China’s objective on the Pangong Tso and what the Indian army must do

Ladakh Scouts: The 'Snow Warriors' Who Stand Like a Mountain to Defend  India!
Time for the Ladakh Scouts to go into action

Two days after I pointed out in my last post the futility of just “reviewing India’s options” even as S Jaishankar & Co. try and resolve the dispute with China through negotiations, the PLA proved with its night time (Aug 29-30) operation that it believed in more direct action. It is another matter that as the Indian army’s statement says the “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.” Instead of the forwardly deployed Indian troops being paralyzed by their surprise action, the intruding Chinese unit, for a change, found itself challenged and its plan for establishing a new LAC alignment this time, ambitiously, on the southern shore of the Pangong Lake, nullified by alert Indian jawans who had previously occupied the immediate heights.

This was all to the good. But then the very next thing did the Indian army did was predictable and wrong. Almost reflexively, the Indian field commander called for a meeting in Chushul with his local Chinese opposite number where, over a cuppa chai no doubt, the two and their juniors endlessly mulled what the PLA soldiers were up to and being told repeatedly in response that they were merely traipsing around on hallowed Chinese territory. How any of this helped is anybody’s guess.

The right thing for the Leh XIV Corps Commander to have done immediately on receiving the signal of this latest Chinese encroachment attempt was to use it as a decision pivot to order instantaneous mobilization and rapid launch of forces to drive the PLA units northeastwards to the point on the Lake where the Chinese have established a bridgehead on the southern bank for the purpose of decanting its troops from the northern shore onto the approaches to the Thakung Pass area on the Indian side.

True, Indian forces on the offensive, fighting hard to reach that south shore bridgehead, well into the Chinese side of the LAC would mean India occupying what is Beijing-claimed territory. This advance, moreover, ought to have been be followed up by the theatre command speedily pouring masses of troops into this salient — there being no dearth of troops with some 60,000-strong Indian presence in that sub-sector, and having them rush to firm up a defensive line on the southern shore with the lake in front as natural barrier. For the first time, the Indian army would have been seen as having taken the initiative and, in a fell swoop, reoriented the LAC — “possession is three quarters of the law” remember! — and, in operational terms, obtained the upper hand.

Time has been lost with the army choosing to powwow in Chushul, stopping after “thwarting” the PLA ingress to presumably preen itself. Except, had this incident been converted into an offensive opportunity and a drive set into motion, the momentum of the Indian military mass would have carried Indian formations quickly to the Pangong shoreline where the PLA troops crossed over. The reason why it would have panned out this way is because it would have been an unexpected Indian move, surprising the PLA, catching them unprepared to deal with a fast-paced and far-reaching movement. And it would have been a perfect, albeit belated, riposte to the PLA entrenching itself in the area Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore that is Indian. This is what the Indian army needs to do right away before the PLA regains its composure.

But what was China’s aim in the first place? Nothing that China does is of tactical value alone; there invariably is a larger purpose. And no Chinese move is ever innocent of geographic calculations because, unlike the Indian government and military, the Chinese have what the pioneering geopolitical strategist Halford Mackinder called, the “map reading habit of mind”.

Now look at the Pangong Tso through this map reading lens and what would the Chinese see? If they drew a north-south line roughly from the end of Finger 4 across the lake to the southern shore and extended it further down, and if the PLA were tasked with capturing the stretch of the southern bank of the lake to that point where the line meets the shore, you would have neatly partitioned the Pangong Lake area with China keeping the larger portion in the east, with the smaller lesser part left to India as a consolation. This, it appears, is the sort of partition PLA is planning to realize.

This makes the kind of Indian counter-action proposed here to secure the northeastern shoreline of the lake and ensconce the Indian military there, an absolute necessity. The sooner Modi, Army HQrs and the Leh commander Harinder Singh recognize that this is what needs to be done the better. Jaishankar and MEA can continue talking crap with Zhongnanhai.

