The continuing standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the area of PangongTso in the Ladakh region relates to China’s objections to the construction of a road in the Galwan river area, which is well within Indian territory. In particular the objection relates to the construction of road that branches off from Darbuk–Shyok–Daulet Beg Olde, along the riverbank, towards the LAC.

A similar troop standoff is taking place on the eastern front. There have been a few meetings between the opposing military commanders, but the issue hasn’t been resolved.

The number of incursions by the PLA across the LAC have surpassed by a wide margin those in previous years. The bonhomie that emerged during the Wuhan (April 2018) and Mahabalipuram (October 2019) meetings between President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have withered.

This hostility could be the result of India’s joining 130 other countries to demand investigation into the spread of Covid–19 from China, seeking the inclusion of Taiwan within the WHO’s ambit, and its efforts to wrest manufacturing and other businesses away from China.

China is in illegal occupation of Aksai Chin and the Shaksgham Valley in the Ladakh region. It is also constructing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through PoK, which is Indian territory illegally occupied by Pakistan. The Chinese government continues to claim Arunachal Pradesh, objects to the Indian Prime Minister and Defence Minister visiting that state, and has objected to Ladakh being designated a Union Territory.

At the same time Nepal has raised objections to the road to Lipulekh Pass (at the tri-junction of China, India and Nepal) which was built by India for the convenience of pilgrims going to Kailash Parbat. According to the Nepalese government the road goes through their territory, in the area of Kala Pani. Some in India believe they have taken this stance at the instigation of China.

As per the Sugauli Treaty of 1815, the boundary between the two countries runs along the Kali Nadhi (also called Kali Ganga) which originates from the Lipu Lekh Pass. Whereas Nepal takes the boundary to be aligned along the tributary of Kali Nadhi which starts from Linkia Bhura in Uttarakhand and passes through Kala Pani. India always had a police post at Kala Pani. Nepal’s Prime Minister asserts that he will take this area back from India.

China has gained considerable influence in Nepal, with far-reaching and grave implications for India’s security and economic well being. A number of rivers flow into India from Nepal and their waters can be controlled, and there is an open border between the two countries. China is building a railway line from Lhasa to Kathmandu and further up to the boundary with India.

No one need make light of the emerging scene and spread of Chinese influence along India’s periphery. The Maoist movement in Nepal has had a spillover effect in boosting developments in the Red Corridor within India. The merging of Maoist cadres into the Nepalese army is a matter of some concern for India, which recruits its Gorkha soldiers from Nepal.

China’s policy keeps time on its side, while complacency is our forte. Working assiduously and with single mindedness China has been enhancing its overall defence capabilities, related technologies and military infrastructure in Tibet. Whereas India has slept for more than half a century, ignoring the emerging scene and the gathering storm across the Himalayas.

Not only has our foreign policy somewhat ignored the imperative of creating friendly environments on our periphery, it has grossly failed to adjust to the emerging threats. Our investments in the field of diplomacy and financial assistance to Afghanistan will soon come to naught once the United States completely pulls out of that country and the Taliban regain power with the active support of Pakistan. Some of the terrorist groups operating there are likely to be redeployed against J&K.

The internal situation is no less worrisome. J&K continues to be an issue of concern where a large body of troops are committed to combat, insurgency and terrorism. Then there is unrest in the North East. To add to these problems on both our flanks, is the breakdown of administration in vast swaths of the interior, what has come to be called the Red Corridor.

The success of India’s foreign policy can best be assessed from the reality of our relations with our immediate neighbours. Although it is true that China has with equal zeal and purpose followed the policy of tying down India by using Pakistan as a proxy and spreading its influence amongst countries on its periphery. Added to that are its efforts to create a ‘string of pearls’, a phrase coined by the US defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

We have been not just complacent but decidedly negligent of emerging security threats, both internal and external. Spending less than 2% of GDP on the military (during the last many years) as against 3% in China, out of a GDP nearly five times the size of ours, India has been left far behind in the field of national defence. Its lack of concern for its security ought to appear alarming to any discerning mind. At the same time we need to ponder why we have lagged so far behind China in economic development, when we were better off than it at the start: in 1948.

Economic strength in the absence of military power is unsustainable. The gunboat diplomacy and wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were waged to capture custom and enhance commerce – for economic gain – and the power play of the twenty-first century is going to be no different, except that the form, contours and ends of policy formulations will undergo a change.

Some of this is discernible in the One Road–One Belt, China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and now one across Burma. China has lent $143 billion to 49 African governments and their state-owned companies between 2000 and 2017. Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka too are under heavy debt from money loaned by China, which also holds about 5% of the USA’s national debt.

Given the current state of the Indian economy, consequent to the ravages of Covid-19 and attendant impact on jobs and businesses, the financial allocation for Defence is going to be further reduced over the next few years. Added to this are the efforts of the CDS to show that he can reduce defence expenditure, even overlooking the essential and inescapable needs of the defence forces.

So, what does the development along the LAC portend for the future? China has developed such an extensive defence infrastructure in Tibet, with the capacity to deploy 34 divisions in a matter of few weeks, when the only possible threat to this region can come from India. But China knows very well that India poses no threat what so ever.

This standoff will soon be resolved, as it is not in the Chinese government’s interest to start a conflict. The point is that we are not able to decipher their long-term plans. In the current situation, our new road construction activity was to take us closer to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor as it runs through Aksai Chin. So China has blocked us.

Considering the problems they are having within the country, with the USA and losing that huge market, as also the markets of Europe due to Covid-19, etc. the only other big market for Chinese goods is India. What is likely to happen now will be similar to what happened at Doklam (where China has constructed a road almost up to where they had come in 2017. They also put up barracks and continue to occupy Bhutanese territory). At Doklam we pulled back but came out with the feeling that we were able to stare China down, and continued to neglect our own defence.

The same is likely to happen now. We will feel that by taking a firm stand we were able to stare China down. And China will stay where it is. Meetings may be held between the top leaderships. Our markets will remain open to China, we will continue to neglect our defence, and feel reassured that with tough leadership and firm stands, we can tackle China. Thus China will have achieved what lies in its long-term best interests.