The Big Story: The Sino-Indian Border: The Incident, Face-off, Diplomacy, Politics and more
Too many things have happened in the past few days on the Sino-Indian border. For simplification, I will follow a question-answer explainer format.
1) What was happening before the fight?
After the several rounds of military and diplomatic talks, partial disengagement – at least at a few points on both the sides of the LAC – was expected this week. A High-Level Military Conference between Major Generals was held at the Patrolling Point 14, 15, 17 A and Gogra area on June 12 for de-escalation. This was the second round of Major General-level talks in a week and intended to take forward the understanding reached in the previous week at the Corps Commander-level. This was also the fifth round of Major General-level talks since the beginning of the standoff in early May.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on June 11 said that both sides had agreed on “an early resolution of the situation in keeping with the guidance of the leaders. The two sides are, therefore, maintaining their military and diplomatic engagements to peacefully resolve the situation at the earliest as also to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas. This is essential for the further development of India-China bilateral relations.” A day earlier, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said that “diplomatic and military channels of China and India held effective communication on the situation along the border and reached positive consensus. The two sides are following this consensus to take actions to ease the situation along the borders.”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also took stock of the situation and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, CDS Gen Bipin Rawat and the three service chiefs to discuss the situation. On Saturday, Army Chief General M M Naravane confirmed that disengagement of Chinese and Indian troops began in the Galwan area, and both sides “are disengaging in a phased manner”. He said military talks between the two sides have been “very fruitful” and “the situation will keep improving as we go on”.
Dinakar Peri reported for ‘The Hindu’ on June 15 that both sides held five rounds of Major General level-talks. There have also been a series of talks at the Brigadier and Colonel levels. However, there is no change in the massive build-up in-depth areas on the Chinese side. In addition to moving into Indian held territory in some places, China had undertaken build-up of troops and deployed fighter bombers, rocket forces, air defence radars and jammers among others on their side. India would continue to maintain its build-up until China withdrew the build-up.
2) So what went wrong? What happened on the night of June 15?
Nitin Gokhale’s report has a lot of details on what happened that night.
He claims that the Bihar Regiment was waiting to ensure compliance on the agreement for disengagement at PP 14, Galwan Valley, which claimed the troops should fall back 1.5 km from the post. Around dusk, the PLA soldiers turned back and attacked the Indian soldiers with rods and stones. The Chinese troops attacked the CO and two jawans who fell after being grievously injured. The rest of the Indian troops retaliated immediately, and the scuffle broke out. No shot was fired till the midnight, after which the forces disengaged and dispersed.
Twenty Indian personnel, including a Colonel, were killed in the violent clashes. This marks the worst incident on the Sino-Indian border in 45 years as the last Indian casualty was in October 1975, when a Chinese ambush killed four Assam Rifles soldiers at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.
To explain the gravitas of the situation, India lost 19 soldiers in the Uri attacks by Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2016, which was the immediate trigger for India’s surgical strikes against military launch pads across the LoC in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. I am not implying a similar action on the LAC as these are two different countries with a huge difference in military capabilities. I am only trying to explain the seriousness of the situation using various examples.
‘The Tribune’ reports that more than 900 troops were involved in the clash. Most of the deaths occurred as soldiers during a physical fight fell off the cliff into the river in the narrow Galwan valley. While some died of hypothermia, the others died due to injuries.
Manu Pubby reports that the Indian commanding officer had gone to the stand-off point with 50 men to check if the Chinese had walked the talk of shifting back. But he found the Chinese structures still intact on the Indian side of the LAC and went ahead to demolish it. The Chinese force over 250 assembled, and the fight started.
For now, four Army personnel on the Indian side who were critically injured are stable. Also, 18 wounded, who are being treated in Leh military hospital, are also stable. Another 58 personnel with minor injuries should join work within a few days. This report indicates that there were more than 50 men from the Indian side at the fist-fight.
