Indian soldiers erect a military bunker along the Srinagar-Leh National highway during the conflict with China in Ladakh in July 2020. Photo: AFP/Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency

India may have found its voice again four months after being pushed onto the back foot by stealthy incursions by China into its northern mountainous region of Ladakh as it grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.

As Indian troops reoccupy elevated positions overlooking Chinese troops, neutralizing the advantage of the intruders, the two countries will either remain locked in a stalemate through the freezing winter in the mountains or they will resolve the dispute through talks.

India’s ministers for defense and external affairs have over the past few days urged China to resolve the issue through bilateral talks. About half a dozen meetings of the two countries’ special representatives over the past three months have made little progress, raising doubts about China’s intentions.

Unlike the ministers, the chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, was not so diplomatic.

He took an aggressive stance, saying Indian forces were capable of dealing with China’s aggressive actions “in best suitable ways.” India faces a formidable opponent and a complex threat spanning the full spectrum of aggression – from conventional to nuclear – from the world’s biggest army and navy. However, Rawat asserted that his country’s armed forces are prepared to address that threat.

Rawat also warned Pakistan of heavy losses if it attempts to take advantage of India’s border dispute with China by taking action against it. India and Pakistan have fought three wars and engaged in several skirmishes since 1947. The Indian Army dismembered Pakistan, turning its eastern wing into Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, India repulsed a stealth attack by Pakistan from elevated positions in Kargil, northwestern Ladakh.

A key reason for India’s confident and aggressive posture is that its forces secured higher positions last week in eastern Ladakh’s southern Pangong Lake area, which was intruded upon by China in May. High positions on mountains give India the advantage of being able to monitor all Chinese military activity and address any aggressive movements in that area. China still occupies some other areas.

India now holds 30 high-elevation positions, according to reports that have not been confirmed by the government. Both countries have moved in artillery, battle tanks and sophisticated surveillance systems. India has a large number of troops, helicopters, and fighter aircraft including newly acquired Rafale jets.

India’s army and air force chiefs are visiting the area to monitor the situation, reflecting a combat-ready posture.

The new scenario on the ground probably prompted a change in the Chinese response.

Quite unexpectedly, yesterday at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) gathering of defense ministers in Moscow, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe asked to meet with Rajnath Singh, his Indian counterpart, on the sidelines, according to reports.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, are scheduled to meet on September 10 in Moscow for the SCO foreign ministers meeting.

Defense Minister Singh exuded optimism after Russia’s response to India’s request that it expedite arms transfers. During Singh’s last Moscow visit in June, India asked Moscow to deliver the S-400 missile defense systems, 21 MiG-29 and 12 Sukhoi fighter jets, and defense spare parts ahead of schedule.

As the defense ministers of China and eight SCO countries meet for talks in Moscow, the Russian and Indian navies are conducting exercises in the Strait of Malacca, the waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes in an effort to dominate what it considers an integral part of its territory.

Almost 40% of China’s trade and 80% of its energy imports pass through the South China Sea annually, mostly entering through the 500km-long Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.

This means that the joint Russia-India naval exercise is a message that is likely to be heard loud and clear in Beijing.

The United States, which regards China’s territorial claims with disdain, on August 26 banned 24 Chinese companies working on the construction of artificial islands in South China Sea. The US has been supporting India as it addresses China’s incursion.

The Washington-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the members of which are the US, Japan, Australia and India, plans to hold its first meeting of foreign ministers in New Delhi in October. The foreign and defense ministers of India and the US will also hold meetings, described as two plus two in diplomatic parlance, highlighting Washington’s support for New Delhi.

China views the QUAD with suspicion, believing it was formed to contain and counter its influence. Australia, which earlier had left the QUAD to avoid antagonizing China, has returned to the fold.  

With this as the backdrop, China may stand to lose more than it gains from continuing to occupy Indian territories in Ladakh and maintain its aggressive posture, say foreign policy experts.

Its surprise incursion may have also pushed India closer to Russia and the United States.

China stands to lose goodwill globally, too.

India plans to curtail imports from China as its economy gets back on track. China’s loss could be a gain for the United States – India’s second-biggest trading partner after China.

India has already made it tougher for Chinese companies to participate in Indian projects and invest in local companies. India has so far banned 224 Chinese apps, including Tik Tok and PUBG, hurting the revenue of some of its global companies. Huawei Technologies and 38 units, in effect banned by the US, are unlikely to get 5G wireless network orders from India.

“China thus far has never waged war when the foe was ready and prepared,’’ Brahma Chellany, a geo-strategist, wrote on Twitter. “It has launched a lightning war when the foe least expected an attack and when the international timing was propitious.’’

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