The current China-India standoff in Eastern Ladakh has seen multiple rounds of talks failing to ease tensions, with continued troop build-up under the shadow of talks.
While negotiations roll over to the seventh military-level talks amidst an environment of deep mistrust, there is very little hope that the promise of not sending additional troops to the borders will get implemented, despite logistics during winters making standoff even more complex.
India should not accept that China, having marched in areas where it was not supposed to be, junking all CBMs as part of the overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ to unilaterally alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in its favour and expecting India to accept nominal disengagement while Chinese troops continue to be sitting in Depsang, Finger 8 to Finger 4 and some other areas.
The Chinese are also not comfortable with Indian proactive gestures of effective domination of some Chushul heights/Kailash Range, in areas South of Pangong Tso and some heights North of Finger 4; hence the game of posturing and muscle-flexing continues with either side refusing to blink first.
Chinese strategic and tactical intent
The Chinese political aim in the Asian context has always been to have a China-centric Asia, for which forcing Indian subordination has been its goal.
The Chinese strategic aim to pick Eastern Ladakh is to provide depth to its highway NH G-219, Karakoram Pass and CPEC, redraw LAC as per its perception and negotiate the border thereafter. China does feel threatened by Indian dispositions in India’s Sub Sector North (SSN) including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, and the Indian resolve to reclaim its territory of Jammu and Kashmir, posing a threat to the crucial TibetXinjiang-Pakistan connectivity and BRI prospects.
The PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations is Eastern Ladakh and the build-up/intended gains in the rest of the LAC are efforts to pick up bargaining chips.
The PLA’s tactical aim is to launch probing actions to gain some tactically significant features sensitive to Indian defence before heavy snowfall, which can collectively improve its strategic posture or bargaining position.
The Indian military is well aware of these intentions; hence the reluctance of Chinese verifiable withdrawal could lead to probing actions/reactions to improve tactical posture.
Some more incidents of tug of war between two forces can’t be ruled out every time the Chinese try to probe into Indian territory.
The standoff is likely to roll over to winter for which the Indian military is fully prepared, providing an option to decision-makers not to hurry up disengagement on terms unsuitable for the long-term security of India.
Chinese existing concerns
Strategically, President Xi Jinping miscalculated global anger against himself while trying to make the best of Chinese early recovery from COVID-19. Having made an unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, along with similar activities in the South and the East China Sea, President Xi Jinping now faces major democracies standing up against China’s
overambitious aggressive design, with few bankrupt countries standing by its side to handle multiple engagement points
The gross violation of CBMs in Ladakh by China has opened all military options for India, besides responses in economic, diplomatic and other domains, with international opinion in its favour.
A pullback has a heavy domestic political cost for Xi Jinping, besides the threat of occupation of vacated areas by India. Pushing the PLA to make some quick gains before the winters and engaging in talks to freeze the situation thereafter to retain its gains is the Chinese game plan.
What should be Indian responses?
The speedy mobilisation and proactive military actions of India surprised China. The Indian response in multiple domains (including economic and diplomatic) has triggered a hard global stance against the unfair adventurism of China.
No country wants war; hence India too would like to have peaceful borders, but not at the cost of Chinese unilateral occupation of areas or changed LAC in favour of China. Talks alone are unlikely to make the PLA recoil.
India will have to raise the cost of PLA’s presence in unauthorised areas like Depsang even if it amounts to a long haul on LAC and some military options besides what is being done.
India needs to avoid any quick fix diplomatic solutions like five-point agreement, seeking fresh CBMs, mutual disengagement and ideas like buffer zones which help the Chinese agenda like many other historic errors in the past.
Pulling back from freshly occupied heights south of Pangong Tso will be a strategic disaster for India.
This requires political, diplomatic and military decision-makers to be on the same page. The Indian strategic aim should be to insist on proper delimitation and demarcation of the LAC (which is difficult but doable), pending settlement of the border issue. Any softer stance will lead to the reoccurrence of a similar situation which is not in India’s security interest.
What should be the global response?
The world has to realise that China has got emboldened with the success of incremental encroachment of territory without fighting in the past, especially in the South China Sea.
This prompted Xi Jinping to open multiple fronts for territorial gains amidst the pandemic, diverting domestic and international criticism against himself/CCP.
With multiple fronts, exposed sea lanes of communications and isolated bases, China soon finds its vast inventory of military assets too meagre to cover all its vulnerabilities.
Chinese aggression on multiple fronts has necessitated the need for an Indo-Pacific alliance of democratic countries which can be built up by strengthening Quad, by converting it to a military alliance on the lines of NATO.
With global economic and population fulcrum shifting to the Indo-Pacific, it has become inescapable for lasting peace in the region, because if Chinese assertiveness and encroachment is not controlled now, the democracies will have to face a much more aggressive threat from the Chinese authoritarian regime, and punishments such as choking of the global sea lane of communication like the South China Sea.
(Maj Gen S.B. Asthana is a veteran infantry general and strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com and @asthana_shashi on Twitter)