There is however a problem of rushing unacclimated forces to the high altitude desert of Ladakh. Goodly parts of the three Divisions hurriedly deployed to eastern Ladakh will take some time to get accustomed to not merely function but fight in the thin air. But offensive operations against the PLA cannot wait. Here’s where the fullest use of regiments recruiting local mountain youth, such as the justly famed Ladakh Scouts, will come in handy. They have a decisive operating edge over other troops and even the Han-manned PLA who are uncomfortable at heights. The Ladakh Scouts along with other Special Forces in particular the Special Frontier Force featuring motivated Tibetan exiles, and especially the navy’s Marine Commando for lake-shore ops, would obviously be in the van, easing the advance of the Indian main force. And, by way of abundant caution, air defence systems would have to be readied in case the PLA uses its air assets ex-air bases it has constructed in that sector, and to deter the situation from going really askew or from escalating, have the canisterised nuclear warheaded Agni missiles in the theatre as backdrop.

However, what’s the chance the Indian army will finally go on the offense and do something this venturesome, or remotely risky, and the Modi regime permit it?

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.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, Indian Army, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Tibet, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to China’s objective on the Pangong Tso and what the Indian army must do

  1. Sohamg says:

    Mr.Karnad, would the response of the govt. to the Chinese aggression have been aggressive had the media and the opposition parties not taken the govt. head on on this issue and asked tough questions instead of echoing the patriotic tone ? The govt. would certainly have been under pressure to act.

  2. PRATAP A R says:

    It looks like China is furious with the Indian action. Does it really strategically advantage India by occupying those heights? Looks like it was executed by the SFF forces. How do you see this panning out?

  3. Shyam says:

    Based on current news, India’s actions are reactive to Chinas aggressive approach. Is it fear of 1962 kind of defeat,? I think India should take offensive approach. Negotiations with the Chinese are a waste of time. I think , next China will control the river water coming out of Tibet. Recognizing Tibet as a part of China was a foolish act by the Indian Government. It’s time to declare Tibet as a country occupied by China.

  4. Rajinder Verma says:

    Chances are remote … Only if the Chinese inflict casualtues would the Corp Commander be forced to take a call at his level. Manoeuvring leading to death, as in case of the Galwan incident at PP14, would make the decision making process easier. My personal view is China has much to loose from this Easterm Ladakh stupidity. The CCP has blundered awfully here.

  5. Sankar says:

    To my information in the long past the entire lake area Pangong Tso was under India’s possession, both north and south shores with scattered army posts here and there. These were overrun by the PLA in the 1962 war with the result about two-thirds of the lake going under Chinese occupation while the rest still remaining with India. If this historical fact is correct why should one say “… LAC would mean India occupying what is Beijing-claimed territory”?

    • Because in the wake of the defeat in the 1962 War, India accepted the new Chinese drawn reality on Pangong Tso and elsewhere.

      • Sankar says:

        Oh, there are fundamentals here. Every nation in the charter of the UN must submit and get registered its “map” in the world at large specifying its “sovereign territory” with the UN – there has been to date only one exception admitted in the context by UIN – that is the state of Israel, not India. Israel’s border has been left open. I presume India’s map (lodged with the UN) is the original map of India’s landmass of a “British dominion” partitioned in present India and Pakistan. Even the LOC in Kashmir, which came later in existence, separating POK and J&K is registered with the UN, and is supervised by the UN for any breach.
        So, the question arises, has India ever submitted to the UN an “amended map” that “India accepted the new Chinese drawn reality on Pangong Tso and elsewhere” in the aftermath of the 1962 war? In fact, the Indian parliament had passed a unanimous resolution after the defeat of the 1962 war to recapture all the land lost to China. In an interview, the former FS Shiv Shankar Menon has lamented that there is no institutional memory in Delhi. The former BJP leader and one-time PM of India, Vajpayee had given in writing to China that Tibet belonged to China. So where did India draw the boundary of Tibet with present-day India? Also, the present PM Modi announced that not a single Chinese is in Indian territory? So how does one reconcile that?

  6. An Email from a former senior army officer:
    Thank you very much indeed for saying all the right things!
    Nobody was prepared to listen and to agree when I had been saying this privately earlier.
    We are, sadly, stuck with having faint-hearted, lily-livered, frightened school-girl infantry Generals nowadays. What a bloody pity!

