Column | Enigmatic China confounds with baffling actions on its India border

Galwan valley
This handout satellite image taken on May 22, 2020, released by Maxar Technologies shows China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) base in Galwan Valley, bordering India and China. Photo: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies / AFP

Chinese inscrutability is proverbial. No amount of Chinese studies and Confucius lessons will enable others to understand the motivations and methods of China. Chinese actions on the India border in 2020-21 are no exception. No one knows why they moved massive weaponry and columns of soldiers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh at the height of a pandemic when China should have focused on fighting the disease. No one knows why they agreed to withdraw their forces to the positions occupied before April 2020, with no apparent benefit.

There is no shortage of theories. First, China may have wanted to avenge, in collusion with Pakistan, Indian actions in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. But no demand was made to reverse the situation in those areas. Second, China may have decided to strengthen its claim lines and secure positions of strength on the LAC in anticipation of discussions on the border. Third, China was on a quest for global leadership to fill the vacuum expected to be left by a weakened United States as exemplified by its flexing of muscles in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The readiness with which China agreed to discuss disengagement right from the beginning was another surprise. At no point did they seem to have played for time to secure any particular advantage. The first disengagement ended in a clash in Galwan costing human lives on both sides, but the Chinese finally completed withdrawal from that area. After nine more rounds of discussions, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on February 11, 2021, about an agreement between India and China on disengagement in the north and south banks of Pangong Tso (Pangong Lake) that mandated both sides to "cease" forward deployment of troops in a "phased, coordinated and verifiable" manner. China will pull back its troops to east of Finger 8 areas in the northern bank of the lake, while the Indian personnel will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3 in the region. Similar action would take place on the southern bank of the lake, he said.

The Chinese side insisted on the withdrawal of Indian troops from several strategic peaks on the southern bank of the lake. In August 2020, Indian troops had occupied a number of strategic heights in the Kailash Range around the southern bank after the Chinese PLA attempted to intimidate them in the area. Both sides had rushed a large number of battle tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy equipment to the treacherous and high-altitude areas of the eastern Ladakh region after tension escalated following a deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in June last. The Indian move was considered a heroic effort that turned the tide against China. Many strategists had suggested that we should not vacate these heights, but the withdrawal became inevitable as part of restoring the status quo. Some experts now say that vacating those heights was not such a big deal and that we can reoccupy them quite easily.

In his statement in Parliament, the defence minister had said that it was agreed to convene the next meeting of senior commanders of both sides within 48 hours of completion of the disengagement in the Pangong Lake areas so as to resolve all other remaining issues, including in Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra.

The pulling back of troops, which began on February 10, weapons and other military hardware as well as the dismantling of bunkers, tents and temporary structures in the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake was completed on February 17 and both sides have carried out a verification of the same. As agreed earlier, the tenth round of Corps Commander-level talks are scheduled to start at the Moldo border point on the Chinese side of the LAC and will be the first engagement between the two sides at a senior level after the conclusion of the disengagement process in Pangong.

Admission about casualties

In a related development, China for the first time officially acknowledged that four of its soldiers were killed in the fierce clash with the Indian Army in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in June last year. India had lost 20 soldiers in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Many agencies,  including the Russian News Agency TASS, had reported 45 Chinese deaths.

The Indian Army released short videos and photographs showing thinning down of troops and dismantling of bunkers, camps and other facilities by the Chinese military in the areas around Pangong Lake. The visuals also showed the Chinese military using a bulldozer to flatten some structures, and vehicles with troops and equipment preparing to retreat to rear bases as part of the infantry disengagement. The photos and videos largely depicted the fast-paced disengagement process in both north and south banks of Pangong Lake, including withdrawal of troops, removal of machinery and dismantling of temporary structures like bunkers, posts and tents.

India's gains

If China withdraws from all the areas occupied with considerable effort and expense, the mystery of their motives will deepen further. As far as India is concerned, the limited operations consisting of readiness for talks, preparations for war and economic actions against China have borne fruit. The allegations by the opposition of a sell-out do not seem justified. Once the withdrawal is complete, not an inch of Indian territory will be in the hands of the Chinese, according to the Government.

But be on the watch

Finally, in the absence of a credible explanation of Chinese motives for their 2020 exploits, we need to keep our fingers crossed to ensure that history does not repeat itself. In July 1962, there was a similar withdrawal of the Chinese in Ladakh about which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had issued a welcome statement. Within three months, in October 1962, China unleashed a full-scale war against India with the only explanation that China wanted to “teach India a lesson!”

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