It should not come as a surprise that the Narendra Modi government and some in the media and strategic community have projected the military agreement to disengage on both banks of the Pangong Tso in Ladakh as a triumph. The footage of Chinese forces dismantling their forward stations and retreating behind the agreed positions supports this contention.
It should also not come as a surprise that the Opposition has criticised the agreement as a defeat, with Congress’ Rahul Gandhi accusing the prime minister of “ceding” territory to the Chinese. The fact that Indian troops can no longer patrol the areas between Fingers 4 and 8 — that the Chinese previously recognised as outside their claim, and that the Indian Army used to regularly patrol before the 2020 standoff — lends credence to this criticism.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? If you are looking for political answers to this question, you can decide — well, you probably already have decided — based on your partisan preferences. But if you are looking for answers from a strategic perspective, then you have to accept the possibility that both are right, both are wrong, and also that it’s too early to tell. You might not be satisfied by such an answer, but neither reality nor your columnist has any obligation to provide satisfying answers. The latter does, I would argue, have an obligation to give you honest and objective ones.
In his classic book Pure Strategy, Everett Carl Dolman argues: “At the tactical level the issue of deciding a victor is relatively straightforward. Tangible objectives such as relative casualties, physical control of territory, and public sentiment can be measured, and under these pre-established criteria, a victor assigned. At the strategic level, one quickly loses faith in such calculations. It is quite possible to win the battle and lose the war. It is moreover possible to win the war and lose the strategic advantage.”
Arguing that strategy is “a plan for attaining continuing advantage,” Dolman asserts “the strategic purpose of war is to attain a better condition of peace.” (Emphasis in original)
The formula behind the Pangong Tso disengagement involves a mutual understanding that neither Indian nor Chinese troops will patrol “grey zones” between their respective lines. It is likely — but not inevitable — that the same formula will be applied to other flashpoints in Ladakh, including Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and Depsang. It is also likely that should the military leadership come to an agreement on all these locations, PM Modi and General Secretary Xi Jinping will sign off on a political understanding that upholds the new norm.
It is hard to say how long the Chinese side will abide by these terms, after having seen the utility of transgressions in pushing the envelope. China’s claims along the Ladakh frontier today exceed those of the 1960s and 1990s; and even if they haven’t been able to keep the transgressed territory, they have managed to reduce the ambit of the Indian Army’s patrols. Moreover, the Chinese leadership has realised that poking India in the Himalayas is an easy way to divert New Delhi’s political incentives, strategic focus and fiscal resources away from the maritime Indo-Pacific, where it could do disproportionate damage to Beijing’s interests. Therefore, unless there is a profound change of thinking in the Chinese establishment, every border understanding between the two countries will be a perishable commodity.
Not the final move
Do the 2021 border understandings indicate a “better condition of peace”?
To the extent that the disengagement reduces the risk of a bigger war that neither side wants, it is a good thing for both countries. Both the pre-pandemic economic slowdown and post-pandemic recovery path have weakened India’s war-fighting capacity. This year’s defence budget is nearly flat, and the government’s overall fiscal constraints will remain tight over the next few years. For India, in the short-term, therefore, lowering tensions with China in the Himalayas is better than the alternative.
Whether or not it creates a better condition of peace in the longer term depends more on New Delhi than on Beijing. Can we create rapid economic growth at a pace that narrows the widening power differential with China? Can we make India an engine of prosperity for its subcontinental and Indo-Pacific neighbours, so that they have confidence that India is a counterweight to China? Can our economy, diplomacy and military power make the United States need India more than we need them? Can India become an important security provider in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, in addition to the Indian Ocean region?
Even if the answer is an optimistic “yes” to all these questions, there is still the question of how fast. Because in the meantime, China can use — and will use — its preponderance relentlessly to change the regional status quo to its advantage. It is wishful thinking to believe, as senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha does, that the creation of a belt of buffer zones along the disputed India-China border will solve the problem. For China can push the belt westwards and southwards just as easily as a line, perhaps more easily. For this reason, even if there is a border agreement of some kind, New Delhi will have to continue to use economic and Indo-Pacific levers to counter Beijing’s moves. As Dolman points out, “war is but one aspect of social and political competition, an ongoing interaction that has no finality.”
Tailpiece: The Himalayan military adventurism is a strategic failure for Xi Jinping, even if it helped divert some of India’s military resources away from the maritime Indo-Pacific. China today suffers a worse condition of peace with India in decades, even as it faces a United States that is convinced that Beijing is a strategic adversary. It has paid a heavy price for trying to snatch a few remote peaks, salients and fingers in Ladakh. What’s worse, it now has to retreat from them. As I have long argued, the strategic acumen of the men in Beijing has been overrated.
Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.