No real disengagement in eastern Ladakh

China-India border: Why tensions are rising between the neighbours ...
[Bridge over the Shyok]

Much is being unwisely made about several developments on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.

One, that both the Indian and the Chinese armies are withdrawing some 2 kms from the Patrolling Position on the Galwan — the site of the barbaric PLA attack June 15 on an Indian patrol out to verify if the Chinese troops had left the area. This was promised by a Chinese Division-level commander, Major General Liu Lin, heading the South Xinjiang Military District, in his meeting June 6 at the Chushul-Moldo post with the GOC XIV Corps, Lt Gen Harinder Singh. It is the location where the Galwan River runs into the bigger Shyok River. Along the western shore of the Shyok running north to south is the strategic Depsang-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) highway reaching the Karakorum Pass.

Satellite imagery shows the PLA has decamped from the bend up-river. It is very likely though that the Chinese troops up and left the area before the two sides agreed they’d do so because the seasonal snow-melt with freezing waters had swamped the PLA camp forcing the Chinese to get the hell back to their own lines on higher ground. Unless satellite images of that area when the Chinese actually departed indicate otherwise, this is what must be assumed by the Indian government to have happened. Delhi should not needlessly credit China with adhering to whatever was agreed upon in Chushul, when in actuality the flooding waters drove out the Chinese. Whence, it may be argued that it is only India that has really affected a pull-back of its presence on the Galwan. This is important because the Chinese government may be inclined to use the fact of the PLA troops being forced by an act of Nature to retreat as something they willingly undertook to do, and pitch it as a means of reviving mutual trust.

It leaves unclear what the Indian army hopes to do on the Galwan. Will it seek the cover of this minor disengagement to write off the chance of dominating the heights in strength on the ridge overlooking the DSDBO road by pleading deficiency in the logistics system? This seems to be the case because a news report refers to the difficulty of supplying such posts at 16,000 feet altitude the year round using the twin-routes via Zoji La and Manali? As an army source told a newspaper, “a semi-permanent habitat” presumably on this mountain range is not on the cards. ( ).

In the event, the legitimate thing to ponder is this: If the Indian army misses the opportunity of permanently occupying the heights above the Shyok NOW, later may be too late. Because the PLA will surely preempt it by setting itself up on the ridge line. They have already signaled their intent to do so with their Galwan adventure. And because the statement issued in Beijing at the conclusion of the telephonic negotiation July 5 by the two Special Representatives — NSA Ajit Doval and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi articulates the basis for such prospective action by reiterating China’s claim on the entire Galwan Valley. The statement issued by the MEA, of course, makes no mention of it. But China will naturally go by its document, not Delhi’s.

Secondly, the two sides moving back at Gogra and Hot Springs, was the easiest action to affect in the main because PLA did not cross the LAC at these locations. But, strangely, these are the places around which the two sides agreed to establish what is referred to as “buffer zones”. Are such zones different from the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two armies that has always existed and if so, in what way are they different? And what’s the purpose of these buffers and why at these points only? Or, is the buffer zone concept an enlargement of the no man’s land to reduce the frequency of enemy incursions and prevent head-on clashes? It would make sense if this concept were extendable to the rest of the LAC. Such a buffer zone would be helpful at the Y-junction on the Depsang plains the PLA has occupied, preventing Indian troops from legitimately accessing Patrolling Point 14. This is a flashpoint China apparently doesn’t want to deactivate.

Finally, does the requirement for the opposing forces to move back 2 kms not apply to the Pangong Tso area? Because here the PLA are entrenched not only on the shoreline with a motorable road connecting the terrain features Finger 4 and Finger 8, but also on the top of these hills — on Fingers 4,5,6,7 and 8 — an expanse of territory well within India’s claimline that Indian troops regularly patrolled as of last summer, i.e., until the 2019 patrolling season. There’s not a hint from the Chinese that the PLA will be moving out from these parts that boast of some pucca structures. So, how will annexation of this territory by China be reconciled by the Modi government with Minister S Jaishankar’s demand of June 17 for an unconditional restoration of status quo ante? Or, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi tending towards accepting this new territorial fait accompli?

