Tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops are facing off in the uppermost reaches of the Himalayas, on the precipice of a possible war between the two major countries.
China’s incursions into eastern Ladakh across the Line of Actual Control that separates it from India should be seen as part of its global pattern of bad behavior. If left unchallenged, China’s provocative and perfidious military actions along the border with India could destabilize South Asia.
China’s massive buildup of troops and infrastructure in pockets across the border not only violates bilateral agreements, but also forces Indians to confront a new reality. India has spent decades of emotional, political and military capital on Pakistan. But the bigger adversary was always China.
For more than three months, a cloak of opacity has been thrown over the emerging conflict between the two nations that together make up nearly 40 percent of the world’s population and stand to account for one third of the global GDP by 2060. Here in India, official briefings have offered few details and, save the odd terse statement from the army, information has largely been sparse.
In June, I traveled to Ladakh in an attempt to report on the China-India escalations. But, other than the intermittent roar of fighter jets, there was an eerie silence. With altitudes as high as 15,000 feet and temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, there was just no access to the remote peaks where the battle lines were being drawn.
Now after talking to multiple officials, within the government and the military, all of whom would speak only on the condition of anonymity, a picture finally emerges. According to them, the countries are perilously close to armed conflict. India is determined to retaliate against what one military official called “China’s deceitful and aggressive behavior.” After three months of stonewalling by China, India has tanks, artillery guns and fighter jets on standby to counter any large-scale aggression.
The last time China caught India woefully by surprise with a military attack across the Himalayas was in 1962. But the parallels end there. India, long haunted by the drubbing roughly 50 years ago, is just not that nation any longer. “India is the underdog, but we are the fighting dog,” says an official closely involved with framing the strategic response to the crisis. “The Chinese appear to have been taken aback by the Indian soldier’s willingness to take lives and fight with what we have. India is willing to take blood and lose blood.”
As if to prove the point, this week, Indian troops moved firmly and preemptively to stop China’s new attempt at land grabs. China’s People’s Liberation Army was getting active in areas south of the strategically important Pangong Lake. But Indians took the heights near Rezang La and Requin La, allowing them an unfettered view of a key garrison inside China. The operation was led by India’s covert Special Frontier Force, which is drawn mostly from Tibetans whose families escaped Chinese oppression.
Dialogue is not working. For Indians, the turning point came this summer after China’s duplicitous decision to violate a negotiated agreement on withdrawing their men from the Galwan valley on the Indian side of the LAC. Instead of removing their tents as agreed, Chinese troops turned barbarically on the Indians, using wooden rods mounted with nails as weapons.
“There is no trust possible now in the Chinese” says one high-ranking government official, describing the 15,000-foot India-China faceoff as “the new Siachen.” The reference is to the first time that India deployed men at the icy, barren, inhospitable glacier that had remained unoccupied for years till the Pakistani military tried to lay a de facto claim over it. Thirty-six years later, Pakistani and Indian soldiers continue to serve in the icy altitudes. “The Chinese provocation has meant that militarization of the high Himalayas is now complete and permanent,” says a high-ranking Indian official.
Other than an ambition to assert brazen hegemony across the region, China’s motives are less than clear. One theory is that it seeks to inflict costs on India at Pakistan’s behest after Narendra Modi’s government altered the special status of Kashmir in August 2019. More likely, the Chinese who have thrown money and sought transactional influence across South Asia, whether in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal or Bhutan, are attempting to compete with and diminish India’s more historical clout. Or this could be one more twisted manifestation of what has been called China’s “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy” — that has seen the traditionally low-key Chinese presence replaced with a more aggressive approach, which is reflected in its posting combative diplomats across South Asia.
India’s battle with China is also brewing on the economic and technology frontiers. For years, Indians barely noticed as the Chinese systematically infiltrated our markets and grew tentacles around the economy. Now India is paying China back in kind by banning a whole host of apps. Public backlash forced the Chinese phone company Vivo to be dropped as a title sponsor from a major cricket tournament. Huawei is set to be shut out of India’s 5G trials.
Chinese impunity on all fronts must be called out. As the world has learned from the coronavirus crisis, allowing China to be the global bully has consequences for everyone.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” Dutt is based in New Delhi.