The Modi government’s approach to tackling an obstreperous China, like that adopted in the Vajpayee interregnum and by the Manmohan Singh regime, is frighteningly stupid. If both the PM and his cohort and the Army brass in Leh and at HQrs seem stoutly resistant to good sense and learning from the vast accumulated experience this country has of dealing with Beijing, then President Xi Jinping would be a fool not to exploit the situation to the hilt. He is not and China has.
The result is a significant loss of territory in eastern Ladakh, including on the Pangong Tso and conceding all land beyond the Y-junction bottleneck on the Depsang Plains without a fight. It spells strategic disaster for India reflecting less an imbalance of forces and military wherewithal than Modi’s shocking lack of political will.
The disposition on the ground is as follows: Pursuant to whatever understanding was reached — and it isn’t at all clear what was agreed upon by Lt Gen Harinder Singh, GOC, XIV Corps in his confabulations with Maj Gen Liu Lin, deputy commander, ‘South Tibet District’ — in the fourth round of the corps commanders’ meet in Chishul-Moldo, Indian troops retreated pell-mell to their long established post on the shore side of the Finger 2 hilly abutment on the Pangong Lake even as the PLA pulled back their presence only a slight distance to the line Finger 5, a pullback nullified by the Chinese remaining atop the ridge on Finger 4. Elsewhere, in the Depsang Plains the PLA is entrenched on the Y-junction bottle neck, preventing Indian patrols from reaching not just Patrol Point (PP) 14 but, as Kapil Sibal, the Congress Party spokesman charged correctly on June 27, also PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13. Liu, it is obvious, refused to entertain any talk of the PLA vacating the Y-junction (assuming Harinder brought up the issue at all in their 4th meeting).
Seeing that the Indian government and military would rather run than stand and fight, the Chinese called a fifth meeting to press home their advantage. Harinder was presented with a demand for further “mutual and equal” withdrawal by the two sides from the currently-held positions on the Pangong. Meaning, that India should get out of Finger 2 while the PLA, given its idea of equal, gets down from the ridge above Finger 4? That apparently is the limit of what the PLA is prepared to accept, if the previous experience is any guide. Whereupon, the vanguard of the appeaser brigade — the China Study Group — the worm, finally turned.
It held a stop sign to the China decreeing, in effect, thus far and no farther, instructing Harinder to inform Liu that this new Chinese formula was unacceptable. CSG then reiterated, at least for the media, the Modi dispensation’s objective of restoring the status quo ante first enunciated by minister S. Jaishankar on June 17. Except, it’s way too late because an awful lot of territory has already been lost to China that CSG, Modi, and the army are responsible for.
This leads to the Question: Was Harinder ordered by the CSG/Modi PMO to accept the schemata for military “disengagement” whose details were not spelled out, leaving it to to the two sides to decide whatever the hell was decided by the firm of Messrs Harinder and Liu? How otherwise to explain what came next — the Indian troops drawing all the way back to Finger 2 — skipping Finger 3 altogether — even as the PLA remained stuck on Ginger 4 top?
Was the hurry to withdraw several kilometers westward along the shoreline of the lake mandated by the PM/CSG, or was it Harinder’s call? One can see why GOC, XIV Corps calculated thusly: An already built-up facility exists at Finger 2 and is available for Indian troops to inhabit; hence, it makes sense for the Indian jawans to pull back a longer distance than a smaller one to Finger 3, which would necessitate construction crews to put up some kind of roofed facility on a new spot for the troops to spend the cold nights in.
This option avoided the possibility of the new camp construction activity triggering an adverse Chinese response. If this is how and why that decision was made then it backfired. Because all it did was consolidate China’s hold on the Pangong and convince Beijing to become both more rigid in its negotiating style and to enlarge their ask of India.
The more serious and strategic danger, however, is from the PLA blocking Indian troops from proceeding to all the PPs northwest of the Y-junction occupied by it — some 18 kms inside Indian territory. How deep does an armed penetration by the Chinese PLA have to be before the Modi government and army — in this case HQrs XIV Corps — decide, it is a provocation requiring a military riposte? Apparently, 18 kms doesn’t make the cut. Would the PLA occupying the town of Burtse — just 7 kms away on the DSDBO Road leading to Daulat Beg Oldi, be a trigger? Not sure. Because Prime Minister Modi has yet to publicly call out Beijing — three months into the confrontation, for its brazen large-sized land grab.
What’s involved is not some small parcel of barren, high altitude, real estate where a few PLA stragglers have planted their flag. But a full-scale Chinese military operation to realize the twin aims of establishing a second prong of the pincer closing in on the DSDBO highway, the first prong is in place via the Galwan corridor, and to absorb that entire part of Ladakh in the manner the PLA did the Aksai Chin, albeit more secretly, in the 1950s.
The characteristically smooth and inflexible Chinese ambassador in Delhi Sun Weidong in a webinar hosted last week by the Institute for Chinese Studies in his presentation and in answers to questions prefaced all references to the Indian territory China has occupied with the phrase “As is clear” to assert Chinese troops were on Chinese territory and in all cases that it was the Indian troops who had violated the Line of Actual Control! This is the process by which Beijing legitimates its territorial claims — occupy Indian territory and validate its legal status as Chinese land by pointing to the attempts by Indian forces trying recover lost ground! It is a successful tactic that Delhi has not so far forcibly opposed, and given the trend, won’t in the future.
