Image credit: @engintepe.
Over the May Day holiday, news came out that in mid-April, a platoon-sized contingent of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army up and invaded India. Crossing into Ladakh and setting up camp around 18 kilometres inside the Indian border. This happened on the night of April 15 and, as of writing, the two countries haven’t nuked the hell out of each other. So what happened?
On April 15, 30 or so Chinese troops marched across the de facto border between India and China into the Ladakh region of India, setting up camp 18 kilometres inside Indian territory in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector. Relations between the two countries had been at a high point and the incursion was a complete surprise to most observers.
Image credit: James Griffiths. Map via Wikipedia.
The Ladakh region, which is located in northern Kashmir, has long been a source of upset between the two countries (Kashmir in general is a nightmare of competing sovereignty claims). Writing in the Economic Observer, Tao Duanfang explains:
Although in recent years both sides have acknowledged the principle of “not breaking the status quo on the basis of the Line Of Actual Control” and the “peaceful settlement of disputes,” each country nonetheless holds very different views as to what the “Line of Actual Control” specifically refers to; in part because of the complex topography of the Ladakh region.
China and India’s border dispute is both longstanding and deep-rooted. With the halo of a “most vivid great power” and “Third World leader,” India was defeated by China in the 1962 war, a great blow to the nation’s military image, and a lingering wound for the Indian government as well as its people. Despite progress in bilateral economic and trade relations in the past decades, as well as collaboration in various fields, the border issue and the war complex linger on.
After 14 rounds of bilateral negotiations, the two nations have yet to reach an agreement. Both sides still strongly distrust each other.
In recent years, India has spent an enormous amount of money in introducing advanced military hardware. From 2011 it also set forward a Sino-Indian border “five-year force-enhancing plan,” at a cost of $13 billion, reinforcing four divisions and two independent army brigades, a total of nearly 100,000 soldiers, as well as building high altitude airports, fortifications, roads, and adding light artillery adapted to the region’s terrain. The goal is to match China every step of the way.
Though Lakadh, located as it is in the Himalayas, is a barren region, it is located at the hub of Tibet, Xinjiang, India, and Pakistan, and its strategic importance far outweighs its lack of natural resources (unlike say, the gas-rich Diaoyu/Senkaku islands).
China, for its part, denies that anything untoward is happening in the Himalayas, as Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular press conference:
“China is firmly opposed to any acts that involve crossing the Line of Actual Control and sabotaging the status quo,” she said at a daily briefing in Beijing as she was repeatedly questioned about the dispute.
Hua said talks to defuse the dispute were ongoing and that it should not affect relations. “As we pointed out many times, the China-India border issue is one which was left over from the past. The two sides reached important consensus that this issue should not affect the overall bilateral relations,” Hua said.
China’s motivations for the April incursion are not particularly clear. The government has been flexing its military muscles in the South and East China Seas, causing significant upset (and not a small amount of concern) in Tokyo and Manila, and this may just be another example of sabre-rattling by a country determined to be the regional power.
When Xi Jinping took over his predecessor’s seat on the Central Military Commission, he may have felt the need to consolidate his control over the army (despite seeing off Hu Jintao’s apparent intention to stay on as CMC boss for a further two years), and what better way to do this than to play the wartime leader. Xi launched a campaign to re-focus the armed forces on the “fighting and winning wars” and has taken personal control of territorial disputes with Japan.
Speaking to the SCMP, Dr Li Mingjiang of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, supports this view:
It might have been caused by the new leadership’s assertive stance on issues of national interest. President Xi has publicly urged the army to spare no efforts to defend China’s territorial integrity and core interests. Such high-profile political signals would only encourage the army, especially frontier forces, to toughen their own stance in local disputes.
The April incursion may have more to do with territorial disputes on China’s eastern border than its western. Strategic analyst Jayadeva Ranade points out that the move comes during a time of increasing strategic-military partnership between Japan and India, the incursion into Lakadh may be a way for China (in typically unsubtle style) to warn New Dehli away from becoming too friendly with Tokyo.
China is wary of its neighbours, particularly strong military powers like Japan and India, forming an alliance, perhaps in concert with the US, to ‘contain’ a rising China. This concern does not however, translate into not pushing its neighbours into each others arms by acting like a belligerent bully when it comes to foreign policy.
What about India?
India has reacted to the April incursion with remarkable calm, considering that it is hardly lacking in belligerent jingoism itself. Opposition politicians have attacked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government of “floundering in fear” before Chinese aggression. As First Post explains:
Even though it’s improbable China wants war, India wants one even less. India’s political leadership is hesitant to authorise force, wary of the certain costs of precipitating a crisis. Later this year, as the cold sets in across Ladakh, China’s outpost will have to withdraw: there’s simply no way to survive the cold in temporary shelters. However, Chinese will by then have drawn lessons about Indian resolve—and it’s vital, in the long-term interests of peace, that they not be the wrong ones.
“It is a localized problem,” Singh said Saturday. “We do believe it can be solved. We have a plan. We do not want to accentuate the situation.”
Indian officials seem to have realised that the PLA troops aren’t going to go away if they just ask nicely. Army chief General Bikram Singh reportedly briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on possible “counter-measures”.
So what next?
No one is sure. The Times of India reports that imagery from Indian spy drones has shown that the PLA has begun “using trucks to replenish supplies for over 30 soldiers stationed” in Daulat Beg Oldi. Troops are also reportedly converting the track there into a proper road, suggesting the possibility that more troops may soon be on their way to the region. This development is far more worrying than the initial border crossing. Indian and Chinese troops regularly patrol the disputed territory on both sides of the de facto border, but they don’t normally stay for long, let alone set up camp and start building roads.
Premier Li Keqiang is due to visit India later this month, where he will likely meet with a furious Manmohan Singh desperate to see off claims of cowardice from opposition politicians. It remains to be seen who will blink first.