Continued Sino-Indian Standoff, sluggish Peace-Talks and a new World Order in offing
The border tension between India and China continues unabated. The two militaries have dug in their heels at the possible battleground. The deployment of the PLA has enhanced…from the eastern Ladakh…extended to the other parts of the LAC too. The closest to the standoff is the ‘Ngari prefecture’ bordering India, Nepal and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It is considered Tibetan Autonomous region (TAR) which is the most remote region of PLA deployment. Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar are located in the prefecture. It is understood they have positioned significant numbers of troops near Lipulekh, tri-junction of the India, Nepal and China. This is the area where Nepal has unilaterally extended their border map. Their deployment extended to the LAC bordering Sikkim and Arunachal too. Numerous barracks for the troops have been built-up at altitudes upto 15000 AMSL. This will surely enhance the Chinese capabilities with a substantial number of the acclimatised troops for rapid deployment. Such are the essential requirement of the High-Altitude garrisons along the LAC that this magazine has been suggesting to Indian leadership (The Counterviews; Issues 2:12 page-20, Issues 2:14, 15, 16 & 17). With the present govt so proactive to the cause of national security, surely such High-Altitude Cantonments or Garrisons other than Leh, must be in offing in India too. These will be the ideal bases to house the Mountain Strike Forces (MSF) for rapid deployment.
The repeated military level talks between India and China seems to be almost dead or sluggish at best. Neither sides intended to trust the other. China wants India to de-escalate first. However, India is not ready to trust China. Past experience shows the moment Indian troops withdraw, the PLA will advance and occupy it. Hence, India is in no position to risk losing own territories. The Chinese being untrustworthy neighbour is well known. Hence, a legitimate question arises as to why to persist with the talks when there is no progress taking place? Well, it will be an incorrect statement to say ‘no progress’. In the last two rounds of the talks, the diplomats of the two nation too have been in attendance. It is the outcome of the last two rounds that the Battle Tanks of the two nations have been moved back by some distance. No further augmentation of troops has occurred in eastern Ladakh. Hence, there is a hope of de-escalation without shedding blood and that is the reason talks are continuing. Many defence experts feel it is the old Chinese trick and tactics to tire out and fatigue the adversary before launching attack. Hence, this too may be the reason why India is not ready to blink.
So, what if the Chinese don’t back-out? What should be the Indian response?
These answers possibly lay in the facts as to why Indian Army had to accelerate deployment in the first place. It was the PLA who had encroached in to our territories. They have reportedly been sitting pretty in Indian territories since 2013 in almost half the area in the Depsang plateau after having encroached up to Daulat Beg Oldie and camped there for >3 weeks. At that time, they were persuaded by Manmohan Singh govt to go back…and the Chinese just did that. They left DBO but established themselves in the Depsang plateau. They have also been sitting on some part of Ghogra, gradually erected some permanent structures in the Demchok and Chumar areas from 2009 onward. All these were the part of their ‘salami slicing’ of Indian territories to which the previous consecutive governments had conveniently closed their eyes. They further transgressed in the buffer zone of no-man’s-land up to finger 4 of the northers bank of the Pangong lake as well as the Galwan valley and the Hot Spring area…assuming that the Modi govt too will keep their eyes closed amidst the economic cooperation that China had extended to India. But that was not to be. Modi Govt initiated unprecedented steps of immediate deployment almost mirroring the PLA which surprised the PLA. They were immediately checkmated all along their advancing tracks…Depsang plains, Galwan valley, Hot springs, Pangong and later Chushul, Demchok and Chumar.
Compliments to the Modi govt who listened to the Indian Army’s long-standing demands of developing the infrastructures all along the LAC. Actually, it was the making of all-weather DSDBO road along Shyok river that perturbed the PLA who came down to stop the making of the bridge on the Shyok river near Galwan valley. They had already occupied vantage points at the various patrol points in those vicinities and even made a temporary camp close to the Shyok river where the bridge was being made. This led to the immediate escalatory action by the Indian Army that surprised them. This also led to the military level talks on 06 Jun 20 in which they did decide to de-escalate…possibly their old trick of two step forward and one step back. This led to the violent incident in the night of 15/16 Jun 20 in which 20 of our bravehearts lost their lives while inflicted heavy losses on the enemies too (ranging from 46 to 106 PLA soldiers in some reports).
Thanks to the prompt action of the Armed forces that the PLA was prevented from occupying the whole of Depsang plateau and the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) air strip which they had done in 2013. They could have posed a direct threat to DBO as well as Karakoram Pass if they had wished. Fortunately, now there is substantial build-up of Indian forces in that sector but the DSDBO road is still threatened at many points with the PLA occupying vantage points near PP 8, 9 and 10A. For now, India has thwarted all six possible axes of PLA advance in to Ladakh as shown in the map opposite. However, if the PLA launches a major offensive in Depsang & DBO sector, it will be an uphill task for India to defend with the only DSDBO road, the access to which is threatened. The DBO airstrip would be under threat with PLA’s presence at Depsang plains. This is a strategic location that has an access to the Chinese incl their troublesome autonomous regions of Xinjiang & Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kirgizstan air space being monitored. Some of even Russian activities can be monitored from here. The author, a defence analyst will not be averse to the idea of India offering a part of land in or around the Depsang plateau on lease basis to the Americans to build a ‘military security estt’ for keeping an eye on the happenings in the region that they actually need to have.Their presence will surely dissuade any further Chinese misadventure against the Indian frontiers in this strategically important DBO & Karakoram zone. Presently they are just about 3 km behind from the DSDBO road at Galwan and can pose threat at will. Hence, the first objective of the Indian Army escalation was to push the PLA back to their positions as on May 2020 when they moved in to Pangong finger 4.
