The good news came via a tweet from the spokesman of the ministry of external affairs: “Expeditious disengagement of the border personnel at the face-off site has been agreed to and is on-going.” This came as China has started retaliating against India. Apart from the cancellation of the Kailash Mansarovar yatra, China has taken some new measures to show “how upset it was” at India’s prompt reaction to the construction of a road on Bhutanese territory. Beijing had obviously not yet digested the Doklam incident and the fact that an “arrogant” India dared to stop the road construction at the trijunction between Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet.
The Pangong Tso clash: As Beijing couldn’t do much on the spot of the confrontation itself, it had started retaliating in other areas, pointing to China’s growing nervousness. According to a magazine, some Chinese troops tried to occupy a place in Ladakh on the shore of the Pangong Tso. The incident took place on August 15 and lasted for about half-an-hour; later both sides pulled back: Quoting a military source, it said: “The Chinese patrols lost their way due to bad weather conditions but it ended up with heated exchanges between the two sides resulting in stone pelting as well that caused minor injuries to people on both sides,” (however, a video later circulated on the social media shows a blue sky).
Apparently the incident took place between Finger Four and Finger Five on the Pangong Tso (lake): “India claims the area till Finger Eight but controls and dominates up to Finger Four. The situation was brought under control after 30 minutes of face-off, when both sides held their banners indicating either side to pull back to their respective positions,” explained an English daily. Some other reports say that the Chinese soldiers carried iron rods and stones, and in the melee there were minor injuries on both sides; it was certainly not a “routine transgression”. Subsequently, a Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) was held at Chushul: “Army officers of China and India met in Leh’s Chushul sector, a day after border guards foiled an attempt by Chinese soldiers to enter Indian territory… The incident at Pangong and ways to maintain peace and tranquility along the Sino-India border in Ladakh were discussed at length at the BPM”, said PTI. This helped diffusing the immediate tension… that India would not be bullied.
The hand-in-hand joint military exercises: Beijing let the fate of the annual India-China Hand-in-Hand joint military drill hang in balance; India did not receive any invitation from the Chinese side, which is supposed to host the exercise this year. Since 2007, when it was first held, an Initial Planning Conference (IPC) is organised by the host country in June-July; so far there has been a “studied silence” from Beijing, says another newspaper which cites a source in the Army: “The IPC takes place in the country where the exercise would be held. We sent a message to the Chinese side but there was no response. It should have happened latest but July end, but the IPC never took place.” There will probably be no joint exercises this year.
No rivers’ flow data: Perhaps more serious, China stopped sending the routine information on the river water flow of the Sutlej and Brahmaputra. According to another news report: “At a time when major rivers in Himachal Pradesh are in spate due to heavy rain, lack of information from China on water inflow from Pareechu rivulet… has prompted the Central Water Commission to seek intervention of the ministry of water resources.” In normal times, India and China would have renewed the protocol on sharing information on two major rivers — Brahmaputra and Sutlej: “But China has reportedly stopped sharing information with India on water inflow in Pareechu.”
In 2005 in Tibet, the bursting of a lake measuring the size of 20 football grounds, caused major flooding in the Sutlej: “Gushing waters had washed away the strategic Hindustan-Tibet road, National Highway-22 at a number of places, 10 bridges and 11 ropeways,” said another news report. The Pareechu river meanders into Tibet and later merges into the Sutlej near Sumdo, a border post in India. Following a landslide in 2004, a glacial lake was formed on the Pareechu; it burst on June 26, 2005, provoking Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). India and China then signed a protocol for sharing information on the water level from Pareechu and the Sutlej. China has stopped sharing information about the water inflow, which makes it dangerous for the local population in Kinnaur. Was it another warning that Beijing has started retaliating for the “loss” of its road in Bhutan?
Diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra: Another serious issue was raised by an article in the Global Times titled: “Scholars mull project to divert water from Tibet to arid Xinjiang”. The Communist Party’s mouthpiece explained: “Around 20 scholars met outside Urumqi in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over the last weekend of July, and discussed the feasibility of diverting water from the heights of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to Xinjiang’s lowland plains.” Ren Qunluo, professor at the Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics is quoted as saying: “Water from rivers such as the Yarlung Zangbo (Tsangpo) River can help turn the vast deserts and arid lands into oasis and farmlands, alleviate population pressure in the east, as well as reduce flood risks in the counties through which the river travels downstream,”
Ren told the Global Times: “Xinjiang has 1.1 million square kilometers of plains… But less than 70,000 square kilometers are arable due to a shortage of water. If all these plains are greened, another China will have been created.” China has been obsessed with these diversion schemes, but this time, the article conveniently comes at a time of confrontation with India. The mouthpiece of the party continued: “The dream of massive water diversions from soaking-wet Southwest China to the thirsty north has been on the minds of engineers and scholars for decades.” The Global Times however admitted: “Disagreements remain strong due to the huge cost and possible environmental damage”. While China tried to wage a full-fledged information warfare on India, Delhi did not blink. This probably explains the welcomed “disengagement”. It, however, does not mean that China will not retaliate again in the future in some other ways. Delhi should be aware of this.