Military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz famously said: “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” Thus, the starting point of a conflict or war is the political aim from which the strategic and operational-level military aims flow out. Tactical level is focused on a series of military actions/battles, synergised at the operational level to achieve the military aims. As per military theory, political aim must amplify the end state that is sought to be achieved.
Since nothing is absolute in war due to innumerable variables and a dynamic enemy, another relevant term is conflict termination — ending the conflict due to diminishing returns or for peace on favourable terms. Conflict termination is a very difficult decision for nations, particularly when political aim has either not been achieved or only partially achieved as it can have an adverse impact on national prestige, territorial integrity and domestic politics.
What we are witnessing in eastern Ladakh is conflict termination by India and China, with only partial achievement of political aims. This reflects statesmanship by the political leadership of both countries. Unfortunately, the current focus of the political and military leadership of both the extreme nationalism-driven civilisation States is on tactical triumphalism targeting the domestic audience to justify the compromises with respect to political aims. We can only hope that the leadership does not let the historic opportunity for lasting or at least better peace on the Himalayan borders go begging after six decades of conflict.
I analyse the progress of the disengagement process, rival political aims, their modification for conflict termination, and the way forward for better peace.
Progress of the disengagement process
India and China are on the cusp of diffusing the 11-month-old crisis in eastern Ladakh. The disengagement from the north and south bank of Pangong Tso, with a buffer zone between Finger 4 and Finger 8 where no patrolling deployment/development of infrastructure will take place, was completed smoothly on 19 February.
The 10th Corps Commander-level talks were held for 16 hours on 20 February at Moldo. The joint press release is indicative of similar disengagement likely taking place in Depsang Plains, Hot Springs-Gogra and Demchok in a few weeks after more deliberations on the modalities. This will be followed by verified deescalation from the battle zone. However, I must caution that having already withdrawn from the Kailash Range, we do not have any leverage left for negotiations for disengagement on favourable terms in the remaining areas.
In Hot Springs-Gogra, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) coincides with the 1959 Claim Line, and Chinese intrusions were due to our development of roads along Kugrang river and Changlung Nala that open up approaches to upper reaches of Galwan river. The Chinese are very sensitive to this developing threat and are likely to insist on a buffer zone or a moratorium on development of infrastructure to ward off the potential threat to upper reaches of Galwan river. This would be difficult for India to concede.
Negotiations with respect to Depsang Plains and Demchok are going to be even more problematic. In the northern half of Depsang Plains, from Karakoram to 6 km south of Chip Chap river, the LAC coincides with the 1959 Claim Line. In the southern half, the 1959 Claim Line is up to Bottle Neck/Y Junction, and the LAC is 18-23 km to the east — along Patrolling Points 10, 11, 12 and 13. East of Bottle Neck/Y Junction, the Chinese have prevented our patrolling since May 2020. The buffer zone will cover an area of approximately 600-800 square km. For India, this area is vital for the security of the entire Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) Sector as the choke point at Burtse is only 7 km from Bottle Neck/Y Junction. China views Depsang Plains as a launch pad for an Indian offensive into Aksai Chin, thus essential for its security.
In Demchok, the intrusion area is south of Demchok in Charding — Ninglung Nala. However, the 1959 Claim Line is up to Fukche almost 30 km to the west in the Indus Valley. From Demchok, China perceives a threat to Ngari, 60 km east of LAC, through which the Tibet-Xinjiang highway passes. China had captured the heights to the north of Demchok in 1962. By holding the heights to the north and south of Demchok, China can neutralise any Indian offensive. In my view, since Demchok, Fukche and Koyul Valley are inhabited, Chinese will not like to disturb these areas. It may agree to a buffer zone south of Demchok and agree to disagree on the 1959 Claim Line in the Indus Valley pending final settlement.
If during further negotiations, China adopts an absolute position and refuses to compromise with respect to disengagement in the remaining areas, then the conflict termination process would come to a grinding halt.
Why China opted for conflict termination
At the root of the current crisis is the area between the LAC — as perceived by India and as it existed at the time of the 1993 agreement — and China’s 1959 Claim Line for which the term (LAC) itself was coined. India never recognised this line. The coordinates of the alignment of this line were revealed during talks between officials of both countries held in 1960. This line is a marvel of terrain analysis as it foreclosed any potential threat to Aksai Chin and other areas that were usurped by China before and during the 1962 war. India had gradually started patrolling in these areas, beyond the 1959 Claim Line, as it adopted forward posture during and post-Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986-87. So long as India did not deploy troops or develop infrastructure in these areas peace prevailed. These areas of differing perceptions were only subject of talks held by Special Representatives and at Joint Secretary-level under the Joint Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. There are 8-10 such areas in eastern Ladakh, the larger ones being in the southern half of Depsang Plains, between Finger 4 and Finger 8 north of Pangong Tso and Demchok area.
