China-India Standoff: Lessons from History

China-India Standoff: Lessons from History

Umar Khalid Dar

Nations will always go to war, especially if negotiations yield no results, over issues that are strategically and economically important to them. This holds truer for nations that are eyeing to be superpowers of the next century.
Assumptions are dangerous. Assumptions that nuclear-armed neighbours would not go to war could be hazardous. China and India have been involved in skirmishes across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since May 5, and there has been loss of several lives. Any miscalculation could result in a full-fledged war that could end with a nuclear strike, a possibility that cannot be ruled out. The assumption of Nehru that China would not go to war with India in 1962 had been proven wrong, which caused him and India a humiliating defeat.
The stakes are even higher as compared to 1962, both regionally and in terms of global power balances. Neither China nor India had nuclear weapons then. The world is no longer unipolar and the USA has lost its power and credibility, hence it has minimal influence on either of the countries.
The crisis unfolding in Galwan Valley looks like an action replay of the 1962 events. Then, India after acquiring aircraft, helicopters, engineering and other military equipment from USA and Russia, invaded Portugese Goa in December 1961. Goa was constitutionally incorporated into the Indian republic. Next year, in early months of 1962, the home minister of India threatened that if the Chinese do not vacate the Indian [disputed] areas, India will repeat what she did in Goa. China offered to mutually withdraw both armies 20 km from the disputed LAC but India ignored it. In July 1962, a Gurkha platoon was sent forward to cut off the Chinese outpost in Galwan valley. Immediately, a Chinese battalion surrounded the Indian post, cutting it off from supplies and routing the Indian platoon. This border skirmish then led to a full-fledged war and the outcome was a humiliating defeat for the Indian Army.
Many critics consider that the ‘opportunity’ of the Sino-Indian war gave Pakistan a chance to resolve the long outstanding Kashmir issue. They argue that Pakistan should have attacked Kashmir while India was engaged in conflict with China. However, President Ayub was given a clear message from the US and the UK that they would view a Pakistani move against India as a hostile and aggressive action inconsistent with the SEATO and CENTO treaties. Iran’s Shah, in fact, advised Pakistan to send soldiers to fight alongside Indian soldiers to curtail the Chinese red menace. As the war began, President Ayub decided to remain neutral, a folly in many eyes.
Pakistan’s magnanimity of not attacking India when she was at its weakest, however, could not please India. Rather, to divert the internal political turmoil and public criticism, India found an easy way out and on a pretext of insurgent movement getting momentum in Kashmir, attacked Pakistan in 1965. Before taking this action, India spent a great fortune in modernising and expanding the capacity of its armed forces.
Fast forward to 5 August 2019, when the Narendra Modi government revoked Article 370 unilaterally, scrapping the special status of Jammu and Kashmir State, including areas of Ladakh region. India merged those areas ‘constitutionally’ with the Indian state. Changing the status of Ladakh region irked China, as the region is crucial for her access to Central Asia and the CPEC project. The CPEC passes through Karakoram, close to Galwan Valley, which can be used to cut off the CPEC route. The CPEC is a major cornerstone of China’s strategic planning as it ensures direct access to the warm waters of Arabian Sea.
Another red flag was raised when a day after abrogation of Article 370, the Indian Home Minister said that India will get back not only AJ&K but also the 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin Plateau that is under Chinese occupation since 1962. Both China and Pakistan strongly denounced India’s move at the UN Security Council last year, but the council as usual did nothing other than issue a statement asking all sides to “refrain from taking any unilateral action which might further aggravate” an already “tense and very dangerous” situation.
India, underestimating the Chinese, tried to occupy Galwan Valley but was given a bloody nose. If history could be our guide, it seems more than likely that India cannot face the might of Chinese military and will not try to escalate the clash along LAC. However, to divert the attention of the Indian public from the utter humiliation that the Narendra Modi government has faced and to win the hearts of the Hindu nation, a border skirmish with Pakistan cannot be ruled out. The recent menacing military build-up, publicising the killings of militants in encounters, and enhanced cross-border firing can be seen in the same context. The Pakistan military leadership is alive to the situation and an unprecedented meeting of the top military leadership should be seen as part of the military’s strategic signalling to India.

The writer is based in Manchester, UK

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