It has been a year since the 15 June clash in the Galwan river valley in eastern Ladakh that led to the death of 20 Indian and five Chinese soldiers.
The circumstances of the clash remain murky, but in retrospect, it was a situation that went out of control, rather than any kind of a pre-planned attack. Both sides share the blame for the fracas, though the Chinese had no business to be where they were on the Galwan river valley, an area clearly on the Indian side of the LAC.
The clash reverberated around the world since these were the first casualties in the disputed Sino-Indian border since 1975. The rapid build-up of forces on both sides of the Line of Actual Control and the face-off in the Pangong Tso region in the month before the clash triggered concerns that the two Asian giants could be headed for war.
The enormous interest was manifested by news reports, often based on the analysis of commercial satellite imagery, since it was not possible to send reporters to that remote region of Ladakh. For its part, the government provided little information.
But in early July, it was revealed that after talks between the National Security Advisers of the two sides, a disengagement had been effected by troops being pulled back 1.5 km each from the site of the Galwan clash.
There was one more flutter at the end of August when the Indian forces occupied the Kailash Heights, adjacent to the Pangong Tso, overlooking the Spanggur Tso and the Chinese positions there. Warning shots were fired in the area a couple of times, but there was no physical clash. Since September 2020, the two sides managed to maintain a tenuous peace and an ongoing dialogue that worked out a disengagement in the Pangong Tso region as well.
Restrained Interference From US, Russia
The Sino-Indian drama played out with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, was made even more dramatic by the growing and sharp estrangement of the world’s two principal powers, the US and China.
Many have speculated that one of the many triggers that caused the Chinese to move along the LAC was India’s growing friendship and military ties with the US.
So it is not surprising that when the Trump administration went on the attack mode against China in 2020, the Ladakh crisis was bought into the picture by US officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese of “incredibly aggressive action” in Ladakh and said it was because of the unequalled number of disputes that the Chinese had with other countries.
But, according to an American specialist, Jeff Smith, India requested the US to be circumspect so as not “to feed Chinese propaganda narratives that this is all a component of the China-US rivalry”.
Not surprisingly, Russia, too, played a restrained hand. Speaking just a week after the incident to the media after a Russia-China-India virtual meeting, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that China and India did not need any kind of assistance to resolve their disputes.
A Call for No ‘Nirbharta’ on China
As India and China undertook repeated rounds of military-officer level talks through the second half of 2020, the interest of the international community waned. However, the consequences of the events were visible in the call for aatmnirbharta or self reliance as a means of reducing dependence on China, as well as to enhance the restrictions on Chinese companies in India and FDI from there. Other restrictions were also announced on Chinese technology companies operating in India.
US analysts felt that the developments would push India to double down in its relationship with partners like the US and Australia and was part of the first ministerial meeting of the Quad held in Tokyo in October 2020. Further, New Delhi agreed to include Australia in its annual India-US-Japan trilateral Malabar naval exercises. There was also a sense that the “choices and trade offs” India made could offer opportunities for American companies, if India sought to reduce its dependence on Chinese companies.
Despite these developments, India continued to participate in its other plurilateral arrangements, which also involved China, such as BRICS and the Russia-India-China dialogue, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
China-India Trade Ignored Political Tensions
That the events in eastern Ladakh did not lead to any large-scale disengagement between India and China as is evident form the fact that in 2020 Indian exports to China rose to a record 16 percent to $20.86 billion, though the overall trade was down by 5.6 percent at $87.6 billion, perhaps because of COVID. They brought down the trade deficit to its lowest since 2015.
In the first five months of the year, trade has soared by 70.1 percent in dollar terms to $48.16 billion. In essence, China-India trade seems to have ignored the political tensions arising from the Galwan incident.
The major reason for this peculiar situation is the manner in which India has handled the information on eastern Ladakh events. While it could not avoid discussing Galwan and Pangong Tso where physical clashes occurred, it obfuscated the extent of the crisis from the outset.
What it did do was to immediately build up its forces to match the Chinese deployments, but it adopted what Army Chief M M Naravane recently said was a strategy of dealing with China in a firm but “non-escalatory” manner, with a view of seeking “complete disengagement at all friction points”.
As is well known, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself denied that any intrusion had taken place in Galwan. What had happened was that Indian forces had repelled an attempted intrusion. Speaking in Parliament in September 2020, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, too, had claimed that attempts at transgression were detected “and consequently responded to appropriately by our armed forces”.
With the Galwan pull back done in July, in early February this year, Indian and Chinese military officers finally succeeded in organising a disengagement in the Pangong Area, where a similar formula was accepted with both forces moving back a mutually agreed distance and leaving the area as a no-patrolling zone. At the time, Rajnath Singh had said that the next meeting would be convened within two days and “address and resolve all other remaining issues”.
The “Remaining Issues...” With China
The big problem is that neither the PM, nor Rajnath Singh, nor the Ministry of Defence has told us what those “remaining issues” are. They have not told us that the Chinese still occupy significant chunks of Indian claimed areas in eastern Ladakh, which have changed the LAC on the ground dramatically. These are —the Depsang Plains, Kugrang river valley adjacent to Hot Springs-Gogra and the Charding Nala, south of Demchok. Here, by intruding into the Indian side of the LAC, the Chinese have prevented Indian border forces from patrolling large chunks of territory they used to patrol earlier.
Senior officers like Army Chief Naravane and Northern Command chief Y K Joshi have claimed that the most serious of these blockades, in the Depsang area, are “legacy” issues, meaning they had been there before the 2020 events. But, writing in the website of the Vivekananda International Foundation, Lt Gen (retd) Rakesh Sharma, who had once commanded the XIV Corps that looks after Ladakh, said that despite huge difficulties, Indian border guards had actually conducted “a minimum of eight to ten patrols in the 2013-2019 period” in this area. According to sources, indeed, the last patrol had taken place in January-February 2020.
Is it surprising, then, that from the point of view of the rest of the world, things appear fine in eastern Ladakh. Pull backs have taken place in the problem areas of Pangong Tso and Galwan Valley and no-patrol zones have been put in place. As for the other places, they have simply not heard about them.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)