Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. Boundary Scuffles
It’s a bit of a cliche to say that the India-China relationship has strands of cooperation, competition and even conflict. But it’s true. And this week, all three strands were evident.
First, there was much excitement along the disputed boundary, with both sides eventually downplaying the incidents. On May 10, reports emerged of two incidents between Indian and Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh on May 5 and at Naku La, Sikkim, on May 9. Dinakar Peri’s report in The Hindu informes of injuries to both sets of troops in both incidents. The report also informed that local-level dialogue had allowed the resolution of both face-offs. PTI reported that some 150 troops in all were involved in the face-off in Sikkim. Mayank Singh reported in The New Indian Express that, confirming the face-off, three different sources admitted that it was the PLA which took an offensive posture since end April and it began first by a movement of the vehicle inside the Indian side of the LAC on 27 April. The Indian Army confronted the PLA personnel and the issue was resolved.
Snehesh Alex Philip reports for ThePrint that the incident in Ladakh involved a “fist fight and stone pelting.” His report adds that “the official ‘disengagement’ in Ladakh happened on 6 May after formation commanders spoke to each other. However, the sources said, the matter has been noted for the next formal discussions between higher military authorities on both sides. They added that the situation is under control now.” In Quint, Subir Bhaumik reported that the Sikkim incident flared up after a Indian Army lieutenant punched a Chinese PLA major. The “officer’s infantry unit had stopped the intruding Chinese PLA at Muguthang last week, and were furious at the Chinese commissar for shouting, ‘This (Sikkim) is not your land, this is not Indian territory… so just go back.’” The report adds: “Though for diplomatic reasons, the Indian Army will not go ga-ga over the incident and will downplay the whole thing, there is a quiet admiration for the young officer who ‘took on a Chinese major much bigger than him.’”
Amid all this, PTI also reported that “front-line combat jets were carrying out sorties on May 6, the day a couple of Chinese military helicopters were spotted flying close to the un-demarcated Sino-India border area.” IAF subsequently played down the reports, with unnamed sources telling The Hindu that “There was no border violation on either side. IAF SU-30MKI fighters were airborne in Ladakh on routine flying and were not scrambled in response to the helicopters.” There’s also this report by Rahul Tripathi and Manu Pubby, which talks about PLA soldiers setting up tents close to the Galwan River in Ladakh.
So what does one make of all this? Some in the Indian media have speculated that this is part of a pattern of Beijing’s pandemic opportunism, as evident in its maritime periphery. Others reported that “an assessment being pursued in New Delhi is that the current round of aggression on all borders could be linked to the fact that over 1,000 firms are in talks to relocate operations from China to India and other nations in the post-Covid scenario. Others argue that it’s about India’s stance on Taiwan and part of a pattern, but also about diverting its public attention “amid financial duress through cynically timed revanchism.” There’s also the infrastructure angle. Last week, India inaugurated what has been described as a “strategically vital link road” connecting to the Lipulekh Pass along with LAC – much more on this later. And finally, there’s the larger strategic issue of the Indo-US relationship and Beijing’s anxieties in that regard. Whatever the reasons from the PLA’s perspective, I concur with this assessment by Jeff Smith that this isn’t “an opportune time for Beijing to be picking fights with its neighbors.”
In the end, here’s how both sides officially responded. China’s Foreign Ministry’s Zhao Lijian said that PLA troops were committed to maintaining peace and stability, and both sides remain in close communication and coordination. The Indian Army Chief General Manoj Naravane said that “aggressive behaviour by both sides” was responsible for the face-offs and that “both these incidents are neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” He added that infrastructure building will continue. The Ministry of External Affairs also downplayed the incidents but added this: “Occasionally, however, on account of difference in perception of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), situations have arisen on the ground that could have been avoided if we had a common perception of the Line of Control (LAC).”
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