The agreement reached between the two Asian giants to ease tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) took many by surprise. The implementation began on February 10 with phased withdrawal from the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso Lake, a major area under dispute being referred to as both sides' friction point. The entire process including the removal of infrastructure created after April 2020 and vacation of heights occupied by the infantry units is likely to take 10-15 days as the entire exercise is being undertaken in an atmosphere of utter trust deficit between the two sides. A strict and foolproof-verification mechanism has been put in place to avoid the past incidents that left a physical clash between the two sides at Galwan Valley in June last year. After the disengagement process is completed in this sector, the commanders are scheduled to meet within 48 hours to discuss the modalities from disengagement in other sectors. Patrolling has been suspended in the area temporarily to avoid clashes. While most at home and abroad are happy with the agreement reached and the possibility of normalcy returning along the LAC, there are many naysayers from within the country who blame the government for a sell-out ceding our territory in Eastern Ladakh to the Chinese. Some also stated that there had been a secret deal between the two countries, and the government has given certain commitments to Chinese that are being hidden from the nation. Some senior veteran officers have also averred that the government has virtually accepted the 1959 Chinese claim and questioned the logic of having a buffer zone and our troops vacating the Kailash Range's heights. Many doubts have arisen because of the dragon's duplicitous and treacherous behaviour in recent years.
Perseverance is the Key
Nonetheless, credit needs to be given to the Indian negotiators both military and diplomatic for their perseverance, patience and persuasion. Backed by an unambiguous political directive of not ceding even an inch of territory to the Chinese, the negotiators refused to wither down or get fatigued due to prolonged negotiations, tactics used by the Chinese to tire and wear down the adversary and succumb to the Chinese pressure, a manifestation of the Chinese strategy of “Winning without Fighting”. They stuck to their aim and in the process convinced the Chinese of the futility of confronting a determined India which was in no mood to bow down before the expansionist and revisionist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under its all-powerful leader Xi Jinping who is seeking to fulfil the "China Dream" by 2049, the centenary year of the Communist rule.
Nonetheless, credit needs to be given to the Indian negotiators both military and diplomatic for their perseverance, patience and persuasion. Backed by an unambiguous political directive of not ceding even an inch of territory to the Chinese, the negotiators refused to wither down or get fatigued due to prolonged negotiations, tactics used by the Chinese to tire and wear down the adversary and succumb to the Chinese pressure, a manifestation of the Chinese strategy of “Winning without fighting”
Outmanoeuvering the Chinese
The credit also goes to valiant Indian Army and its field commander who turned the tables on the Chinese through a brilliant tactical manoeuvre to outflank the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops on the north bank by occupying tactical heights on Kailash Range on the south bank on own side of the LAC. It enabled the negotiators to undertake tough negotiations without conceding to the solutions offered by the Chinese.
Xi Jinping is an astute politician expert in the art of survival. In an earlier article of mine “Will Xi Jinping Relent”, I had mentioned that Xi would prefer to relent than to bow down or surrender to his adversaries at home. The internal situation in China is not good, and Xi's adversaries are breathing down his neck. The growing resentment among the masses is also affecting the popularity of CCP. Xi Jinping has centralised all powers. Centralisation works well as long as the going is good but the worsening internal situation has given rise to many dissenters and other political opponents. The deteriorating internal situation and dashing of hope of improved relations with America post-Trump have played a major role in reaching the agreement after a standoff extending nearly for a year. Xi has enough problems at home, and continued standoff with India was harming their national interests, including economy which probably made the Dragon relent.
The first and the most compelling reason was Xi Jinping’s realisation that the Chinese have bitten much more than they could chew. For the first time, the Chinese belligerence and expansionism were strongly opposed after the Indians had shown the way of refusing to get bullied and giving in to the Chinese hegemony. India's determined response acted as an elixir for other dragon's expansionism victims in South and East China seas, across the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese calculation of taking advantage of the ongoing pandemic (which is alleged to be of Chinese origin) misfired very badly. The Chinese resources not only overstretched but fatigued, thus exposing the fragility of its armed forces in a combat situation.
