PLA Pullback: Will it be business as usual?

The situation in Ladakh’s strategic Galwan Valley where a face-off between Indian and Chinese troops on Monday night claimed many lives remains tense. Amid reports emanating from New Delhi that the government has given powers to the armed forces to make emergency procurements to stock up its war reserves in the wake of escalating conflict with China along the LAC, the Srinagar-Leh highway witnessed movement of huge military convoys on Wednesday. The police and other security forces had laid additional makeshift checkpoints on the stretch of the highway between Ganderbal town and Sonamarg resort. Pic: Habib Naqash/GK

It would be suicidal to trust China, but satellite images confirm PLA pullback from Patrol Point (PP) 14 at Galwan, the site of bloodiest scuffle on 15th June, martyring 20 Indian soldiers and inflicting much higher causalities on enemy. Process of troop’s pullback from another hot spot, PP15 at Hot Spring and more complicated finger 4 to 8 area of Pangong, has too started. China had also mobilized tanks and artillery besides building up defence roads & other infrastructure in disputed areas. The disengagement reportedly comprised three phases with a 3-km buffer, 1.5 km either side of LAC, and this is likely to take longer time to complete, may be by winter months. It’s going to be a long haul and thus, a continuous testing time for Indian forces as it can’t lower the guard.

Many developments have factored into disengagement after a 63-day standoff that has almost reached a flash point, causing concerns globally. But the major attributable factor appears to be Monday’s (6th July) two-hour long hard talk on Video phone between two notified representatives on border disputes, Indian NSA Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The process of military dialogue with back channel diplomatic contacts remained in progress all through, besides three Corps Commander level marathon meetings that too had reached “understanding” on disengagement but nothing happened on ground. Doval-Wang Yi meeting ultimately led to implementation of real time pullback on ground amidst huge trust deficit. Still it has brought down some temperature between two big Asian powers. But would it last long? Nobody has any answer.

In an unexpected & well-guarded move, PM Modi landed at Leh in the early hours of 3rd July and surprised the nation as well as the belligerent neighbour, China, like he did it in Pakistan on 25th December, 2015 in a bid to “infuse a positive spirit in the neighbourhood”. His aggressive speech while addressing troops at Nimu, Ladakh was loaded with several clear messages including boosting the morale of the army deployed at various points at ALC and the injured soldiers of bloodiest scuffle, currently convalescing at a hospital.

In a direct message to China from Ladakh, Modi said, “Vistaarvaad ka yug samapt ho chukka hai, yeh yug vikasvaad ka hai. Vikasvaad he avsar hai  aur vikasvaad he  vishav ka adhaar bhe hai.”  He said that in the past century, expansionism has ruined the humanity. It had posed threat to world peace and history is witness that such powers were either finished (mitti main mil gay) or forced to turn back. He also said that the entire world has made up its mind against expansionism.

While China promptly reacted to PM’s charge of expansionism to which it was directed, Congress and some critics were busy in making an issue of Modi not naming China in his speech. Chinese Foreign Ministry in a mellowed down tone, said, “India should avoid a strategic misjudgment on China,” and “jointly maintain peace and tranquility in border areas and safeguard bilateral ties”. But the reality is that China is not trust worthy which has border disputes with 18 countries, Bhutan is the latest, besides maritime territorial disputes with Japan and some south-east Asian countries.

It is not for the first time that Modi has reminded the Dragon about world turning against its expansionism. He had echoed similar views on expansionism during his first visit abroad to Japan after becoming PM. On September 1, 2014, he said, while addressing Japanese & Indian industrialists, “The world is divided into two streams… one is Vistaarvaad and the other is Vikasvaad. Vikasvaad is the way ahead.”

Elaborating his views against expansionism, Modi had said at Tokyo, “This expansionism cannot be beneficial for mankind in the 21st century…. development is essential”. While expansionism has been the core concern of Japanese, two students asked a question about China’s expansionist designs but PM Modi ducked it advising Japanese “Let’s focus on ourselves, not others. Let us remain committed to our values, focus on development and peace. Then the situation will improve,”

Whether Modi’s blunt views on China’s expansionism at Tokyo was the reason or otherwise, there was a 16-day standoff at Chumar in Eastern Ladakh that coincided with Xi Jinping’s visit to India. The matter was resolved in a friendly talk between two leaders. Earlier, in April-May 2013, a 21-day face off was engineered at Depsang valley in Daulat Beg Oldi sector. It appears to be China’s adventurism & this might continue.

Ladakh speech on expansionism and Indian Govt.’s coercive economic and trade restrictions including ban on 59 Chinese apps, disqualifying Chinese firms from participation in many prestigious contracts, non-custom clearance of shipping containers from China and placement of no fresh Indian orders in view of anti-China sentiments have started ‘hurting’ China. Its immediate reaction to PM’s speech and beginning of the process of withdrawal of forces after 63 days standoff hints China’s ‘rethinking’ on its ties with India. Would there be business as usual with China after troop’s pullback? But the Govt cannot overlook the similar development of 1962 when Chinese forces withdrew from Galwan valley on July 15 but on 20th October it waged a war against India and occupied 43000 sq. miles area including Aksai Chin. In view of China’s past record, India should view the current disengagement with cautious optimism and monitor their movement very carefully without lowering guard. Hopefully, 1962 will not be repeated.

Modi’s Ladakh speech to the troops was meaningful. Of course, the first & foremost message was to boost the morale of defence forces, he said that none in the world can match their valour. “Your courage is higher than the heights of the peaks where you are serving today. Not only me, but the entire nation believes in you. We all are proud of you.” These inspiring words are enough to boost the morale of forces. Simultaneously, he has cautioned the neighbours against harboring any misadventure. Modi’s words that “bravery & courage are prerequisite for peace as a weak nation cannot initiate process for peace”, has a message that India is ready for both escalation & peace.

His message to President Xi Jinping was that the policy of expansionism and ambitions of world economic power cannot run together as the world today is standing united against China’s hegemony and would put roadblocks to its economic global ambitions. Galwan, coronavirus, increasing number of concentration camps & persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang as revealed in recent studies  and HR violations have dented China’s global image and its PR offensive in COVID-19 hit Europe coupled with ‘mask diplomacy’ didn’t pay off. In fact, China has been globally isolated.

India too has built up border roads in Ladakh sector despite Chinese obstructions, and equipped its troops with modern arsenal and equipment and adequate air force cover. Modi surprise visit to defence establishment in Ladakh was also a message that India is ready for escalation also if China doesn’t pullback. India made it clear that China should know that 2020 is not 1962. Despite pullback, India can’t afford to lower the guard. Like with Pakistan, India refused third party mediation on Sino-India standoff and exhibited strength in ‘atmanirbhar’ (self-reliant) rather than depending on help from world power like USA or Russia.