By Claude Arpi
On the night of August 29, 2020, near the Pangong tso (lake) in Ladakh something extraordinary happened. Nyima Tenzin sacrificed his life during an Indian Army's operation to take control over the Kailash Range situated on the southern bank of the lake. As the media splashed the news of Nyima’s death, India (and the world) discovered the existence of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a Tibetan Army, also known as Establishment 22 or Vikas Regiment, operating under the Cabinet Secretariat and the Indian Army. Nyima Tenzin had joined the Special Force in 1987 at the age of 18, after being recruited into the secretive commandos; during the following decades he participated in several secret operations with the SFF. During the night of August 29-30, the Tibetan commandos managed to capture a string of strategic high-altitude areas on the Kailash range. It was a resounding victory for India.
China Captures India’s Territory
But let us return to early May 2020; when China suddenly intruded into Indian territory at several places on the desolated plateau of Ladakh at altitudes often more than 4,500 meters above sea level.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) particularly occupied territory on the northern bank of the Pangong tso (in an area known as ‘Fingers’), in the Galwan Valley, which had witnessed a severe clash in 1962, but also near Depsang plains, near the strategic Karakoram pass linking Ladakh to Xinjiang, in Konka-la (pass) area, also the site of incidents in 1962, as well as Demchok, the traditional border with Tibet in Eastern Ladakh.
The buzz is that an ambitious general posted as Commander of the Western Theatre Command over-looking Xinjiang and Tibet (Gen Zhao Zhongqi) convinced the leadership in Beijing to advance the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which separates the Indian from the Chinese troops in the area. By gaining a few kilometers here and there inside Indian territory, the general thought to secure more strategic positions for the PLA, particularly in Galwan, where by slightly moving the LAC, the Chinese artillery could get a definitive vantage point overseeing a new road built by India along the Shyok river towards Depsang.
The Indian Army stops the advance
After a few days of hesitation, the Indian Army was ordered to stop all Chinese advances and get the LAC back to where it was in April 2020.
The words of the great Indian historian, Dr RC Majumdar come to mind; he spoke in 1965 of ‘an aggressive imperialism that characterized the politics of China throughout the course of her history. ...It is characteristic of China that if a region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty even for a short period, she should regard it as a part of her empire.”
The world has witnessed this time and again, whether it is in Tibet and Eastern Turkestan (today Xinjiang) in 1949/1950 or more recently in the South China Sea.
Another characteristic of the Chinese way is that Beijing does not recognize International Law when it goes against its interests (for example, China never accepted the ruling from La Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 which denounced Beijing ‘Nine-Dash’ claim line). In the case of the ‘dispute’ in Ladakh, historically, China has never occupied these areas which were part of a high plateau between Turkestan and Ladakh in the West and Ladakh and Tibet in the East; historical evidences (official revenue records, accounts of officials and travelers, etc) prove this. To give an example, the Ladakhi village of Demchok was for centuries the border village with Tibet; today Beijing further claims an entire corridor of 80 km till the bend of the Indus in Dungti, as its own territory.
However a great surprise was in store for Gen Zhao Zhongqi and his colleagues, the Modi government decided to fight back. The operations of the Tibetan Special Force in August have to be seen in this perspective.
The participation of the Tibetans was another shock for the Communist regime which claims that since the 1950s, when Mao Zedong ‘liberated’ Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s countrymen are ‘Chinese’ and therefore should always side with Beijing. Interestingly, the Kailash range operation triggered large recruitments of Tibetans in the PLA and the militia inside Tibet.
The Aggression and the Virus
We should not forget that the Chinese aggression in Ladakh came with the backdrop of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, which many believe had its origin in the P4 Institute of Virology in Wuhan (it had just been taken over by Maj Gen Chen Wei of the PLA).
A first serious clash took place on June 15, 2020 in the Galwan Valley. While China first refused to acknowledge any casualties, India immediately announced that twenty Indian Army soldiers lost their lives. Today, serious reports say that at least 40 Chinese died in the confrontation, though only four were finally acknowledged.
The fight happened after the Chinese troops refused to withdraw from a place that they had promised to vacate a day earlier. When the Indian Commanding Officer, Col Santosh Babu was killed, his men went berserk. Incidentally, that day, China was celebrating President Xi Jinping’s birthday. India had suddenly to fight on two fronts, the virus and the PLA in Ladakh. In a few weeks time, some 50,000 soldiers on each side were facing each other, with the danger of another explosion.
The US Support
During a visit to Delhi, India has recently received some support from the US Army's Pacific Commanding General, Charles A Flynn who has raised concerns over defence infrastructure being built by China along its border with India in Ladakh. Until that time, India had fought the battle with little moral support.
Flynn termed the Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific region as "destabilising and corrosive" and he asserted that Indo-US ties were working as a “counterweight to the corruptive behaviour of the Chinese”.
The Chinese construction that Flynn was referring to was a second bridge in the Pangong Tso area; according to weekly magazine India Today: “This bridge could help [China’s] military to quickly mobilise its troops in the region,” and it could prevent another operation of the Indian (or Tibetan) Special Forces south of the lake.
A large amount of Chinese infrastructure, such as roads, helipads, railway lines have recently come up along China’s border with India.
It is also said that within 100 kilometers of the LAC in Ladakh, China has commissioned long-range artillery and missile systems, modernized air-defense equipment, extended runways and reinforced strips to accommodate fighter jets, while setting up solar energy projects and small hydropower plants for self-sufficiency.
Further, four divisions of the PLA under the command of the Xinjiang military region are currently in the process of being converted into more ‘agile’ combined arms brigades. The development on India side has been far slower.
A few days after Flynn’s visit, speaking at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin affirmed that Beijing continues to ‘harden its position’ along the border it shares with India, and China is adopting a more “forced and aggressive approach” to its territorial requirements; Austin added: “In the East China Sea, China’s growing fishing fleet is causing tensions with its neighbors.”
Though Xi Jinping has repeatedly pleaded for “a global community with a shared future,” this does not translate on the ground, whether in Ladakh or the South China Sea.
The Talks on the Lake
Soon after the beginning of the confrontation, senior military officers of India and China met in Moldo/Chushul, south of the lake. The first round of talks between the Commander of the 14 Corps based in Leh, Ladakh and the commander of the South Xinjiang Sub-Military District whose headquarter is in Kashgar, took place on June 6, 2020. The second round was held on June 22, soon after the Galwan clashes. So far 15th rounds of talks have taken place, with China agreeing to disengage in the ‘Fingers’ area and the Galwan Valley only. The 16th round is to happen soon. The interesting aspect is that discussions have been held by army commanders from both side, and not by the diplomats who have a tendency (at least on the Indian side) to ‘meet mid-way’, thereby giving the Chinese half the benefit of their aggression. For the past two years, the Modi Government has repeatedly shown its trust in the ability of the Indian generals to deal (even diplomatically) with China. This great ‘strategic’ change has probably surprised Beijing, which has never admitted to having cross the line in the first place.
China’s Defence Minister, General Wei Fenghe reiterated again at the Shangri-la Dialogue: “China and India are neighbours. Maintaining a good relationship meets the interests of both countries and that is what we are working on. …But on frictions along the border areas, the merits of the issue is clear,” meaning that India is the aggressor.
Not much can be expected from the 16th round of talks on the Lake, for the simple reason that Xi Jinping’s position in the Communist Party has been fragilized by several economic issues as well as the long lockdowns in places like Shanghai. Would China agree to disengage, it would mean that they acknowledge that they intruded into Indian territory in the first place, something they are not ready to admit before the crucial Communist Party’s 20th Congress in November.