This week, The Hindu broke a story about a minor face-off in the first week of May between Indian and Chinese patrols in the three-kilometre-wide buffer zone created in the Galwan Valley. The buffer zone was created post the 15/16 June 2020 brutal, medieval clash without arms that left 20 Indian and unspecified number—officially four—of People’s Liberation Army soldiers dead. Apparently, after the 30 days moratorium on patrolling, both sides occasionally patrolled up to their respective claim lines at different timings. This time, it seems that the rival patrols came face to face, but the situation was diffused according to traditional protocol.
In my view, this was a minor issue. However, it was the denial by the Army along with an alleged insinuation against unidentified “sources trying to derail the ongoing process for early resolution of issues in Eastern Ladakh” that reflects poorly on the Indian political and military strategy adopted to counter China’s aggression across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Last week, the Chief Of Army Staff (COAS), Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the foreign minister held forth on the likely approach being adopted by India.
The top brass speaks
On 19 May, in an interview with CNN News18, COAS General M.M. Naravane said that “both sides are observing the disengagement in letter and spirit. There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.” When specifically asked by the anchor about an alleged confrontation between rival patrols in Galwan Valley on 2 May, he categorically denied the same. He also said that the disengagement process has been “cordial so far” and he hoped that the trust that has been built over the past three months will help India and China make “forward movement in other areas where issues are still to be resolved.”
When asked about the number of troops deployed along the LAC, he said that the number remains the same as during the height of the standoff last year — 50-60,000 in both Eastern Ladakh and the northeast.
“The disengagement has happened, but there has been no de-escalation. That’s why the troop presence in the whole front, right from Ladakh up to Arunachal Pradesh, continues. We have to be ready to be deployed in the long run too,” Naravane said.
In another interview with CNN News18, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said, “The Indian armed forces have been given the task to ensure [that] the sanctity of our borders are maintained and no part of our territory is lost without a fight. The Service Chiefs and I have said that we need to be prepared, and any misadventure from our adversaries will be dealt with firmly.”
During an Indian Express-Financial Times event, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said, “I think the relationship is at a crossroads. And which direction we go, depends on whether the Chinese side would adhere to the consensus, whether it would follow through on the agreements, which we both have done for so many decades. Because what is very clear in the last year is that border tensions cannot continue with, you know, cooperation in other areas.”
Contours of Indian strategy
Based on the statements of the top brass, it seems that our strategy is anchored on ‘hope’. Jaishankar says that with tension on the border it can not be “business as usual” with China. But China continues to be our largest trading partner. Our sanctions on Chinese apps and excluding its firms from 5G bidding have no more than a cosmetic impact. Even if like with Pakistan, we stop doing business, it will have a negligible effect on China’s GDP, but our economy will suffer. So, the foreign minister’s public statements are contingent on China compromising its strategy, which it has no intention to do.
The COAS “hopes” that the trust built in the last three months after the standalone agreement to disengage from north/south bank of Pangong Tso will enable “forward movement” to resolve the “issues” in other areas, implying that China will restore status quo ante April 2020 with or without buffer zones. However, China has no intention to do so.
The CDS kept it simple — India must defend our territory against any misadventure by our adversary. He should have qualified his statement by adding “any further misadventure by the adversary”, as 600-800 sq km of Depsang Plains, 35-40 km of 4 km-wide Kugrang River Valley and Charding-Ninglung Nala, south of Demchok, continue to remain under Chinese control since May 2020.
In a nutshell, our strategy is defensive and reactive to China’s future actions. We have no intention to militarily restore status quo ante April 2020. Diplomacy has been relegated to military-to-military talks at the Corps Commander level and Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) at the Joint Secretary level.
Until China obliges by unilaterally restoring status quo ante April 2020, our enhanced deployment of “50-60,000 troops” troops will continue. Mercifully, the LAC is not planned to be and, I dare to say, can not be, manned like the Line of Control (LoC). The terrain along the LAC is not defensible and will subsume all our mountain divisions.
