Escalation on the cards in Ladakh, and screwy developments on the Pangong Fingers the army and government are not being honest about

EAM S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi meet in Moscow amid  border tensions in Ladakh | Deccan Herald
[Jaishankar, Lavrov & Wang in Moscow]

As predicted in my last post, the extended S. Jaishankar-Wang Yi pow-wow in Moscow that reportedly concluded well after midnight, India-time, in substantive terms produced zilch. Keeping in mind Russian sensitivities and the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s determination to see the two not end their meeting with nothing, the Indian and Chinese minister reached a laboured 5-point agreement that far from brightening the prospects of peace may have set the scene for more military exchanges in eastern Ladakh. Depending on what transpires and however the intensity and scale get ratcheted up by the forward units of either side, we may yet have full bore hostilities.

Consider the five points (The text of the agreement at the MEA site, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32961/Joint_Press_Statement__Meeting_of_External_Affairs_Minister_and_the_Foreign_Minister_of_China_September_10_2020.)

The first point repeated the tired line of “not allowing differences to become disputes” — Jaishankar’s signature tune. The second, cleverly from the Chinese point of view, puts the onus on the military level talks — yes, the same patience-sapping talkathons conducted in Moldo-Chushul by the XIV Corps commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Major General Liu Lin, PLA in-charge of the southwestern border sector, and at less senior levels — to reach a modus vivendi and “quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. The third point features the Indian government’s insistence that both sides “abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs” starting with the 1993 peace and tranquillity agreement “in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters” — though the 1993 accord is nowhere mentioned. In the fourth point, they agreed that the military-to-military interactions continue, on parallel tracks, with the Special Representatives level talks and the WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination) meetings. And the final point, putting cart before the horse, voiced the unwarranted hope that the two countries “expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures”.

That the 5-points mean little was stressed by Wang who, in response to Jaishankar’s saying that India “would not countenance any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally” and expressing his desire that bilateral ties resume their earlier “largely positive trajectory”, reiterated China’s “stern position” on the situation in the border areas. He emphasised “that the imperative is to immediately stop provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions that violate the commitments made by the two sides”, adding that it is also “important to move back all personnel and equipment that have trespassed” and the “frontier troops must quickly disengage so that the situation may de-escalate”. Meaning, that Beijing will not compromise a whit on its stance that because Indian troops violated the LAC, they’d have to withdraw to obtain peace premised on Delhi accepting the new LAC secured by the PLA. This frontally contradicts the Indian government’s goal articulated by Jaishankar June 17 of restoring “the status quo” as existed in Ladakh in April 2020.

It is clear though what the Chinese strategy is in the non-military sphere. It is to sow confusion with a plethora of negotiations — each negotiating channel, at least on the Indian side, getting in the way of every other, and seeding a mess that Indian official and military circles will be preoccupied with, while Beijing conveys the impression of progress being made, however haltingly, in this or that or the other channel. As mentioned in the previous post, at the apex level Wang Yi is discussing ways to resolve issues simultaneously with Jaishankar and with the NSA, Ajit Doval. Why Delhi agreed to this twin-apex track in the first place many years ago is not a mystery. In theory, the National Security Adviser in the PMO has the ears of the prime minister — the only person in the Indian system who counts — and is the channel the PM can use for directed intervention bypassing the bureaucratic maze in MEA. So far, some 22-23 sessions of the Special Representatives level talks have been held with nothing to show for them. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the NSA is a Mandarin-speaking China expert or not. Doval was preceded as Special Representative by Shivshankar Menon — NSA to Manmohan Singh, and former Foreign Secretary, who cut his diplomatic teeth in China. It made no difference — there are no results.

That China nevertheless is happy plugging for multiple active negotiating streams suggests they serve China’s purpose, not India’s. It is time Delhi called a halt to this farce of negotiations, and restricted all negotiating with the Chinese to a single forum, a unitariness of command Beijing has achieved by making Wang the go-to guy even as on the Indian side there’s a whole bunch of people mucking up the works. So, the negotiating strategy needs to be sorted out.