All those days Indian side had been asking the PLA to observe the status quo ante of May 2020 but the Chinese were little interested in any negotiation because they had upper hand. However, after the tactical deployment of our Armed Forces on 29/30 August on the south bank of Pangong incl Black Top, helmet Top, Rechang La, Reqin La and some other peaks, the PLA suddenly find themselves on the back foot. Their penetration axes along Pangong, Chushul, Demchok and Chumar have suddenly come in the direct line of fire of the Indian Army. In no way now they can advance their army in to the Indian territories. This is what has brought them back on the negotiating table. They want the Indian troops to first vacate from the highly tactical vantage points which India can ill afford. Now India is in a position to bargain for much more….even asking the PLA to vacate their 2009-2013 occupied Indian territories in Depsang plains, Ghogra, some parts of Demchok & Chumar. This is the minimum piece of land on the negotiating table. Aksai Chin can wait at least for now. But India has no doubt that Aksai Chin is its territory illegally occupied by the Chinese.
The present standoff and escalation continuing for months will surely be taxing both India and China but India can ill afford to let the PLA grab its land. The Chinese on their part are playing their old tricks of trying to tire and fatigue the adversary before a sudden offensive. They are also trying to open a new front through Pakistan which has now become an extension of the Chinese colony. Chinese fighter aircraft are understood to be based in Skardu. They are twisting the Pakistani tails to open a simultaneous offensive along the LoC. There is no doubt in Pakistani minds that if the attack India in a two-front move, they will have a bloody nose. India on its side, is ready for a 2-front war if that is imposed by the enemies. So, what happens to the lull at the peace-talks? Will India keep waiting for the Chinese to make next (possibly surprise) move? That will be worst tactical approach.
This is the time India must do everything possible to dissuade the Chinese from misadventures. The present escalation must end with an amicable solution of the root-cause…’the ill-defined international line’ that must be demarcated now before any de-escalation. A mere de-escalation to the prior position without demarcated borders, will surely lead to another escalation through Chinese expansionist agenda. So, while the military level talks are going on to prevent a possible conflict, the foreign ministry of the two nation must sit across to demarcate the international border. On this front, if required, the help of some mediators may also be taken. All options for peaceful resolution of the root-cause, must be explored. USA has already indicated their willingness to broker peace. May be Russia and UK (which was the party to some of the old negotiations during British India) too may join in. There may have to be some hard diplomacy…with some give & take…for the border talks to succeed. There is also a remote possibility that the two armies may draw a red line as exit route from a protracted escalation which could be renamed as another LoC or the alike.
It is absolutely essential for India to have a peaceful border for it to prosper. There are some indicators for the Chinese to yield now than ever before. It is arguably the worst period for them. Their image have taken a serious beating at the international stage both on the grounds of severe Human rights lapses as well as their expansionist approach. Their expansionist agenda is in the world focus both at the Ladakh border as well as the South China Sea (SCS). The PLA Navy, although a formidable force after US Navy, finds itself cornered in their ambitions in the Taiwan Strait, SCS as well as at the Malacca Strait. Their access to the Indo-Pacific Sea is under the threat of the Quad group. Their ambition to dominate the Indo-Pacific Ocean through PLAN presence at Hambantota (in Sri Lanka) and Gwadar Port (of Pakistan) is under serious threat. Pakistani govt’s leasing out of two of their islands… Buddo and Bundal through an ordinance, has caused massive discontentment and protests in Sindh. However, Chinese debt-ridden Pakistan can do very little but to fall in line.
Today when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T Esper were involved in a key 2+2 discussions with their Indian counterparts…Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar, surely lot must would have been on the table for discussions. It would involve bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interests incl the Indo-China standoff. The two nations have moved further on the previously agreed Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). They also signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) between Geo-spatial Cooperation of US and Min of Def, Govt of India. This is something that the US shares only with very close military partners. The Chinese have already sounded to be extremely edgy and unhappy with these developments but let that be so for an untrustworthy expansionist neighbour.
This military cooperation may pave the way for deeper alliance in future. USA needs a strong ally in the Indo-pacific through Indian ocean as well as it may be interested in getting a foothold in the region to monitor all happenings here. India. Sri Lanka and Maldives can together, provide that alliance. Following the 2+2 engagement in India, the US delegation will be proceeding to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia. For US and the Quad group, India can play an important role to have a hold on the Malacca strait…something that the Chinese are very concerned with. India must have a military base close to the Indira point in the Great Nicobar Island to effectively monitor and control the Indian ocean esp the Malacca Strait. If the desire for such Naval / Aviation base is shown by the Govt of India, we have the’ modern-day Bhagwaan Vhishwakarma’, Shri Nitin Gadkari who can get the infrastructure developed withing a very short span of time. In isolation however, this base will be vulnerable to enemy attacks and take-over. Hence, it may be in Indian interest to have a small US military estt in the vicinity on the similar lines to that in the Depsang region (mentioned in the previous paragraph). This will have mutual benefit to both militaries to deter the Chinese/other enemies from any type of muscle flexing and dominance in the region. This could be a permanent base for the Indian Armed Forces. Having own Naval / Aviation base will be anytime better than operating from the Sabang island of Indonesia if they agree to lease out.
Indian firm stand against the Chinese expansionism sends a clear signal to the world that India will not be bowed down by the Chinese bully…neither on land nor in the sea. International community has taken a serious note of it. Today most of the nations are in league with the Indian approach. Undoubtedly, this will create some economic and military pressure on India but surely this will be a way forward to emerge as a regional power. India is the fifth largest economy in world and is rapidly boosting its military might too through ‘Atmnirbhar Bharat’. All these will not go in vain. This possibly is heading towards a new re-alignment of the regional and global powers in a new world order. There is no doubt that such developments will provide India the Strategic edge in the region that it has long been aspiring.