Ladakh Standoff Keep the Powder Dry
China recently stated that situation at the border is overall stable and controllable. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said both China and India have proper mechanisms and communication channels to resolve the issues through dialogue and consultations. Sun Weidong Chinese ambassador at New Delhi said, China and India should never let their differences shadow the overall bilateral ties and must enhance mutual trust – elephant and dragon can dance together, using his predecessor’s cliché.
These are usual Chinese tactics of blow hot, blow cold or rather ‘pings’ of a bat in the current context. Some interpreted these conciliatory gestures and coined phrases like “China blinks first” while another went to the extent of saying that “de-escalation has begun”. Such slogans indicate false bravado and are naïve. When not a single PLA soldier has gone back, how has de-escalation begun?
Chinese statement about situation being overall stable and controllable simply implies there is détente from the physical fight for the time being. The physical fight was far more vicious this time with PLA armed with wooden clubs with iron spikes surprising our troops and causing grievous injuries including to two officers. India has said it will continue with development of border infrastructure but the work perhaps is yet to re-commence. BRO must restart this immediately least it is viewed as weakness, while Army caters for PLA mischief.
Should the PLA again resort to wooden clubs with spikes, Army must pay back in multiples. The good old improvised catapult is a good reserve for target practice on empty canned ration tins.
On May 19, China’s state media pointedly blamed India for intruding into the Galwan Valley and constructing defences, saying PLA was left with no option but to make necessary moves. Somehow there was no immediate retort by the Ministry of External Affairs or the NSA branding China as the aggressor in Indian Territory.
Ironically, some Indian scribes sold to the Chinese view, where one even grossly inflating number of PLA troops inside our territory to create fear psychosis. Interestingly, he too was a signatory to recommend India should vacate the Saltoro massif in Siachen glacier region. Now there are reports of China supporting and training Indian journalists who are promoting our adversaries, denouncing India and targeting our military.
This is the very first time that China has gone beyond its own claim in Eastern Ladakh, claiming entire Galwan Valley. Notably, Chinese media says that India should not eschew Western views of China for border peace – which points to the India-US partnership. This is one major reason for the PLA intrusion, in addition to India developing border infrastructure. Border infrastructure on the Chinese side is well developed all along the LAC – roads/tracks down to every post and modernized forward airfields.
The view that Chinese intrusion is to deny India capturing Aksai Chin too is naïve, perhaps inserted in media on Chinese behest. But yes, holding on to Galwan Valley facilitates China grab the lake at Lukung in conjunction other intrusions proximate to Pangong Tso.
Pakistan ‘leased’ the Shaksgam Valley (Indian Territory) to China in 1963 in exchange for military and nuclear cooperation. China had then said that final settlement will be done with whoever finally owns Shaksgam. But India never even broached the issue with China. Concurrent to the Doklam standoff of 2017 where China was able to build a road inside the Doklam Plateau, China established PLA posts in Shaksgam Valley and connected them by road which is being extended to the north of Karakoram (KK) Pass.
Saltoro Massif adjacent to Shaksgam is an eyesore for China. The conspiracy by the infamous Indo-Pak Track II in recommending Indian withdrawal from Saltoro Range was also Manmohan Singh’s (then PM) desire for a Nobel Peace Prize – as generally believed. It was a deep routed China-Pakistan conspiracy in which our then NSA (a diplomat who had served in Beijing) and eight veteran military members of the Track II were roped in by design overlooking the massive strategic disadvantage to India.
China would love to join hands with Pakistan from Eastern Ladakh to Gilgit-Baltistan along the old Silk Route following the Shyok River. This would give all areas north of Shyok to China. China already has a PLA brigade-level force in Gilgit-Baltistan and reports in 2012 both in Pakistan’s regional media and the US spoke of Pakistan leasing Gilgit-Baltistan to China for 50 years.
By capturing Galwan Valley and the lake at Lukung, China would demand the LAC along the Shyok and Indus Rivers, push Indian control west of Shyok River and South of Indus. This would cut off Indian access to Chip Chap plains, Aksai Chin to east and Shyok Valley to the north including DBO. The Depsang plains thereon would give China access to the Shyok Valley threatening Indian deployment in Siachen Glacier area. Similarly, China’s access to Chang La Pass through Lukung could threaten the Indus Valley.
It is being said that current PLA intrusion has been orchestrated at the highest level. There is no doubt about this but with political commissars down to battalion level; every intrusion is cleared by higher authority as per an overall plan. Reports indicate PLA intruded in four locations; Demchok, Galwan Valley, ‘finger areas’ of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh and Naku La in north Sikkim. In Galwan, PLA has dug down about three kilometers inside Indian Territory and brought in heavy equipment, while deploying artillery and mechanized elements on their side of the LAC.
Chinese media says President Xi Jinping has “ordered the military to think about worst-case scenarios, scale up training and battle preparedness, promptly and effectively deal with all sorts of complex situations and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.” There is nothing exceptional about this because Xi is C-in-C of PLA and any C-in-C would tell his forces similarly.
China’s coercive policy has always been all encompassing. In the instant case aside from periodic statements as above it includes Nepal’s anti-India stance (new map claiming Indian Territories and politicians talking of readiness for war with India), Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan ranting between ‘false flag’ attack and India’s expansionism, recent foiling of another terrorist attack in Pulwama, and intelligence reports of Pakistan training some 10 Taliban for terrorist attacks in J&K. Nepalese working in India are getting calls from Nepal to head back warning they will be harmed in India – some are heading back. Nepali communists should know there are no Pakistanis employed in China.
