Reports of a recent clash at Naku La on the Sikkim border, between Indian and Chinese troops, amidst the continuing months-old standoff in eastern Ladakh reflect the seemingly intractable problem of resolving the contrary positions of the two countries on territorial claims. Neither side is willing to yield, causing fears of a sudden flashpoint.
According to reports, the Naku La incident took place last week when the Indian soldiers challenged the PLA soldiers trying to intrude into our territory. Both sides are reported to have summoned reinforcements but a firing clash was avoided following the intervention of local commanders. The matter had since been resolved, with the intruding PLA soldiers returning to their side of the border. Yet, the physical clash without the use of firearms underlines the tension prevailing all along the border with China.
The Sikkim incident came a few days ahead of the ninth round of talks at the Corps Commanders-level on Sunday. Lt General PGK Menon, the Corps Commander of the Leh-based HQ 14 Corps and South Xinjiang district chief, Major General Liu Lin, led the negotiations held on the Chinese side of the Chushul-Moldo border. The talks yielded no tangible result. The Indian commander insisted on a 'complete disengagement and de-escalation’ at the border where the two sides are amassed in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation since early last year.
In a violent, hand-to-hand clash last June in the Galwan Valley, 20 soldiers, including a Lt Colonel, were killed. Though the Chinese did not disclose the number of their casualties, credible reports said they lost 40-odd PLA men, including the unit commander. Since then, a tense peace has prevailed at the border, with the two sides amassing further troops, fortifying defences and moving heavy equipment, including tanks, Howitzers and much else closer to the border. Though there have been nine rounds of commander-level talks, these are unlikely to resolve the stalemate.
The border clash has now acquired larger nationalistic political overtones, with neither country ready to pull back. Having undertaken the intrusion as part of its usual salami-slicing strategy, China was surprised to meet tough resistance. However, even as the confrontation at the border continued, India took China by surprise, securing strategic heights on the border from where the Chinese garrison and border positions became extremely vulnerable. Following the strategic rebuff, the Chinese leadership transferred out its otherwise celebrated regional military commander.
How long the two militaries will remain at the border, poised for a violent confrontation, is hard to tell. However, with summer approaching, the pressure on the troops will ease somewhat. The Chinese, over the years, have fortified border infrastructure, building roads and helipads right up to the border, while India is engaged in catch-up.
However, what has riled the Chinese leadership is the Indian resolve to stand up to any challenge to its status as a sovereign and independent regional power, unwilling to bend before any self-styled hegemon. At the heart of the Chinese politico-strategic goals is to stop India emerging an independent power, a bulwark of democracy and rule-based order, as a direct challenge to the Chinese militaristic authoritarian model, seeking to suppress and bully neighbours to its global-power ambitions.
In sum, it is a clash of opposite systems of ordering human society. It is why there should be a better appreciation of the increasing willingness of western democracies to cooperate and bolster India in this part of the world for securing maritime and territorial freedom as per the international conventions and treaties. Following last year’s standoff at the Ladakh border, the US strategic community has prevailed in persuading the Trump administration to step up cooperation and coordination with India in security and strategic matters, including sharing of valuable strategic intelligence. China has often expressed concern at the joint exercises undertaken by the US and Indian militaries in addition to those from Japan, Australia to safeguard bona-fide maritime and territorial rights of sovereign, independent nations.
Meanwhile, it is a reflection of the Chinese cussedness that it has stooped so low as to question India’s humanitarian effort to provide Covid-19 vaccines to the neighbouring nations. Such peevishness reflects a deep-seated antipathy against an India which is economically and militarily strong and independent and presents itself as a beacon of democracy, as opposed to an autocratic China which suppresses its people, denying them basic human rights.
Eventually, the border dispute is indicative of a broader civilisational clash, the resolution of which will shape emerging global power equations. Instead of injecting petty politics in the border dispute, Indians ought to close ranks and prepare themselves for a long and arduous struggle at all possible fronts, economic, military et al.