NEW DELHI—One year following the escalation of tensions at the Sino–India border, the conflict appears to have calmed, though distrust between the two nations continues. Stand-offs persist in at least four locations within the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which separates disputed territory between the two countries, according to Indian media.
The current wave of tensions began in late April 2020, with military forces from both countries engaging in skirmishes and aggressive patrolling at multiple locations along the 2,100-mile-long disputed border.
The situation escalated into a bloody conflict on June 15, 2020, in the Galwan River valley, where India was building footbridges—an infrastructure development that the Chinese regime didn’t want at the location.
While disengagement in the region began earlier this year, following multiple rounds of high-level military talks between the two countries regarding the Galwan valley and the southern and northern banks of Pangong Tso Lake. However, tensions continue in Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, Gogra, and Demchok.
Pangong Tso Lake is a trans-Himalayan brackish lake, two-thirds of which is under China’s control with the rest controlled by India, while Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, Gogra, and Demchok are other strategic positions along the Indian territory of Ladakh’s long border with China.
In an exclusive report including evidence from satellite imagery, leading media outlet India Today reported on May 14 that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a presence at contested locations in Ladakh and has made minor adjustments to its positions at Hot Springs and Gogra, a key point north of Pangong Tso Lake.
Lt. Gen Kamal Davar, India’s first Defence Intelligence Agency chief and a former commanding general officer for the Ladakh sector, said the Gogra post “links to a few passes like the Marsimik La, the highest motorable pass in the world, and the ridgeline north of the lake—thus its tactical importance.”
Some of the Chinese forward positions at Gogra saw a heavy military build-up in July last year, before military talks led to a partial disengagement.
India Today reported, based on satellite imagery, that the Chinese PLA continued to upgrade its infrastructure at Depsang Plains, a high-altitude plains split between Indian and Chinese control. The plains are located only 50 miles from a disputed border between India and Pakistan, which is an ally of China and the recipient of development funding for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC) under the Chinese regime’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“These are ominous tidings revealing distinctly Chinese intentions. Clearly the Chinese are in for a long haul and display no intention of going back to their pre-April 2020 deployment,” Davar told The Epoch Times in an email. “This is typical of the Chinese salami-slicing tactics.”
Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said that while the situation still isn’t clear, there are similarities between these recent actions by the Chinese and how they’ve behaved along the disputed border in the past.
“This is one kind of pattern every year. In 2020, nearly 663 Chinese incursions in the Indian territory [were] recorded. So this means … except for the winter season, nearly two times per day, nearly three times per day,” Nagao, an expert on U.S., Japanese, and Indian security based in Tokyo, told The Epoch Times.
Nagao said India should be careful because the much-publicized Chinese withdrawal from the Pangong Tso Lake early this year was a tactical, short-term move rather than a strategic, long-term one. The withdrawal was big because it involved removing 200 main battle tanks from a high altitude in two days’ time.
“This is not easy work. So withdrawal from Pangong Tso is a very big move, but at the same time, it’s tactical and not strategic. China still has the intention to expand their territory in the India-China border to secure their resource-rich region,” the Tibetan plateau, Nagao said.
2021 Geopolitical Context
Michael Johns, a leading Washington-based conservative policy expert and strategist, told The Epoch Times in an email that China’s military aggression with India reflects several alarming facts.
“First, the CCP sees Biden as weak and unwilling to muster the will and force necessary to counter their growing militarism in the region, including against India. Second, even if the PLA fails to hold the hundreds of square miles it seized in Ladakh, the cost to India of holding the PLA at bay will consume Indian defense resources and funds that otherwise would have gone to necessary military enhancements, upgrades, and maintenance,” said Johns, who’s also the co-founder of the U.S. Tea Party movement.
He said this will weaken India’s defense capabilities regardless of the outcome in Ladakh. China’s activities there can’t be seen as a standalone Chinese agenda, but should be viewed in the context of larger Chinese activities globally.
“Third, coming along with China’s lies and deception on the Wuhan origins of the pandemic, their violation of the 1985 treaty with the UK on Hong Kong, genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs that is the greatest human rights crisis since the Holocaust, and then Tiger Yang’s provocative and disrespectful comments in Anchorage, it reflects a CCP conclusion that they do not care too much what the world thinks of their behavior,” Johns said.
S. Chandrashekhar, a visiting professor at India’s National Institute of Advanced Studies with research interests in national security issues, told The Epoch Times in an email that China is a long-term threat to India’s existence as a nation.
“We need a clear well thought out integrated strategy to counter it. This is our great challenge on the international front,” said Chandrashekhar, who was formerly a scientist at the Indian Space Research Organization.
“Given this larger picture, China will use the border issue as a continuing irritant and gradually erode the LAC to make inroads into Indian territory. [It will] use Pakistan as a surrogate to keep India in check. Try to get more and more economic leverage and gain direct and indirect control over India’s internal politics and markets. Counter and eventually dominate the Indian Ocean. This is the key.”
India needs recognition of the Chinese threat and should define a clear strategy to deal with it, he said.
“Continued economic growth, reducing dependence on China, being strong internally and a more equitable development model are major challenges. These are no doubt difficult but not beyond India’s capabilities if we have wise leaders,” he said.
Coinciding With 2nd COVID-19 Wave
The Chinese regime’s reinforcement of troops at these contested points in the trans-Himalayan border region coincides with a surge of the deadly second wave of the CCP virus pandemic in India.
Davar said the Chinese regime believes that India can be more easily pressured while it’s facing the deadly pandemic, and there are reasons behind their effort to apply that pressure.
The regime wants to “send a message across to the new administration in America: India and you can keep talking about the Indo Pacific and the international rules-based order—we follow our own rules,” he said.
“I think they have a large design in mind, as they are always trying their way through, as they’ve done on earlier occasions. And that is why India has to be very, very careful.”
Davar said the Chinese regime always plays a double game, having both a stated and unstated strategy. He pointed out that on one hand, Chinese leader Xi Jinping offered COVID-19 aid to India, while on the other hand, the PLA continues to build up at the border.
Chandrashekhar said that the regime is looking to capitalize on India’s vulnerability at this time, by “[pushing] forward and [occupying] territory incrementally.”
“The recent developments on the LAC fall into this category—testing Indian resolve—also [while there are] other crises to manage like COVID,” he said.
Johns pointed out that on one hand, the Chinese regime purports to be a “constructive force” in managing the pandemic globally, while on the other hand, it “has predictably done just the opposite, using India’s focus on it as an opportunity to expand and solidify their military presence in and around Ladakh.”