Analysts say there could be a host of reasons behind China’s massive troop build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that flared up into the first conflict between the sides in almost 45 years: from Beijing’s desire to tighten its grip on Tibet to anger over New Delhi’s rapid development of infrastructure in border areas.
Tensions between the two sides first flared up in early May following clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Sikkim and Ladakh sectors of the LAC.
The deployment of reinforcements by both sides led up to the “violent face-off” in Galwan Valley on Monday night that left at least 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, dead.
“The obvious priority for the Chinese side in Galwan Valley appears to be to move the perception of the LAC to their advantage,” said one of several people familiar with developments who spoke to HT on condition of anonymity.
This sentiment in New Delhi appears to have been vindicated as a statement in Mandarin issued by the western command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Tuesday said: “The sovereignty of the Galwan River Valley has always been ours.”
This is what China does, the people cited above pointed out: forcibly establish a military presence in a disputed region and then stake claim to it.
The people said China was also irked by India’s speedy development of infrastructure, especially in recent years, in strategic sections of the LAC, including in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
This includes bridges and other structures along the key Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road.
But there could have been other irritants as well.
“Then there’s Tibet and the Dalai Lama factor. Chinese officials have been saying for some time that India shouldn’t come in the way of their efforts to choose the next Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama is based in India along with the Tibetan administration in-exile and that’s always been a problem for China,” said a second person.
Or it could be plain old-fashioned distraction.
The people said China’s actions along the LAC could also have been aimed at countering growing criticism within the country and abroad of Beijing’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the calls from several countries, including India, for an examination of the response from global bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as a probe to identify the “zoonotic source” of the virus and the route that led to human infections.
“Linking the border stand-off to the pandemic may sound far-fetched to some but President Xi Jinping has been strongly criticised within the country for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. This stand-off could help burnish his image and also help distract attention from the blame from around the world,” said the second person.
“China has also watched the role India has sought to play in shaping the post-Covid world order and they could be thinking this is the perfect way to cut India down to size,” the second person added.
The people attributed the timing of the troop build-up and intrusions into the Indian side of the LAC to the preparations apparently done by the Chinese side over the winter months.
“This was a coldly calculated move and there doesn’t seem to be anything spontaneous about their actions. They prepared through the winter and acted as summer set in,” said a third person.
Amitabh Mathur, a former special secretary in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), said the time has come for the Indian government to take the opposition parties into confidence so that the political leadership could presented a united stand on the border stand-off.
He too said the Tibet factor could have influenced China’s actions along the LAC.
“The government has to take the opposition into confidence and brief them and plan a coordinated response before things spiral further out of control.”