To add to India’s troubles, the two principals while alighting on the 5 points in Moscow entirely ignored the fluid reality on the ground in eastern Ladakh, which is hurtling towards some serious military engagements. Except, no one on the Indian side seems to be very clear about what the field reality is, not even the army.

Consider the situation on the north shore of the Pangong Lake. Per press reports, there is supposedly an Indian troop concentration on the Finger 3 ridge to match the strength of the Chinese force on Finger 4 and to deter it from advancing towards Finger 3 via the connecting “knuckle” — the site where the two sides are presently facing each other at not too great distance. But what is really confusing is the Indian army sources have told the press that the PLA is physically blocking Indian troops from reaching a high point — presumably the highest point — on Finger 3 ridge by suddenly appearing with flags every time an Indian detail tries to reach it. (Refer https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/pangong-fingers-hot-up-scramble-for heights-as-pla-men-mass-on-ridge-india-sends-more-troops-6591327/ )

So what is it? Are Indian troops really in control of all of the Finger 3 area or not, the knuckle connecting the fingers apart? Because if the PLA is entrenched on Ginger 4 alone, how can they suddenly appear on Finger 3?

Or, is it an unpalatable truth the army is unwilling to own up to that it has lost or nearly lost all of Finger 3 to the PLA as well? Or, if this feature has not been wholly lost, that the Chinese military units have been somehow allowed to get on the Finger 3 ridge? Because a source in the above-mentioned news story is reported as saying: “The assessment was that sooner than later, the Chinese would descend to cut off our access to Dhan Singh Thapa Post. We had to make sure they were blocked. Now along the entire Finger 3 ridge, Indian troop strength has been increased at different places to match the Chinese.”

If Finger 3 is being contested with the PLA, besides the Major Dhan Singh Thapa post at the foot and on the western side of Finger 3, Indian military presence in, and control of, Fingers 1 and 2 too are imperilled. After all, if the Chinese have taken Finger 3, why would they not try and also push Indian troops out of Fingers 1 & 2, thereby occupying all of the northern shore and completing a route of the Indian army? This reading of the situation fits in with HQ XIV Corps’ apparent belief that the PLA will seek to displace Indian troops from the Finger 3 ridge and add it to all the Indian territory already annexed to the west of it — the extended area from Fingers 4 to 8. Still, Indian military sources explain these aggressive PLA moves as merely a reaction to the Indian occupation post-August 29 of the commanding heights on the Kailash range around Spanggur Lake, proximal to the south bank of the P-Tso. This has only heightened the uncertainty about what’s happening as regards these hilly spurs on the Pangong.

Of course, the Chinese encroachment and permanent occupation of all the Fingers is a worrying prospect, and vacating the PLA from these areas will be a fairly major military undertaking. But the move to contest Finger 3 (and logically also Fingers 1& 2) could be a feint, to divert the Indian military’s focus and resources from the Kailash range that makes the disposition of Chinese forces on the Spanggur Tso and the southern end of Pangong untenable.

The fact is realizing the government’s objective of status quo ante will require the army to vacate the PLA from Fingers 4 to 8, remove Chinese troops from the Y-junction in the Depsang Plains, and PLA presence from the Galwan Valley and the Hot Springs-Gogra-Khugrang area, and protecting the DBO highway by securing the mountain heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River, will necessitate the Indian army being more aggressive and proactive.

One can only hope the preemptive occupation and fortifying of Black Top and other heights in the Kailash range was not a one-off thing — a rare island of aggression in an otherwise bland sea of caution.

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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23 Responses to Escalation on the cards in Ladakh, and screwy developments on the Pangong Fingers the army and government are not being honest about

  1. Sankar says:

    Time will tell, but my hunch is it is Tashkent is all over again where India from a position of strength handed back the hard-won Haji Pir to Pak without gaining anything. Russia upholds its own interest as expected and China extracted as much as it can, but India?
    Another insightful analysis here which will not go very well in Delhi Darbar.

