Ladakh, India’s cold desert, is getting hotter because, even as we reel under the corona pandemic, China has transgressed the Line of Actual Control. The tragic deaths of 20 soldiers of the Indian Army on Monday in the Galwan Valley, the first casualties of conflict along the India-China border in 45 years, underline the scale of the problem and the challenge ahead.
It’s not going to be easy, it needs a united and firm resolve. Since 1988, a robust diplomatic offensive has been underway to normalise the India-China border situation and yet it has been long festering. As scientists and governments worldwide burn the midnight oil to fight the coronavirus, as millions lose their loved ones and keep vigil in hospital wards, China has clearly twisted the crisis into a strategic opportunity by taking advantage of the geo-political distraction.
Sun Tzu’s dictum, that the supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, is being tested by Beijing everywhere. Near the Paracel archipelago, China intercepted and detained Vietnamese fishing boats; declared two new municipal districts to control the disputed islands; published Chinese names of 80 geographic and underwater features in South China Sea; imposed a fishing moratorium on other countries; intruded into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone; crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait; and harassed commercial vessels from the Philippines.
We cannot afford to continue preaching peace at the cost of our territorial integrity. Under the veneer of the Wuhan spirit followed by the Mahabalipuram meeting, China, with its egregious intrusion, has played its cards at our expense.
The government itself has been unusually reticent on what actually transpired in the Hot Springs and Galwan area. It is a matter of great concern that Indian patrols were denied conduct of their regular visits to the Finger 8 area, which was not opposed till the other day. In 1999, in the wake of the Lahore bus ride, a euphoria was generated only to evaporate after the Pakistani intrusion in the Kargil Heights. We were caught napping but Indian forces evicted the Pakistani intruders and set an example of valour and sacrifice.
Similarly, there’s an air of complacency with regard to Sino-Indian relations when multiple spots in east Ladakh have been breached by the Chinese Army.
The question is: Why and how? Like the Kargil Review Committee, which made a list of recommendations, we need another review committee to ascertain the lapses, if any. We need to know why the country has not been taken into confidence. Why have the Opposition parties not been talked to? The government should have convened an all-party meeting for an exchange of views with respect to the Chinese intrusion. For each one of us, the interest of our nation is paramount.
Ladakh is of vital strategic importance. The Kargil conflict occurred here, the icy heights of the Siachen glacier are here. During the Congress regime led by Indira Gandhi, Indian forces had launched “Operation Meghdoot” in 1984 to capture the Siachen Glacier which has been playing a pivotal role in view of our security spectrum given the hostile terrain of the Himalayas. West of the Glacier lies Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan, East of it lies China-occupied Aksai Chin.
The strong presence of the Indian Army in the Glacier has ensured that this space is protected. Indeed, it was during the Kargil war when the Indian Army was busy driving out Pakistani intruders, that China exploited the situation to extend a 5-km road into Indian territory along the banks of Pangong Lake. Pakistan has been pursuing the policy of “bleeding India by a thousand cuts”, while China is playing the tactic of nibbling away land, by taking recourse to the deceptive rubric of “perception of claim lines”.
There seem to be no limits to the Chinese strategy of extending land towards India till they are pushed back. The professed aim of the Chinese establishment is to reclaim the “Middle Kingdom”, which it asserts was lost to foreign powers when China was weak. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong had said that Tibet (Xizang) is China’s right hand palm which is detached from its five fingers — Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (Arunachal).
China wants to settle the boundary dispute on its own terms. It has settled boundary disputes with all its neighbouring countries except with India. We cannot afford to be complacent by holding two informal summits, or more. In this context, what is disturbing is Nepal’s belligerent reaction on the Lipulekh Pass for Kailash Mansarovar. The strained ties with Nepal are a diplomatic setback for us much to the advantage of China. India should deploy all necessary diplomatic resources to restore the “roti-beti” (intimate) relations with Nepal. In addition to the China-Pakistan economic-corridor, the other threat is the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and predatory debt diplomacy. As India emerges as a force to be reckoned with globally, it has become an eyesore for China.
Under these circumstances, India should continue its endeavours to consolidate its solidarity and amity among neighbours and all democratic powers of the world. China is the only non-democratic major power in the world. It will leave no stone unturned in order to make India vulnerable both externally and internally.
India should maintain communal harmony in the country at all costs, embedded with equity and prosperity. Defence preparedness should be vigorously pursued to insulate us from unpleasant surprises. And powder must be kept dry to meet any eventualities, promptly. Last but not least, we won’t budge even an inch from restoring status quo ante in east Ladakh where the transgressions have taken place. China must realise that there are limits to what fear and intimidation can achieve. The dragon may spit fire but the mighty elephant can extinguish it by shooting water through its trunk. The tragic deaths of our brave and courageous soldiers cannot and should not go in vain. This is a time for firm resolve and prudence, to stay united and determined in the commitment to protect the integrity of the nation and its people.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 17, 2020, under the title “Resolve and prudence”. The writer is the leader of Congress in Lok Sabha
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