Without going into numbers on both the sides, we can now safely claim that there were more Chinese soldiers on the Indian side of the LAC at the time of the fight. Furthermore, the Chinese had not kept the promise by retreating 1.5 km back from the border. More injuries and deaths have happened due to the extremely challenging temperature and the ice-cold Galwan river, in which some soldiers from both the sides fell while fighting. “Rescue at that altitude and during that time is extremely challenging.”
Sushant Singh reported that 10 Indian soldiers were in the Chinese custody till Thursday. These soldiers were returned to the LAC after hectic negotiations between the two sides, including three rounds of talks at the Major General-level from Tuesday to Thursday. As per practice, these soldiers were medically examined and provided a preliminary debriefing.
Check this ‘India Today’ article for a detailed timeline of the events.
3) What’s the news from the Chinese side?
While the incident was covered as an eight-column headline by most Indian newspapers, the mainstream Chinese newspapers, except the ‘Global Times,’ have reported sporadically with a couple or more reports in the inner pages. Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times’ English and Chinese editions, was first to confirm the PLA fatalities. “Based on what I know, the Chinese side also suffered casualties,” he tweeted. India’s ANI news agency claims that 43 Chinese soldiers were killed by quoting unnamed sources that have traced radio transmission intercepts. Another report in usnews.com has cited “American intelligence” to say that 35 Chinese troops, including an officer, are believed to have died. The PLA, China’s MFA and MND, have issued no statements on the casualties.
Reasons for no Chinese statements on the casualties: One, death of the Chinese soldiers could possibly crop voices within the PLA, CMC and CCP against the leadership, which is already under tremendous stress due to mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak in the initial stage, China’s economic dip and handling of its core issues like HK and Xinjiang in the past couple of years. But more importantly, this is how China works as the 1962 Sino-Indian war casualties were not released till 1994.
Minnie Chan reports for SCMP that China’s decision not to release details of how many soldiers might have been hurt or killed in a clash probably is motivated by a desire to play down the matter ahead of the critical meeting with the United States. She also claims that Beijing is “very sensitive” about military casualties, saying all numbers had to be approved by President Xi Jinping, who heads the Central Military Commission, before being released.
Follow this link to find more about how the Chinese have reacted.
China’s Western Theatre Command’s spokesperson, Colonel Zhang Shuili, issued a statement claiming Indian troops broke their promises by crossing over the LAC. “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region, and the Indian border defence troops are inconsistent with their words and seriously violated the agreements both countries have reached, the consensus made during the army commander-level talks and harmed the relations of the two militaries and the feelings of the two countries’ peoples,” said Zhang. The Spokesperson of China’s MFA also toed the same line claiming “They provoked and attacked the Chinese side, leading to a severe physical brawl. China has lodged protests and representations to the Indian side. China demands the Indian side restrict front-line soldiers and avoid unilateral moves that will complicate the border situation.”
Both the statements were shot down by the India Army and MEA highlight the Chinese aggression on the Indian side of the LAC.
However, one must admit that the Global Times has perhaps compensated for the lack of coverage by other Chinese newspapers, as it went on an anti-India rampage after the Galwan incident. It attacked the Indian Army by claiming its front-line troops should be disciplined, called India to be within its sense and not to self-aggrandise by underestimating China, claimed that India is just a pawn on Washington’s geopolitical chessboard against China, questioned India’s economic performance and much more. The Global Times also published a couple of videos with its newer weaponry like the T-15 tanks performing fire drills in Tibet.
Here is a sample of GT’s tweets.
Some Indian people mistakenly believe their country’s military is powerful than China. The misperception affects the rationality of Indian opinion and adds pressure to India’s China policy. __ Global Times.
4) What happened next?
Post the initial fight, diplomats and higher military officials on both sides aimed for de-escalation. A Major-General level meeting took place at PP14 in the area on Tuesday, which continued until late in the evening. It brought the situation under control, and the Indian side was able to collect all the bodies. The Chinese were given permission to bring in helicopters to ferry their injured back. Indian Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, met Chinese Vice Foreign minister Luo Zhaohui in Beijing on Tuesday in the wake of these developments. China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, had a phone conversation with India’s EAM, Dr S Jaishankar. The two sides agreed to deal fairly with the severe events caused by the conflict in the Galwan Valley, jointly abide by the consensus reached at the military-level meetings, cool down the situation on the ground as soon as possible, and maintain peace and tranquility in the border area under the agreement reached so far between the two countries, the statement said. The Chinese MFA, Mr Wang, said the two sides should follow the critical consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and strengthen the communication and coordination on the proper handling of the border situation through the existing channels to maintain peace and tranquility in the border area jointly.
