The situation along the Line of Actual Control is tactical, but the intent of both sides is strategic, as it should be. The ultimate political aim of any conflict between nations is lasting peace on own terms. However, the issue is relative, as lasting peace in competitive conflict among nations remains a utopia. Military is only the means to achieve this end and always the last resort.
China has precipitated the situation along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh by preemptively securing/threatening previously un-occupied, but patrolled, tactical areas with strategic importance in the Galwan River Valley, Hot Spring-Gogra-Kongka La area and north of Pangong Tso. Having seized the initiative, China has put the onus on India to respond, on which will depend Beijing’s future course of political and military action. China has come prepared for escalation to achieve its strategic aim.
India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are at stake. Militarily, India has contained the Chinese intrusions and poised its forces to deal with the developing situation. Its future course of action, particularly with respect to use of military means, will also depend on the political aim it has defined for itself.
The unfortunate events on the intervening night of 15 and 16 June have forced the adversaries to take fresh stock of the situation. China, the initiator and aggressor of the conflict, has realised that if the ‘fist and club fight’ was so violent and barbarous, what it would be like in an armed conflict/war with India’s Army of today. The stage is set for a military disengagement to tactically separate the rival forces and pave way for the diplomatic negotiations to settle larger strategic issues. If diplomacy fails, military means for either side would be the last resort to achieve political aims.
Tactical military situation
In the Galwan Valley, post the 15-16 June incident, there seems to be no presence left of China’s People’s Liberation Army or the PLA, as is distinct from the heights to the north and south. One does not know the exact details of what was agreed to after the first round of Corps Commander-level talks on 6 June, or what has since been modified during the second round on 22 June. At what distance from the LAC are the troops of both the countries going to remain deployed is not known. In mountains or high-altitude areas, the battle is for the control of the heights. Valley is used for logistics and movement of vehicles, but has to be defended to avoid being cut off. Thus, what has happened in the Valley so far is a sideshow. If the PLA is not holding the heights to the north and south, then we should be holding them. Without control of the heights, the Valley cannot be defended.
In the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area, the situation remains unchanged. We cannot patrol up to Kongka La, and the area between Kongka La and Gogra Post seems to be under the control of the PLA.
The situation North of Pangong Tso is in the open domain due to satellite images available on OSINT platforms. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 (5.6 km as the crow flies and 8 km when measured along the banks of Pangong Tso) is still firmly under PLA’s control. Military infrastructure and defences have been constructed on ridges going north, along Fingers 4, 5 and 6, up to 5 km. Thus, approximately 40 sq km of our area where we patrolled effectively prior to April is now under PLA control.
Elsewhere, all along the LAC, India and China have mobilised and carried out precautionary deployment to cater to any escalation.
It is beyond my comprehension as to why we are still in denial about the situation. If the assessment of OSINT is wrong, then there is a simple solution to counter claims of PLA incursions—take the press to these spots in helicopters and show them the reality.
Chinese actions are strategic in intent and tactical in execution, and aim to create an embarrassing situation for India, daring it to respond. Depending on the diplomatic and military response from India, PLA’s military means will be calibrated to achieve China’s military aim.
Political aim of China
China is very sensitive to any threat to Aksai Chin, which it gradually occupied in 1950s, and other areas to its west and south that it captured in the 1962 war with India to gain strategic depth. India’s fast-developing border infrastructure in eastern Ladakh does exactly that, howsoever remote the possibility may seem to be at this juncture. Gaining additional territory is not China’s aim per se.
China perceives that by threatening to recapture Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, India is posing a threat to its prestigious economic project — the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor or the CPEC. Indirectly, China desires a similar relationship between India and Pakistan as was prevailing with itself since 1990s. That is, relative peace on border and focus on economic relations.
India’s asylum to Dalai Lama in 1959 and the perceived training of Tibetan ‘rebels’ in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was a major factor that led to the 1962 war. The presence of the Dalai Lama in India, the Tibetan government in exile and 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetan soldiers trained as special forces is considered by China to be the most serious potential threat to its sovereignty. India is seen as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom.
China also perceives that India is colluding with the US and its allies to undermine its strategic interests in the international arena, in general, and South China Sea and Indo-Pacific, in particular.
The political aim or idealistic strategic wish list of China would be on the following lines:
- To maintain the ‘status quo’ with respect to border infrastructure along the LAC on its own terms — to forestall any threat, howsoever remote, to Aksai Chin and NH 219.
- To prevent any threat developing to the CPEC by brokering a peace deal between India and Pakistan.
- Coax India to join Belt and Road Initiative, in general, and CPEC, in particular.
- Coax India to refrain from colluding with the USand its allies to undermine China’s strategic interests, particularly in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea.
In a nutshell, China wants India to play the role of a cooperative junior partner and not that of a competitor, both regionally and globally. To what extent it can achieve the aims highlighted above will depend on its diplomatic skills and how it uses its military to enforce its will. If its broad political aim is achieved, then it will restore status quo ante April 2020, and agree to demarcate the LAC, subject to final boundary settlement.
India’s political aim
The broad contours of India’s political aims should be as follows:
- Retain its sovereignty and territorial integrity and strategic independence as an equal competitor to China,both regionally and globally.
- Restore status quo ante April 2020 with respect to the LAC and ensure its demarcation.
- Retain freedom to develop border infrastructure as it deems fit.
- Retain its claim over PoK, Gilgit-Baltistan under occupation of Pakistan, and Aksai Chin and other areas seized by China since 1950.
- Continue to highlight the illegality of theCPEC, since it passes through territory that rightfully belongs to India.
Ideally, a military setback for China in a limited conflict enables India to achieve its political aim in its entirety. However, the differential in comprehensive national power, particularly in economic and military domains, is in favour of China. We have the military capability to calibrate our response to stalemate China, but a setback will set us behind by decades.
The challenge before the Narendra Modi government is to skillfully manage its diplomacy and military means to achieve its political aims.
India’s management of the current crisis
India is facing a strategic dilemma. I have no quarrel with the narrative— ‘nothing has happened on the LAC, no territory has been lost’—except that the government shouldn’t itself start believing this narrative as it also serves the Chinese narrative.
A seasoned political leader once told me that politicians have one major weakness—they repeat a lie so many times to shape public perception that after a point in time they themselves start believing in that lie.
One presumes that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and the National Security Council (NSC) have formally met and a national security strategy in consultation with the Chief of Defence Staff has been formulated to handle the situation. But, doubts assail me when I hear—“armed forces have been given full freedom of action”. Armed forces are given a formal political directive based on the decision made in the CCS and NSC to achieve the political aims and not a rhetoric one liner.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.