Letter to the Editor: Ladakh venture is China's test of its plan to encircle India

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Exiled Tibetans and local Indians protest against the Chinese government. 

Exiled Tibetans and local Indians protest against the Chinese government.  (AP photo)

Foreign analysts watching the India-China developments on the LAC in Ladakh wonder why the Indian government is taking time to articulate its reaction to the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers by their Chinese counterparts when China reneged on the deal to withdraw to its side of the LAC and allow disengagement by both sides. That is because the Indian government is looking at the emerging big picture, of which this local skirmish is a part, as it formulates its response.

The Indian response so far comes in the form of a formal statement by the Indian army and messages from Indian political leaders about the bravery of the soldiers who laid down their lives.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for an all-party meeting on Friday (June 19) to discuss what needs to be done. The government has, till then, left it to army leadership to deal with the tactical part of the on-going engagement with the intruding Chinese.

India does not see the Ladakh incursion as just another Chinese psyops exercise. The violent attack by the Chinese, the first in decades anywhere on the LAC, is not accidental either. India sees this as part of the overall Chinese plan to strategically and militarily encircle India at any cost. The Indian view is not far from wrong.

The Ladakh incursion has to be seen as part of a series of Chinese, and Chinese-instigated, maneuvers along India's northern borders in the Himalayas as well as in the Indian Ocean in the south over the last couple of years. That the maneuvers are executed in spite of the world's preoccupation with COVID-19 and President Xi Jinping's repeated friendly gestures toward Indian leadership suggests one thing: Xi is in a hurry to execute a militarist plan primarily to divert his own people's attention from his government's political excesses and economic failings and simultaneously go forward with his country's expansionist "China Dream."

The political aspect of the dream involves expanding China's hegemony toward Europe and Africa as much as possible. The crux, however, is the containment of India. China's expansion plans hinge on this crucial element.

Why? The road route toward the West passes through some of the most inhospitable and mountainous regions of the Himalayas that run close to India's borders are defended ably by the country.

Much of this territory is either disputed or unmarked and unmapped. That is what China is taking advantage of; this is how China sees the northern encirclement of India: to the west lies the Gwadar Port of Pakistan, which is is the gateway to Afghanistan and Iran.

The CPEC project, funded by China, involves modernizing the road from Gwadar to Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region. The road passes through Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK, much to India's irritation. The Xinjiang region is linked by road to Lhasa in Tibet. There is a simultaneous route built from Nepal's border with China to Lhasa. Now visualize on the map — from Gwadar on the west to Lhasa on the east — a collaborative military complex of Pakistan and China. These land routes are modern and dotted with commercial, industrial, and military areas with loops and connecting roads — a veritable road network for quick mobilization in times of war.

There is but a small chink in this mega encirclement plan: a small projection of land between the Shaksgam Valley (India-claimed but ceded to China by Pakistan) and Aksai Chin (grabbed from India by China, near the Karakoram Pass, a strategic Indian-held area). This piece of land comprises the Galvan Valley and the Shyok River, which the Galvan River flows into. The Siachen Glacier, which Indian dominates is to the west of this piece of land, and the heights on both sides of the valley are of strategic importance.

For China, Pakistan, and their CPEC corridor, this land is vital: it can give them a clear link-up between their territories and make their joint military maneuvers a real headache for India. If China has control of the valley, it can easily link Xinjiang and Tibet. Xinjiang and Gwadar are already linked.

Get the picture? Their CPEC joint venture can help China use Pakistani territory and the CPEC as a security front against India. If they work jointly, and possibly along with Nepal, they can disturb India anywhere along the entire border.

President Xi Jinping naturally wants this piece of land, this valley. From April to May, the Chinese made three incursions into the Indian side of the LAC. Two of them were red herrings, while the Ladakh one in the Galvan Valley was genuine.

They came in their thousands, established living quarters, and installed armor. It is here that they killed 20 Indian soldiers.

The Chinese are not going to leave easily. They have until September, when the coming winter and snow will make the area inhospitable. It is to be seen how India is able to evict them before then.

That is one part of the northern encirclement. China is also now eyeing the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the south of the Indian sub-continent. China calls it the "string of pearls" — ports in various countries that can be used by the Chinese navy. They literally form a string around the Indian Ocean.

Look at Chinese investments in marine projects in various countries: China has a naval military base under its control in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It supports a rail line that connects Ethiopia with the port of Djibouti. It is building a port at Kyaukphyu, Myanmar. There's Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambanthota in Sri Lanka. There's the rail link from Kenya’s Nairobi to the port of Mombasa. There are huge investments in Indonesia too.

The Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region similarly comprises Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Reunion. China is targeting them for future investments.

India is well aware of the Chinese interests in and around the Indian Ocean. India and Africa are signatories to the Blue Economy project to promote trade, investment, and maritime ties, and India has since updated its maritime naval defense policy to take the Chinese threat into account.

China works for its Silk Road initiative in the north and the Maritime Silk Route initiative in the south. In order for its march west to be smooth, it has to first deal with India. It is actually a deja vu: just as the United States once encircled China over land and sea, China now wants to do the same to India.

The Dragon has always been associated with patience. But it is the Elephant that is patient after Ladakh. It is not hyperbole. There is no jingoism, no battle cry.

Rather, it is China that is in a hurry. Because President Xi Jinping, who has abrogated to himself all available powers, wants a tangible success in time for the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.

That alone can redeem him, he must think, after a string of failures since his ascendance to power.

He miscalculated on Hong Kong: his decision to impose stricter laws on the island was met with unprecedented protests. He miscalculated on Taiwan: the country voted for the incumbent, anti-unification party. He miscalculated with the initial secrecy about COVID-19: it is still haunting him, making him a suspicious person, and dragging his country and its economy down.

Vivek Khandekar, 44, is a former colonel in the Indian Army who currently serves as an independent defense writer and analyst.