The only good thing to occur with respect to the Pangong Lake is that the Indian Navy is sending its armed patrol boats. Hopefully, they will be manned by its Marine commando (MARCOS) — the country’s finest, most capable, Special Force. It may be recalled just how successful the Marcos were when deployed during Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s foreshortened tenure as CNS in the mid-90s on the Wullar Lake in Kashmir. They ruthlessly shut off attempts at riverine infiltration by the Pakistan-based Lashkar jihadis. We can expect the MARCOS with some unusual tactics to keep the peace, stop the Chinese from messing around, and instill the fear of God in the godless PLA troopers. Hereafter, the contest for the Pangong Tso is bound to be more even.

All of which leads one to wonder if there’ll really be a meaningful disengagement in this region controlled by XIV Corps? Yes, some small de-escalatory steps have been taken, but as matters stand, the PLA is still where it is ensconced on the Pangong, and China has reasserted its claim on the Galwan Valley. This last means the Chinese armed units have not withdrawn any great distance from their forward positions and can renew their annexation offensive at any time of their choosing. This is not progress towards a peaceful resolution. If anything, it should convince the Indian army to redouble its efforts at cementing its presence, especially on the Galwan ridge, and not pull back too much its forces or the warfighting wherewithal hauled up there — the howitzers and air defence missiles in particular, that constitute a deterrent. These should be here to stay.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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21 Responses to No real disengagement in eastern Ladakh

  1. Edelbert Kmenlang Badwar says:

    Of course there will be no real disengagement.Only the naive would think otherwise.Short of having their garrisons on the Tibetan plateau or camps on the LAC bombed,the Chinese will not budge.

  2. Rajesh says:

    Very Good Evening Dr. Karnad,

    If the PLA doesn’t disengage in other contested areas in the coming 30-45 days then does this Indian Government & Bureaucracy has the appetite to play the “Taiwan + Dalai Lama + More Economic Restrictions” cards more proactively.

    As you’ve suggested so many times before, about the supply of Brahmos + Other Weapon Systems to Philippines & Vietnam- Do you think Russia is not allowing India to do so, Or is there any other bottleneck apart from the Indian Government & Bureaucracy timidness.


    • There’s no problem anywhere except for the failure of political will and the absence of strategic vision.

      • Sankar says:

        In my view it is the political conviction of Indians at large which is “responsible” for this – after all the politicians represent the public and would take a different position if the public would stand up. The fundamental issue is that Ladakhis, Arunachalis, and others living in areas far away from Delhi are not considered as “true” Indians by the vast majority of the population. Look at how the general public treats them – they are regularly thrashed in areas of Delhi, Bangalore and other parts of the country as if they are not our own people. If a Ladakhi shepherd loses his pasture to China’s aggression, who cares. It is worth pointing out how despicably the RS member Dr Subramanium Swamy presented his position in a TV interview recently, that the “LAC” is vaguely marked in the areas of Galwan, Pangong etc implying that there is no point of confronting China militarily there knowing very well that the Indian citizens there are regularly being evicted by Chinese encroachment. Would he have the guts to take that position if a Gujju businessman were to be bankrupted by China? It will be too involved to go into such details here.

  3. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sir regarding your initial lines, I think that Y-junction that you have mentioned for Galwan, it’s actually for Depsang Plain and not Galwan. Further the patrolling point is 14 and not 15. Kindly correct it sir. Or if I m wrong then leave it.

  4. Bhaskar says:

    In Galwan also, it seems, there is a buffer zone.
    Do you think it may help then?
    Secondly, how does navy’s patrolling help here when there a whole Chinese army of 5k people in Pangong lake. This is not comparable to what the Marcos achieved dealing with some terrorists in Dal Lake (or others) in the 90s.

