Stalemate in Ladakh – Ashok K. Mehta

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Ladakh (17 July 2020)

Maj. Gen. Ashok K. MehtaAfter three rounds of dialogue and four rounds of talks between the military commanders, the disengagement and de-escalation process remains stalled with a disadvantaged disengagement at Galwan—LAC shifted one km on the Indian side—and partial disengagement at Hot Springs, Gogra region and Finger 4. The People’s Liberation Army is stubbornly resisting disengagement at Depsang, where it has intruded 18 km on the Indian side of the LAC. – Maj. Gen. Ashok K. Mehta

Twelve weeks after the intrusions in Ladakh, Lt. Gen. Y.K. Joshi, in charge of managing the Line of Control (LoC) and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, said, “We shall continue all efforts to restore the status quo ante along the LAC,” confirming the doubts expressed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh about a positive outcome on disengagement. After three rounds of dialogue of the working mechanism (fourth round is due on Friday) and four rounds of talks between the military commanders (next round is expected this week), the disengagement and de-escalation process (DDP) remains stalled with a disadvantaged disengagement at Galwan—LAC shifted one km on the Indian side—and partial disengagement at Hot Springs, Gogra region and Finger 4. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is stubbornly resisting disengagement at Depsang, where it has intruded 18 km on the Indian side of the LAC.

At most places, the PLA has done a Doklam: Dug down and constructed fortifications. The Chinese have unilaterally altered status quo by shifting the LAC further west, attempting to surpass their 1960 claim line and cushioning the G-219 strategic highway from Kashgar to Lhasa through the Aksai Chin. The ball has been in India’s court since April 19, when intelligence reports about PLA intrusions were ignored. By default, India has accepted a China-dictated DDP model: The creation of buffer zones while India has been withdrawing from its own territory and forfeiting legitimate rights of patrolling. A July 22 Stratfor report by Sim Tack notes that 26 new Chinese encampments, 22 new support bases and two new helipads have mushroomed behind the intrusion points on the Chinese side of the LAC.

In its negotiating strategy, India has put the cart before the horse: Allowing military commanders to determine the DDP whereas a high-level political engagement should have established the parameters for withdrawal, factoring in lessons from earlier intrusions, especially front-loading restoration of status quo ante, followed by the Chinese golden rule of “those who advance first must withdraw first” and “mutual and equal security.” Instead, India accepted buffer zones and attendant restrictions, which could transform LAC into LoC, given in order to match the PLA’s deployment of four to five combined arms brigades, India had to post three additional divisions ahead of its main defences to block the intrusion points.

Interestingly, while India has stressed on complete disengagement along the LAC and full restoration of peace and tranquility for the smooth and overall development of bilateral relations, China has consistently avoided using the LAC (instead uses border areas) and is focussing on complete withdrawal from “friction points.” Restoration of status quo has been replaced with complete disengagement and full restoration of peace and tranquility. Even the blind should see this.

Till date, the Government has not clarified the actual ground situation, except Gen. Joshi’s comforting but embarrassing statement about the reinstatement of status quo. Compounding the problem is the Government peddling a fake narrative that the PLA has not encroached across the LAC and during the Galwan clash. According to Lt. Gen. S.L. Narasimhan from the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), Indian soldiers may have crossed the Chinese side of the LAC in the melee.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh can keep delivering veiled threats of giving a befitting reply when the intention is clearly to de-escalate. Under the muscular Modi Government, two sets of responses have evolved against the adversary’s depredations—a Balakot airstrike against Pakistan and a banners-battle of containment against China.

Emboldened by India’s familiar weakness to meet coercion with counter-coercion, China has begun bullying Bhutan. Though Thimphu has maintained silence over Ladakh, it has rejected Chinese claims to territory in eastern Bhutan. Until now, Bhutan has been guided by India on its 24 rounds of border talks with China. But if India fails to vacate Chinese aggression, Bhutan may slip out of its control and treaty obligations in its own national interest. Popular sentiment in Bhutan is not to mess with China. K5—King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, unlike K4 (Jigme Singye Wangchuck, his father) may not have put all his eggs in India’s basket.

India’s military options are circumscribed by the three Nos: No escalation, no shooting, no war despite threats of a befitting reply. As always, China is the satisfied power after having annexed approximately 60 sq km of the territory. It has already imposed heavy costs on India by sucking in three additional divisions towards the LAC. New Delhi must contain and push back intrusions through dialogue, secure the strategic highway to Daulat Beg Oldie, seize Galwan heights and defend airfield at DBO.

