The new year started with a surprise picture of Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanging sweets and greetings in Demchok. This was surprising because of the location — Demchok is one of the friction points between India and China in eastern Ladakh where no disengagement has been made possible for over 20 months.
The friction in eastern Ladakh started in May 2020 and despite 13 round of Corps Commander-level talks and almost an equal number of diplomatic-level talks, several friction points remain, including the strategically crucial Demchok.
The picture of bonhomie though soon went up in flames. Beijing was back to its old tactics – propaganda and psy-ops. Photos of Chinese soldiers waving their flag in what they claimed was the Galwan Valley went viral.
Not a happy picture for the Indian side despite sources immediately pointing out that it was mere propaganda and that neither was the picture new nor was it taken in Galwan.
The Indian side chose to respond in kind. Two days later, India released a picture of Army soldiers in Galwan with the Tricolour held up high.
On Thursday, when asked about the Chinese flag fluttering in Galwan, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “I think the media reports that you are referring to are not factually correct. And various Indian media outlets have released photographs contradicting the claims.”
China had rubbed India the wrong way before the new year too. It renamed some of the places in Arunachal Pradesh, calling Tuting ‘Duding’, River Siyom as ‘Xênyogmo He’ and Kibithu as ‘Damba’. In all, between 2017 and now, China has renamed — it refers to them as “standardised” names — at least 15 places in Arunachal in two batches. This includes eight residential areas, four mountains, two rivers and one mountain pass in the state it refers to as Zangnan, the southern part of “China’s Tibet”.
The Chinese foreign ministry has been claiming that it has “a historical and administrative basis” for the renaming because the “Chinese government has never recognised the so-called Arunachal Pradesh.”
India had officially responded to it on December 30, saying “inventing names will not alter facts on the ground that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India”.
The move should be of concern to India because by “standardising” names, China continues to create what could be described as new and alternate realities in a bid to strengthen its territorial claim over Arunachal Pradesh. This is part of ‘Five Fingers of Tibet Strategy’ laid down by People’s Republic of China’s founding father Mao Zedong – where Tibet is the palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh the five fingers, all of which they must occupy.
While India termed the renaming move as a “ridiculous exercise to support untenable territorial claims”, there is another more concrete move underway. China is building a bridge over the Pangong Lake. Satellite images confirmed the border construction that would reduce the time of the Chinese troop movement in the sensitive eastern Ladakh area.
Pangong has been the face of many skirmishes in the past. The latest one being in 2020 resulting in the standoff that still continues. However, Pangong was the first site where India had achieved success in peaceful disengagement in February 2021 after the bloody clashes in Galwan in June 2020.
MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that the bridge was being constructed in “areas that have been under illegal occupation by China for around 60 years now”. He added that “India has never accepted such illegal occupation”.
However, this move by China should be of serious concern to India since Beijing recently passed a Land Border Law which came into effect on January 1, 2022. The law is expected to ultimately have a bearing on all border activities, such as the one in Pangong Lake.
The law makes what China considers its border “sacred and inviolable” and gives a green signal for ramped up border infrastructure. This infrastructure is ultimately intended to act as markers, according to experts, to shape a border as per China’s terms and conditions.
That was the reason India had chosen to respond in October to China’s new border law. The Ministry of External Affairs had stated that “China’s unilateral decision to bring about a legislation which can have implication on our existing bilateral arrangements on border management as well as on the boundary question is of concern to us. Such unilateral move will have no bearing on the arrangements that both sides have already reached earlier, whether it is on the Boundary Question or for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC in India-China Border areas. We also expect that China will avoid undertaking action under the pretext of this law which could unilaterally alter the situation in the India-China border areas.”
However, China continues its border infrastructure development at full steam. Reports last year also highlighted the dual-use villages coming up at the border. These villages will not just help mobilise Chinese population in some of the uninhabited terrain but will also allow for them to be used by the PLA in times of need.
India is already in one of the longest stand-offs with China in eastern Ladakh which has entered the 20th month. While one can’t wish away one’s neighbour, tackling this one has always been a tricky affair for India.
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