India-China: The Complete Breakdown of Trust, How and Why
Indian analysts have been comparing the military build-up in the India-China
border in eastern Ladakh to the Doklam standoff in 2017. This was only to be
expected since the leitmotif was once again a road construction in disputed
India feared that the Chinese road would give its military access to heights
from where it could threaten the Siliguri Corridor, India’s tenuous link with
its north-eastern regions.
Ladakh, Indian analysts estimate, Chinese military has positioned itself to
challenge road construction by India that could threaten Aksai Chin and NH 219,
the tenuous Xinjiang-Tibet highway.
China did not protest when we re-opened the Daulat Beg Oldie air base in 2008
after abandoning it during the 1962 war or even when the Indian Air Force built
it up rapidly to such a scale that by 2013, one of its newly acquired Lockheed
Martin C-130J-30 transport aircraft could land there.
Nor did China protest at any point through a two-decade period when the 255-km
long Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) all-weather road was completed.
This is notwithstanding the fact that the DSDBO road cuts down the time taken
for sending reinforcements or making forward deployments of troops and
equipment from two days previously taken to just six hours - a game changer, so
Amidst the tumultuous events in the most recent days in eastern Ladakh, we
somehow lose sight of all this. Therefore, a primary question arises while
making our assessments:
Why is China now all perked up when it was reconciled with the reopening of the
Daulat Beg Oldie military base at the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range
in a cold desert region in the far north of India, just 8 km south of the
Chinese border and just 9 km northwest of the Aksai Chin Line of Actual Control
between the two countries, and just 10 km from the Karakoram Pass that
separates Tibet from Xinjiang?
The answer is, China no longer thinks that it can afford to take lightly the
steady Indian build-up of military infrastructure in that region - known as Sub
Sector North (which lies just to the east of Siachen glacier and is the only
area that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India.)
Clearly, China does not want any threatening build-up of military
infrastructure in the SSN. However, we have also begun constructing branch
roads from the DSDBO in the northerly direction, which allows us to get behind
the Chinese defences via a number of spurs, known as 'fingers', coming down
from the north.
Now, through the Indus Valley to the north of SSN on the Chinese side runs the
immensely strategic highway NH 219 which connects Tibet with Xinjiang and where
the Chinese base with an airfield is located at Ngari. (To put things in
perspective, Ngari is only 50 km from Demchok and here we have the terrain
advantage; while, Ngari can also be threatened from Chumar.)
Historically, before the 1962 war, China thought it had secured all territories
it needed to that was required for the security of the Tibet-Xinjiang NH 219
highway. In fact, following the 1962 war, when China unilaterally declared a
ceasefire and vacated all additional captured territory, it also gave up
control of the tactically important areas in Ladakh that could give access to
Aksai Chin and NH 219. But they have become hotspots today.
Suffice to say, Chinese seem to think we have reoccupied those vacant spaces
and are building sinews that enable us to challenge the NH 219 if push comes to
shove in the relations. China has become highly suspicious of the Indian
Arguably, China has somehow come to believe that in the long term, India's
strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin
and other areas secured by China prior to the 1962 war.
A former commander of Indian Army's Northern Command, Lt. Gen. HS Panag wrote
recently, "Much as I would like to speculate about China's broader political
aims, the direct political aim is simple - to maintain the "status quo" along
the LAC on its own terms, which is to forestall any threat, howsoever remote,
to Aksai Chin and NH 219."
How did this breakdown in trust happen? The roots lie in the UPA era. In
strategic terms, India's 'forward policy' in eastern Ladakh that began during
the UPA rule can only be regarded as a template of the overall militarisation
of the country's foreign policy, which accelerated during the 2010-2014 period.
This was a period, following the signing of the US-Indian nuclear accord in
2008, when the US-Indian relationship underwent a historic transformation and
the doctrine of 'interoperability' with the American military surreptitiously
began permeating the Indian strategic calculus. That process eventually turned
into one of tying India down somehow in the American stable.
Conceivably, some among the Indian bureaucratic elite would have facilitated
this happening at a time when the UPA leadership of Manmohan Singh was getting
battered and distracted and hopelessly besieged, and domestic politics had
entered a turbulent phase signifying the Congress Party's terminal sickness.
The Americans should be eternally grateful to their war horses in the Indian
Be that as it may, India's foreign policy got co-related to the alliance with
the US, and a belief grew, which the present government inherited, that a
muscular approach towards China becomes sustainable and that is the language
China will come to fear, now that the Sino-American tensions are also
On the other hand, given the ultra-nationalist fervour sweeping the country,
sections of the Indian public also began believing in our own rhetoric that the
Indian military is today more than a match for China's - that, in a conflict in
the Himalayas, India can give a 'bloody nose' to the Chinese military.
