United States poll results, economic recovery could shape outcome of LAC row

(This story originally appeared in on Oct 15, 2020)

NEW DELHI: As India and China remain deadlocked on disengagement in Ladakh, New Delhi is acutely aware that it is playing a game of endurance and nerves with China on the icy heights, the outcome of which may be influenced not just by the two sides but also global developments, including results of the US election.

India and China have hunkered down for the winter, and the apparent lack of forward movement on an agreement for disengagement clearly means that neither side is willing to give up what it considers “gains” in the past few months. China has asked India to vacate the ridges on the southern bank of Pangong Tso, while India has asked China to initiate disengagement all along the LAC before Indian troops follow suit.

Since Chinese troops didn’t just stray across the LAC in April, and came with a specific intent, India expects Beijing to follow through, and has planned accordingly. President Xi Jinping’s address to Chinese marine corps on Tuesday seems to suggest China is nowhere close to disengagement. Official media quoted him telling the troops to “fully focus on combat readiness and always remain on high alert”.

Interestingly, the US elections could be a factor in China’s decision on sustaining tensions with India and others in the east and south of China. Many analysts have predicted a moderation of US approaches to China by a potential Joe Biden administration, while a returned Trump may continue his hard line. The truth is probably that the US is unlikely to ever engage China in the manner of the past, given the growing unease in Washington about Beijing.

However, the possibility of resumption of deeper economic activity between US and China could affect the attitude of both countries to India and the current conflict. In this, Xi Jinping is also buoyed by the apparent revival of the Chinese economy. The US revival could be helped along by resuming economic engagement with China. India’s harder climbed out of the Covid trough is likely to be another factor for China as it seeks to push India further.

The process has become a little more difficult for China as India has reversed a number of disadvantages on the Ladakh heights and is in a tactically improved position. What would also work for India is the growing global distaste for Chinese pressure tactics — which has had even the Democrat leadership in the US weighing in India’s support.

Planners here say India has factored in full winter deployment as in Siachen. China has, according to reports, followed suit. But as temperatures dip alarmingly and the windchill factor worsens, the challenge will be to keep troops well resourced and their morale up. With long experience in Siachen, India believes it can outlast China.