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Deterrent message to China

Author: Abhijit Iyer Mitra
Publication: Deccan Herald
Date:  June 24, 2020
URL:      https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/comment/deterrent-message-to-china-853074.html

We demonstrated that some Chinese actions will result in a violent Indian reaction; it is a new phase in bilateral relationship.

While the opposition is busy claiming that the government has somehow capitulated to China, all the facts verifiable through satellite imagery tell us quite the opposite story. What happened at Galwan on June 15 can now be extrapolated as a fairly deep incursion into the Chinese side of the LAC in order to force the demolition of a dam. Far from pusillanimity, it was in fact a calculated escalation by the Indian side in 50 years. The picture across the Ladakh front show us three clear but separate actions – aggressive action in Galwan to prevent the weaponisation of water; proactive construction in Gogra to cut off Chinese patrols and a formalisation of the status quo in Pangong that has been fait accompli at least since 1999.

Most crucial is what happened in Galwan. By June 2, satellite imagery had revealed an obstruction on the Galwan river, 650 to 700 m on the Chinese side of the LAC where the river runs south to the north till it turns sharply westwards and joins the Shyok 5 km away. Sometime around the first week of May, the Chinese crossed over some 100 m across the LAC at Galwan and set up two tents housing approximately 40 troops.

By the fourth week of May, India had pushed back the Chinese, dismantled the Chinese tents and constructed an Indian tent there. However, almost simultaneously, the Chinese blocked this fast-flowing river, some 650 m into their side of the LAC. The nature of the blocking structure remains undecipherable from the available images: it wasn’t a dam because it covered only one-third of the valley and there were no signs of either a divert or a reservoir there.

What was undeniable was that the rest of the Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC was bone dry, with no visible signs of residual moisture indicating that the Indian side of the Galwan basin had been dry for at least a few days.

The implications for India were dire, given its status as lower riparian to China not just for the Galwan but a whole host of Northern Indian rivers fed by glacial flows from China. When the disengagement talks happened on June 6, both sides agreed to move back 2 to 3 km respectively, the Chinese had refused to dismantle this structure which was a violation of the status quo even if on the Chinese side.

“Across the LAC”

This is the “structure” the external affairs minister and PM (June 19) spoke about - the PM obviously having viewed the intelligence being much more precise refusing to state which side of the LAC the structure was on. Remarkably, even the clarification issued on June 20 cleverly sidesteps whose side of the LAC the dam was on stating merely “across the LAC”, not mentioning across whose side of the LAC.

It was precisely to ensure that this structure was in fact demolished that troops went in on the night of the June 15. Fanciful and overdramatised accounts that have emerged of the Chinese having “opened the dam” to wash away our troops that night are not just patently wrong, but also untenable based on the satellite imagery of the afternoon of June 16, put out by Reuters & Planetlabs.

The main reason was that there was no reservoir, nor was there a dam that spanned the entire valley to create the necessary flash flood. Moreover, the images of June 16 show that the rest of the valley remained as bone dry after the alleged “manmade flash-flood”, as it was on June 14. Furthermore, there is no visible debris/detritus characteristic of a flash-flood to be seen. In short, the imagery is unequivocal - no flash-flood could have been created even if desired, and no-flash-flood was created.

Yet, images taken on June 17 show the offending structure dismantled and the Galwan in full flow right up to the Shyok. By June 19, the flow of the river had turned torrential and the Chinese were bringing up remnants of the dismantled structure right up to the LAC presumably to demonstrate compliance with the disengagement agreement.

In short, what our soldiers achieved on the night of June 15 was some significant systemic shock that forced the Chinese to stop this highly dangerous weaponisation of water. It is, therefore, safe to say the status quo ante has indeed been restored in Galwan, but more importantly, a clear deterrent message has been sent to China.

Hot Springs

Gogra or the “hot springs” continue to be tense due to a significant armour and artillery build up on the Chinese side. However, given an Indian forward base has been built in a record 2 months in a valley used by Chinese troops to regularly patrol into the Indian side of the LAC, all further avenues of such intrusion have been stopped. By no stretch of logic or imagination can patrols into territory be equated with “control” of the said territory.

Indeed, they are anachronistic – having served a purpose in the 1960s through the 1990s for reconnaissance, this role has been subsumed by drones. The only measure of control today is infrastructure, and by that measure, India has thwarted any further Chinese intrusions in this region.

This brings us to Pangong where the Chinese have undeniably set up massive infrastructure from Finger 4 to Finger 8. But here again one confuses the issue that patrols somehow equate to “control”. The only proof of control is infrastructure and at least till 2014, China had an enormous lead. In 1999, the Chinese built a 24 km track from the international border to Finger 4.

By 2004, the track was converted to a two-lane asphalted road. By 2006, the Chinese built a formidable naval base at the foot of Finger 6 and by 2018, an artillery fort at the base of Finger 8.

Contrast this with India. Till 2014, our position at Finger 4 was two small huts with no proper road. By October 2014, India had significant upgraded these two huts a full-fledged base, and built an asphalted two-lane highway. This one Indian construction stopped Chinese patrols west of Finger 4 while successive Chinese constructions had vastly reduced the freedom of patrol that India had east of Finger 4, which has finally come to an end in 2020 with the latest constructions.

Patrols not a response

All of this begs the question what territory has been ceded, and what has been irretrievably lost in 2020, when for 21 years, the Chinese have been building infrastructure right up to Finger 4? Indeed, what was done to dismantle or destroy these bases in the 21 years that this Chinese infrastructure existed? Patrols are not a response to infrastructure, and parroting this line equating fleeting walks with permanent structures to score rhetorical points, shows all that as wrong with India’s policy.

What happened on the night of June 15 has not just set a precedent that India will not tolerate the weaponisation of water but also shown the way to South East Asian countries that suffer the same anxieties with regards to China’s upper riparian control of rivers like the Mekong.

By demonstrating that some Chinese actions will result in a violent Indian reaction, we have reached a new phase in the bilateral relationship. However, the high-risk, high-yield actions India has taken, cannot and must not be acknowledged at the official level, and that is the way it will be.

* (The writer is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)


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