World holds breath: India war panic as expert warns ‘things could get ugly’

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The casualties – all of them Indian soldiers – died in a violent confrontation with Chinese troopers in the disputed Himalayan region of Ladakh, it was reported on Wednesday, although the Times of India later claimed China had suffered 35 casualties. Subsequent claims suggested the combatants fought with iron bars, rocks and fists, with no shots fired. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi later insisted the soldiers’ deaths “will not be in vain”. Temperatures have been rising since April, when Beijing drafted in thousands of troops into the disputed territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, as well as artillery and vehicles.

Frank O’Donnell, a Nonresident Fellow with the Stimson Center South Asia Program in Washington, told the incident was “very disturbing”, marking the first deaths in clashes between the world’s two most populous countries along the LAC in 45 years.

He added: “The reports that Modi has set new looser rules of engagement for local Indian forces, enabling them to respond as they see fit to Chinese forces they encounter, threatens future such incidents in the coming days.

“Indian conventional forces are also being mobilised, and China is likely rushing further forces into the area to attempt to reduce the general edge in conventional forces that India has over China around their ground border areas.

It will require exceptional diplomacy on both sides for this not to get uglier

Frank O’Donnell

“It will require exceptional diplomacy on both sides for this not to get uglier, and resolution can only come once China abandons its claims to the entire Galwan River Valley in Ladakh and retreats to its previous positions at the LAC.”

A complicating factor was the absence of international summits as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Mr O’Donnell said.

He explained: “In the past, these might have served a forcing function for crisis resolution, in scheduling Modi and Xi to be in the same room on a certain date.

“Unless the crisis would be resolved by that date, both leaders would face high risks of losing face in a direct confrontation over the issue at the summit.”

However, the cancellation of the BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), G20, and other summits means that the earliest the two leaders would be in the same room was the opening of UN General Assembly Session 75 in mid-September.

However, such an outcome relied on the UN summit not being moved to a virtual format.

Mr O’Donnell added: “Given the dire state of US-China relations, Russia is the country best placed to mediate between India and China.

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“It has close relationships with both powers, with shared memberships in BRICS, SCO, and the RIC trilateral.

“However, at present, Russia has shown little public interest in mediating.”

Assessing the reasons behind the latest flare-up, Mr O’Donnell said: “I think that this began with either a general loosening of Chinese military rules of engagement, to permit more aggressive patrolling/actions by Chinese forces, and/or a direct order from Western Theater Command for local Chinese forces to move to occupy the specific areas that are the sites of conflict now.

“There are also new emerging reports that there were gaps in Indian intelligence that allowed China to enter and build up such a strong position.

“The gaps were either in initial intelligence monitoring, or intelligence reports on the situation not being picked up by military and other consumers.”

“The gaps were either in initial intelligence monitoring, or intelligence reports on the situation not being picked up by military and other consumers.”

Mr O’Donnell also highlighted Mr Modi’s comparatively cautious rhetoric on the subject, contrasting it with his more inflammatory tone with regard to India’s ongoing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.

He said: “Notice how he says ‘On provocation, India will give a befitting reply’.

“This is being read in India as him saying that the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers was somehow not this ‘provocation’.

“For comparison, in 2019 Pulwama/Balakot, Modi was far less ambiguous, promising simply ‘a befitting reply.’

“This indicates that Modi is still trying to seek a negotiated climbdown with China, which should be welcomed – however, any negotiated resolution must involve Chinese forces going back to their positions on their side of the LAC, and abandoning their Galwan River Valley claim.

“The difference between his rhetoric on Pakistan and China is like night and day.”

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