An infantry brigade backed by T90 tanks and light and heavy artillery has reportedly ring-fenced DBO. Indian forces are currently deployed 50 to 60 km ahead of its main defences in the high mountainous terrain defending Leh. Any future conflict will be in the 15,000 feet high plains area from Galwan to Depsang.

This is the first time that 30,000 troops might have to weather it out in a harsh winter, in hostile habitat. Previously, there were not more than 2,000-3,000 troops near the LAC, that, too, mainly ITBP. Further, there have been no joint exercises between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army along the LAC due to restrictions of border protocols.

India’s best bet is leveraging its partnership with the US against China—Washington is in an unprecedented Cold War with Beijing—both militarily and economically. Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have supported India in its resistance to Chinese bullying and aggression. Maritime solidarity has been demonstrated through Malabar Naval exercises, feelers have been thrown about upgrading the QUAD in the Indo-Pacific region and the building of a coalition of democracies to contain China.

But India’s Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, is loud-thinking: About incongruence of non-alignment, the need to make choices and taking risks. Still, a reset in India-China relations must wait till the outcome of DDP and restoration of status quo. Till then, India holding out the threats to decouple from China economically will neither be easy nor bereft of cost, so intricately entwined are the two economies and supply chains. Although New Delhi will wait for Beijing to undo the intrusions, some preliminary punitive steps have been taken and signals for more have been sent out.

Punditry about China’s motives in shedding fig leaf of “hide your strength; bide your time” abounds: Varying from aggression being the diversionary strategy for mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic to realising Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream of reasserting suzerainty issues that are not India-specific but part of reclaiming the territory lost through historical injustices and unequal treaties. Putting the genie back into the bottle will not be easy for China. Equally, an altered status quo along the LAC will be unacceptable to India. As Rajnath Singh said in Leh on July 17: “India will respond with force to attempts to hurt India’s self-esteem.” – The Pioneer, 29 July 2020

Major General Ashok K. Mehta was Commander IPKF South, Sri Lanka and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff.

Ladakh Aksai Chin Map


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  1. MD Rajnath Singh, PM Narendra Modi, MEA Subrahmanyam Jaishankar

    Need bravery, not bravado – Deepak Sinha – The Pioneer – 30 July 2020

    In the preface to his insightful work, Generalship: Its Disease and Cure, British military tactician Major-General JFC Fuller quotes an apocryphal tale told to him by a member of the French General Staff. “At the battle of Waterloo, Colonel Clement, an infantry commander, fought with bravery; but unfortunately, was shot through the head. Napoleon, hearing of his gallantry and misfortune, gave instructions for him to be carried into a farm where Larrey, the Surgeon-General, was operating. One glance convinced Larrey that his case was desperate, so taking up a saw he removed the top of Clement’s skull and placed his brains on the table. Just as he had finished, in rushed an Aide-de-Camp, shouting: ‘Is General Clement here?’ Clement, hearing him, sat up and exclaimed: ‘No! but Colonel Clement is. ‘Oh, General’, cried the Aide-de-Camp, ‘the Emperor was overwhelmed when he heard of your gallantry, and has promoted you on the field of battle to the rank of General.’ Clement rubbed his eyes, got off the table, clapped the top of his skull on his head and was about to leave the farm when Larrey shouted after him: ‘General. Your brains!’ To which the gallant Frenchman shouted back: Now that I am a General, I shall no longer require them!” Fuller went on to add that, “In this modest study, my object is to prove that though Clement was wrong about brains, without his courage there can be no true Generalship.”

    One can go even further and suggest that the central premise of his argument is not just applicable to generals, but just as much, if not more so, to politicians in power. While intellectual ability and competence are indeed vital, they amount to very little without courage. Of course, what is required of them is more in the realm of the mind than of the physical variety. Most crucially, however, we must not mistake a display of bravado for the genuine spirit. As the Cambridge Dictionary makes clear, bravado is only “a show of courage, especially when unnecessary and dangerous, to make people admire you.”

    We recently witnessed an awesome display of sheer bravery and exemplary courage on the part of Colonel Babu and his gallant band during the Galwan confrontation. It was indeed no mean achievement at that altitude to not just counter the perfidious ambush that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had sprung on his unsuspecting team but to give back more than they got. That is self-evident from the lack of any formal acknowledgement of casualties by the PLA. One can be quite certain that if that had not been the case, the Chinese Communist mouthpiece, The Global Times, would have gone to town proclaiming victory.