The new US administration has openly supported India and cautioned China against its growing expansionism. It has also promised to strengthen the security alliance with Japan to counter the region's increasing Chinese threat. The United States has accused China of bullying and attempting to build a “maritime empire” in South China Sea, announcing several rounds of sanctions on Chinese state companies involved in building artificial islands. To Dragon’s dismay, France, EU, Great Britain and Australia have also joined hands with the US to curb its expansion policy
Chill Factor Acted Against Chinese
The Chinese troops were found wanting as far as fighting in high altitudes is concerned. They were unable to bare the vagaries of hostile weather and extreme wind chill factor which makes survival at these heights extremely difficult. The PLA's emphasis has been to fight in a digital environment avoiding contact battles least realising the logistics and physical problems of a super high altitude warfare. Thus, the PLA soldiers' morale was in their boots despite claims of providing them with centrally heated habitat. Indian soldiers, on the other hand, beat their adversaries hands down and were seen to be by their counterparts as very agile, alert and aggressive. Conscription in the Chinese Army and their young soldiers being the product of one-child norm were other contributory factors. There was tremendous pressure back home from their parents and PLA veterans to pull back from the area.
Wuhan Pandemic Looms Large
China's other major problem is the failure of the domestic consumption market to pick up momentum. Though the Chinese GDP has remained positive, its attempts to shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to a consumption-driven economy have not yielded the desired result. China's consumption—a key driver of growth- has dampened the hopes of revival amidst fears of the Wuhan pandemic's resurgence. The retail sales have slowed down, displaying a lack of confidence among the masses. To revive the spirits before the Chinese New Year celebrations begin, the disengagement has been aptly timed. China can ill-afford tensions it has acquired globally through its revisionist policies seem to have been realised by Xi.
Problems facing the banking industry have yet to be resolved. Likelihood of a rapid slowdown in credit growth also looms large. Rising labour costs, ageing population, a spike in credit defaults, growing rich-poor and urban-rural disparity, rising unemployment, near collapse of Xi's favourite Belt Road Initiative are the other ills affecting the Chinese economy and domestic stability.
The agrarian crisis has emptied the domestic granaries compelling China to import food grains. China's food inflation has risen by double digits. Spiralling prices of food items, particularly pork, the most commonly consumed meat in the country, has angered the masses. The continued wartime deployment of its combat forces in Tibet further compounded the problem. Xi has realised that its tactics of diverting the attention of the Chinese public through displaying aggressive behaviour towards India and other neighbours have backfired.
Unrest in Hong Kong, combative Taiwan, growing dissension in Tibet and Xinxiang, growing dissatisfaction among the masses and economic uncertainties have compelled the Dragon to look inwards and resolve domestic problems rather than challenge its mighty adversaries on the borders. Knowing Xi Jinping, it could be a tactical withdrawal for the time being.
Among the external factors that may have contributed to the Chinese disengagement after a prolonged and elongated standoff through the winters are the Indian revival story and certain pronouncements of the new US President Joe Biden.
Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Hits Chinese Economy
The Indian bounce back from China originated pandemic has taken Communist China by surprise. India has embarked upon the path of AatmaNirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India), but the bold decisions taken to ban Chinese goods, Apps and business houses have not only reduced the trade deficit between the two countries but have also hit its economy. India controlled the pandemic and was among the few nations to develop not only one but four vaccines (two already launched) belied the hopes of Chinese leadership that had hoped the collapse of Indian economy and its consequent weakening as a regional power. Instead, India's speedy revival of economy and growing soft power through “Vaccine Maitri” has ruffled many feathers not only in China but its cronies as well.
Another reason for prolonged negotiations is the Chinese desire to wait and watch the way things unfold globally. Contrary to the Chinese expectations, despite the change in the presidency, the new POTUS is as aggressive against China as his predecessor. He has termed China as number one adversary. The new US administration has openly supported India and cautioned China against its growing expansionism. It has also promised to strengthen the security alliance with Japan to counter the region's increasing Chinese threat. The United States has accused China of bullying and attempting to build a “maritime empire” in South China Sea, announcing several rounds of sanctions on Chinese state companies involved in building artificial islands. To dragon’s dismay France, EU, Great Britain and Australia have also joined hands with the US to curb its expansion policy.
All in all, a process has begun with a ray of hope that normalcy would return soon along the troubled LAC, de facto border between the two Asian giants. Considering that it’s just the beginning and ‘miles to go before we sleep’ peacefully because successful completion of this phase would pave the way for the subsequent disengagements in other disputed sectors that would lead to ultimate de-escalation without which for peace to prevail is difficult.
However, India can ill-afford to let its guard down, and hence there should be no let-up in its 24x7 surveillance and preparation for an inevitable war with China.
(The writer is a Jammu-based political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst. The views expressed are entirely personal)