Is this going to be another 1962?’ asked my neighbour, an 80-year-old naval veteran. ‘Not at all,’ was my instinctive reply, not because I had any special insight into the ongoing military situation in Ladakh, but because 1962-type wars now linger only in military imagination and tend to get confined largely to the dustbin of history. In reality, due to the shadow of nuclear weapons, the remote possibility of such ‘big fights’ tenant the deterrence space that keeps militaries armed with the state-of-the-art weapons system. They are the substance of political threats, but their military utility is circumscribed to campaign plans.
The relevance of campaign plans lies mostly in the psychological sphere, where the real battles are mind games among opposing political and military leaderships. Territorial conquests that involved entire states have been in decline since 1945. But conquests in lesser forms have persisted. China, in particular, has been perfecting the art of ‘least war prone’ form of conquest for several decades, and its seizure of several patches of territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) bears testimony to the Chinese designs, some of which have been highlighted recently by former ambassador and foreign policy expert P. Stobdan.
China’s favourite game
History seldom follows a set pattern. China’s history of territorial conquests falls in the ‘fait accompli’ category. Sparsely populated/unpopulated and undefended territories have been the prime targets, and Chinese moves in East Asia, South China Sea and Sino-Indian border provide ample evidence thereof. Grabbing such territories based on claim lines that were historically fluctuating, and often expanding, has been China’s signature mode. Also, the practice has gained momentum with the growth of China’s power and concurrent internalising of a self-image of surging strength.
The current situation in Ladakh and Sikkim seems to suggest that China is playing its favourite game of seizing disputed territory that is not populated and is not permanently occupied by the border guarding forces. The confrontation in Galwan River valley, Pangong Tso, and Naku La in north Sikkim is sought to be justified as a defensive move by China due to India’s alleged aggressive acts. The official statement of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 19 May read: “The Indian Army has crossed the line across the western section of the Sino-Indian border and the Sikkim section to enter Chinese territory”.
The fact is that disputed areas exit and have been patrolled by both sides. This has been recognised and agreements signed to avoid confrontations such as the current one.
The 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) states: “When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the (LAC) where they have different views as to its alignment”. However, even 27 years later, China has avoided reconciling the differing perception of the LAC. It only allows China to claim an imagined LAC alignment, which can be exploited to buttress the argument that India is the aggressor.
The victory at Doklam that wasn’t
Over several decades, China’s success in limited territorial grabs has been papered over by several Indian governments, often apparently in the interests of peace and tranquility. The 2017 Doklam stand-off is revealing, even though the territory in question was a matter of dispute between China and Bhutan. India, however, was a party to the dispute because it involved the tri-junction.
The dispute resolution through an agreement that was restricted only to the stand-off site has emboldened China to occupy the rest of the disputed Doklam plateau with military assets, including the creation of permanent roads and military structures. China has, in reality, carried out a blatant aggression of a manifestly disputed territory. But the Narendra Modi government has so far brushed it under the carpet; instead, for the domestic audience, it has managed to sustain the fiction of ‘victory’ at Doklam. The constructions in the area of the Doklam plateau before the confrontation in 2017 and now are revealing.
Roads near Doka La, 2014-2017
Roads near Doka La, 2017-2018
Roads towards Torsa Nalla, 2014-2019
Through its silence, India has acquiesced to China’s military occupation of the Doklam plateau, except of course at the face-off site where the status quo has been maintained. The Indian public has been misled and the media and political opposition have failed to bring out the truth. Like the current stand-off in Ladakh, both sides did not want to escalate the matter in 2017.
But unlike Doklam, where India agreed to withdraw, as long as China did not make the road just below our post at Doka La, the situation is now reversed. China has prevented the movement of our patrols and is concomitantly creating military fortifications where none existed before. It is apparent that China has taken territorial bites in Ladakh, and did so with the claim that it was necessary because India was the aggressor here. Their modus operandi is now familiar. Territorial conquest short of war is evident.
India has moved troops to contain the aggression. Eviction can happen through agreement or force. Use of force is ruled out as an option because India would not like to escalate matters. Instead, it would use the military, diplomatic and political mechanisms at different levels to restore the status quo. But all that depends on China’s objectives and actions.
China has gained
Speculations on China’s intentions and motivations are rife in the Indian media. Notably, unlike the Indian press, apart from some limited coverage by the Global Times, there is no indication of raising the flag of nationalism in China. There is not even a passing mention of it from the political leadership. In the prevailing global and regional strategic context, the current moves on the boundary dispute may not be about the dispute per se but leveraging it to send a message to India about who is the boss. Therefore, any moves to gang up with the West against China should be eschewed. An indication about this is evident in this Global Times article.
India’s deal on Doklam was accompanied by two placatory moves; a change of stance on Tibetans organising a thanksgiving event commemorating the Dalai Lama’s 60 years of exile, and the cancellation of a seminar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). It was followed by an attempted reset of relations signified by the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit. Overall, India’s approach failed the smell test of appeasement and China probably took note of it.
This time, small military bites in two places also give China more bargaining power and Beijing could be hoping that at the end of the current confrontation, which will not result in a war, the status quo could be changed in at least one place and restored in the other. China then gets to send the message across and gains marginally in territory. It is to this game plan that India must play.
Choices for Indian military and political leadership
The role of India’s military forces is confined to containing the expansion of China’s territorial control in the confrontation areas. That role is relatively easy to undertake because China does not intend to expand. But it will want to keep what it has already bitten off, and use the time to build military fortifications, including roads a la Doklam. The intensity of this could vary in confrontation areas and Galwan might be what China wants to keep because of its proximity to the Darbok-Shyok-DBO road.
The political question is whether China has crossed India’s Lakshman rekha and whether certain steps to increase India’s bargaining power should be taken before serious diplomatic and political talks are undertaken. In my view, it certainly has, because China’s moves are synonymous to military occupation, though its scale is limited. No vital interest of India is directly threatened but its vital interest of strategic autonomy could be under indirect threat. China is trying to influence India’s decision-making in the context of the US-China geopolitical competition. It’s assumption springs from its experience in Doklam that India can be pressured.
The test for the Modi government is: what measures must it take to increase India’s bargaining power with China? These can be both nuanced and explicit, and range from a military quid pro quo that involves small bites to signalling change of stance in our relations with other powers that could include Tibet, Taiwan, Quad Plus, the US and so on.
Amid an expanding pandemic and a devastated economy, India must treat the situation as a Lakshman rekha having been crossed but do so quietly and not beat the nationalist drums, which is the natural proclivity of the media. More importantly, it must not be self-deluded that diplomatic virtuosity can alone handle the situation. Political sagacity and boldness are the need of the hour.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru; and former military adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat. He is the author of Strategy Trap: India & Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow. Views are personal.