While the facts regarding the developments in Ladakh are not yet fully known, media reports indicate that matters are serious and a cause of concern. Border engagements of this kind do not happen spontaneously, particularly when the Chinese build-up had reportedly begun some months ago.
Military engagement on a sensitive border cannot take place without orders from above. The situation will either escalate or both sides will talk it out, with India aiming to revert to the status quo ante, although sanguine official comments about the extent and areas of disengagement created doubts.
China respects strength and India will have to demonstrate that it has the strength. The process is likely to be long drawn out. The fact that China has a definite intention and proactive strategy is clear.
Political niceties apart, China would like to see India as a weaker power and will, characteristically, try to bully its way through the whole situation.
China’s actions need to be viewed not just in the context of the ground situation in Ladakh or along the entire border but within China’s global strategy of establishing itself as a global superpower and regional hegemon.
India must have the capabilities in terms of infrastructure, equipment, training and supplies to sustain its position in the long term. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was a policy advocated in 1900 by a former US President Theodore Roosevelt (apparently quoting a West African proverb).
India should not make the mistake of turning this advice on its head by speaking too loudly and not carrying a big enough stick. The work required to develop sound infrastructure in Ladakh for our armed forces and local communities needs to be done in a quiet, consistent manner without the hoop-la of publicised events.
And the government’s communication strategy will need to be delicately balanced, while taking the public into confidence on the actual ground situation. There should be no mixed signals or multiple voices.
(The writer is a former Deputy National Security Adviser and Ambassador)