China’s expansionism policy backfires in Eastern Ladakh

China made a grave miscalculation in opening front against India in the Eastern Ladakh. It shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has turned into a typecast unable to keep pace with the dynamics of the changing world order. Its intrusive economic ventures globally have induced many developed countries in the West to look for protection and perpetuation of their commercial well-being.

Beijing’s miscalculations are twofold: It towed with its outmoded and unrealistic calculation of India’s ability to defend its borders competently, and secondly, it wrongly overestimated the effectiveness of Indian opposition. Both these miscalculations stem from the lack of democratic experience.

The Eastern Ladakh Sino-Indian standoff has not only unfolded PM Modi’s laudable strategic grasp of the ground situation but has also shown his resoluteness in dealing with threats and intimidations. Western leaders have acknowledged India’s ability and farsightedness to row through the rough waters.

The significant take from China’s misadventure is that India has blunted China’s old habit of expansionism along its long Himalayan border by intimidating smaller states and regions lying in the outskirts.  India is reaping the consequence of allowing Beijing to occupy the vast Tibetan plateau without demur.

The standoff in Eastern Ladakh demeaned China for its lust for territorial expansion-making it look like a minion and not a world power.  The world witnessed how China’s status was receding in the face of India’s will to meet the challenge. In fact, for the first time in history, India has successfully stonewalled the inflow of a northern predator.

 The significant take from the Himalayan heights’ standoff for China is that in dealing with India, Beijing must forget the narrative of its 1962 intrusion into the Indian Territory in Arunachal Pradesh. If pragmatism rules China’s Himalayan strategy, it must change the goalpost and lookout for a new phase of parity in the Sino-Indian relationship. China needs to understand that its strength lies not in behaving like a blood-sucking leech but a large-hearted benevolent state showing due respect to the borders with its neighbours. 

Pragmatism in the strategy means bringing into focus the ramifications of the Himalayan high altitude conflict, which China believes would be a booster to Pakistan’s belligerence along the Indo-Pak LoC in J&K.  However, China needs to understand that the Sino-Indian battle over the frozen Himalayas will be practically and ultimately fought in warm waters of the Indo-Pacific maritime channels with lasting consequences. Such is the dynamics of the ever-changing strategies in the region.

Although the pace of mega projects like the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Belt and Road (B&R) has slowed down, owing to Covid-19 and other undisclosed reasons, yet these remain the flagship projects with China and there seems no volte-face now. However, for quite some time, China has been voicing its unease on the actual status of Gilgit and Baltistan, a region which India claims as its rightful territory, and holds China as an illegal occupant.

For quite some time, Beijing has been insisting on Islamabad to bring about a meaningful change in the legal, constitutional and administrative status of Gilgit Baltistan that would indirectly reinforce China’s position as the pioneering investor in the economic and logistic development of the region. Some constitutional reforms that were introduced in Gilgit Baltistan in the recent past were no more than eyewash. These reforms generated more antagonism than reconciliation within the region.

Secondly, China is conscious of the fact that the presence of PLA and Chinese workers in Gilgit-Baltistan is vehemently resented by the local population as in Baluchistan. In either case, the real irritant is neither China nor the PLA, but Pakistan, which has not given the people of these regions their legitimate civil and political rights and powers. The demographic change brought about in the region by Lt. Gen Parvez Musharraf, the then Corpse Commander of 11th Corps of Pak army and stationed in Northern Areas is eating into the vitals of Pakistan politics.

China is convinced that Pakistan will never be able to take an inch of the territory of Kashmir that is under the control of India. It also understands that intensified border clashes and repeated attempts of infiltration into Indian part by the terrorist legions based in Pakistan and PoK may prompt India for a wider, deeper and more effective Balakot-like surgical strike or something bigger on terror-infested locales in Pakistan mainland supplemented by a plan that India had conceived following the shooting down of Wing Commander Abhinava’s jet aircraft somewhere over the PoK. In a prospect of India-Pakistan armed clash, China will be the loser because it can neither come to the rescue of Pakistan nor can it safeguard its onshore interests in the India-Pacific region, if it turns into a war zone.

Considering all these assumptions, astute statesmanship would prompt China to come out of its stereotype phantasm and meet the challenge in a way that security of the region and peace and tranquillity are ensured.  It has to play a role of friendly adviser to Pakistan –– a country it has been grooming for decades — and a well-meaning country with strong credentials of an astute player on the international chessboard.

China should also realize that since the restoration of normalcy and peaceful coexistence among the nations in South Asian region is the pre-requisite of just and equitable trade and commerce, the fundamental principle, which will help bring about such a conducive atmosphere is that the stakeholders should be prompted to say goodbye to hard-line politics and demonstrate the more resilient approach to the seven-plus decades-old Kashmir issue.

Pakistan has finally responded to China’s exhortation of integrating Gilgit Baltistan into Pakistan as its fifth province. As expected, India has lodged a strong protest against any step of that sort, arguing that it will be contrary to the Security Council Resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir.  Even if Pakistan integrates Gilgit Baltistan as its fifth province it will not give any real relief to China.  India has a strong case not only in Gilgit Baltistan but also in Shaksgam Valley as well, which Pakistan has ceded to China.

Assuming that China with the potential of making use of high-level statesmanship can bring about an understanding between India and Pakistan about conversion of existing LoC into IB, the question arises what will it do with Shaksgam and Aksaichin areas that originally belong to India? India will not accept any deal between New Delhi and Islamabad brought by China, who runs away with the chunk of land that it has grabbed illegally, to be retained till the Kashmir issue is decided between the two warring nations. If a deal does happen between India and Pakistan, the question that pops up is what is to be done with the Shaksgam Valley, when Pakistan and China have agreed to review it in the light of the resolution of Kashmir conflict between India and China.

For injecting blood into the veins of this hypothetical solution of Kashmir and other issues, initiation of primary spadework on the subject and proceed cautiously should be the approach. It would not be out of place to suggest that the UN should constitute a working group of legal advisers to help the stakeholders to discuss the issue after receiving the broad outline of a compromise formula from the actual stakeholders.

It needs to be remembered that Kashmir is a very complicated issue and there should be no hasty or emotional solution to it. Any viable deal on which attention is focused has to be internationalized. Aspirations of the people cannot be conceded in a vacuum but have to be taken into account along with geostrategic compulsions and oddities. Without the participation of the accredited world body like the UN, no real disengagement of the logjam is possible.

Similarly, the issue of displacement of population, their resettlement and security, the future of relationship among the countries in the region, trade, commerce and overland road and air connectivity, etc., needs to be sorted one by one.

We need to remember that a just and reasonable formula to be cobbled after a free and full exchange of views would also mean to give and take. Beijing knows the vision and capacity of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.

Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. Prof. Pandita was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India for his contribution in the field of literature and education.

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