Indeed, such beliefs are delusional. China is a superpower. Although Indian
military strength has increased in the recent decades, the fact remains that
China has phenomenally modernised its armed forces with technologies that have
a force multiplier effect that are way beyond India's capability.
Nonetheless, delusional thinking is rampant in our country, including among
sections of the elite who ought to know better. This is further compounded by
the 'testiness' in India's posturing toward China in the period since the
Doklam standoff, which the establishment spin had touted as a victory, but
experts increasingly debunked as a mere face-saving retreat.
Meanwhile, provocative moves such as the presence of the Tibetan
government-in-exile in India; the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied
Kashmir (POK) and Gilgit Baltistan; talk of abandoning the 'One China' policy;
the dalliance with the US over 'Wuhan virus'; the challenge to the $60 billion
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; and of course the overall lurch toward 'Quad' signalling an intention to bandwagon with the US' containment strategy against
China - all these were manifestations of such 'testiness'.
They might have been intended as pinpricks we do not know, but they have indeed
contributed significantly to vitiate the climate of India-China relationship
and create mutual suspicions.
However, the red line was breached when the government followed up its decision
last August on abrogating Article 370 of the constitution to change the status
of J&K by making a breathtaking territorial claim on Aksai Chin, enshrining
the claim on a map, which in military terms could only imply from the Chinese
perspective a strategic intention on our part to severe Tibet's link with
Xinjiang - nothing more, nothing less.
Indeed, while all these shenanigans were playing out, strategic communication
was conspicuous by its total absence in the relationship during the period
since 'China Connect' in October last year.
Quite obviously, in the light of all these major shifts in Indian policies,
China began to read a new meaning into the feverish road construction
activities close to the LAC, the attempts to create feeder roads of the DSDBO
leading to Aksai Chin and so on.
A cloud of suspicions has formed which is going to be extremely difficult to
dispel in a near term. Unless we properly assess the Chinese motivations,
negotiations with that country will be meaningless.
Is it the case that China is seeking territorial expansion? If so, there is no
scope for negotiations. But China insists it doesn't want war with India, nor
does India want war with it.
Is it that Chinese Communist Party leadership has become so weak due to the
coronavirus pandemic that it is punching India to flex its muscles? Ridiculous
as this may seem, this question must be asked because some of our top China
hands do read the tea leaves this way!
Or, is China on a deliberate path to humiliate India? But then, to work on such
a motivation, China has other non-military means instead of enacting a gruesome
murderous scene in the Himalayas.
Is China conspiring with Pakistan to create a two-front war for India? For
sure, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever in that direction.
What else could be there in the Chinese calculus? Surprisingly, there is hardly
any willingness in the Indian narratives to consider whether China too might
have its own security concerns over our long-term intentions.
An honest appraisal becomes difficult because it is entangled with the
government's decision on Article 370, which of course is cast in iron and is
apparently irrevocable, as it is linked to the ruling elite's ideology - plus,
our 'pivot' to America, which is at the core of India's foreign policy but
about which our elites do not even want to talk about after Trump presented his
mediatory offer to bring about India-China reconciliation, signalling his
neutrality and disinterest in getting dragged into the current standoff.
We do not realise that the government's words and actions are taken seriously
by India's neighbours - be it China or Nepal or Bangladesh. Perhaps, we can
convince Dhaka some day that we actually do not regard Bangladeshi nationals as 'termites'.
But how can the government possibly say to the Chinese that the claim to Aksai
Chin is a mere posturing for domestic consumption only and not to be taken
seriously as a statement of policy when it was stated in all solemnity by
senior figures in the government that they do intend to gain control of that
region some day?
When China protested strongly over the August decision on J&K - not once
but twice - we ignored it. And to compound matters, we simply turned our back
and walked over to the 'Quad' alliance with the US, upgrading it to ministerial
level, and thereafter began following the American footfalls on Taiwan and
Covid-19 to taunt and humiliate Beijing.
Most certainly, the public opinion in India is furious over the cruel killing
of so many Indian soldiers in Ladakh on June 15-16. Feelings are running high.
There is loud clamour for 'retaliation'. But unless there is public awareness
of the eddies in India's China policy, a rational response to the horrific
incident is not going to be possible.
The buck stops with the Indian leadership. Whereas Indian nationalism should
have been utilised to spur the country's transformation as a middle income
country in a conceivable future and to eradicate the poverty affecting the
lives of hundreds of millions of Indians, it has degenerated into jingoism and
the stuff of grandstanding by the ruling elite.
What purpose the annulment of Article 370 achieved is debatable. But without
doubt, it has damaged the India-China relationship.