India-China Fighting Breaks out in Ladakh

Violent fighting has broken out between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the undefined borders of eastern Ladakh. The violence is the direct result of China's attempt to alter the status quo along the disputed line separating the two territories.

17 June 2020

Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake in Eastern Ladakh: China is trying to alter status quo

Violent fighting has broken out between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the undefined borders of eastern Ladakh. The violence is the direct result of China's attempt to alter the status quo along the disputed line separating the two territories.

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has reinforced the area with fresh battalions during the past several weeks and deliberately crossed the established, though un-demarcated line separating the two forces in eastern Ladakh. This clearly is a strategic decision that has approval from China's top leadership.

The motives behind this strategic move is being debated in India but it is clear that China intends to demonstrate that it is the dominant power in the region and India should not try to ignore that fact.

At any rate, the rapidly escalating situation has led to what the New York Times rightly described as the “Worst Clash in Decades on Disputed India-China Border” which led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers on Monday night (15 June 2020) in the remote Galwan Valley where China has been building up troops. In nearby areas, the PLA has brought in heavy artillery, armoured personnel carriers, dumpers and bulldozers.

Unnamed Indian Army sources claimed that 43 Chinese soldiers have either been killed or injured during the clash. There has been no confirmation of this from the Chinese side.

A statement by the Indian Army on Tuesday stated: ““Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed on the night of 15/16 June 2020. 17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand-off location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20. Indian Army is firmly committed to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation.”

News agencies added that the Galwan standoff is the first incident involving the casualty of an Indian soldier in a clash with the Chinese Army after 1975 when four Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.

PTI quoted military sources as saying that the Indian and Chinese armies held major general-level talks at the site of the clash in Ladakh. Senior military officials of the two sides met at the venue to defuse the situation, reports said.

According to the New York Times, “Military and political analysts say the two countries do not want a further escalation — particularly India, where military forces are nowhere near as powerful as China's — but they may struggle to find a way out of the conflict that does not hint at backing down.”

While China has blamed India for the stand-off with the ridiculous claim that India is forcibly trying to acquire Chinese territory, the fact is that China has been behaving as a regional bully of late and has become more assertive and violent. Its naval ships have rammed Vietnamese boats in the South China sea, its government has tightened its grip on Hong Kong reneging on pledges to keep the city state autonomous and threatened Taiwan.

In eastern Ladakh, the Chinese disturbed the status quo by moving into territory along the Pangong Tso Lake and the Galwan Valley. It should be noted that China claims that most of Ladakh belongs to it as does Arunachal Pradesh in the east. This despite the fact that it was China that invaded Tibet an autonomous country in the 1950s and enslaved the local Tibetan population, hundreds and thousands of who fled to India.

To justify Chinese aggression, local PLA commanders claim it was the Indian Army that “crossed the Line of Actual Control to engage in illegal activities,” Col. Zhang Shuili, spokesperson of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command, was quoted as claiming. Monday night's scuffle also was blamed on the Indians: “They deliberately launched a provocative assault, leading to an intense physical clash that caused death and injury.”

Communist China's state run newspaper Global Times added: “This Indian aggression is an intentionally staged, enhanced military action aimed at capturing Chinese territories that India has long sought of and is an egoistic move by India to shift away enormous domestic pressure caused by social problems including the COVID-19 epidemic...”

The details of how exactly the clash occurred and what led to it have not been officially released. One unofficial version has it that the commanding officer of an Indian Army battalion was pushed into a gorge by the Chinese and this started the hand to hand fight. Another version has it that the Indians were insulted by the Chinese during a meeting and this led to the violent scuffle.

The Indian MEA spokesman Anurag Srivastava was unequivocal: “A violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo…Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side.”

The argument that the Indian decision to build a road through the Galwan Valley was what sparked off the tussle is not tenable. While the Chinese have tried to prevent the Indians from upgrading their infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control that divides Ladakh, the Chinese have normally not transgressed this line of brought in major reinforcement in preparation for major hostilities as is the case this time.

The Chinese have warned India of the possibility of further hostilities if India did not stop its “illegal activities”, whatever that meant. The two sides are reported to have disengaged for the moment. What lies ahead is anybody's guess. But given China's timing for the border confrontation - during the peak of the Coronavirus and other problems debilitating India - the escalation and devious logic is not going to end in a hurry.

Md Sadiq

17 June 2020