The India-China military crisis in eastern Ladakh entered a new phase over the weekend when the Indian army pushed back an attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries in a new area on the southern bank of Pangong Lake, in the Chushul/Spangpur gap, according to defense journalist Nitin Gokhale. An Indian government statement issued earlier today notes that on the intervening night of August 29 and 30, the PLA “carried out provocative military movements” there.
It added that “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity… [and] undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.” No casualties – or other details – are available at this moment.
Beijing has refuted the Indian statement. Reacting to a question, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed that “Chinese border troops always strictly abide by the LAC. They never cross the line.”
Three things are striking about this latest development.
First, the Chinese military move over the weekend represents assertion of a new claim. So far, the northern bank of Pangong Lake has been a subject of dispute; as the Indian Express notes “there has not been any issue regarding the south bank of the lake until now.”
The Indian Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat pointedly noted last week that India’s military options to restore the status quo in Ladakh remained on the table should talks at the diplomatic and military levels fail. Coming on the heels of these remarks, this latest PLA thrust could very well be a signal that it is in no mood to back down. As many news reports have already noted, the latest incursion will significantly complicate ongoing — and already stalled — negotiations around eastern Ladakh between the two countries. In fact, continued PLA probing of the LAC increases the risk of escalation; to what extent this is by Chinese design is not known. It is implausible that a fresh attempt to change the LAC status quo at another point would not be authorized at a very high – potentially, political – level given the message it sends to India and the complications it introduces in the India-China talks.
Second and related, India will find it hard to decipher China’s mixed messaging around the crisis. As Ananth Krishnan, an Indian China analyst, noted earlier today, the PLA action over the weekend does not square with Chinese exhortations to keep the “big picture” of India-China relations in mind amid the current crisis. In an interview Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong gave to a news outlet on August 28, he suggested, “We should put the boundary question at an appropriate place in our bilateral relations…” implying a need for India-China relations to not be framed solely around the LAC problems. What is exceedingly odd is that Sun’s statement comes at a time when India has made it absolutely clear that its relations with China can no longer be shaped by the old formula of keeping the LAC issue and other aspects, such as trade and investment, separate.
As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted in an interview published yesterday in the Hindustan Times, “It was because of these agreements [that form the basis of India-China understanding around the LAC] and the adherence to them that the bilateral relationship moved forward in other, different spheres, including the economic one. And this must continue if the relationship has to grow. But there will naturally be issues if the peace and tranquility [on the LAC] is put under stress.” It is becoming increasingly clear that New Delhi and Beijing are talking past each other. That, in turn, does not suggest a diplomatic solution to the current crisis – even through dialogue at the political level — is in the offing any time soon.
Third, the speed with which the Indian government issued an official statement around the weekend’s tussle suggest a newfound desire to seize and shape the narrative around the ongoing crisis. Recall that since the first set of clashes between the Indian army and the PLA, on May 5, was reported, the Indian establishment has struggled to speak — and often speak in the same voice – about the events along the LAC. The early reactions to China’s threat to the LAC in eastern Ladakh were, first, to deny and then to downplay. Indian equivocation – likely, part of a strategy to manage the domestic audience – allowed the PLA to consolidate its new claims, closing the window for prudent Indian military action. New Delhi’s reaction to this latest round of activity in eastern Ladakh points to possibility of a much more proactive Indian military stance there, even if that means admitting – belatedly – that it has a major problem on its hands.
To what end, one is yet to know.