Should the PLA advance unopposed to the vicinity of Burtse, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) along with its Advanced Landing Ground, will come within range of Chinese artillery. PLA rocket systems will then be in a position to crater the landing strip at will, rendering resupply of DBO by air and forward operations by IAF combat aircraft ex-DBO in crisis, impossible. Additionally, with the PLA so near to DBO, the military logistics system linking Leh to DBO and Siachen, will be permanently compromised — exposed to Chinese firepower. Simultaneously, India’s ability to use the DSDBO Road to interdict traffic on the Xinjiang Highway and at its junction with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the Karakorum Pass, will be hugely weakened.
Such are the stakes that led me to first propose a limited war to get the PLA out of all the places it has ingressed in. Clearing the Chinese roadblock at the Y-junction has to be military priority. The Indian Army, if it is not to entirely soil its reputation, better begin planning and preparing for it without regard to cost. One hopes the COAS, General MM Naravane, and Lt Gen Harinder will together forcefully make the case to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the government for a sustained military operation to accomplish this specific aim, and also to evict the PLA from the Galwan Valley, and to push the Chinese military presence back eastward of Finger 8 to capture enough territory on the Chinese side to use as bargaining card.
Throughout this depressing episode, the Modi regime, advised by CSG, and the army have consistently misread China’s aims and intentions. They assumed wrongly that what was happening in Ladakh was the usual military to-ing and fro-ing on an indistinct border, nothing that could not be settled at the negotiating table. Instead, it has turned out to be what I said in my first post (May 25) on the subject once the PLA’s aggression became public, that the Chinese occupation of Indian territory is permanent. I moreover stated that Delhi’s inaction was tantamount to India’s accepting the loss of its territory. I feared “that anytime the PLA aggressively stakes its interest in a piece of contested territory, Indian army and government all but readily concede it. So, the likely future is for a slow territorial aggrandizement by China — an exercise in which the Indian army and government are and will, in equal parts, be complicit” in the main because they have accepted Beijing’s framing of the issue as PLA acting on its perception of an undelineated LAC, even if it results in the Chinese expropriation of Indian land. It turns out I was right, and CSG and the Indian government wrong.
Further, the CSG and the Modi dispensation still believe, despite all that’s occurred, that talking with the Chinese is still the way to resolve the issues related to the disputed border and to handling the flare ups. If the Corps commander level talks don’t work — as they haven’t — there’s the forum of the Special Representatives to tap. Except, Ajit Doval has had less than no success against a stonewalling Wang Yi, who serenely brushes off the Indian NSA’s protestations, while holding out the vague promise of something working out. All it has done is stoke Doval and Modi’s hope that Xi will be in an amenable mood and sometime in the future permit a durable solution to be negotiated at this forum, and strengthened Beijing’s view of them as a couple of strategic nitwits. They need to be disabused. The only time the Special Representatives forum will, in fact, be successful is when China gets Delhi to formalize the latter’s acceptance of all Indian territory under Chinese occupation, as falling within the Chinese claim line.
Even so this is the false hope that apparently motivated the PMO to order the Defence Ministry to yank a document it had uploaded to its website in early May honestly stating that “Chinese aggression has been increasing along the LAC and more particularly in Galwan valley since 5th May, 2020. The Chinese side transgressed in the area of Kugrang Nala, Gogra and north bank of Pangong Tso lake on 17-18 May, 2020.” It ended by saying “The situation in Eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China continues to be sensitive and requiring close monitoring and prompt action based on evolving situation.” There, of course, has been no action, prompt or otherwise. The deletion of the document from the website cannot be explained except in terms of the desire of the PM, PMO and MEA that nothing be done to, in the least, upset Beijing and that any reference to “Chinese aggression” be excised from the public record.
This speaks about Modi’s unfathomable awe and fear of China and why there has not been even a squeak out of his government regarding Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, or about threats against Taiwan, and serious provocations offered the Southeast Asian littoral and offshore states in the South China Sea at a time when China routinely slaps India around diplomatically. To wit, Beijing’s egregious wagging of finger on the anniversary of the Article 370 abrogation on Aug 5.
Does any of this make sense?
Then again, there really is no way out of the hole the Modi government and army have dug for themselves by being reactive, rather than proactive and attentive to satellite intel, when it comes to the LAC, except to go to limited war. Modi rode out the swell of public opinion demanding forceful military response after the deaths in the PLA ambush of the 16 Bihar personnel on June 15 — the very day on which my post recommended a limited war to claw back the territory China has annexed — by saying little, doing nothing.
Public memory being short, Modi can sit out the public’s disillusionment with his China policy and, as in the past, do zero in the expectation of some political dividend — what it can be is hard to see. But if his peaceful attitude gets him egg on his face, Indian territory stays lost to China, and if the opposition keeps up a drumbeat of withering criticism, he may have no alternative to ordering military action to restore the status quo ante by recovering Fingers 4 to 8 on the Pangong Tso, clearing the Galwan of the residual PLA presence and, especially, removing the Chinese blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains. But then the cost of recovering lost territory will be so much steeper. Such are the wages of feeble minds favouring procrastination and doing zilch rather than going in for prompt action.
As regards the limited war imperative too, I will be proved right. But just in case Modi girds up his loins and initiates a justified military operation, China may need to be deterred from escalating the conventional military proceedings. This will require the PM to deploy those Agnis that are canisterized to the Ladakh theatre, Agni-5s to launch positions in the northeast to reach the farthest Chinese targets, and the Arihant SSBN on active deterrence patrolling in the Bay of Bengal.