The presence of Chinese troops in large numbers in Ladakh since early May has left India wondering. What is China up to? As with earlier border confrontations, a number of interpretations are doing the rounds. The most likely is that China is sending a message – to India and the international community. The argument that Beijing is attempting another land grab is missing the point.
On one view, the new road India is constructing up to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) has provoked China. The road could reduce China’s logistical superiority in the area, and its end-point near the Karakoram Pass might allow India to threaten the Karakoram Highway linking Xinjiang with Pakistan. China’s moves could therefore be intended to stop and then reverse India’s road building. This is a problematic argument on several grounds, but let’s just note the DBO road has been twenty years in the making and is hardly news to China.
A more sinister interpretation is that China could link up with Pakistan and threaten India’s control of the Siachen Glacier. Pakistani forces to the west and Chinese forces to the east could trap India’s contingent in a pincer movement. Probably the only thing worth saying here is: what does anyone want in Siachen? At between 3600 metres and 5700 metres, the glacier is a dangerous, precarious space. To think that whoever controls it could do anything significant militarily to areas below is deep fantasy. In essence, China, India and Pakistan worrying about control of Siachen is three bald men fighting over a comb.
Having said that, it is certainly the case that Chinese moves in the area are not local commanders showing off to their superiors at divisional headquarters. The PLA’s troop presence is too large to be the work of misplaced local zealousness. Rather, Beijing is sending a much more substantial diplomatic message to Delhi: don’t play with the status quo, don’t gang up against us and don’t embarrass us publicly.
The Ladakh problem probably started with India’s change of Kashmir’s constitutional status. However much India may insist that the change is an internal matter, China’s control of Shaksgam and Aksai Chin means that it has an interest in Kashmir’s status. Delhi’s moves in 2019, in Beijing’s eyes, are a change in the area’s status quo.
Compounding China’s unease is India teaming up more openly with the US and its Indo-Pacific allies. India now has signed virtually all the US agreements necessary for greater military cooperation including LEMOA, BECA, and GSOMIA. It has also agreed to raise the Indo-Pacific confabulations to the ministerial level (after making fun of the Indo-Pacific concept in Modi’s Shangri-La Dialogue speech in 2018).
Covid-19 has further complicated relations. While the WHO inquiry into the pandemic’s origin is justified, Beijing is riled. The inquiry demand coincides with India’s election as chair of the WHO’s executive board and its likely return to the UN Security Council. In effect, China is warning India to tread carefully in both arenas. In addition, Delhi’s new rule on foreign investment approvals from neighbouring countries has offended Beijing. Whereas the rule is understandable from India’s perspective, China regards it as yet another attempt to decouple economically and embarrass Beijing.
Finally, China’s Ladakh intrusion fits into a larger assertiveness internationally: in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, with Australia (over its insistence on an international Covid-19 inquiry), with the US over Covid-19 (and trade and technology) and even with the EU (over its pushback against Chinese influence). Beijing is signalling to India and others that Covid-19 and China’s consequent economic downturn has not impaired its ability to defend key interests. To India, specifically, China is saying: don’t join a containment structure or we will show you to be a paper tiger.
Which suggests that, with messages conveyed and promises extracted as at the Wuhan summit, Beijing will in time come to a deal in Ladakh.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.