In the aftermath of release of the virus from Wuhan, Xi Jinping is behaving like a raging bull in the china shop – ready to take on the whole world. He is bent upon intimidating Taiwan, violating territories of its neighbours in South China Sea, testing redlines of the US and allies, violating India’s sovereignty murdering the so called Wuhan Spirit, indulging in politico-economic coercion of Australia, EU and others including India (media reports say China has banned pork import from India), and brutalizing Hong Kong into submission through a new law that kills the old treaty when taking over Hong Kong and its own slogan of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
Indian Army’s banner at Galwan tells the PLA in bold letters they are in Indian Territory. However, looking at Beijing’s obduracy the standoff is likely to continue perhaps even into or beyond the closure of passes in winter. The Indian Army is prepared for a long haul. But what if China aims to make this cartographic-cum-physical intrusion permanent, which can hardly be ruled out? India has asked China to honour peace deals signed and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has said that the issue will be resolved in accordance with existing protocols and border mechanisms.
But China has shown it treats treaties and protocols as waste paper. Will it change its stance that India is the aggressor and PLA is in Chinese territory with respect to current standoff? This needs to be given very serious thought. Should the Chinese intrusion continue for long, our own pro-active plans would need to be activated at place (s) of our choosing?
During the 16-km deep PLA intrusion in Raki Nala area of Depsang Plains in Eastern Ladakh during 2013, China eventually withdrew only after India dismantled cameras at Chumar 400 km South of the intrusion area. There was no reason for us to have acquiesced, but we did. China may be looking for similar concessions.
Premier Li Keqiang visited India amidst this intrusion. He is still the Premier and may have advised Xi India can be made to submit. During a TV discussion amid the 2013 PLA intrusion, a two-star veteran suggested that the area being open we could simply establish ourselves behind them. This alarmed a lawmaker, famous for asking support from Pakistan to help his political party get back to power, saying, “General sahib aap to larai karwa doge” – you will get us into a war situation.
India quietly buried the Shyan Saran report submitted to Manmohan Singh in 2013 that proved that over the years China had occupied 645 sq km of our territory in addition to Aksai Chin and Shaksgam. The issue was never raised with China. Inactions like these emboldens China further, who has also been keenly observing the declining defence allocations in India past several years, many annual defence budgets negative in actual terns and military modernization put on the backburner. India’s reliance on diplomacy and soft power without adequate hard power backing it has been a source of perpetual happiness for China.
Given the size and strength of the current intrusions, China could be hoping for major political concessions – like open investments in defence, IT, space etc, agreeing to which would be hara-kiri for India. However, despite overt brinkmanship, Xi is on shaky grounds.
China is making annual profit of US$60 billion from trade with India, while China’s economy has taken a hit and since it is largely export based, prospects are unlikely to improve if China wants to go to war with the world. Xi certainly doesn’t want war. War with the world means China can be choked at specific points in the Indo-Pacific and its BRI and energy pipelines lying open like intestines can be cut and cooked. Its economic centres in Eastern China would be targets should it want to escalate through its nuclear protégés – Pakistan and North Korea.
Indian Army has beefed up its strength at the LAC. President Trump had offered to mediate between India and China which India has declined. US mediation anyway would have had opposite effect given the current state of US-China relations. But this does not mean that other nations with whom India has strategic relationships do not drum some sense into Beijing through backchannel diplomacy – reinforcing that India will not budge and that China is harming its own interests in the long run even if it views India as an Asian foe.
India needs to summon Sun Weidong, Chinese ambassador and convey the same to him, also telling him that if Pakistan engineers another terrorists attack, India will strike at will; terrorist camps, launch-pads, whatever. Weidong should also be asked to ascertain from Beijing the status of ownership of Shaksgam Valley and whether Gilgit-Baltistan has been leased to China by Pakistan.
There is every possibility that Xi may order intrusions in our northeast as well to increase Beijing’s coercion. PLA has never really won a war after 1962 which was very unequal; neither in the border war with Soviet Russia nor by invading Vietnam in 1979. China’s own media calls PLA soldiers ‘wimps’; products of single-child policy who can throw stones and wield rods but are sans battle experience. It is the man on ground that ultimately matters not hi-tech, as both Americans and Chinese learned in Vietnam. Should the Chinese regime initiate conflict, Indian Army can arrange live battle inoculation for the PLA backed by air, artillery, BrahMos, the works. Now that Beijing has bared its fangs, it is time we also address the multiple fault-lines of China and Pakistan.
Calls for buying swadeshi are good but will not exert much pressure on China without government reigning in corporate from doing business with China and taking loans from Chinese banks. Collaboration with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan can give us as good technology, if not better. The fate of junior Ambani having taken excessive loans from China should be a lesson for other corporate. Finally, while politicians, their advisors and bureaucrats can’t desist hogging limelight in near conflict situation like at present, it must be remembered that PLA received a drubbing at Nathu La and Sumdorong Chu because the commanders on ground and the Army were given a totally free-hand. For the decimation of East Pakistan too, it was the Army Chief who chose the date (not the PM) and there was no micro-management by the political apex.
By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch