Conditioned by decades of ‘passive’ defence policies, most Indians, including military analysts, tend to see the happenings in South Asia in terms of narrow Indo-centric focus. The two major events in first week of September 2022, the Chinese disengagement from Hot Spring-Gogra area in Ladakh and announcement of a half a billion military aid package for Pakistan by the US, tend to be seen in similar bilateral context. That would be like counting the trees but missing the forest. Both these events have their roots in global events and strategic flux in the rest of the world.
China’s aggressive moves in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 were never about any territorial gain. Galwan clash was most likely an accident and case of ‘Brinkmanship’ gone wrong. However, there was nothing ‘accidental’ about massing of troops on LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Ladakh. That move was certainly sanctioned at the highest level. The most likely motivation behind the Chinese moves was to come to the help of Pakistan, its ‘all weather friend’ in times of distress. Background to these Chinese moves was the Indian abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, thus doing away of special status of J&K and earlier Indian air strike on Balakote in response to the Pak sponsored terror attack.
China chose its time carefully. It massed its troops on the border at the very time that India (like rest of the world) was reeling under the impact of Covid 19 pandemic. The idea was to puncture the Indian balloon of successfully dealing with Covid-19 as well as cause economic loss by imposing additional defence burden. China enjoys superior ability for tactical moves due to terrain on its side being a flat plateau. Its strategic disadvantage of long lines of communication from mainland China to Tibet were mitigated after the commissioning of rail link to Tibet. In addition, China has huge number of troops deployed on internal security duties in nearby Sinkiang province that has been restive for decades. Thus, it was advantage China in race for deployment on Ladakh border.
China only achieved partial aim, putting economic burden on India. India’s successful occupation of Kailas range and superior tactical handling of situation left China red faced. Credit goes to the leadership of the then Army Chief General Naravane and professionalism of Indian army in contrast to Chinese incompetence.
China’s current move to disengage from additional points on LAC is acknowledgement of that fact. Although the massed Chinese troops remain, this disengagement reduces chances of Galwan like clashes and is a positive indication of Chinese desire to avoid escalation.
Chinese moves are timed to help Xi Jinping secure an unprecedented third term in the 20th party Congress due next month. China is also trying to exploit the Indo-US differences that have cropped up over Indian support to Russia in ongoing Russo-Ukraine War.
American move to bolster Pakistan’s F-16 fleet follows the old script to the last T. US argument in resuming arms supply is that it will give it leverage over Pakistan and wean it away from China. The Pakistani economic difficulties, slowing down of Chinese led CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) work and Pakistani anxiety to avoid Sri Lank like debt trap, are some of the supporting facts for this speculation.
In addition to disenchantment with China in Pakistan, there has been a major shift in the attitude of Pak army of late. It is a given that it is the army that calls the shots in Pakistan and Gen Bajwa’s repeated assertion that Pak must shift from geo-politics to geo-economics, are a positive sign. Pakistan may well be moving away, albeit very slowly, from its Kashmir centric policy.
Jury is still out for the direction in which South Asia moves, but suffice it to say that happenings here are linked to global events and changes as much as the local factors. India has the daunting challenge of harmonizing its long term interest with short term policies. As the only other neighbour that shares a long border with China, Russia is a natural friend of India no less than the US. This possibly understood by the US and therefore the muted reaction to Indian purchase of Russian oil as well as arms. If Pakistan does indeed turns a new leaf, the politics of Subcontinent is on the throes of major change.