    • RG says:

      They are trying a 62 again ,for ccp festivities next yr they need a win to show for,we still can give them a 71 if we formalize alliances ,exchange notes on what we would need in terms of hardware ,intel etc to push the LAC outwards.

      Non alignment is dead .Am a convert ,I think u should reconsider ur views too ,n pls dont ask me to read staggering ahead again,nothing is static ,things change, they are using Russia to keep us tied even when we have good enough chance of cutting them to size.

      It was USSR treaty that kept china out of 71,we should formalize n weaponize the quad now.

      • Look, the Mod Quad is a far better option. There’s no way the US or any other country will want to take on China in support of India. That’s just how the ball rolls in current international affairs.

      • Sankar says:

        ‘Non-alignment’ is defined in international affairs as a nation-state not allowing any external power to set up military base in its domain of sovereignty. So it is not dead – it is well existing in its full form. Indonesia, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, etc. are non-aligned states. In past India always remained non-aligned even when she signed for a Friendship Treaty with the USSR. The non-alignment movement in international politics is however dead. It was conceived by Nehru, Tito and Nasser as a group of countries then non-aligned. Nehru spearheaded the movement. India will therefore remain non-aligned even it joins Quad without allowing any one of them to set up a military base in India. I think Russia’s use-by-date is up so far as India is concerned. It has been reported:
        “The May incursions took New Delhi by surprise. As Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells Newsweek, Moscow in April had assured India that large-scale Chinese maneuvers in its Tibet Autonomous Region were not preparations for a move below the Line.”
        https://www.newsweek.com/chinese-army-flops-india-what-will-xi-do-next-opinion-1531170
        Obviously, if this news is true, Russia has misled India. And India must think clearly where her interest will be supported to uphold her sovereignty and reorient her foreign policy accordingly. And this is not an easy game.

  2. Tony says:

    Knowing the multiple blunders these frog-in-well RSS shakha guys have done in all directions in this country, all with best of intentions and truly believing that their know-all mentality is supreme, makes me believe that, like the current economy, Ladakh is another chapter in their disgraceful history. I hope and pray they prove me wrong.

  3. Atamjeet singh says:

    Do the Chinese brass take these interactions serious?

    • Apparently not as seriously as the Indian side

      • Sankar says:

        Oh yes, very seriously depending on how one interprets the outcome as announced by Jaishankar. I mean, there is no reference for going back to “LAC before April 2020”. By default then, China has succeeded to impose its newly drawn LAC which has been unconditionally accepted by India. Henceforth de facto Chinese sovereignty has extended by 200 sq kms (?) since May 2020, India losing that much. Prima facie this is Chinese aggression by stealth – a fait accompli. So Wang must have come very seriously to the meeting to undertake his mission.

  4. vivek says:

    still not able to get what is russia gaining with this? more rivalries between india and china actually benefit russia as india will forced to buy more weapons

  5. An email from a senior military officer:

    Once again; thank you for telling the world all this, Bharat!

    I have been telling my friends both military and civilian, that the whole mess has been caused by military feeble-mindedness – not just ‘caution’.

    When will we ever learn?

    • Sankar says:

      Oh, not quite. I refer to the brilliant researches by the French man Claude Arpi, published scattered over open sources for a number of years now, that the Indian military has yet to get the direction from the civilian authorities (MOD, PMO, EAM …) where is Indian northern boundary drawn that defines India’s sovereignty, they are supposed to defend – the military does not have even an official map! The parliament in Delhi is yet to bring out a White Paper in this context of Tibet, India, and China – nothing undertaken since 1947 which a paralyzed state of political affairs. Fundamentally, it is India’s political masters who are messing up the situation and are clueless. Modi (supported by Rajnath in his recent India Today interview) states that no Chinese soldier is on Indian territory. So where is the moral support for the military to get involved militarily? This does not absolve the military of its ‘feeble-mindedness’ as you note. I remember an interview of FM Manekshaw given a few years after 1971 that he did not think China and Pak even jointly could not defeat India militarily if they ventured. They could create big trouble here and there, but that is all – the Indian military is too powerful to withstand and beat it back, but for that India has to be ever-vigilant. And that vigilance has been missing recently as you have correctly noted in your posts.

