The month of May 2020 commenced with military face-offs between Indian and Chinese forces in Eastern Ladakh and Northern Sikkim. While these may appear to be localised border skirmishes, there appear to be larger geostrategic issues driving Chinese aggression in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Eastern Ladakh, reportedly, Chinese forces violated the Line of Actual Control ( LAC ) as perceived by India on May 5 in the area of Galwan Valley where Indian forces stood their ground, leading to injuries on both sides. On May 9, in Northern Sikkim, near Naku La (a mountain pass) beyond which lies the Tibetan Plateau, there was a face-off involving 150 troops leading to an Indian Lieutenant boxing a Chinese Major to the ground. In the aftermath of these border incidents, apart from objections by the Indian Government, the US has criticised aggressive Chinese behaviour on the Indian Border.
The military importance of these areas is obvious. The Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh lends access to China’s highway through Aksai Chin to its western-most province Xinjiang, where it faces separatism from the Uyghur movement. Naku La provides access to the Tibetan Plateau in North Sikkim and hence is a flash point. It must not be forgotten that at another pass called Nathu La in Eastern Sikkim (where Doklam also lies) the Chinese were given a bloody nose in 1967 by General Sagat Singh, the first aggressive action against the Chinese, after 1962.
However, the strategic drivers of these border pinpricks lie elsewhere. Four laws or bills (one Chinese and three from US) as well as global criticism regarding COVID-19 in the backdrop of the People’s Congress in May appears to have triggered aggressive behaviour by China.
» China’s Unity Law - passed for Tibet by the People’s Congress in January 2020 and is poised to take effect in May/ June 2020. In effect it aims at Sinicisation of the Tibetan people targeting their unique culture, religion and traditions. The Dalai Lama succession angle in relation to India is obvious.
» US Hong Kong Human Rights Act - this federal law requires the US Government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights violations.
» US Uyghur Human Rights Bill in the US Congress would authorise the US President to impose sanctions based on intelligence reports of crackdown by China on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
» US Tibetan Policy and Support Bill lays out a road map for sanctions against China if they interfere in the succession of the Dalai Lama and seeks a diplomatic station of the USA in Tibet.
While the Doklam stand-off was going on in 2017, China is reported to have built 96 km of road in the Shaksgam Valley opposite Ladakh which is territory ceded to China by Pakistan. As is well known China has invested more than 60 billion US Dollars in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The lifeline for CPEC is the Karakoram Highway which passes through Khunjerab pass which remains closed for 4-5 months in a year due to snow. The Shaksgam road development and the recent Galwan Valley aggression might point towards an effort by China to develop an all weather highway for CPEC bypassing the Khunjerab Pass. Having committed 60 billion US Dollars China would not want the CPEC closed for nearly half the year
Combined with global accusations for the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and the People’s Congress in the third week of May 2020 President Xi Jing Ping needed to bolster his failing public image leading to aggression along the LAC. This was predictable as China views India as a strategic ally of the USA. Indian support for the WHO investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and India’s immediate blockage of direct Chinese investment into Indian companies are other triggers.
Overall, in a situation of global strategic uncertainty, China is trying to assert directly as witnessed on the LAC and through proxies like Nepal which has recently raked up border issues with India. India is well poised to take on aggressive actions by the Chinese as recently stated by the Chief of the Indian Army and as was proved in Eastern Ladakh and North Sikkim in May 2020.
(The author is former General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) of South Western army command. He has served in Siachen glacier, Eastern Ladakh, Kashmir border. He was also part of 'Operation Blue star'. He was awarded Param Vishisht Seva medal in 2018. After 39 years of service, he retired from the army in august 2019).