    However, this makes it essential for us to squarely confront the fact that while courage may win battles, the latter remain just small tactical victories. To emerge victorious in war requires not just enormous sacrifice, determination and decisiveness but also courage on our part and more importantly on the part of those occupying the highest levels of our military and political establishment. Sadly, all we have been witness to in all these days since the confrontation began has been a display of much bravado and bluster, especially on the part of our political leadership.

    The problem of our inadequate quality of strategic communication is predicated by the fact that despite all its protestations, the Modi Government seems incapable of shedding its feudal mindset. Transparency would require it to admit that there has been gross negligence on its part in the manner that it has approached the issue of national security, which in turn, has resulted in the ongoing fiasco. Its shambolic attempts to gloss over the issue and change the narrative to avoid accountability have only added to its woes, as China was able to take advantage of its prevarications and embarrass it diplomatically.

    While prudence dictates that much of what is happening on the ground, especially the actions initiated to resolve the issue to our advantage, need not be made public in the interest of security, it cannot be used as a licence to deny basic information that the citizens are entitled to. For that matter, it also needs to desist from its attempts to turn the spotlight away from the matter by resorting to creating turbulence within the Rajasthan Congress or by announcing a grand ceremony in Ayodhya on August 5.

    Despite the Government’s best attempt to dissemble, it is now clear that the PLA is in possession of a fair amount of territory that we claim as our own though its actual or relative importance, either tactically or strategically, may be contested. For example, while its occupation of areas till Finger 4 in the Pangong Tso sector provides clear visual evidence of its aggressive intent, other than causing bruised egos and embarrassment, it is of little tactical or strategic value when compared to the ingress that has been effected in both the Depsang Plains and Hot Springs sectors.

    Thus, while regaining every inch of territory that has been occupied may be tactically or strategically unwarranted or even unnecessary, how we handle the overall issue of Chinese aggression will be perceived to either signify appeasement and capitulation on our part or signal a firm determination and resolve that unprovoked aggression will be contested and will result in adverse consequences for the PLA. Clearly, we have seen that appeasement only results in further problems down the road, so that has to stop.

    As is often the case in such circumstances, we are still neither very clear as to what led China to undertake such unprovoked aggressive action, nor what it hopes to accomplish. There have been suggestions that the Home Minister’s public call for liberating Aksai Chin and the construction of the road to Daulat Beg Oldi may have been the casus belli, as it may have felt we were keen to change the status quo or threaten the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway. Others have suggested that this action in Eastern Ladakh is just a feint to test our resolve and that the main offensive is likely to be directed towards seizing areas that it claims in Arunachal Pradesh.

    While none of these possibilities can be ruled out, the existing force levels that China has committed within the Tibetan Autonomous Region do not suggest that a major offensive is on the cards. It is possible that the actions against India were just a diversionary tactic to keep us occupied, while Beijing’s true intention was to capture Taiwan before the Chinese Communist Party kicks of its centenary celebrations next year. This would, in fact, explain the move of two Pakistani divisions into the Gilgit-Baltistan Region, which could then operate in collusion with the PLA in the event of any escalation.

    The recent deployment by the US Navy of two Carrier Strike Groups into the South China Sea (SCS) for “exercises”, with a third backing up, suggests that this speculation may well not have been too far off the mark. Not surprisingly the deployment of these Carrier Groups has forced the Chinese to reverse course, as can be deduced from the public statements calling for a reduction of tension in that region, despite increasing US belligerence. In the normal course then, they would look to cool tension along our borders as well.

    However, that may not happen as President Xi Jinping needs some substantial success to save face domestically, which he can only achieve against us in these circumstances. It will not be easy for the PLA to shift the requisite force levels required for conducting a major offensive against us. Moreover, even if Xi can induct these forces speedily, he will continue to remain at a distinct disadvantage given his long lines of communication and terrain configuration.

    In addition, China also faces a disadvantageous force ratio vis-à-vis the air forces and navy in this region. Xi would have by now got fresh insight into the fighting capabilities of our Army, which is experienced in high-altitude warfare.

    Clearly all of this implies that even with the rather neglected state of our military, given the situation on the ground, we do have the option of responding with force. Such an option would have a reasonable chance of success and would indeed bluntly convey to the Chinese and the international community that such unprovoked aggressive actions have consequences. Obviously, such a response on our part would be the correct one, though we would have to factor in the possibility of conflict escalation, maybe even a two-front war. The question really is, do Modi and his top military leadership either have the appetite or the courage to embark on such a course?

    > Deepak Sinha, a military veteran, is a consultant with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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