Read this to know more about the discussions between Dr Jaishankar and Mr Wang.
Phone call between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi on recent developments in Ladakh.
June 17, 2020.
S Jaishankar conveyed the protest of Government of India in the strongest terms on the violent face-off in Galwan Valley on June 15. He recalled that at the meeting of senior Military Commanders held on June 6, an agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control. Ground commanders were meeting regularly to implement this consensus throughout the last week. While there was some progress, the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC. While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.
External Affairs Minister underlined that this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship. The need of the hour was for the Chinese side to reassess its actions and take corrective steps. The two sides should scrupulously and sincerely implement the understanding that was reached by the senior commanders on June 6. Troops of both sides should also abide by the bilateral agreements and proposals. They should strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control and should not have any unilateral action to alter it.
The Foreign Minister of China, on his part, conveyed the Chinese position on the recent developments.
At the conclusion of discussion, it was agreed that the overall situation would be handled in a responsible manner, and both sides would implement the disengagement understanding of June 6 sincerely. Neither side would take any action to escalate matters and instead ensure peace and tranquility as per bilateral agreements and proposals.
__ New Delhi.
Link to MEA’s release
5) Would there be another Sino-Indian War?
No. The opportunity cost for another Sino-Indian War is too high for both the countries. Besides, as repeatedly pointed out by Prof M Taylor Fravel in his book, Active Defense, and other writings, India is not the PRC’s main strategic direction” (zhuyao zhanlüe fangxiang).
6) Then, what explains the current stand-off and the recent border incident? Also, why were no guns used on the border?
I believe the recent incident which resulted in 20 deaths on the Indian side was a local-level misadventure on the Chinese side. Unlike the more massive stand-off which has been happening since early May, this incident was definitely not sanctioned by the CMC or even the Western Theatre Command.
Why? Because of the urgency to calm the situation down by both the sides on military and diplomatic levels. Although the broader stand-off could have been started at the Military District/Theatre level and later approved by the CMC or the CMC’s directive could have come first, but the recent incident was more local.
Please feel free to let me know if you think otherwise.
Weapons were not used simply because of 1996 and 2005 agreements were both the countries established not to use firearms during face-offs. Do read the first chapter from Amb. Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, to know how and why these agreements were made.
7) How are the armies on both sides reacting?
For obvious reasons, both the armies are preparing for contingencies. The PLA Daily reports that the PLA established five new militia units in Tibet involving communications, mountaineering, expedition, rescue and one regionally renowned fight club. Besides, post-Doklam, the PLA has commissioned T-15s, GJ-2s and PCL-181s. Moreover, all the active bases in Tibet and southern Xijiang Military districts are on alert with excessive deployments. Check the three satellite imagery links at the end of this section.
Similarly, the Indian Army, as this newsletter highlighted in the last issue, has put all its China facing bases on alert. India, with its reactive arms acquisition policy, is now looking for speedy acquisition of 12 Sukhois and 21 MiG-29s. The delivery of the first four of the 36 Rafales is delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak and expected in the last week of July.
The Economic Times reports that GOI has given powers to the armed forces to make emergency procurements to stock up its war reserves. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, has been asked to coordinate with the three services on prioritising the requirements, where necessary. The Navy has also been given the go-ahead to deploy its assets near the Malacca Strait and, if needed, anywhere else in the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese action. The BRO will also continue with its work of road construction, it seems.
There are no reports yet about any precautionary actions by China’s Southern Theatre Command or Djibouti naval base.
But, do check these three links which give a detailed account of force buildup using satellite imagery.
8) What’s the reaction of other countries?
