Army chief MM Naravane
Army chief General MM Naravane visits forward locations in eastern Ladakh | Photo by Special Arrangement
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A synchronised phased disengagement has begun simultaneously on the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh. As per my assessment, gradual disengagement between India and China all along the standoff areas has been on since the ninth round of Corps Commander-level talks held on 24 January. This is the beginning of an all-encompassing agreement, which will be finalised in the next few months to diffuse the crisis in eastern Ladakh and mend the fractured relationship between the two nations.

In fact, I had reached the same conclusion, before the news of the disengagement broke, by analysing the strategic and the military situation.

I will stick my neck out to give the prognosis on the contours of the likely agreement. In a nutshell, India has accepted the Chinese 1959 Claim Line as the new LAC in all areas except Demchok-Fukche area in the Indus Valley, possibly with buffer zones and no deployment/patrolling/infrastructure development in southern half of Depsang Plain, north of Pangong Tso and some other areas of differing perceptions. The 1959 Claim Line is already well-demarcated and so are the buffer zones that lie between it and the existing LAC. This agreement in due course may lead to China giving up all other claims in Central Sector and northeast with minor adjustments. Ironically the final shape of such an agreement may look like a mirror image of the proposal of Zhou Enlai made in November 1959.

In ten weeks, by end of April, the thaw will take place in the high Himalayas and the terrain and weather will become conducive for military operations. It would also mark one year of the ongoing crisis in eastern Ladakh that began with China preemptively seizing/controlling 800-1,000 square km of our territory up to its 1959 Claim Line in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso, apart from minor intrusions, vacated by the Chinese in July across this line in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La. In doing so, China prevented us from patrolling up to the LAC and developing border infrastructure in these critical areas, and gained a  strategic advantage — in event of a limited war —  to seize large tracts of our territory.

India responded with a massive build-up to prevent further ingress. The volatile situation led to the Galwan Valley skirmish — fought with ‘medieval weaponry’ on the night of 15-16 June in which 20 of ours and an unspecified number of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) soldiers were killed in action. In end August, India surprised the PLA by seizing the dominant Kailash Range, not occupied since 1962, in Chushul Sector to gain a strategic advantage in event of an escalation. Since then, the rival forces have remained deployed, at some places in eyeball contact, despite the harsh winter.

Military and diplomatic engagement have made no headway. Virtual ministerial-level engagements took place once between the defence ministers and twice between the foreign ministers, apart from a number of meetings at the joint secretary-level as part of the Joint Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. Nine rounds of military talks, primarily focused on disengagement and de-escalation and not conflict resolution per se, have taken place. The result is best expressed in the words of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar: “So, military commanders have held nine rounds of meetings so far. We believe some progress has been made, but it is not, in a kind of situation where there is a visible expression of that on the ground.” The situation could best be described as a volatile impasse.

What now? Are we going to see an escalation or a limited war? Or can a face-saving conflict resolution for both parties to claim victory be negotiated to mend the fractured relationship?


Also read: China to move behind Pangong Tso Finger 8 — Rajnath Singh shares Ladakh breakthrough details


Probability of a China-initiated limited war

Neither side seems to prefer a war, though for different reasons. Nothing proves this point more than the fact that despite face-to-face deployment, there have been no casualties since the Galwan Valley incident in June 2020. The last exchange of fire took place in early September, after India secured the Kailash Range. Yet, the situation remains volatile, proved by a non-firearm skirmish at Naku La on 20 January 2021.

China has no incentive for war. Its political aim of imposing its hegemony over India by undermining its international/regional status, securing the 1959 Claim Line to gain a strategic advantage, and preventing development of border infrastructure in critical areas that threaten Aksai Chin/other usurped territory, has been achieved. China has proved to the world that it has imposed its will on India, which has been unable to militarily clear the intrusions.

However, China is not in a position to declare victory and leave, because the Indian armed forces, in quick time, will restore status quo ante April 2020. To impose peace on its terms, the Chinese would have to wage a limited war. But Beijing is wary of a war lest the untested PLA suffers a setback. Even if India forces a stalemate, it would be defeat for a superior power.

Simply put, China will not initiate a limited war but in response to an Indian military initiative, it will aim to impose a decisive defeat in a limited war below the nuclear threshold. In fact, it has been preparing for such an eventuality by developing its military infrastructure in Tibet on a massive scale. Thus the probability of a limited war initiated by China is very low. It will try to negotiate from a position of strength so that it can retain the gains made without too many concessions.


Also read: India, China begin fresh disengagement, but ‘trust deficit means it’ll be a long process’


Probability of a limited war initiated by India

India was strategically and tactically surprised, and suffered a major setback by losing unoccupied territory in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso. India’s image as an emerging major power was severely dented. It recovered some of the lost prestige when Kailash Range was secured in end August 2020. China continues to be in occupation of 800-1,000 square km of Indian territory. Apart from this, China also occupies 38,000 sq km of Indian territory seized up to 1962.

