The disengagement process between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army at the face-off points in Eastern Ladakh has reached an impasse. The sources that were feeding a structured narrative to the media have now gone silent. News reports from the front have got relegated to the inside pages of national dailies. This seems to be the result of the rigid and uncompromising stand taken by PLA’s South Xinjiang Military Region Commander Major General Liu Lin, refusing to carry out any disengagement at Depsang and Pangong Tso, and claiming it to be Chinese territory, during the meeting held on 14 July.
Chinese not living up to the promise
North of Hot Springs, in the area of Kugrang River and Changlung Nala, the PLA seems to have carried out only limited disengagement, and not as per the agreement. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to this area because from here, routes lead to the upper reaches of the Galwan river. Similar situation prevails in the area of Gogra-Kongka La. Thus, disengagement with buffer zones as agreed to in the Corps Commander-level meetings seems to have taken place only in the Galwan Valley.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 17 July, while addressing the troops in Ladakh candidly, confirmed the above situation on the LAC. “Talks are underway to resolve the border dispute, but to what extent it can be resolved I cannot guarantee. I can assure you, not one inch of our land can be taken by any power in the world.” For the first time, ever since the intrusions were reported in the beginning of May, this is official confirmation of the dangerous reality on the ground — the Chinese are seeking permanence to their territorial gains. However, in the broader context, the government continues to be in denial about any intrusion having taken place.
The opposition has directly attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, alleging that he is relying upon denial and obfuscation with respect to loss of territory to protect his “strongman image”, which has been exploited by the Chinese to force acquiescence.
Be that as it may, if the Chinese do not allow India even to achieve its compromised political aim — status quo ante April 2020 with buffer zones in the areas of Chinese intrusions — then what are India’s military options? There are two possible scenarios in which the conflict may unfold — the Chinese-initiated conflict scenario or the Indian-initiated conflict scenario.
China–initiated conflict scenario
Let there be no doubt that like in India-Pakistan conflict, the China-India conflict too will be fought with a nuclear backdrop. Ironically, it will be India that will have to resort to nuclear brinkmanship to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
With India not accepting the fait accompli that China is trying to impose through preemption, the PLA, rather than opting for an indefinite face-off, may decide to inflict a decisive defeat to impose its will. The possible Chinese military aim and objectives have been highlighted by me in an earlier column.
India’s main defences are on the formidable heights, at varying distances, ranging between 10 and 80 km from the LAC. The alignment of the LAC further allows the PLA to cut off and isolate our forward deployment. However, the battle, if it may come, is likely to be fought in the forward zone ahead of India’s main defences.
I have no doubt that the Indian armed forces have utilised the last three months to prepare formidable defences at the face-off points, and in areas from where the PLA can cut off our forward deployment.
In such a scenario, our military aim should be to stalemate the PLA with minimum loss of territory, and simultaneously launch a counter-offensive to capture equivalent Chinese territory, if not more, for bargaining. We have enough troops for holding ground and for a counter-offensive at the tactical level to force a recoil.
On the face of it, this is relatively an advantageous scenario for India because the PLA will be attacking Indian troops that hold dominating ground. However, it is contingent upon the degree of defence preparedness we have managed to achieve in the past three months.
India-initiated conflict scenario
In case China is content to limit its gains up to the 1959 claim line, then the onus is on us to force it to withdraw by military action. The inelegant option is to directly attack the intrusion points to evict the Chinese. The advantage is that it can possibly restrict the scale of the conflict, and can be done at a time and weather of our own choosing. However, there is a disadvantage too — it will be relatively difficult for the Indian forces to achieve surprise and that they would be attacking prepared enemy defences.
The second option is that we attack the vulnerable areas anywhere along the LAC for a quid pro quo with the Chinese — asking the PLA to withdraw from Indian territory in exchange of the areas captured by the Indian Army. Since the initiative will be with us, we can choose the time, place and weather for the operation. Our degree of preparedness and chances of achieving tactical surprise should dictate the timing of the operation. Interestingly, “denial and obfuscation”, and military/diplomatic engagement will fit well into the strategic deception plan. Logically, this should be the preferred option.
In either of the scenarios, the force level that we require for inflicting defeat on the PLA in Eastern Ladakh is 3-4 divisions with 3-4 armoured brigades, each having a minimum of two armed regiments and two mechanised infantry battalions, backed by requisite air power, combat support arms and logistics.
We must not take counsel of our fears and worry unduly about the political consequences of a setback. If diplomacy fails, national honour demands that we take the battle to the enemy. The whole world is watching us.
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.