By Barun Das Gupta
The beginning of the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh has given a tremendous boost to our amour propre. The feeling is that “we have not yielded to them, we have stood up to them. They are retreating now.” Given China’s overall policy and hostile attitude to India, one is tempted to recall what Marshal Foch said when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, formally ending the First World War. The French General said: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” He was uncannily prescient. Exactly twenty years later, in 1939, the Second World War began.
What has been achieved in Ladakh is an armistice. How long it will hold depends on China’s analysis and assessment of what went wrong in Ladakh and ended in a fiasco for the Chinese army, for a fiasco it was. China certainly did not expect the rapid and formidable response of India’s armed forces. India was ready for war if the Chinese decided to foist one on India and left the Chinese in no doubt about it. The option lay with Beijing and Xi Jinping decided to wait for another day when the past mistakes have been corrected and a new strategy to deal with India has been formulated.
At the moment the Chinese have withdrawn from the Pangong Lake but is sitting tight at four ‘friction points’, namely, Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and Depsang Plains. The tenth round of talks with China spanning sixteen long hours, on disengagement of troops from these places remained inconclusive. Why are the Chinese dragging their feet at these places? Because each of them is strategically important to them.
Take the Depsang Plains, for example. Situated at an altitude of 16,400 feet and measuring 972 sq. kms, it falls under India’s sub-sector north (SSN) and is sandwiched between Siachen Glacier on one side and Aksai Chin (occupied by China in 1962) on the other. It is an ideal defensive feature. Demchok was divided between India and China after the 1962 war, One part is administered by India while the other part, Demgog, is part of the Tibet Autonomous Region administered by China. China wants to occupy that part which is in India to fortify Tibet further from any Indian offensive in future. The other two, Gogra and Hot Springs, are also strategically important for China.
Xi Jinping is the most powerful man in China. He is the “President for life” of the Chinese People’s Republic. He is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. He is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission under which come all the defence forces of China. Xi wants to make the three thousand year old concept of “Middle Kingdom” a reality.
The armistice has cost India the loss of the strategic hilltops the Indian army occupied last year. Apologists for the Government have a strange argument to justify the vacating of the hilltops: ”if we could occupy them in the past, we can occupy them again in future, if need be.” It is easier said than done. The Chinese will also correct their past mistakes should they decide to launch another aggression anywhere along the 3,488 km long Line of Actual Control. We have withdrawn from Finger Four to Finger Three. Earlier, Indian troops used to patrol up to Finger Eight. Now the entire area from Fingers Four to Eight has become a buffer zone where there will be no patrolling by either side.
The Chinese have realized that in a war in the Himalayan region, the advantage lies with India. The terrain and the Indian army’s long experience in fighting mountain wars put the Chinese at a disadvantage vis-à-vis India. So, in course of the long drawn negotiations for disengagement and de-escalation, the Chinese side has been bargaining hard and is trying to extract from India the maximum advantage they possibly can.
Besides Aksai Chin, China has also occupied nearly 650 sq. kms of Indian territory. It has built a thousand metre long runway in Depsang which will be a threat to our Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip at an altitude of 16,730 feet. The flurry of activities by the Chinese army to build infrastructure on their side of the border and make preparations for a future war is an indication of their intentions.
As far back as 2019, much before the eastern Ladakh flare-up, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China complained that India was deploying supersonic missiles on the borders of Tibet and Yunnan provinces “in excess of its own needs” and that the deployment of BrahMos missiles is bound to “increase competition and antagonism” in Sino-Indian relations. This shows that despite occasionally reminding us of the 1962 war, the fact is that China is taking India as a potential threat to Tibet.
The ground reality has, indeed, changed from that in 1962. The Chinese realized it in eastern Ladakh last year. India has to stand firm during negotiations and remind the Chinese that the territories occupied by them are ours by right and we have never given up our option to exercise that right.
Meanwhile, a funny thing has happened. China had kept mum on the casualties its troops had suffered in the Galwan Valley clash last year. A few days ago, TASS, the official Russian news agency, reported that 45 Chinese soldiers had been killed by the Indians at Galwan. It immediately provoked a response from Beijing. The figure, it maintained, was 4, not 45. At least there is an admission that China had also suffered losses. Some consolation! (IPA Service)