13th round of the Corps Commander-level talks held at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on 10 October, to discuss disengagement from Patrolling Point 15, reached an impasse. Both sides issued strongly-worded statements blaming each other. The stage seems to be set for the confrontation along the Line of Actual Control to continue through the second consecutive winter.
The talks had resumed after a gap of over two months, following the meeting of the two foreign ministers held on 16 September, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Dushanbe, Tajikistan. However, a lot seems to have happened before and after this meeting for the military talks to break down.
I analyse the reasons for the breakdown of talks and the emerging strategic situation along the LAC.
Reasons for the impasse
In Eastern Ladakh, China had a clear strategic aim — impose its hegemony over India and in doing so, secure the 1959 Claim Line (CL) to prevent the development of border infrastructure in areas from where a threat, howsoever distant, could develop to Aksai Chin and other areas usurped by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) before or during the 1962 War. Achieving strategic surprise, China accomplished this aim with relative ease through a preemptive manoeuvre in end of April-May 2020.
China secured 600-800 square kilometres of the southern half of Depsang Plains, denying us access to Patrolling Points (PP) — 10, 11, 12 and 13. In Changchenmo Sector, the PLA intruded across the 1959 CL to deny India access to PP 15, 16, 17 and 17A. The intrusion, in terms of distance, was only 3 km in Changlung Nala and 4 km in the area of PP 15 and PP 16. However, due to the terrain configuration, the access to the 30-35 km long and 4-5 km wide Kugrang River Valley was denied to us. Also, by amassing troops opposite Hot Springs (incorrectly marked as Gogra on Google Maps), it denied us access to Kongka La, PP 18.
North of Pangong Tso, China intruded up to Finger 3 and also secured the higher features to the north, thus securing 40-60 km of our territory.
In Galwan River, the intrusion was a minor one — up to PP 14 — but the situation precipitated during disengagement, leading to the “unarmed battle” on 15/16 June 2020. South of Demchok, China has denied us access to Charding-Ninglung Nala. However, this is one area where the Chinese have not secured the 1959 CL, which is 30 km to the west.
Keeping in view its strategic aim, China had no intention to withdraw from these areas. However, our riposte to seize the Kailash Range in the Chushul Sector on the night of 29/30 August 2020, created an embarrassing and relatively vulnerable situation for the Chinese. Consequently, Beijing diplomatically outmanoeuvred New Delhi into a standalone agreement for disengagement/de-escalation from north and south of Pangong Tso in February. Thereafter, there has been virtually no progress with respect to disengagement/de-escalation. On the contrary, both sides began feverish preparations to cater for the campaigning season (April to November). Mutual suspicion forced increased troop deployment and enhanced infrastructure.
The agreement for disengagement at Gogra in August was mere tokenism. Our government was economical with the truth and the Chinese made no statement. In hindsight, the agreement covered only the disengagement at PP17 and not the Chang Chenmo Sector as a whole. Even this disengagement offers no solace, as given the terrain configuration, the PLA can walk back in at any time. The more important issue of intrusion at PP 15 and PP 16 was not covered. India probably did not agree to a huge buffer zone that included PPs 15,16,17 and 17A and the entire Kugrang River Valley. Consequently, it was no surprise that both sides hardened their positions.
Chinese made their intent clear by intruding into the Barahoti Sector on 30 August and damaging a bridge and unoccupied bunkers before withdrawing. This intrusion was symbolic as it was the location of the first-ever Chinese intrusion in 1954. In India, this incident was reported at the end of September. This was soon followed by reports of another intrusion 12-16 km east of Bum La in Tawang Sector on 28 September, in which 150-200 soldiers were briefly detained by the Indian Army. Piqued at the use of the word “detention” and triumphalism shown by some TV channels in India, the Chinese media went into overdrive to deny the incident. In fact, the Global Times predicted the impasse — “Yet experts warned the incident in Dongzhang will poison the atmosphere of border talks.”
A day prior to the talks at Moldo on 10 October, Chief of Army Staff General M. M. Naravane said: “It is a matter of concern that the large-scale build-up, which had occurred, continues to be in place… It means that they are there to stay, but if they are there to stay, we are there to stay too.”
In a nutshell, the impasse was a foregone conclusion.
Emerging strategic situation
Strategic stalemate is an apt description of the current situation along the LAC. China has secured the 1959 CL in all sectors except Depsang. India lacks the political will and military capability to restore the status quo ante, and to that extent, China has tactically imposed its will and undermined India’s international reputation. However, India’s massive deployment to contest further intrusions and the riposte to seize Kailash Range has denied China a strategic victory. In fact, apart from the US, the world now views India as the only other serious challenger to China.
Having broken the 35 years of relative peace that prevailed since the Sumdorong Chu confrontation of 86-87, China is now faced with a dilemma. It cannot risk a limited war due to an uncertain outcome in extremely difficult terrain. Anything short of a decisive victory is a defeat for a superior power. At the same time, fearing India’s quid pro quo, it cannot thin out from the LAC.
Like in 1962, China has literally forced reforms on the Indian armed forces. There is no choice left but to modernise to reduce the military differential with China. The country is now metaphorically and literally India’s primary adversary.
I do not visualise any serious military confrontation to take place. Both sides will eventually reconcile to manning the border with paramilitary forces with optimal regular forces in permanent camps within striking distance. To this end, the creation of 47 new posts of ITBP and restructuring of the divisions into Integrated Battle Groups is a step in the right direction. For India, it implies an additional division in Ladakh in the defensive role. Not much is in the public domain about the situation in the northeast. However, as per Lt General Manoj Pande, Eastern Army Commander – “there has been very little spillover of the situation (of Easter Ladakh) in the eastern sector.” As per my assessment, we may have to permanently commit two divisions in defensive roles along the McMahon Line/LAC.
The issue of soldiers facing difficulties in high altitude areas has been overplayed. All militaries ensure that their soldiers are well looked after and comfortable. In fact, we should seize this opportunity to create military stations and townships with proper infrastructure in the vicinity of the LAC.
The fallout of the increased deployment along the LAC is going to be that the LAC will de facto become the border with no scope for any change short of a limited war — the probability of which is very low. In fact, it may set the stage for a permanent solution.
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.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)