      • I am a fan says:

        @Sankar You remind of a person, who upon listening to the entire fiction works of Ramayan, has one fundamental query to ask. Who was Ram?

        When we have plenty of army veterans, such as the person quoted above, claiming the “feeble-mindedness” of the Indian army, and even the many essays by Karnad itself, you go ahead and shamelessly make the claim of, “the Indian military is too powerful.”

        Don’t you understand that claims of “feeble-mindedness” and “too powerful” are paradoxical? Or, are you more knowledgeable than the army veterans and Karnad?

  6. Raju says:

    What do you think about recent article in IndianExpress about Chinese Spying on VVIPs ? Is it true ?

  7. RS says:

    Why do you not bet, considering your insight into military affairs and the psychology, that China will keep pushing the Indian military and leadership to the edge, but will not wage a war?
    China will wage a war only if it sees that the other is ‘very’ weak or timid/fearful. It will keep taking territory and testing/probing our patience, and scaring us with their list of weapons.
    No one is talking in Indian media about this-China has so much to loose in a war, decades of prosperity. No bully in the school backyard will risk losing all. A bully stops when the other side ‘shows’ readiness to strike fiercely.
    Of course the military of any country has to be ready to give back a bloody nose, but here, we are being taken to cleaners because they see us more(than them) eager for peace.
    We have to be determined to take back our land and more, should there be a war. Then there may not a war. Chinese leadership is working for the nation and not their egos/self respect-they want the land and not the ephemeral self respect.
    Your take Mr Karnad?

    • My thinking does not differ greatly from yours. Indeed, the terms you have used are precisely the ones I have in my books and in my posts — please look ’em up. The reason I doubt whether Xi will go to war now is because he didn’t factor into his calculations many things, among them, the fact that Delhi did not, as expected, subside in the face of PLA’s intimidation.

  8. Bhaskar says:

    Dear Sir,

    If this deadlock on the LAC at Ladakh continues, do you think it will be difficult for both sides to
    remain there in the winter months of December, January? Could that lead to a deescalation or actually a pre-winter increased hostilities from China?

    Regards,
    Bhaskar.

    • Both the Indian Army and PLA are preparing to stay at the Ladakh heights in the winter, and are stocking up for it. Deescalation only in the sense that in Nov-March activity will be at a low ebb. It could also happen that PLA expecting this, could mount offensives to recapture Black Top, etc. and consolidate.

  9. Sankar says:

    @I am a fan
    “… you go ahead and shamelessly make the claim of, “the Indian military is too powerful.”” –

    Yes, I standby that view.
    India is a nuclear power, she has mastered satellite technology by all published news (if you are reading them), she has successfully tested Brahmos missile and Agni which could now target Beijing. The Air force has also the latest technology and has the ability to strike deep into China. If such criteria do not qualify for military power, what else could one ask for?
    Here is one “expert” opinion in the context:
    “… the Indian Navy (IN), has built itself into a modern and capable three-dimensional force, rated by other navies as professionally “up to NATO standards” and eagerly sought as a partner, both for exercises, and for maintaining “good order at sea……
    … it is incumbent upon India, as a significant regional power and a democracy, to stand up to its hegemonic neighbour…India does have the military capability to inflict unacceptable pain in retaliation for any Chinese adventurism; certainly in the mountains, but also at sea.”
    https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/indian-navy-china-plan-awakening-ladakh-galwan-us-6596208/

    “Or, are you more knowledgeable than the army veterans and Karnad?” –

    Whether my post implies that or not, I can safely leave it to the others here to decide for themselves since the question being on unsubstantiated premise, I have nothing to respond to.

    Finally, I am a fan of nobody!

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