Moscow: Won’t interfere and wants India-China to resolve their issues bilaterally.
Washington DC: The US has also decided to not intervene, as both the countries – India and China, don’t want Washington to look into it this time. Check this NYT article.
The EU, the UN and other international organisations have also called for peace and restraint.
9) What’s happening on the domestic front after this incident?
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation where he promised that the supreme sacrifice of the martyrs would not go in vain. “We have always worked closely with our neighbours in a cooperative and friendly manner… Whenever there have been differences of opinion, we have always tried to ensure that those differences never turned into a dispute. We never provoke anyone, but we do not compromise with the integrity and sovereignty of our country. Whenever it was needed, we have demonstrated our strength, proving our capabilities in protecting and defending the integrity and sovereignty of the country. India wants peace. But on provocation, India will give a befitting reply,” he said.
The narrative in India is to boycott everything that comes out of China. GOI’s telecom department will soon cancel a 4G telecom equipment tender floated by state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) and rework it to keep out Chinese vendors. The Indian Railways decided to scrap project contracts awarded to Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication Group, citing poor work progress.
Do read Manoj Kewalramani’s article titled, Beyond Boycotts: Rethinking India’s Economic Relationship with China.
Sowmiya Ashok, who was a journalist in the ‘Indian Express,’ spoke to her Chinese friend to find out what’s the dominant narrative there.
“My friend says that she thinks many young Chinese likely don’t even know this news. She says some comments under posts have said “Zhongguo Jia you” and she noticed one comment asking the Chinese government to release details over the death toll on the Chinese side,” tweets Sowmiya.
But, Oppo cancelled the live stream of its new 5G phone in India and opted for YouTube video. Meanwhile, AIIB approves $ 750 million loans for India’s COVID response.
Do read this NYT article, In China-India Clash, Two Nationalist Leaders with Little Room to Give.
Prime Minister Modi said, “Neither anyone has intruded into our territory nor took over any post.”
10) What’s the road ahead?
Although the forces on both the sides are on alert along the LAC, the situation looks “stable and controllable.”
There would, for now, be slow de-escalation at the LAC, with the help of diplomatic talks, but the armed forces on both sides would be on constant alert. Nothing can be said on how long the face-off continues. However, certainly, this stand-off has pushed India closer to the US and its allies.
Do read this very important report which claims that the Indian intelligence agencies had flagged the movement of Chinese troops in Feb- March. Also, read Vijaita Singh’s article on PLA’s meticulous planning in Galwan.
Meanwhile, Hindustan Times reports that China opens another front, steps up cyber-attacks on India. Certainly, the PLA SSF has to play a role in all Chinese warfare going forward.
– C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express on Growing Power Differential
– Prof Rajesh Rajagopalan for thePrint on India’s Escalation Options
– Yun Sun for War on the Rocks on China’s Strategic Assessment of Ladakh (Must read)
– Suhasini Haidar for The Hindu on the History of the stand-off
– C Uday Bhaskar for SCMP on the Asian Century
– Dr Jabin Jacob for ORF on reorienting India’s China policy
– Ian Hall for the Interpreter on Pressure at high altitude
– Lt Gen Prakash Menon for thePrint on time to take a Political Stand
– Abhijnan Rej for Money Control on India’s Military Options
– Amb Vijay Gokhale in the Indian Express on SCS and India
Research Papers/ Journal Articles/Occasional Papers
– Jeff M. Smith’s two-part commentary for ORF: The Simmering Boundary: A “new normal” at the India–China border?
– Joshua T. White’s research paper for Brookings on China’s Indian Ocean Ambitions
– Michèle A. Flournoy’s commentary for Foreign Affairs on Erosion of American Deterrence leading to Chinese Miscalculation
II. Reading of the Week
China Military-Civil Fusion Strategy by Alex Stone and Peter Wood for China Aerospace Studies Institute (It’s a very long document)
__ This Takshashila PLA Insight newsletter has been reproduced. It is written by Suyash Desai, a research analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He has completed his M Phil from CIPOD, SIS, JNU. Suggestions or feedback can be shared at email@example.com