  5. Anil says:

    Just like in Doklam,we seem to be in a hurry to disengage. We concretised the Chinese hold over Doklam by withdrawing too soon and all but handed them the area on a platter. Here in Ladakh we are withdrawing 1.5 to 2 km into our own territory and giving the Chinese a free run in the recently claimed Galwan valley. We should have tied them down for a few more months and mobilised international support by exposing Chinese aggression.

  6. Vikrant says:

    This morbidly obese army is saying in so many words that it does not have the will nor the preparedness to fight the muscular China. It wants the political class to save them from this predicament. On the other hand, politicians who are aware of the business class being joined at the hip to China see the disruption as politically detrimental. That’s how you get the tentativeness at the boarder and the weak-kneed actions like banning apps.

    Hugging Taiwan and Dalai Lama would not solve our problems, these are geopolitically meaningless gestures. If we really want to bring fight to the enemy and bring down the CCP then the first salvo – in this century long fight- must consist of cessation of trade with this mercantilist power. Galwan incident has given politicians enough leverage to start beating the drums of decoupling.

    No longer can we afford to import cheap Chinese goods and service its excess capacity. Political class must be made aware of high cost of low price. Trade with China is one of the biggest national security risks.

  7. Sohamg says:

    Has India agreed to create a buffer zone in its own territory which could be freely patrolled by the army earlier?

  8. Karthik says:

    Sir- thanks for the straight talk as usual and I agree that climatic conditions might have made them pull back a wee bit and NOT anything to do with diplomatic pressure etc. It’s incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to see the current Govt’s desperation to pull back and somehow hoodwink the public that disengagement is on and all’s well. I feel even if the Chinese harden their position and stay in Pangong Tso area indefinitely, our gutless Govt will simply lie to the people that this is a disputed territory, so we can all forget about it and friendly media will drum it up as ‘victory’ ‘hit-back’. Even the so-called soft ABV Govt at least reacted to Kargil intrusion and kicked the enemy out. Alas ‘nationalist’ Modi cannot even name the enemy , forget attacking them! What do you think is the threshold beyond which this Govt simply has no options but to respond militarily?

    • The threshold must be very, very high because despite China’s brazen annexations, we haven’t reached it.

      • Karthik says:

        Seems so sir..then I think Modi will pay a huge political price in addition to territorial loss. It’s a double-whammy! The discerning voters will see through his fake bravado and empty rhetoric with nothing to show for apart from a few apps banned! Unless of course like you said in your new post, the army is given a free hand to wage a short but intense war to push back the Chinese !

        Modi Govt and his advisers et al must be made to read Bharat Karnad’s articles as a quick fix template for their foreign policy because thus far they’ve been acting like clueless/headless chickens!

  9. Ravi says:

    Sir,how come satellites were not able to capture the massive chinese buildup along LAC for months which could have alerted the army earlier.

  10. Sankar says:

    Modi has publicly stated that no Chinese troop is within Indian territory. He needs to be challenged in the parliament to come out openly where he has drawn the line defining India’s boundary with Tibet. BJP under his helm has been willy nilly laying charges for “sedition” to all and sundry, so this Government needs to define precisely where Indian sovereignty lies and where it ends territorially. It seems unfortunately there is no taker. Reading the newspapers such as TOI, I get the impression that journalists’ voices are stymied and they are toeing the Government line. I guess, internationally China’s Xi has called Modi’s bluff. International boundaries come into existence by fighting wars for which the military is built by the state. In those days when China attacked Vietnam, Radio Hanoi continuously blared that the Chinese are “professional liars”. High time the power holders in Delhi come to their senses to realize now what is in store for India in the future to go along with China. Dalai Lama has been a great moral asset for India in the international political stage, but Modi has downgraded his political standing in India after coming to power. The far eastern Asian nations cannot look up to India now for political support against Chinese hegemony spreading there. India is too great a power to take nonsense from anyone in the world, let alone China. Indira Gandhi realized that in her capacity as the PM, but it is a long way to go for the present incumbent. I look forward to your views as a strategist in this context, Professor Karnad.

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