PLA troops were carrying batons with metal studs. This is odd. China has deployed numerous helicopters in this and other sectors, but their quick arrival points to high readiness.
New Delhi: Two incidents at locations over 1,120 kilometres apart occurred on 5 May and 9 May on the northern side of the Pangong Tso near Chushul, Ladakh and at Naku La in north Sikkim. Chinese and Indian troops came face to face and after a heated exchange, including fisticuffs and scuffles, disengaged after some hours following intervention. Not many details are available except about the courageous action of a young lieutenant of the Indian Army at Naku La, who objected to his senior being insulted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer. India’s Chief of Army Staff clarified on 13 May and the Ministry of External Affairs the following day, that the incidents were minor, not coordinated and much should not be made of them. They are undoubtedly correct, but there is a context to these intrusions which cannot be ignored.
First, the involvement of the large number of troops, almost 250, suggests premeditation if not preparation. Routine patrols are not normally of this strength. Reports suggested that the PLA troops were carrying batons with metal studs. Unless this is a new practice adopted by Chinese troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it is odd. China has deployed numerous helicopters in this and other sectors, but their quick arrival points to high readiness. The actions may not have been coordinated, but mandates a study of the PLA’s pattern of behaviour along the LAC in recent months to ascertain whether there have been changes.
The areas across Chushul and Koyul-Demchok in Ladakh, and Naku La, in north Sikkim, are under the overall jurisdiction of the PLA Western Theatre Command—the largest of the five Theatre Commands in China—but come under different military regions. The areas opposite Ladakh come under the operational jurisdiction of the South Xinjiang Military District (MD), subordinate to the Xinjiang Military Region. They are directly under the Ngari (Ali) Military Sub-District (MSD), which exercises jurisdiction over the areas across Ladakh up to the border with Himachal Pradesh. The area opposite Sikkim, including the area of Doklam (or Dolum), comes under the operational jurisdiction of the Shigatse Military Sub District (MSD) subordinate to the Tibet Military Region.
Senior Colonel Gan Weihan, the Ngari (Ali) MSD Commander, assumed charge on 27 September 2019. The Commander of the South Xinjiang MD, Major General Liu Lin has been in the South Xinjiang region for many years and at least since 2015. He was promoted as Commander of the MD in 2019. Major General Ma Yun took charge as Commander of the Shigatse MSD on 8 January 2020. His predecessor, Major General Fang Jianguo is now Director of Security in the Tibet Military Region. Thus, continuity of local experience has been retained at the more senior level.
China’s media, including the PLA Daily and Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s People’s Daily, had not reported the incidents till 15 May, when it was revealed that India’s Defence Attaché in Beijing had been summoned. China’s social media platform Baidu was, however, noticed carrying a few articles mentioning the “small” incidents which, according to a Pakistani commentator, were “quickly resolved”. Professor Zhang Jiadong, Director of the South Asian Research Centre of Fudan University, explained: “There are many tools between China and India to prevent such incidents from escalating into a more serious conflict, including the update of measures to strengthen mutual trust between the two sides every two years. Although there will be confrontation from time to time, compared with the huge territorial dispute between China and India, the situation on the Sino-Indian border can be said to be quite stable.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, at the regular press conference on 11 May said Chinese border guards have always been committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the Sino-Indian border area.
Interesting, however, was one item posted on Baidu on 5 May evening, which referred to the “annexations” of Ryukyu by Japan and Sikkim by India. It said, “Sikkim has also been historically a vassal state of China, but it was reduced to a British protectorate in the 21st century. However, Sikkim did not become independent after World War II, but was occupied by the newly independent India. Then, it successfully annexed Sikkim through a so-called referendum.” Acknowledging that chances of Sikkim being “restored” are small, it observed “after Sikkim was annexed only China protested and China alone has not recognized India’s aggression, but the world has recognized Sikkim as part of India”. Another brief post on Baidu also on 5 May was captioned “India picks up Sino-Indian border conflict again”.
There has been a noticeable effort to underplay the incidents, but looming in the immediate background are the increasing levels of domestic discontent in China and criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping, very high level of US-China tension, and the rapidly growing comprehensive and military China-Pakistan relationship. China’s military media nowadays often refer to how China’s actions could assist the Pakistan Air Force or military, particularly while reporting the sale or delivery of Chinese-built warships or aircraft to Pakistan. The two armed forces already hold a number of air, ground and naval joint exercises annually. Recent evidence of their growing military cooperation is the posting from this March of a Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer in China’s Central Military Commission (CMC)’s Joint Staff Department. The Pakistani colonel is obviously not engaged in political intelligence as then he would have been positioned in China’s Ministry of State Security (MoSS)!
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)