IANS Analysis: Four years after Galwan, China sticks to old habits

New Delhi, June 14 (IANS): June 15th marks the fourth anniversary of a significant event wherein India and China experienced military casualties along the contentious 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC), the first such incident since the 1962 India-China war.

Preceding the incident, tensions had been escalating for several weeks in the high-altitude, frigid Galwan valley in the Ladakh region.

China's actions included the installation of tents and observation posts at patrolling point PP14, an area traditionally patrolled by the Indian Army.

With both sides deploying increasing numbers of troops, the border confrontations took an unprecedented turn when the Chinese attacked Indian soldiers using what the Ministry of Defence described in 2021 as 'unorthodox weapons,' including rocks and rods studded with nails or bound in barbed wire.

In response, Indian soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat, utilising sticks and clubs, adhering to the de facto border code of not using firearms.

Nonetheless, this deadly clash resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and the capture of 10 more by the Chinese, who were subsequently released following diplomatic and military negotiations.

Despite widespread reports of Chinese casualties and Beijing's eventual acknowledgment, the initial disclosure did not include specific numbers.

It was not until February of the following year that the Chinese military news outlet, PLA Daily, admitted to the deaths of four Chinese soldiers.

Among them was one individual who purportedly drowned while crossing the Galwan River.

Even after significant efforts by the Chinese government to conceal the number of soldiers killed in its aggressive maneuvers, the disclosure emerged only after prolonged endeavors.

This was evidenced by reports indicating that the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs pressured the families of soldiers who died at Galwan to forego traditional burial rites and in-person funeral ceremonies.

Instead, they were urged to opt for cremation, ostensibly to obscure the precise death toll, citing Covid-19 concerns.

Moreover, the following month saw the arrest of Chinese blogger and former journalist Qiu Ziming, who had raised doubts about the officially reported casualty figures and implied that the actual number might be higher on Weibo. His arrest marked the inaugural case under a newly enforced law, effective March 1, which penalised actions deemed to "infringe on the reputation and honor of revolutionary heroes," carrying a potential sentence of up to three years.

However, in February 2022, The Klaxon, an Australian newspaper, released the results of a year-long investigation conducted by a team of social media researchers.

Their findings exposed that the Chinese government had significantly underestimated the number of casualties at Galwan.

According to the investigation, up to 38 Chinese soldiers had perished while crossing the turbulent, sub-zero river in the darkness of the night.

The Chinese government's attempts to distort the true extent of the fatal consequences resulting from its geopolitical and military actions have occurred previously. Renowned for its lack of transparency, the authoritarian regime in China has a history of concealing crucial information.

In the case of the 1962 India-China war, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) took more than three decades to disclose its casualty figures, providing a notably distorted number in 1994.

The PLA reported 722 soldiers killed and 1,697 wounded. Former Army Chief General VK Singh referenced this delay while accusing China of concealing its casualties during the Galwan clash.

This pattern extends to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which was prompted, in part, by Vietnam's incursion into Cambodia the previous year.

Although the main armed conflict lasted only a month, hostilities continued into the 1980s.

Remarkably, the Chinese Foreign Ministry website omits any mention of this war, instead vaguely stating that relations between the two countries deteriorated during the 1980s and 90s without specifying the reasons. Vietnam claims that 42,000 Chinese soldiers died in the conflict, while some foreign scholars estimate the Chinese casualty figures at 25,000 dead and 37,000 injured. Similarly, the Chinese involvement in the Korean War aligns with this pattern of obfuscation.

It is important to emphasise that the Chinese regime's structure entails that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) does not act autonomously but rather requires political authorisation from higher authorities.

This observation is supported by numerous instances. For instance, in July 2016, Chinese UN peacekeepers stationed in South Sudan purportedly deserted their positions during clashes between factions loyal to the President and rebel forces.

This abandonment resulted in the displacement of thousands of civilians and instances of sexual abuse.

Coming back to Galwan, the Chinese aggression on the night of June 15 was a plainly premeditated attack, as opposed to a flare-up in the heat of the moment.

This is evinced by the high level of preparedness that the Chinese side displayed.

For weeks before the incident, they had been ramping up infrastructure around the area, leading to objections by the Indian side, eventually ensuing in a consensus agreed on June 6.

However, they violated it by continuing their activities, provoking an Indian delegation led by Colonel Santosh Babu of the 16 Bihar Regiment to demand that they retreat.

This is when they launched their attack, equipped with spiked clubs and other such weapons, shielded with protective gear anticipating retaliation, while a number of Chinese soldiers positioned themselves at a higher ground to strike their Indian counterparts on a relatively lower ground with stones.

Subsequent to this incident, eighteen rounds of Corps Commanders' meetings were convened, leading to a partial withdrawal of forces and the establishment of military buffer zones.

In February 2021, both parties announced their intent for coordinated disengagement and de-escalation.

However, despite these endeavors, China persists in its refusal to withdraw from the Depsang Plains and Demchok areas, previously within the patrolling domain of the Indian Army, aiming to normalise this as a new status quo.

While the gravity of the Galwan incident may render it conspicuous, an examination of Chinese activities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) reveals it to be consistent with Chinese government policy.

This event was not the inaugural instance of Chinese incitement of unprovoked escalations aimed at altering the de facto status quo at the border, nor was it the concluding one.

As recently as December 2022, hundreds of soldiers from both sides clashed along the LAC and sustained injuries when Chinese forces crossed the border in the Tawang sector with the intention of unilaterally changing the status quo.

Since Independence, the Indian government has consistently pursued efforts to foster harmony with China. This commitment is epitomised by landmark agreements such as the Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping modus vivendi, the peace and tranquility accords of 1993, confidence-building measures of 1996, and the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question in 2005.

Following the assumption of office by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, there were 18 meetings between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping, with five of these comprising visits to China, marking the highest number by an Indian Prime Minister to date.

Despite India's diplomatic overtures, Chinese aggression and assertiveness along the border have persisted, as evidenced by military and infrastructure advancements at strategic locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Notably, in 2021, the Chinese legislature passed a land borders law mandating coordination between defence and socio-economic development along the border, whose implementation is often observable through satellite imagery along the LAC.

Within this framework, China's utilisation of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can be interpreted as a blatant manifestation of its strategic objectives.

Regrettably, the toll of the Chinese regime's persistent revisionist action along the border is endured by soldiers from both nations.

One possible explanation for this could be India's recent adoption of a more assertive foreign policy stance, exemplified by its multi-alignment strategy, Neighborhood First policy, proactive maritime engagement in the Indian Ocean, and strengthening ties with the United States. These initiatives may have been perceived by China as concerted efforts to contain its rising aspirations. Consequently, the border activities could be viewed as part of China's strategy to counteract the perceived threat from India.

Regardless of the underlying motivations, it is imperative for both Asian powers to explore avenues for collective growth and cooperation, particularly along the border, to alleviate the burden placed on Chinese and Indian soldiers in what seems to be a zero-sum game.



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Title: IANS Analysis: Four years after Galwan, China sticks to old habits

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