situation in the South China Sea and on Japan. They are testing the waters with the new US administration to see how far they can go,” he said.

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