Instead of maturing over the years, Sino-Indian relations seem to be going the India-Pakistan way. Despite the understanding in the form of the McMahon Line, treaties and confidence-building agreements, relations with China suffer from a trust deficit on the ground. A protracted dispute looks likely.
China has focused on improving trade relations with India but failed (or just disregarded) the need to resolve the border problem. The main reason is the total disdain Beijing has shown for New Delhi in the diplomatic, political and military domains. The Indian response during the 2017 Doklam standoff and the resoluteness of Indian Army in eastern Ladakh in June have not gone down easily in the Chinese gut.
The events leading to the present standoff between India and China are in many ways unprecedented. The 3,488-km border, usually referred to as the Line of Actual Control has never been at such heightened state of tension and on the verge of breaking out into an all-out war, even if it is limited in scope to the Eastern Ladakh sector.
Peace has not been disturbed since the 1962 Sino-India war. Both the armies have enjoyed great bonhomie for decades due to well-regulated conflict-resolution mechanism along the LAC. It is indeed very difficult to put a finger on what went wrong.
A skirmish at the tactical level has become a full-blown dispute, dragging in the highest echelons of leadership on both sides. The pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoying great personal rapport at their numerous summits appear to be an aberration, as the two sides fight on the desolate mountain tops along the Pangong Tso Lake.
Confounding sequence of events
The timeline of events from early May have confounded not only the military commanders on each side but also the diplomatic and political leadership. Ceaseless rounds of border meetings stretching on to endless hours of painstaking negotiations have not yielded any results. The aesthetically designed Border Personnel Meeting points, which were generally used to showcase culture and military comradeship from both sides, now appear like death shacks.
The rigidity repeatedly exhibited by the Chinese at all levels does not augur well for this region. This military standoff, if not resolved mutually, is likely to adversely impact the entire gamut of relations between two great civilisations.
The harsh winter is almost set, the temperatures already plummeting below freezing point. The Pangong Tso Lake will soon freeze and the barren heights around will get a thick layer of bone chilling snow. While Indian troops are quite adept at living and operating at these altitudes, the same is not true for the Chinese. While the troops get ready for the harsh winter, the cost of maintaining additional forces is quite colossal.
While the strategic importance of the Eastern Ladakh to India is well acknowledged, a few issues merit special attention.
- Eastern Ladakh is a sharp wedge between Gilgit-Baltistan in the west and Aksai Chin in the east. The proximity of the landing air strip of Daulat Beg Oldie (or DBO) to strategic highways to the north of the Karakoram Pass makes China nervous.
- The Chinese military build-up aims to dominate the newly constructed strategic 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (or DSDBO) road. The road took almost two decades to complete and make it into all-weather connectivity to Daulat Beg Oldie.
- The Chinese feel in the long term, the infrastructure developments by India will prevent Beijing’s “salami-slicing tactics” in this sector, capturing small slivers of territory over time.
- China feels by dominating the heights around the DSDBO and the Karakoram Pass, it will serve its economic, strategic and political interests.
- This road alignment is closest to the LAC near Galwan Valley, one of the locations of recent violence. This area had remained peaceful after the 1962 war and China never disputed or blocked India’s patrols in the area.
- Daulat Beg Oldie, the world’s highest landing ground, lies close to the LAC. It serves as an important aerial supply point. China has always resented the landings of Indian Air Force aircraft here.
- The DSDBO road runs almost parallel to the LAC and at places very close to it. When it eventually reaches the base of the Karakoram Pass, the road will reduce the travel time from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie from the present two days to just half a day.
It is not easy to guess what the Chinese may do next. However, if Beijing does not restore status quo as repeatedly demanded by India, the options for India at this stage are:
- India must continue to insist on status quo ante bellum. China must be made to retreat to positions held by both the armies prior to the clashes in mid-May. This at present appears to be remote. Hence India did a quid pro quo and occupied dominating positions in disputed areas south of the Pangong Tso Lake, thus catching the People’s Liberation Army by surprise.