India’s political aim is to restore status quo ante April 2020 and demarcate the LAC. Thus India has all the incentive to initiate a limited war. However, it does not have the military capability to decisively defeat China. Politically, a military defeat/setback would be catastrophic. I have no hesitation to conclude that the probability of an India-initiated limited war is also very low. However, a prolonged standoff can strengthen its hand at the negotiating table because China will be forced to continue its deployment and cannot declare victory.


Also read: US closely monitoring situation along India-China border, says State Department spokesperson


Options for conflict resolution

Keeping the above in view, I visualise two scenarios. First, a continuous optimum deployment like the Line of Control, all along the LAC and in areas where China has intruded, along the forward line of Indian troops — to prolong the stalemate and tire China out. Second, a diplomatic solution with buffer zones in intrusion areas where neither side will deploy/patrol/develop infrastructure along with a mutually accepted demarcation of the LAC and the buffer zones.

The first scenario will force deployment of at least two divisions plus one as immediate reserve by both sides in extremely hostile terrain and cold climate of Eastern Ladakh. If the entire LAC becomes volatile, then another 6-7 divisions would be permanently deployed. We have the experience of Siachen, and China of fighting on the Siberian front. How peace is then maintained will depend on the future LAC management agreements.

The major gain for India will be that China will not be able to declare victory and a stalemate of this nature is loss of face, and a defeat for a superior power. India’s lost prestige would be restored. It will also lead to de facto demarcation of the LAC albeit along the 1959 Claim Line, except in Demchok area. Domestically, it can be sold as a victory. However, the burden on the defence budget would be prohibitive, and experience shows that such a deployment invariably leads to frequent firefights and incidents that can trigger an escalation. The probability of this option being exercised is very low. However, it is a pragmatic option for Eastern Ladakh until an acceptable conflict resolution can take place.

It appears that both India and China are gradually moving towards the second option. China as the stronger power cannot declare victory and a prolonged stalemate will soon begin to look like defeat. Rather than force the 1959 Claim Line down India’s throat, the declaration of Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso intrusion areas as no deployment/patrolling/infrastructure development “buffer zones” will enable the Chinese to save face and declare ‘victory’.

India has to swallow the bitter pill and accept that past agreements are passé, and the new reality must be faced squarely. In my view, a demarcated 1959 Claim Line (except in Demchok area), with buffer zones in Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso is a very pragmatic solution. Giving up our dominant deployment along the Kailash Range can be compensated by extending the agreement to include a 20 kilometre demilitarised zone on either side of the LAC. Goes without saying that precautions would have to be taken to cater for breach of trust common in such situations.

Now read my prognosis again in light of the above analysis. The visualised solution is still a long way off and may appear to be a “sell-out”. But as a weaker power lacking the military capability to challenge China, it is a strategic compulsion to strive for an agreement that ensures peace on our northern borders.

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.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Fragile peace on LAC is the best way to describe the core of Gen Panag’s views on LAC and unfortunately the bitter truth. Future can only be secure on Indo-China front when the Indian Military machine is strong and well oiled to match the Chinese at all costs. Pak along the LOC is another paradigm.

  2. This old Panang chap should just spend his बुढापा sipping away whiskey and enjoying chicken tikka with the hefty generous pension coming he is getting. Why is he giving unsolicited advice~ no one is really interested in his opinions because his credibility is zero. He seems to have a very big ego – keeps bragging about himself, abusing the army and Modi Government. Now that things are in favour of India and the Chinks are retreating Panang seems to have changed his tune. Panang, Ajay Shukla are of the same ilk, praising China all the time – what a waste of time.

  3. This old man’s words should be ignored.

    Pathetic, when one uses a national crisis to tom-tom one’s own greatness, as in “In fact, I had reached the same conclusion, before the news of the disengagement broke, by analysing the strategic and the military situation.”

    Take him back to the cave he came from.

  4. Some times you do not know what exactly he is intending ? Did the situation is Depsang plains developed now ? Chinese have not occupied our area in Depsang plains. They are denying patrolling rights to us. When did this situation developed ? Long back. Ok , When did the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin ? In 1962 war. Who lost that war? I do not have to say. So, what has been lost now? Chinese having developed the infrastructure up to Finger 4 are going back and the area between finger 4 and 8 is being developed as buffer zone. Now I believer that another buffer zone is being developed on Depsang plains. What Gen Panag says that Chinese have been able to impose their will on India? If that was the case, how they are going back to Finger 8? Not convincing. Fact is that Chinese do not know what to do. Gen Panag on one side says that this is the most pragmatic thing which is taking place now , 1959 claim line of China being accepted with some minor adjustments on ground . I have heard a Nirupama Rao , former foreign secretary saying in an interview that if we can achieve 1959 claim line of Chinese , that will be great achievement. Now, I do not see that statement on YouTube? Fact is that Chinese wanted to achieve victory without war and they got the taste of their own medicine in Galwan. Those who achieve victory do not go back , Chinese are going back . It is the turn of diplomacy now .

