The foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow today as a sidebar to the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Moscow. India’s senior diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met for two-and-a-half hours as both sides attempt to calm the situation after hostilities flared up earlier in the week along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Monday’s standoff along the south bank of Pangong Tso Lake is responsible for bringing tensions to a near-boil. Chinese troops armed with spears and rifles approached Indian forward outposts and attempted to spark a physical fight. During the standoff shots were fired, the first time in 45 years that firearms have been discharged along the LAC. Just who fired the shots is unknown. China claims it was Indian troops who fired shots after ‘crossing the LAC.’ Predictably, India blames Chinese troops for firing the shots when they were forced to retreat.
Up to the time of the meeting today, Indian and Chinese military activity along the LAC continued. Indian troops occupied the heights that overlook Chinese positions at Finger 4. Taking control of the high ground, always an advantage in land warfare, is doubly advantageous in the rugged, mountain terrain of the LAC. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese brigade-level commanders held ‘interactions’ in Eastern Ladakh. The purpose is to keep the lines of communications open even in the midst of a flareup.
So, diplomats and army officers from both sides continue to deliberate, and hold discussions. At the same time, military units continue to maneuver on the ground. The question is whether or not China will continue its strategy of subtle territorial pecks along the LAC. The potential for an armed conflict remains relatively high in the area even as both sides profess their desire to settle the crisis through diplomatic means.
India’s leader spoke publicly today about the 20 Indian soldiers killed on Monday evening by Chinese forces along the Sino-Indian border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “the sacrifice of our soldiers will not be in vain,” and warned that India was capable of giving “a befitting reply.”
The two sides have blamed each other for instigating the battle. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi accused the Indians of provoking Monday’s clash, and violating the agreement reached by the two countries to deescalate tensions at the border. Wang informed his Indian counterpart that “The Indian side must not misjudge the current situation and must not underestimate China’s firm will to safeguard territorial sovereignty.”
That, in a nutshell, is what the situation boils down to: perceptions, and misperceptions. Conflicting perceptions of China’s intentions by Indian policymakers has contributed significantly to the discrepant policies, and strategies the Indian government and military have used in this crisis. The primary misperception seems to have been not tying China’s actions along the Line of Actual Control to its expansionism-driven foreign policy goals. This has caused New Delhi to underestimate the extent China is willing to go to in this crisis. Monday night proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Consequently, India is now forced to play catch up to an extent, and doing so carries the threat of further clashes, and escalation.
India’s military services have raised their alert levels. Army installations, and airbases in the area of the border have been placed on high alert. Frontline units along the Line of Actual Control have already been reinforced but the prospect of further reinforcement moving into the area remains. The Indian Navy has also raised its alert level, and is deploying additional ships and submarines into the Indian Ocean. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has made a number of forays into the IO over recent months and given what is happening at present in the Himalayas, the Indian Navy is growing serious about Chinese naval movements into its sphere of influence.