In my view, we have no clarity on China’s political and military aims and our strategy is flawed and reflects intellectual bankruptcy.
China considers itself to be a superior power and will not allow India to be an equal competitor unless India is able to increase its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to a level of what Beijing has vis-a-vis the US today. Since India was perceived by China to be punching above its weight without the economic and military oomph, it decided to cut India down to size. This, in simplest terms, along with the immediate provocation of India developing border infrastructure in sensitive areas, was the reason for its preemptive offensive manoeuvre in Eastern Ladakh.
To achieve its political aim of cutting India down to size, it restricted its military aim to preemptively secure un-held strategic areas up to its 1959 Claim Line, except in the Indus Valley. These intrusions make large areas militarily untenable for India in a war, and thus would prevent development of infrastructure that threatens China. It did not want to start a war and securing territory was not its aim because, in April-May 2020, China could have easily seized the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector, the entire area northeast of Pangong Tso and the Indus Valley up to the Ladakh Range. Hence, it put the onus of escalation on India and had enough reserves to inflict retribution in case we raised the ante.
India from the word go had the option of quid pro quo action in similar un-held areas like Kailash Range (both in Chushul and Indus Valley sectors), across Ane La pass and Chumar. This would have threatened Rudok and Nagari, and put the onus on China to escalate. However, political/military dithering and fear of a setback restricted our actions to defensive and dissuasive concentration of troops. Thus, an opportunity was lost. More so, when nuclear weapon-armed States cannot fight a decisive conventional war. Our later action of securing the Kailash Range only in Chushul sector restricted to the LAC allowed the PLA to climb up and contest the Kailash Range ridge. Our marginal tactical gain did not neutralise the looming strategic threat to the untenable DBO and Gogra- Kugrang-Hot Springs Sectors. Hence, the standalone agreement with respect to north/south of Pangong Tso in February 2021.
It is pertinent to point out that at no place did the PLA attack any of our Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) or Army posts. Since we have an ITBP post at Demchok, China steered clear of the Indus Valley where the 1959 Claim Line is 30 km to the west at Fukche and along the eastern shoulder of the Koyul Valley. Even when we provoked it by securing the Kailash Range, it did not resort to force. Moreover, as a superior power, China is more apprehensive of even a minor setback. And now, the threat of quid pro quo action by India is forcing China to develop military bases in the vicinity of the LAC to reduce its 1,000 km extended line of communication from Xinjiang.
Nuclear weapons safeguard us from a decisive defeat at the hands of China. We must more cleverly do to China what Pakistan has done to us.
Rely upon diplomacy to neutralise the Chinese threat. Not confront China until our CNP, particularly the economic and military components, are at the same level where China is today. Restore economic relations without compromising our stand on the border dispute. Strike a balance between our strategic partnership with the US and Chinese sensitivities.
Accept the 1959 Claim Line as the LAC in all areas except the Indus Valley. In any case, it is a fait accompli. Try and salvage buffer zones in Depsang Plains and Kugrang River-Gogra-Hot Springs during further negotiations.
Do not convert LAC into LoC through large-scale deployment. In turn, dot the LAC with ITBP posts. All patrolling points must be converted to ITBP posts. Place the ITBP under the Army’s operational control.
Make our surveillance fail-safe to prevent being surprised.
Do not disproportionately increase the number of troops in defensive tasks. Our current deployment is adequate to stalemate the Chinese and give them a bloody nose at our main defences. To cater for the vast areas ahead of the main defences up to the LAC, ensure tailor-made Integrated Battle Groups as an agile and mobile reserve to preempt the PLA on and across the LAC.
Carry out holistic national security and military reforms to bridge the differential with China, particularly in the realm of military technology.
In my view, hyper-nationalism and imagined pretensions of being a strong power are preventing the Narendra Modi government from adopting a pragmatic strategy against China. It would be prudent to explain the reality to the public and set a goal of 2050 to be the year for redemption of national glory to cock a snook at China. That would be the beginning of our century!
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 Neera Majumdar)