China’s aggressions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh remind me of China’s way of dealing with India in the 1950s and 1960s. Behind the India-China bonhomie of those days, China quietly took possession of a large area in north-eastern Ladakh, and built a road across it to connect its two recently conquered alien territories, Xinjiang and Tibet. The area is an integral part of the territories of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Never before had China ruled that region; so it published new maps to justify its occupation of Aksai Chin. It was the first stab in its friend Jawaharlal Nehru’s back. In 1960, when the two countries were still talking peace Chairman Mao Zedong ordered his army to prepare for a major invasion of India. Which, in October 1962, again, caught India unprepared. India’s economic progress was interrupted and Nehru’s prestige hurt in India and in the world.
Following that unexpected attack, the India-China relationship lay in tatters for several decades. A whiff of warmth entered their contacts in the 1980s, and, in 1993, the two countries signed an agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity on LAC. In 1996, another agreement laid down a number of confidence-building measures to be followed by Chinese and Indian forces to “maintain restraint, avoid opening fire, strengthen exchanges and cooperation to prevent any escalations of tensions”.
While there were sporadic intrusions, including at Depsang, a serious incident occurred at LAC when Narendra Modi took over as prime minister (PM), with an attack at Chumar. President Xi Jinping’s first visit to India in September 2014 was accompanied by a major intrusion in Ladakh. Modi personally took up the matter with Xi, and the intrusion was vacated. In June 2017, Chinese troops tried to extend a military road close to the India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction, which would pose a threat to both Bhutan and India, in Sikkim and in the Siliguri neck corridor. A three-month long face-off between the two armies at Doklam was resolved, followed by an informal Modi–Xi summit at Wuhan. The Chinese withdrew, and Xi’s attempt to embarrass Modi was frustrated.
At the second summit in October 2019 in Chennai, the two leaders were reported to have “positively evaluated the direction of bilateral relations”. But, in April 2020, the People’s Liberation Army transgressed LAC at several points in eastern Ladakh, and a bloody encounter took place in the Galwan Valley. There were heavy casualties on both sides, but the Chinese were thrown out of the valley. At Pangong Tso, the Chinese, outflanked by the Indian Army’s occupation of the high ridges overlooking their camps, brought up 50,000 troops supported with tanks and artillery units on their side. The Indian Army, through a massive air lift, rapidly ensured counter-mobilisation to confront them. Meetings between senior military officers and the foreign and defence ministers of the two sides have failed to end this dangerous face-off.
Behind China’s periodic aggressions lies a plan to secure India’s acquiescence as China’s junior, second, to humiliate our leaders and government in the eyes of our people, and subvert our civil society. Another part of this sinister design is to damage our economy through predatory trade practices, which have caused destruction of parts of our industry.
China’s hostility has energised the hitherto slumberous Quad. The meeting in Tokyo earlier this month of Quad’s foreign ministers revealed the potential and possibility of acting as a balancer against China in the Indo-Pacific region. The meeting also gave indication of its role in developing the region’s infrastructure and connectivity, establishing new, resilient supply chains to support regional industry and trade, and promoting cooperation in technology. Frequent joint exercises of the Quad’s navies look like preparatory work for assumption of responsibility for regional security.
India seems to have become aware of its enduring China challenge and of the importance of American support to meet that challenge. On their part, senior United States (US) officials have given expression to strong support for India. Deputy secretary in the state department, Stephen Biegun, during his recent Delhi visit, spoke of a fundamental US-India alignment “along shared security and geopolitical goals”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also voiced strong support for India. In the US, for the first time in history, both Republicans and Democrats are united in supporting India. I trust the US-India 2+2 meeting next week, in addition to signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, will focus on the gravity of the present crisis and India’s role in ensuring peace and security of the Indo-Pacific regime.
The Indian Army is strong and fighting fit, but it is in need of modernisation. The Indian Navy is a highly integrated force, but it is small in size and in urgent need of rapid expansion. Our valorous Air Force is short of its requisite strength by eight or 10 squadrons of jets. With the economy stricken by the Wuhan virus, our resources are not sufficient to meet these pressing needs. The 2+2 meeting, next week, will, no doubt, take note of the gap between India’s resources and its enhanced security role in the Indo-Pacific region. A short-term American lend lease programme for India’s armed forces would be the most effective way of filling this gap. The message of such a gesture will reverberate around the world: Indo-Pacific is a reality; freedom is its soul; and democracy its strength.
Maharajakrishna Rasgotra is a former foreign secretary of India
The views expressed are personal