The situation along the Line of Actual Control took a dramatic turn after the rather disappointing and inconclusive Lieutenant General-level talks as indicated by the Ministry of External Affairs, held at Chushul on 6 June. At 4:52pm on 9 June, news wire ANI, which is almost always the first one to put out news citing government sources, tweeted: “India and China disengage at multiple points in Eastern Ladakh. Troops and infantry combat vehicles moved back by 2.5 km by People’s Liberation Army in Galwan area, Patrolling Point 15 and Hot Springs area. India has also moved some of its troops back: Top Govt sources to ANI.”
In sharp contrast to the press release put out by the MEA Monday, ANI attributes the disengagement to the Lieutenant General-level talks. On 7 June, the MEA sources had said, “This will be a long haul and small steps need to be taken to resolve the situation.”
Briefing by “top Indian Army sources”
Apparently, “top Army sources” briefed journalists or gave a handout Tuesday based on the outcomes of the Corps Commander’s level meeting. Grapevine says that the “top source” is one of the military commanders at the very top in Delhi. Since, it appears to be the first government/military brief, albeit unofficial and deniable, on the situation, it is pertinent to highlight the details:
- After the Corps Commanders’-level meeting on Saturday, both sides have “retreated a bit” – a rather unusual way of describing a military disengagement.
- Five areas of conflict have been identified – Patrolling Points 14,15 (Galwan River) and 17 (Hot Springs), north bank of Pangong Tso and Chushul. Chushul had so far not been mentioned in public domain.
- Within the next 10 days, a number of meetings of lower commanders are planned at four points. All hot lines are active.
- Corps Commander-level meetings might become an annual/ biannual feature.
- There has been no intelligence failure as demonstrated by the quick and strong response of the Army.
- Army Headquarters is fully satisfied with the performance of the Army and Corps Commander.
- PLA was matched in terms of men and machines and Indian Army is prepared for “long and permanent deployment”, if China does not retreat.
- The core issue is the undecided LAC. Until that is resolved these episodic issues will continue.
- The sources emphasised that the major issue currently is not just the frontline retreating but the build up that has taken place in the rear. China has deployed fighter bombers, rocket forces, air defence radars, jammers etc. at the LAC and a few km from the LAC. India will continue to carry out major build-up until China withdraws its own.
On Wednesday, the Chinese foreign minister spokesperson Hu Chunying said, “Recently, the diplomatic and military channels of China and India held effective communication on the situation along the border and reached positive consensus.”
In a sharp contrast, other reports give an exactly opposite view and indicate that the Chinese approach was belligerent and uncompromising.
The initial disengagement is certainly a success for the Narendra Modi government’s military and diplomatic approach and may pave the way to restoration of status quo ante April 2020. However, it also raises disturbing questions about the handling of the national security crisis by the government and the military. Has India been reduced to handling its national security and border incidents through stories peddled by “unknown official sources” leading to unnecessary speculation? Given the Modi government’s deafening silence of the past 6-8 weeks, has this disengagement come at a price? Given that China had seized the initiative, and had the upper-hand, what concessions have been given in terms of territory, deployment of troops and development of border infrastructure?
In my view, the confrontation on the LAC is far from resolved.
Govt’s handling of national security crisis
Despite the initial ‘denial’ and attempts at political obfuscation, the issue of China’s intrusions and related military actions along the LAC is now in public domain. The government always seems to get carried away by the fear of domestic political fallout, not realising the pitfalls of such an approach. Since despite a host of border management agreements and continuous diplomatic engagement, China has refused to demarcate the LAC, the lame excuse of “differing perceptions” failed to withstand scrutiny. In three areas–Galwan River, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso–China has deployed regular troops across the LAC and physically prevented us from patrolling up to the LAC.
No formal statement has been made on the military situation on the LAC. We seem to have fallen into a 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 are not put out in public domain; and without learning any lesson, we repeat the entire process when the next crisis occurs. In the last seven years the same pattern was repeated at Depsang 2013, Chumar 2014, Doklam 2017 and also now in eastern Ladakh.
Doklam is a classic case. We proclaimed it as a victory. But, today the PLA is all over the Doklam Plateau with the exception of the Jampheri Ridge. So much for the Wuhan spirit.
There is a need to delink national security from domestic politics.
China’s political and military aims
In the recurring crisis on the LAC in Ladakh, it is pertinent to analyse China’s political and military aims.
China’s political aim is to exploit the unsettled border–undemarcated LAC–by triggering border incidents to exert its hegemony over India and prevent it from becoming a political, military and economic competitor in the international arena, particularly with respect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), South China Sea and Indo Pacific. And in doing so, prevent India from developing its border infrastructure that threatens Aksai Chin and other vulnerable areas.
China’s military aim is to trigger border incidents and preemptively seize tactically important areas to cut off India’s strategic communications which threaten Aksai Chin and its other vulnerable areas. Depending on India’s reaction, China is likely to undertake short-duration limited operations to capture Sub Sector North, area upto north bank of Pangong Tso, Demochok and Chumar. These areas extend the LAC from Karakoram, along Shyok River, north bank of Pangong Tso, along Kailash Range to Demchok and Chumar. These gains would also threaten the Nubra Valley and Siachen glacier and ensure China’s collusion with Pakistan to prevent any threat to the CPEC at Gilgit.
Take the nation into confidence
In my view, the crisis in Eastern Ladakh is far from over. The campaigning season in Ladakh lasts until end November and the stand-off is likely to continue. Indeed, initial steps seem to have been taken by “both sides retreating a bit”, which, at best will prevent “fist and club fights”. I would advise the government to be prepared for a “long haul” and be clear about its political and military aims–sanctification of the LAC and restoration of status quo ante April 2020. The last two bullets of the “top Indian Army sources” briefing only endorse this view.
In the current crisis, the Modi government and the military have lost credibility and the battle of perception, and have literally endorsed China’s stand. It has also sent wrong signals to the international community. In the era of open-source intelligence and “soldier journalists” armed with mobile phones, denial and obfuscation do not help.
Modi government should take Parliament and the nation into confidence within the limits of security. It may be prudent for the Prime Minister to address the nation and military spokespersons to give formal briefings, at least once or twice a week.
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.