Ideally, both India and China want to achieve their political aims without any further escalation of the military situation on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. However, at this juncture, diplomacy is making little or no progress, at least from what is available in the public domain.
Since the 22 June talks between 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen. Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military District commander Maj. Gen. Liu Lin, the disengagement process to avoid fresh clashes has not made much headway. The commanders met again on 30 June, with the talks lasting for 12 hours without much progress. “Army is preparing for the long haul and the standoff is expected to continue well into the winter,” Indian Army sources, the current substitute for formal situational briefs, told The Indian Express. India Today reported that far from de-escalation, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has witnessed greater mobilisation and concentration of troops on both sides of the border in the past 72 hours. And the mobilisation shows no signs of abating.
On the diplomatic front, the 15th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs was held on 24 June via video conference. The two sides recalled the conversation of 17 June between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister H.E. Wang Yi, and reaffirmed the necessity to sincerely implement the understanding on disengagement and de-escalation that was reached by the senior commanders on 6 June and 22 June. News agency ANI, citing unidentified government sources, reported that India and China have decided to hold WMCC meetings every week to resolve the dispute.
The ambassadors of both countries were interviewed by the Press Trust of India (PTI). In diplomatic language, they reiterated the absolute position of their respective countries and accused the other side of aggression and violating various agreements. However, they reiterated their faith in diplomacy to resolve the problem.
The indications are that unless there is a Wuhan-style breakthrough, diplomacy faces a dead end.
India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at stake. Territorial integrity and reunification of lost territories is the raison d’être of the ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On this issue, the Narendra Modi government has the support of the entire nation. The prime minister’s strongman image is the lynchpin of his popularity. And so, it is logical that India may have to exercise the military option to restore status quo ante April 2020. However, the differential in comprehensive national power, particularly in the military domain, economic cost of war and the political consequences of a setback, impose caution.
China’s military preemption indicates its political intent — impose its will on India. Its coercive diplomacy has not achieved the desired results. Loss of face is defeat for the superior power. If India does not relent, limited war is almost a compulsion for China.
At this juncture, both sides must be preparing for the worst-case scenario of a limited war. Through its preemptive actions, China has baited India. A quick and emotional response would be a strategic folly. India can ‘counter bait’ China by maintaining the ‘status quo’ indefinitely. Winter, which will affect the strategic calculations of both militaries, is still five months away.
Likely pattern of PLA offensive
The likely military aim of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be to decisively defeat the adversary forces in eastern Ladakh in selected sectors and in doing so, provide strategic depth to Chinese territories claimed/threatened, enhance the security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and destroy military infrastructure.
It is pertinent to mention that the places of current confrontation — Sub Sector North (SSN) or Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector, Galwan River, Hot Springs-Gogra, Pangong Tso, Chushul, and Demchok — are the same where the battles of 1962 were fought.
The PLA will avoid, to the extent possible, directly attacking the main defences of the Indian Army at heights of 15,000-16,000 feet and above as well as engaging in close combat from a position of disadvantage. Given the peculiarities of the terrain, the main defences are located 10-80 km from the LAC. It is these areas ahead of the main defences and other isolated vulnerable sectors such as the SSN that the PLA is likely to focus on. These areas allow predominant employment of mechanised forces. The offensive will be driven by high technology, with focus on cyber and electromagnetic domains, and precision-guided munitions.
Keeping the above in view, the operational-level objectives of the Chinese PLA are likely to be as follows:
- Capture SSN Sector and threaten Indian defences in Siachen Glacier.
- Cut off the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road at Galwan Valley — Shyok River junction to assist the offensive in SSN.
- Capture Chang Chenmo River Valley and all areas up to the north bank of Pangong Tso.
- Secure/capture the Kailash Range in Chushul Sector.
- Capture the Indus Valley up to the Ladakh Range via Demchok and Changla Pass on the Kailash Range and contact Indian defences on the Ladakh Range.
- Pakistan is also likely to launch a complementary offensive in the Shyok River Valley in the Turtuk Sector.
The PLA lost the advantage of surprise, preemption and the window that was available upto end June while the Indian Army reserves were being mobilised, acclimatised and deployed. The likely plans of the PLA have been war-gamed for years by the Indian Army, and I have no doubts that the PLA will come to grief.
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.