    • ARINDAM BORA says:

      At one level both the military and political leadership’s reluctance to be pro-active against the Chinese is quite understandable. The 1962 debacle destroyed the great and mighty Jawaharlal Nehru and many other heavyweights around him.
      The Indian soldier and junior leadership on the ground might not be afraid of a repeat of 62 but the military top brass definitely is. No matter the bravado and patriotism deep down in some corner of their hearts they are afraid of a repeat of 62 and why not? The power differential is as stark now as it as back then if not more.
      The political leadership finds itself between a rock and a hard place. They cannot let China continue with their salami slicing of India territory but must also be extremely cautious with every step they take so as not to provoke them too much as it could invite (or give them an excuse) retaliation and we are not confident of our ability to beat back the Chinese. A loss would cause major loss of face and even popular support in the short-term and a decisive shift of the status quo in favor of the PLA in the long-term. Not to mention it would also dent the invincible image of the Indian military (especially the Army) that both politicians and military leaders have sought to entrench in the minds of well-meaning and patriotic Indians.
      Modiji is in an unenviable situation right now.

    • PRATIK KUMAR says:

      Bharat sir, whatever this senior army officer has mailed to you, Brig Deepak Sinha (ORF) has also talked more or less the same thing. Here is the link…

      https://www.orfonline.org/research/need-bravery-not-bravado/

      Last paragraph tells all…Its really shameful that we have such a military leadership at top.

  7. Raju says:

    Is NATO like alliance with QUAD a good option ?

    • As I have argued in my writings a NATO-type Quad of the US, India, Japan & Australia will be run by Washington for its interests — not what Indo-Pacific countries may want. Hence my concept of a modified Quad or Mod Quad — of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of Southeast Asian states (Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore) detailed in my latest book –‘Staggering Forward’.

      • ranjith says:

        Without the US, any military alliance against China will not be credible and lacks the firepower. Even though I don’t like India being subservient to US interests, I believe a military alliance is needed at least for the next three decades. It will give us enough time to close the gap with China and by 2050 the CCP may disappear. Considering our present situation, gaining time should be our strategy.

      • Disagree. India doesn’t need an alliance for the US to come in against China. It will do so for its own good strategic reasons. What we need to do is be conventionally proactive on LAC but backed, as I have been advocating for many years now, with nuclear First Use strategy. This last is detailed in my book — ‘Staggering Forward’.

  8. Pratap says:

    Is the Indian action a quid pro quo action as a bargaining chip against the Chinese?Or is just securing heights within our territory?

    • What quid pro quo action? We are merely camped on our own territory.

      • Ash says:

        With due respect, isn’t black top on their side of LAC? Part of overall area claimed by both, just like finger 4 which is claimed by both but they are holding currently. Also from what I have read it gives us line of sight to some of their bases on the other side.
        Again, going by a lot of Twitter maps and commentary.. 🙂 agreed it can’t be quid pro quo given the sheer amount of land we have lost so far, but good news however small should be appreciated IMHO.

      • China does not respect the LAC; neither should India. So Black Top should be only a jump off operation.

      • lakshminarayanan says:

        Does Russia hold any position w.r.t. India-China standoff in Ladakh? Do they have any stake in this conflict and if so, are they served by Russia backing either side?

      • Not really. But a secondary interest in brokering peace.

  9. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Another wonderful article by Mr. Karnad and I really appreciate your courage to call a spade a spade. However just today Pentagon has come up with a new report suggesting that PRC now boasts more ships than USN. There is also another piece of news involving China and Pakistan that came recently which says the PLAN will offer Pakistan 8 state of the art frigates in very near future. Now Iran is also coming much closer to China. So in your view what are the possibilities of China, Pakistan and Iran blocking gulf oil that is lifeblood of our economy to reach Indian ports in Gujarat and Maharashtra by using naval assets in both Chabahar and Gwadar in maybe 5-10 years later from today. I would love your esteemed views on this possibility in future.
    Thanks and regards with best wishes. Debanjan

  10. devraj says:

    sir ,indian agni 4 can hit east coast of china by deploying at north east but if china nukes chicken neck of siliguri in very first attempt to end indian way to deploy agni 4 then how will india endanger chinese east coast and it cripple indian position in nuclear arena.can we hit chinese coast other then areas of north east .either from kashmir himachal or uttar pradesh

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