Two years after the conflict began in Eastern Ladakh with multiple Chinese intrusions in unoccupied areas that were followed by India’s massive counter-deployment and securing of the strategic Kailash Range, the situation can be best described as a ‘strategic stalemate’. After prolonged military and diplomatic talks, disengagement with buffer zones, predominantly in territory controlled/patrolled by India up to April 2020, has taken place in the Galwan River Valley, North and South Bank of Pangong Tso, and in Gogra, i.e., between Patrolling Points 17 and 17A. In these areas, the probability of incidents/escalation was high due to the close proximity of troops. China continues to deny us patrolling rights east of the Bottleneck in the Depsang Plains—PPs 10, 11, 12, and 13, up to PP-15 in Chang Chenmo Sector and to Charding—Ninglung Nala, south of Demchok.
There has been no progress on disengagement since 31 July 2021. No de-escalation has taken place, and both India and China continue to deploy an equivalent of three to four divisions of troops on or in the vicinity of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and have created adequate infrastructure for a prolonged standoff. India wants status quo ante April 2020 to be restored and has made it a precondition for any reset in relations. China wants to impose and safeguard its 1959 claim line by physical denial or by negotiated buffer zones on the Indian side. Neither side can impose its will short of a limited war, the probability of which is very low due to the nuclear overhang and uncertain outcomes.
Is this then the new normal — a volatile LAC with a high probability of frequent skirmishes and escalation apart from the financial drain? Or is there a way out of the current impasse? I examine the rival strategies and the way forward to restore peace and tranquillity on the border.
There has been much speculation as to why China breached 33 years of peace since the Sumdorong Chu incident of 1986-87 and violated the five border management agreements/protocols apart from two informal summits between the heads of the States and numerous other diplomatic engagements. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and former Chief of Army Staff Gen M.M. Naravane have been on record to say that they still do not know the reasons.
In my view, the reasons were rather obvious. At the strategic level, India’s growing relationship with the US, particularly with respect to the Indo-Pacific region, was challenging China’s preeminence in Asia. At the tactical level, India was rapidly developing border infrastructure, posing a perceived threat to areas seized by China up to 1962. The abrogation of Article 370, the declaration of Ladakh as a Union territory and political statements to regain lost territories only added fuel to the fire.
The 1959 Claim Line, which confers overwhelming terrain advantage to China and safeguards Aksai Chin and other territories under its occupation, is central to its strategy. In the 1962 war, it had largely restricted its operations up to this line before unilaterally withdrawing 20 kilometres behind. During and after the Sumdorong Chu standoff, India adopted a forward posture. It began patrolling some of the areas across this line in the Depsang Plains and North of Pangong Tso. In the Indus Valley, it reoccupied the area between Fukche and Demchok soon after 1962, as this area had a number of villages.
The Narendra Modi government gave top priority to the development of infrastructure in the Depsang Plains, Galwan River, Chang Chenmo Sector, and the Indus Valley. This was perceived as a direct threat by China and became the immediate casus belli for its actions. India had made the cardinal mistake of not deploying troops before developing the roads in the sensitive areas.
Keeping the above in view, China’s strategic aim was to impose its hegemony over India and secure the 1959 claim line in areas where it perceived India was patrolling beyond it, and deny the latter to develop border infrastructure. Achieving strategic surprise, China accomplished this aim with relative ease through a preemptive manoeuvre in late April and early May 2020. In the area between PP-15 and PP-17/17A in the Chang Chenmo Sector, China breached the line by 3 to 4 km, claiming a new alignment of the 1959 Claim Line. A similar new claim was made in the Galwan River where it intruded by approximately 1 km. In this area, post the Galwan clash on the night of 15 and 16 June, disengagement took place with a buffer zone of 3 km, mostly on our side of the LAC.
China had no intention to withdraw from these areas. However, our massive deployment and riposte to seize the Kailash Range on the night of 29 August 2020 created a military embarrassment and a vulnerability for the Chinese. This, apart from the volatile situation due to the close proximity of troops led to a standalone agreement for disengagement from north and south of Pangong Tso in February 2021 with a buffer zone of 8 km on our side of the LAC from Finger 3 to Finger 8 and an equidistant buffer zone on the Kailash Range. Thereafter, there has been virtually no progress with respect to disengagement except the tokenism at Gogra or PP-17 and 17A where the Chinese enjoy overwhelming terrain advantage and we conceded a buffer zone of 3 to 4 km on our side of the LAC.
China’s intent is to maintain the status quo while trying to reset the relations. Apprehensive of India doing what it did in April/May 2020, China has created permanent infrastructure to position requisite troops within striking distance of the LAC.
India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante, preserve its right to develop border infrastructure and, in the long term, demarcate the LAC for better border management. India can only restore the status quo ante April 2020 by a military action that can escalate into a limited war and which, given the capability differential, is not a rational option.
Thus, India has opted for a coercive deployment for a prolonged standoff, keeping a superior adversary on tenterhooks while trying to work out a favourable outcome through negotiations.
The way forward
The situation in Eastern Ladakh has stabilised to a reasonable degree. There has been no firing and no bouts of “unarmed combat” since September 2020. Military and diplomatic talks have ensured hotlines are available down to brigade/battalion level to diffuse volatile situations. Confidence building measures under the five border management agreements/protocols are being adhered to.
Both sides are wary of war due to uncertainty of outcome, heavy casualties, and a nuclear backdrop. Yet, due to ‘ready for combat’ deployment along and in the vicinity of the LAC, the probability of a confrontation escalating to a limited war remains high. India’s Gross Domestic Product is one-fifth of China’s, and such a deployment is a drain on the defence budget, which cannot increase unless the economy improves. This will adversely affect the ongoing transformation of the armed forces. As an upcoming superpower, China is also in an unenviable position of being stalemated by a relatively weaker power.
In my view, the stage is set for an interim border agreement with respect to our northern borders. Military and low-end diplomatic talks have run their course. Any further progress requires a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi. A bold solution is to go back to the 1959 bargain offered by China. India should accept the 1959 Claim Line with buffer zones where the LAC is east of it except in the habited areas of Fukche-Demchok as a quid pro quo for Chinese recognition of the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. In any case, China is in de facto control of the area up to the 1959 Claim Line except in Demchok — Fukche. Even a standalone agreement for Eastern Ladakh would be a pragmatic option for India. As part of the agreement, the 1959 Claim Line must be physically demarcated.
To find its rightful place as a great power, India must plan to reduce the Comprehensive National Power differential vis-a-vis China, particularly with respect to the economic and military power components to the same level that exists between the US and China today. This must happen within the next two to three decades. Only then will we find our rightful place in the comity of nations. Peace and tranquillity on the borders are prerequisites.
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.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)