  5. Is this so that India has given up kailash Range deployment for demilitarized zone. Kailash range is said to be best position, a trump card. It’s ok if India vacates these heights for negotiating to restore Apr20 positions but should take control immediately without bothering about any “trust” comments. Chinese CCP army cannot and should not be trusted

  6. “Giving up our dominant deployment along the Kailash Range can be compensated by extending the agreement to include a 20 kilometre demilitarised zone on either side of the LAC”. Is this so. Kailash range is said to be best position, a trump card. India may vacate these heights for negotiating to restore Apr20 positions but should take control immediately without bothering about any “trust deficit” comments. Chinese CCP army cannot and should not be trusted

  7. if there is an agreement with china for peaceful solution the whole of india will welcome it even if there is little more of “give” than “take”, rahul gandhi not withstanding.
    we can then concentrate on our developement agenda.

  8. It’s a pity that such Army people & media sell themselves to China & Anti Nationals to gain a few rupees and write such articles!! No other people on the planet can tolerate such nonsense except “half-Indians” of the Nehru-Mulla type!!

  9. Reading this ex General’s article somehow undermines my confidence in the honesty of our government and armed forces. Is that the intended effect? If yes, the writer has succeeded.

    The writer, who must have lot of experience in wargaming does not seem to appreciate that China is fighting a many-fronted battle. Right now, south china see is hotting up. So it is essential for China to disengage with India for now, and wait for another day.

  10. One reason for the withdrawal could be the cold feet of Pakistan. With the tensions high on the northern border the Chinese expected the Pakistanis to initiate some action, little realizing that Balakot left Pakistan in no doubt as what the repercussions would be.
    Keep India tied down on the northern borders and make Pakistan do the dirty work may have been the strategy.
    Either way it did not succeed.

  11. After IA pulled out of Kailash Range in exchange for Chinese pulling out of north of Pangong Tso, what else can IA offer for Chinese to pull out of Depsang Plains and other areas? You don’t expect the Chinese to pull out of those areas for nothing do you?

    • if it comes to that we will get destroyed together. i am assuming you are a chinese. both your name and language suggest that.

  12. The venerable General has been severely critical of the Indian govt as well as the Indian Army vis-a-vis the situation in Ladakh. He has written reams excoriating the political and the military leadership for their incompetency and shortcomings. In fact, he went a step further and accused them of compromising on the nation’s territorial integrity for the sake of their own personal gains.
    Now that the dragon is going back to its lair, he seems to have had a change of heart. Quite amusingly, he now claims that he had “predicted” this outcome.

  13. It was a happy news on 11 February 2021 when reports of India-China having reached an agreement to disengage in the eastern Ladakh came. The development was confirmed by India’s defense Minister on 11 February 2021 in Parliament. A moment of pride for nation indeed, and credit goes to skilled political strategy of India’s political leadership and brave armed forces. It was also learnt on 11 February 2021 from news report that a simultaneous phased disengagement on the north and south bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh has begun.
    In this context , it may be apt to share with readers one of related predictions in article as follows published at english.nirpakhawaaz.in on 29 January 2021 :-
    “ Predictive alerts for more care and appropriate strategy in vulnerable countries of world during 9 February , particularly from mid-February to 10 March in 2021”.

    The text of the prediction which appears relating to the happy news of pride development revealed on 11 February 2021 , reads like this in the article :-
    “( 10 ). There is an encouraging news as well. News of new source of revenue or income opening up through medicine or medical research or Ayurveda or Yoga done in past is likely during the period identified here. Some hidden wealth in the temples or otherwise can bring a happy news”.
    The news broken on 11 February 2021 is undoubtedly both encouraging and happy for the nation. It is a source of gain in national and international scene brought about by “ Yoga done in the past” signifying hard “Tapasaya” undergone by our brave soldiers on the border , as also skilled-determined long political strategy by our political leadership.
    It seems the prediction of this writer published on 29 January 2021 has been so closer to what has come about.
    Link to reach the article published on 29 January 2021 :-
    http://english.nirpakhawaaz.in/2021/01/29/predictive-alerts-for-more-care-and-appropriate-strategy-in-vulnerable-countries-of-world-during-9-february-particularly-from-mid-february-to-10-march-in-2021/

  14. I dont know how this coward got such a prestigious military award from Government agency May be he would have been congress loyalist. He is continuously spreading venom against Indian Military and showing he is best progonist. Shekhar gupta always like surrounded by some stupid people and ideas.

    • How can you say that? He has far more deeper knowledge than you would have on these issues. Anyone who cares to point to our weakness become bad for us. We are becoming a society of self chest thumbing people where we have stopped looking at our weakness and problems.

  15. India should look for the day when it will have the demographic advantage. China is an aging nation, they will not be able to support a military this large. They will have to move towards a more automated style of warfare as opposed to troops on the ground. If India wants to regain its lost land, its day will come. Such uncalled aggression will not be forgotten. Times may change, and it may very well not matter with free flow of people across borders. However, if it does not. India very well may have its day to be the Aggressor!!!!!

  16. Most funny thing about comment section is that people are teaching a retired Army general about nationalism and strategic planning.

  17. I am surprised that is author is hoping about North east. Ladakh is Ladakh and North east is north east. Chinese will want both the territories.

  18. Shallow article. Full of big empty words that do not convey anything new.

    Panag is so full of himself. He also uses a paragraph where only a sentence is needed.

    Pathetic.

    Shekhar ji, do you not have any other senior Army officer.

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