Over the last 10 days “diplomatic and military sources” have been giving updates to the media on the disengagement process underway between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army at the face-off points along the Line of Actual Control. The media dutifully has been reporting identical stories without any attempt at independent investigation.
Corps Commander level talks were held for the fourth time on 14 July at Chushul. As per sources, there is disagreement over the disengagement at Depsang Plains and Pangong Tso and overall the pace of disengagement is “very slow and will be on for the next several months”. The issues raised during the talks have been reviewed by the China Study Group (CSG) — a panel comprising top civil servants, besides armed forces and intelligence personnel, that serves as policy adviser to the executive on China – and Army Headquarters.
Opaque disengagement process
As per the media reports based on sources, disengagement has taken place in the Galwan Valley and Hot Springs-Gogra area wherein both sides have pulled back by 1.5-2 km, creating a buffer zone of 3-4 km where neither side will patrol or deploy troops, and by default, India will not build roads. North of Pangong Tso, the PLA, or the People’s Liberation Army continues to be entrenched between Finger 4 and Finger 8, including the heights along the Fingers to the north. The details of the face off at Depsang Plains are not in public domain. Even with respect to the Galwan Valley and Hot Springs-Gogra area, there is lack of clarity on whether the PLA troops have withdrawn across the LAC or merely disengaged by 1.5-2 km from the face-off points.
When defence analysts pointed out the ramifications of the buffer zones with respect to ‘loss of territory’ and ‘right to patrol’, the “sources” retracted their earlier statements. A senior military commander said, “There is no buffer zone. All we have done is that both sides have withdrawn to rear positions so that no accident or flare-up takes place. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is dismantling structures and moving vehicles back at the stand-off points in daylight to maintain transparency. It also wants Indian troops to move back the same distance as there is trust deficit between the two sides… it only requires a spark to catch fire and undo all the dialogue.”
On 11 July, at the India Global Week 2020, when asked by the programme moderator, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said, “So there is a disengagement and a de-escalation process which has been agreed upon. It has just commenced. It’s very much work in progress. At this point, I really wouldn’t like to say more than that.” This is contrary to the Chinese statements, which steer clear from using the term ‘deescalation’ and only focus on ‘disengagement’.
No formal statement has been made by the government or the armed forces on the military situation at the LAC. We seem to have fallen into a now-familiar pattern: the Chinese actions catch us by surprise, both at the strategic and the tactical level; we react with a much higher force level; the exact place and the extent of the intrusion is never formally acknowledged; the outcomes of the military and diplomatic engagements and concessions meted out in terms of patrolling rights, border infrastructure and loss of territory are not put out in public domain; and a “we won” narrative is belted out, lauding the government’s strategy and the capabilities of our brave armed forces. In the instant crisis the bravery the 20 soldiers killed in action is an additional factor.
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Given the differential in military and economic capabilities between India and China, one cannot fault the government for relying upon diplomacy with or without concessions to resolve the crisis. However, maintaining silence and opacity on the most serious crisis India has faced on the LAC since Sumdorong Chu in 1986-1987 has serious implications. And even more serious is the false narrative being built up to indicate that the Chinese have been forced to retreat by India’s strong political will and military might, and no intrusion or loss of territory has taken place. This approach not only endorses China’s stand, but is also seen through by our neighbours and the international community. Even the domestic narrative will not hold for too long because sooner or later the truth will come out. Proclaimed ‘Doklam victory’ is a classic example where the opaque disengagement process actually allowed the Chinese to occupy the entire plateau which can be seen by the public on Google Earth. How did we come to this sorry pass? And what is the way forward to salvage India’s position from the strategic mess we have created for ourselves?
What went wrong?
The yawning gap in comprehensive national power vis-a-vis China, particularly with respect to economic and military factors, simply does not allow us to be an equal in the traditional competitive conflict. It would have been prudent to bide our time as China itself did for 30 years with effect from December 1978. Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character strategy — “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership” — allowed China to focus on its four modernisations — agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense.
We failed to carry out an ethical assessment of our military capability. And even when it was done, we did very little to bridge the gap through holistic reforms and necessary funding. The military hierarchy, rather than apprising the government of the day of the ground realities, itself became part of the political narrative. There is no doubt that the armed forces have come a long way since 1962, but in the same period we have also been outpaced by the PLA by a mile.
Under these circumstances, apart from the macro-level foreign policy challenges that we posed to China, we also challenged its perceived territorial integrity with respect to Aksai Chin — seized by the PLA in 1950s — and other areas captured in 1962 by aggressively developing our border infrastructure in Daulat Beg Oldi, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La and Pangong Tso sectors. This threat as perceived by China was further amplified by political threats to recapture our lost territories. However, not only we lacked the military capability to recapture the lost territories, we also failed to deploy troops to defend the development of the border roads in the sensitive sectors. Even in 1962, this perceived Indian threat to its territory was one of the major factors that led to the war.
This explains why China decided to violate the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It unilaterally decided to capture the areas up to the 1959 claim line to preempt the developing threat.
India was preempted, both politically and militarily, with or without surprise—either we got no intelligence or if we did, we misread the situation. Thus, we missed the opportunity of preempting the PLA in these areas or elsewhere despite having the capability to do so at the tactical level.
China then put the onus on us to escalate. The military capability differential and the risk of a major setback has prevented us from escalating.
India needs to modify its political aim
Unless we are determined to escalate, strategic sagacity demands that we modify our political aim — restoration of status quo ante April 2020. In fact in my assessment, the government already seems to have done so. The compromise acceptable to both the countries appears to be to revert to status quo ante April 2020 with “buffer zones”. However, no patrolling, deployment of troops and development of infrastructure will be carried out in these zones. China gets the 1959 claim line and we get status quo ante April 2020 albeit with “buffer zones”. Both sides save face.
However, I propose three riders that should accompany such an understanding First, the agreement must be made formal and the modified LAC must be demarcated. Second, the government must take the opposition and the media into confidence, and explain the issue to the public. I have no doubt that the entire nation will support the government. If this is not done, then it is victory for China and the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu will be proven right — “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is.”
Last but not the least: carry out an ethical strategic review to introduce national security reforms to bring the Indian armed forces at par with the Chinese PLA. It has been my refrain, in and out of service, that we do not have to repeat a ’62 blunder to bring in reforms. Now that we have done so, albeit at a mini scale, let us get down to business.
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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