However, once India started developing border infrastructure in the vicinity of these areas and became more assertive in exercising its control, it was perceived by China as India’s new “forward policy” and a potential threat. The first indication of Chinese concerns manifested in Depsang Plains in 2013. Thereafter, the confrontations increased and led to unarmed jostling by rival troops in these areas. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government with effect from 2014 gave impetus to development of border infrastructure with special focus on these areas and political rhetoric highlighted its long-term intent to regain India’s lost territories. The Doklam crisis further alarmed China. This was the primary trigger for the current crisis in eastern Ladakh.
Apart from its long-term aim of imposing hegemony over India by undermining its international/regional status, China’s immediate political aim was securing the 1959 Claim Line in areas of differing perceptions to regain its strategic advantage and prevent development of border infrastructure. Militarily, its strategy was to preemptively secure these strategic areas and thereafter put the onus on India to escalate. I am surprised and disappointed that, politically and militarily, we did not anticipate this strategy. Both the political and military hierarchy are on record to admit that they still do not know why the Chinese precipitated this crisis.
Strategically surprising India, China secured these areas in May without firing a shot. However, India’s rapid overwhelming response to prevent further ingress, Galwan Valley incident of 15-16 June 2020, and securing of the dominating heights of Kailash Range, stalemated China. Despite having achieved its major terrain objectives, it could not impose its will on India and declare victory without escalating to a limited war that it did not want. A prolonged confrontation, in an extremely difficult terrain and climate, was offering diminishing returns. Keeping this in mind, it opted for conflict termination on as favourable terms as could be managed during negotiations.
So what has China achieved? Let there be no doubt that de facto it has secured the 1959 Claim Line in all areas except Demchok albeit with buffer zones. And empirically, buffer zones are an advantage for a superior power. India has been denied patrolling/deployment/infrastructure development and China, with its superior military power and better infrastructure, can always exercise strategic preemption. India as the weaker power will have to think twice before initiating such an action.
Why India opted for conflict termination
First, India had made a cardinal mistake of not deploying troops before developing infrastructure in sensitive areas, thereby offering a low-cost option for preemption. Second, it made the mistake of politically issuing threats without having the military capability to execute them — something that was difficult to digest by China, which also practices extreme nationalism. Third, it was India’s strategic and tactical intelligence failure to assess the Chinese intent.
India’s initial response was to wish the problem away by denial and obfuscation. It relied on past experience, hoping that China would eventually pull back. However, once Chinese intent became clear, India appreciated that it lacked the military capability to take China head on, risking a limited war. A setback would have been politically catastrophic. Hence, militarily, India opted to contain and stalemate China with overwhelming deployment of forces.
India’s stated political aim was restoration of status quo ante April 2020. Though never stated, India probably also aimed for persuading China to demarcate the LAC. India lacked the military capability to restore status quo ante through a limited war — to which any direct military action would escalate. Hence, it decided to pursue a dissuasive strategy with massive deployment of forces backed by diplomatic negotiations.
In order to put pressure on China, India relied on a brilliant manoeuvre to secure the dominating heights on the Kailash Range on 29-30 August 2020. The 1959 Claim Line and the LAC coincide, and pass over the crest of the Kailash Range. Crossing it would have led to a limited war. Consequently, the Chinese also came on to Kailash Range, which has a gradual sloping plateau towards the east. This resulted in an eyeball-to-eyeball deployment at Rechin La, Rezang La and Mukhpari with the potential for an inadvertent escalation to a limited war.
Both sides did not want a war. China as a superior power could not afford a setback for the untested PLA. India did not have the capability to win a limited war. With further confrontation offering diminishing returns, China opted for conflict termination. India wisely followed suit.
In my assessment, India has partially achieved its political aim. It has forced China to terminate the conflict, and status quo ante has been restored with concessions in terms of buffer zones predominantly on our side of the LAC as perceived by us. More than that, it has restored its international prestige by not buckling in and forcing a stalemate on China, which in terms of international relations is a defeat for a superior power. However, there should be no doubt that militarily, buffer zones are an advantage for a superior power.
Conflict termination opens a strategic opportunity
I must reiterate the caution as highlighted earlier. Having withdrawn from the Kailash Range, India has lost the military leverage for negotiations for disengagement on favourable terms from Depsang Plains, Hot Springs – Gogra and Demchok. It can only rely upon the trust it has reposed in China for conflict termination.
On an optimistic note, if disengagement happens as envisaged, the crisis in eastern Ladakh has opened up a bigger opportunity for India and China to demarcate the disputed border to maintain peace and tranquilly, and pave the way for a final settlement of the boundary dispute.
The 1959 Claim Line and LAC coincide in all areas except those of differing perceptions. The buffer zones in major areas of differing perceptions have been or will be marked by default during the written disengagement agreements between the militaries. Special Representatives and diplomats must now negotiate to formally demarcate the disputed border for peace and tranquility. A similar exercise can then be undertaken with respect to the central sector and northeast.
Both the civilisation states have been chastened by the experience of being on brink of a war for the last 11 months. They clearly understand the limitations of use of force, and that maps cannot be redrawn now. It may be prudent to consider a final settlement of the entire boundary dispute along the demarcated border.
We missed this opportunity in 1959, we must not miss it now.
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.