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For decades after Peoples Liberation Army of China invaded Tibet on 7 Oct, 1950, and later in fifties bit off Aksai Chin from India’s Jammu and Kashmir state in Ladakh, the loss of such strategic territory has remained as remote from people’ minds as the area itself. Today, Tibet, Aksai Chin and many of those remote areas are back in focus because of the violent faceoff between Indian soldiers and troops of the PLA in Galwan area of Aksai Chin. This is the first violent clash between the two armies in decades and lays bare the Chinese intentions. It appears that Deng Zhao Ping’s advice to Chinese Communist Party (CPC) to ‘bide your time and hide your strength’, has served its purpose and China now feels strong enough to project its strength at a time when it gave the world COVID 19 and kept it busy with managing its horrendous consequences.

China had never raised the issue of any boundary dispute between Tibet and India till they physically occupied Tibet in 1950. The border between Tibet and India had always remained undefined and hence unenforced. Traditionally, Indian pilgrims going to Kailash-Mansarovar were not considered as those going to a foreign country. But Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 changed all that. Chinese now demanded to see the passports of the Indian pilgrims. Thereafter, China started laying claim to the areas across Ladakh, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Sikkim and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh).

Arunachal Pradesh’s relationship with Tibet was based on the recognition of the temporal and spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama by the people of the state. In 1959, when Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India, the event cut off the only connection between the two. The crux of the matter is that the recognition by India of Chinese claim over Tibet in 1950, opened a pandora’s box. Once their claim over Tibet was accepted, it became difficult to rule out the corresponding territorial claims by China to these areas.

China’s grand strategy has twin objectives; to extend their territory north of the Galwan river- where the PLA has currently camped – up to Karakoram Pass and then onto Shaksgam valley which Pakistan gifted to them in 1963 (in exchange of nuclear know-how). Additionally, Chinese are looking to occupy the northern parts of Aksai Chin to increase the depth to their important Highway 219 to protect their Achilles heel, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Chinese aggressive posturing is also driven by its desire to own the Indus water system. This will allow them to control water resources in Ladakh region as the Indus river system originates in Tibet and goes via northern areas to Pakistan. China’s requirement of enormous quantities of pure water is driven by its desire to cut down on its huge import bill of microchips, which stood at a whopping 230 bn $ in 2018. (10,000 litres are required for a 30 cm wafer). Its eyes are also firmly fixed on multiple glaciers in Shaksgam, Raksham, Shimshal and Aghil valleys. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that China is now involved in dam building frenzy in Gilgit-Baltistan. The two mega dams costing a whopping 27 bn$, with a capacity of 7100 MW (BunjiDam) and 4500 MW (Bhasha dam) should put this in perspective. Incidentally, India does not have even one dam measuring even 1/3rd of Bunji size.

In 2012, Chinese supremo, XI Jing Ping, on taking over the party leadership visited the Museum of Revolution, where he declared, “ Glorious 5000 years of the history of Chinese nation, 95 years of historical struggle of the CCP and 38 years development miracle of reform and opening up have already declared to the world with indisputable facts that we are qualified to be leader.” He pledged to turn China into ‘invincible force with wisdom and power.’

If China succeeds in its present face-off with India, it would have achieved Xi Jing Ping’s first milestone; Force India to acknowledge the limits of its power and agree to play second fiddle to China.India, therefore, will have to dig deep into its civilizational past to defeat Chinese hegemonistic ambitions. The outcome of the Present face off is, therefore, crucial.

Indian reaction so far has been measured; a mix of diplomatic outreach, combined with military posturing. China chose a particularly inopportune time to push its claim militarily when the world was seeing China as a culprit in causing wide-spread misery through exporting COVID-19 pandemic. It painted itself into a corner by violating the LAC, perhaps on the assumption that as usual India will take it lying down. Indian reaction in Galwan, its continued build-up in Ladakh, building infrastructure along the LAC at a feverish pace and China’s own isolation in the international arena ensured that China did not see any light at the deep end of the tunnel. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Ladakh, his morale boosting speech at Nimu and the optics associated with it conveyed a clear message to China: “India will not back off.” This sent a clear signal to China that it needs to reassess its options. Withdrawal from Galwan, as being reported in the media is the result of all these factors. However, let me conclude by saying that India is in for a long haul. The LAC is now likely to become LoC.


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