- The economic sanctions imposed on China must be made more stringent and go beyond just banning popular mobile applications. The dependence on Chinese technology especially in the field of telecommunications must end at all costs.
- On the diplomatic front the Tibet card, though lost long ago, must be revived. At the same time India should be prepared to change its stance on the One China policy.
- India must establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan and de-hyphenate our relations from perceived sensitivities of China.
- China’s hyperactive information warfare capabilities need to be de- fanged and we need to match them in this domain. Capabilities in this space along with cyber warfare need to be built.
- India’s capabilities in the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance are woefully inadequate. In spite this becoming apparent during the Kargil war of 1999, this important aspect has not been given due attention. This time too, we had very little early warning of the Chinese Army’s movements.
- India must join the international community in highlighting China’s failure to contain the deadly coronavirus and to target its dismal human rights record.
- India needs to do a lot more in the border management sphere. The agencies and forces operating on the Indo-China border must be put under single ministry. A dual responsibility between the Defence and Home Ministries is counterproductive. The intelligence agencies need to do much more for synergy and passing of critical intelligence to major stake holders.
- The Indian naval presence in the Indian Ocean region needs to be increased. At the same time cooperation and synergy with other navies in the region must be enhanced as part of defence diplomacy. The belligerence shown by China in the South China Sea must be addressed as part of multi-nation naval task forces.
- India has adopted the US concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and is now participating in the US-led Quad, an informal four-country grouping that also includes Australia and Japan, focused on countering China’s regional ambitions. Thus the foundations have been laid for a more substantive strategic shift in the Asia- Pacific region.
- The Indian Navy must aggressively patrol the Arabian Sea specifically areas around the Makran Coast and Gawadar port to hinder free movement of Chinese vessels engaged in carrying suspicious cargo for Pakistan. The clandestine supply of high-end technology in the nuclear field to Pakistan needs to be checkmated.
India must take all possible steps to de-escalate to current military standoff. At the same time we should not come under any Chinese pressure and consent to the new alignment of the LAC. The employment of Special Forces comprising Tibetan migrants and the Ladakh Scouts must be exploited and can prove to be game changer at tactical levels. The people of Ladakh have stood strongly with India and this time too they are primed to give whole hearted support to our army.
India’s long-term goal must be to insist on the resolution of the boundary dispute. At the same time, our capabilities in the form of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, infrastructure development, inter-agency coordination must continue towards building a strong deterrence.
Deterrence is a function of capability and the resolve to act against an adversary.
While addressing these, India must act to build comprehensive national power, advance economic growth, develop military infrastructure both along the borders and in the Indo-Pacific Region. It must build strategic partnerships with select countries keeping its national and security goals in mind. India must not kowtow to China even if it requires aligning itself with a broader international coalition aiming to curb China’s geopolitical ambitions.
China’s military pre-emption indicates its political intent, and if possible to humiliate us like it did in the 1962 war. Its coercive diplomacy has not achieved the desired results. Loss of face is defeat for the superior power like China. If India does not relent, limited war is almost a compulsion for China.
At this juncture, both sides must be preparing for the worst-case scenario of a restricted military confrontation. Through its pre-emptive actions, China seems to have caught India by surprise, just as its close ally Pakistan did in Kargil two decades ago.
India cannot wait endlessly for China to go back to the pre-April status quo. China appears to be delaying so that the incursions made by its Peoples Liberation Army become de-facto acceptable to India and nothing major happens before the onset of harsh winter.
Although an early resolution remains farfetched, constructive steps must continue to be taken at political, diplomatic, and military levels to advance the process of conflict resolution on favourable terms. This month is crucial and all efforts must be made to drill sense in the stubborn Chinese minds to establish peace in the frozen frontiers of Ladakh. If that does not happen India must be ready to bite the bullet and seek a military solution to the present intrusions.
Major General Yash Mor has served in South Kashmir and in Punjab in counter terrorist operations and with the United Nations in Mozambique. He was the first General Officer Commanding of the Leh sub area.