The nine-month-long face-off in Eastern Ladakh between India and China has turned into a Mexican standoff, a confrontation where neither party has any strategy to achieve victory.
When a group of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops walked over into the Indian side of the Galwan Valley to stop the construction of a bridge in April-May 2020, China clearly didn’t anticipate the face-off would extend this long, even through the icy cold winters of Eastern Ladakh.
Talking about the ongoing situation and the way forward, top officials in the defence establishment say that the onus is on China to disengage.
They echoed what Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane said on Tuesday in a press conference. “If talks prolong, so be it. We are prepared to hold our ground, where we are, for as long as needed to achieve our national goals.”
Gen. Naravane also rightly played down the significance of the nearly 10,000 soldiers pulling out from the traditional training area of the PLA in the Tibetan plateau.
I had reported that this cannot be taken as a disengagement move and neither was this a quid pro quo just because the Indians too had thinned down ahead of the winters.
The withdrawal happened because the concerned soldiers formed the third or fourth tier of deployment and winter logistics was an uphill task.
So, it was decided that since winters will not allow any movement or action, it is better to recall the additional troops to decrease pressure on logistics.
I am sure this was the thought process in the PLA too when they pulled back close to 10,000 soldiers over the past several weeks.
LAC could heat up during summer
Even though neither side has provoked the other since late August, the summer could present new challenges and aggression.
This is because the Chinese have continued with their construction activities all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) through the stand-off. These construction activities include new housing for troops besides laying of roads.
On top of that, the Chinese haven’t stopped building punitive military infrastructure like widening of airstrips, new heliports, and installation of new surface-to-air missile launchers.
They are also busy upgrading and expanding military facilities along the Tibetan plateau.
Clearly, China is preparing for something more sinister in 2021.
President Xi Jinping wants to show to the people of his country and to the rest of the world that China under him is a global superpower. And hence he will not budge an inch against India without having something to showcase as victory.
The problem for him is that India too has a leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi who will not budge so as to look strong.
And this is what the Mexican standoff is all about.
There are many in the defence and security establishment who say that things will heat up in the summers.
The thinking is that China, which has been lying low ever since the 29-30 August action by the Indian soldiers when they occupied the Kailash Range in the southern banks, will become more aggressive.
Top sources in the government had told me earlier in December that tensions could continue to simmer at the LAC even if a temporary disengagement takes place.
This meant that the thinking in the government is clear that no matter what – disengagement or not – China will continue to poke.
India gearing up for summer and beyond
One good fallout of the Chinese aggression is that Indians have started seeing China as the bigger enemy than Pakistan.
Since July, India has gone in for multiple emergency procurement of arms and ammunition besides other systems to ensure that the soldiers on the ground are not left wanting like in 1962.
India has already prepared a summer strategy, which will be implemented from March-end to ensure that there are enough soldiers and material as the summer comes in.
The other good thing to have happened is the re-balancing of focus from the western theatre to the northern borders, as the Army chief said.
The Panagarh-based Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), which was somewhere in the background, is suddenly back in prominence. The MSC is now getting its own own artillery brigade.
In a significant development, the Army is giving dual tasks to the Mathura-based 1 Corps, which was initially a Strike Corps aimed at Pakistan. The 1 Corps will also look after the northern borders now.
But as former Army Commander Lt Gen H.S. Panag (retd) wrote, Strike Corps reorientation is welcome but the Army needs larger restructuring.
Views are personal.