Ram Madhav, once a powerful RSS voice who counted in the government, recently remarked that Indian action at Yangtse was only defensive but India is now prepared for China, adding that only Operation Snow Leopard against China was proactive. On the 15,000 feet high Yangtse plateau, the LAC follows Yangtse Ridge, the watershed where Indian border posts are located along a stone wall. Overlooking the plateau are the Yangtse heights which command a towering 360-degree view, especially of Tawang bowl 30 km away extending to Sela Pass where a tunnel is being built. It is one among several disputed areas resulting from the patchy marking of the McMahon Line on an 8-inch map and perhaps the only disputed area in Indian possession. This riles China as it was occupied by the bold actions of local commanders in Tawang when PLA infiltrated across LAC into Wangdung/Sumdorong Chu in June 1986. Over time, Tawang developed into a fortress. It has the 341-year-old Galden Namgey Lhatse monastery, second only to Lhasa’s Potala monastery, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist place of worship. More importantly, the 6th Dalai Lama was born in Tawang which Tibet administered till 1950.
For China, the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama is linked to the status of Tibet and its control over Tawang. During the talks starting in 2005 over finding a political settlement to the border, skipping LAC identification, three clauses turned out to be key: ‘not to disturb settled populations’; ‘political compromise’; and ‘national sentiment’. India’s claim to Tawang’s ‘settled population’ was trumped by China’s use of ‘national sentiment; and ‘political compromise’. The Chinese offer in the 1950s of a border solution was a swap: India conceded Aksai Chin while China accepted the McMahon Line. Unfortunately, this Chinese position has hardened from concessions in the west to concessions in the east, mainly in Tawang. In no way China will compromise on Tawang and will by hook or crook, even by use of force, try to retake Tawang which was under its possession for two months in 1962. China’s new border law 2022 equates territory with sovereignty and makes recovery of lost territory sacred.
The PLA’s attempt to unilaterally alter the status quo at Yangtse is not their first. They’ve done so regularly since 2016 to assert China’s claim over disputed territory. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, supported by satellite imagery Dec 2022 of Planet Labs, Chinese infrastructure has improved significantly in one year with a road now 150 m short of LAC with new villages coming up close by. China’s infrastructure development along LAC has created an ‘escalation trap’ for India which it tries to compensate for with increased readiness and surveillance to reduce the risk of accidental escalation. On 9 December, the PLA operation started around 3 am in foggy conditions, expecting to overwhelm Indian troops who were forewarned and beat back intruders with clubs and sticks. Through these attempts, says ASPI, China is testing Indian willingness and readiness to resist while eroding the status quo.
India has gone silent on Doklam in Bhutan where in 2017, Indian troops allegedly ‘illegally crossed LAC’ into Chinese territory to prevent the construction of a road to the disputed tri-junction invoking its treaty obligations with Bhutan. Following an agreement, the Indian and Chinese disengaged after 73 days. But the Chinese feigned withdrawal and soon returned. According to Planet Lab’s, imagery obtained this month Chinese village 9 km east of Doklam at Pangda is inside Bhutan with now a bridge over Torsa Nullah. This will create a new red-line situation for India with Indian troops at Dokla just meters away from PLA at Doklam. India has allowed the Doklam front to reopen as Bhutanese would any day settle their differences with China but for India’s security concerns in Chumbi valley.
It is increasingly clear China will neither clarify LAC nor settle the border question. It will repeat its 2020 tricks in East Ladakh in other areas as its infrastructure expands further. After withdrawal from Hot Springs in September, China said it would not accept the status quo of 2020 created by India’s ‘illegal crossing of LAC.’ This fiction China has used after every clash with Indian troops in shifting the onus of blame to India. High time India paused to rethink its China policy of diplomacy which has hit a cul de sac. PM Modi’s handshake at Bali with President Xi Jinping has made little difference. Last week’s 17th round of military talks produced a blank with zero progress on friction points Depsang and Demchok. It is the end of Disengagement without any Deescalation.
Madhav is wrong claiming India is prepared for China. Far from it. Deterrence has broken down and military diplomacy has also failed. The government’s resolve to keep Parliament in the dark and Modi’s reluctance to utter the ‘C’ word add to the complexity of the LAC dilemma. China is extracting maximum advantage from it. One way to rebuild deterrence is through QPQ (Quid Pro Quo) operations like Snow Leopard. Political will is needed for QPQ but so is a worthy allocation to next year’s defence budget to boost deterrence.