How the Galwan Valley tragedy can transform Himalayan geopolitics – analysis
The brutal clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the night of June 15 has exposed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) well-planned design to sneakily wrest the entire Galwan Valley out of Indian control. It also carries a set of underlying messages and possibilities.
First, immediately after the incident, the PLA Western Theater Command (WTC) issued a statement on June 16, demanding China’s territorial “sovereignty” over the entire Galwan Valley. This was followed by a June 17 statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, which echoed, verbatim, the WTC line claiming China’s sovereignty over the Valley Valley area. Galwan.
Second, it appears to have been triggered by local factors at the micro level, with, at most, instructions from the WTC headquarters. Clearly, it is a disconnection process that is not properly managed locally and things get out of control. There have been other violent hand-to-hand clashes in this area since the Doklam clash of 2017. This time it became more violent with PLA using more lethal weapons, stones, boulders, barbed wire wrapped rocks, and studded wooden logs.
A third, interrelated point is that senior WTC EPL officials appear to enjoy more autonomy than other Chinese military theaters. In this case, the Chinese government only appears to have endorsed the WTC line, which has a specific mandate or direct and broader strategic direction from Beijing to alter the terrain situation in line with China’s national vision for the western provinces, that is, Xinjiang and Tibet. It also has a broader focus agenda with respect to securing Chinese interests, including protecting ambitious China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) related projects moving just north of the Karakoram Range. The PLA believes that the construction of strategic roads in Ladakh by India could cause a disruption to the security of the BRI / China Pakistan (CPEC) economic corridor.
Fourth, the incident may lead to further escalation or, in reality, counterintuitively, may lead to a reduction in scale. The Indian army has lost 20 people, including a commander in the vicious attack. This is the largest military confrontation in more than five decades and the risk that the border confrontation will turn into a large-scale confrontation is clearly present. However, unconfirmed reports suggest that the Chinese side also suffered “proportionate casualties,” with at least 43 EPL staff members killed or wounded in the clash. If this is the case, then the balance of the tragedies is established, and the space is opened for the progressive reduction to continue as agreed during the military talks held on June 6.
What happens now also depends on the political will of the two countries. If the political relationship between India and China is not smooth, Chinese party leaders may have difficulty controlling the PLA, which is generally considered a tougher line in India. At the same time, the situation can still be controlled through political and diplomatic interventions at a higher level. The shock finally forced both parties to open talks at the level of the foreign minister.
However, if China refuses to return to a pre-confrontational status quo position, India may be forced to evict the PLA from the Indian side through military intervention.
Whether or not there is an escalation is also closely related to how the two sides tell the story of the incident to their people. The Chinese side is not giving the exact number of casualties. We don’t know if they are embarrassed or if they want to hide the figures from their own people and minimize the incident to avoid escalation.
Where does this leave New Delhi?
India must respond to China’s movement, not only through military means, but through a forward-thinking strategic, economic and connectivity vision that coincides with China’s BRI project. You should think about reconnecting and resuming old business ties. Ladakh is a geostrategic axis or pivot point for India to spread to Central Asia, Europe, and Russia. The Dorbo-Shayok-BOD road should be called the Ladakh economic corridor. India’s focus should be to go beyond the Himalayas. Otherwise, India is destined to remain in a defensive position.
This, however, depends on India rethinking governance priorities in Ladakh. It is the locals who have the best understanding of the border. The region has already been neglected for a long time due to Articles 370 and 35A.
The way forward must have several components. First, the Ladakh administration should distribute the entire vacant stretch of land in eastern Ladakh (from Chumur to Karakoram) among the population of the Leh district for agriculture, horticulture and other economic activities.
Two, the government must accelerate the expansion of the airport infrastructure / road network in eastern Ladakh. The Indian Air Force must reactivate the Fukche / Loma Airport for civilian and military use. Efforts should be made to reopen and restore the former base of the Chuchul airport.
Third, the authorities must repopulate the area with legal property for citizens and not vacate the border. The government should provide incentives for the nomadic Changpa farmers who currently settled in Leh (Kharnag-Ling settlement) to return to the border areas and encourage them to revive their Rebo nomadic herding skills. Security forces should be directed not to impede their movement along border areas.
Four, large-scale afforestation and large-scale grass seeding through aerial seeding and the use of drip irrigation technology must be carried out. Five, NITI Aayog must prepare a defense development plan for the development of the area. And six, the Indian army should reconsider the idea of legalizing existing illegal border trade in specific places like Dhumtsele and Demchok.
Galwan has changed geopolitics in the Himalayas. India must step up.
P Stobdan is an expert in the Himalaya region.
The opinions expressed are personal.