“Like Galsang flowers”, Chinese President Xi Jinping said about the sisters Zhoigar and Yangzom, children of one of the nine families of Tibetan herders who make up the village of Yümai. For two generations, Xi wrote, the families had put down roots in the brutal mountains along China’s border with Arunachal Pradesh, becoming “guardians of Chinese territory”. Now, he urged, others should also march into the mountains, and make their nation blossom from the frozen soil.
Few in India noticed Xi’s letter, made public a week after the nineteenth session of the Communist Party of China—a critical meeting that came just months after the Doklam crisis. New Delhi should have been listening harder: as the crisis along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh unfolds, the letter is turning out to have been a declaration of strategic intent.
Even as New Delhi remains cautiously optimistic that negotiations to end the savage winter impasse in Ladakh will lead, at least, to a disengagement of troops in stand-off positions around Pangong Lake, there’s mounting concern that the spring and summer could bring new horrors.
The gargantuan scale of Chinese infrastructure development along its 4,056-kilometre border with India—all but a small part in dispute—hangs over efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis on the LAC. Earlier this month, for example, Xi issued instructions to ramp up ongoing work on the 1,838-km high-speed train service between Lhasa and Chengdu, passing through Nyingchi, across the border from Sikkim.
In 2019, China is reported to have invested some $9.9 billion in fixed asset infrastructure construction in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—like roads, railways and fibre-optic lines. Also, $1.3 billion is being spent on building 26 new towns to draw in investors—and settlers to fill the jobs these investments will create.
In addition, scholar Claude Arpi has noted, a network of rail extensions out of Lhasa will link the Tibet Autonomous Region’s capital to Yatong, cutting across territory claimed by Bhutan—and giving the People’s Liberation Army the ability to rapidly deploy forces in the Chumbi valley, among the few areas on the LAC where India has enjoyed a geographical advantage.
Logistics experts have estimated the networks of rail and roads already in place could allow the PLA’s 76th and 77th combined-arms Group Armies to move up to seven division-sized formations into the TAR inside a week, and over 32 inside a month.
The PLA already has all-weather road access to the 31-odd major passes across the LAC, linked to highways cutting across the TAR—and the new railway links will allow it to push and sustain ever larger numbers of troops into offensive positions almost anywhere.
Earlier this month, New Delhi and Beijing exchanged proposals that centred on disengaging troops at close quarters, followed by a larger drawdown of new forces inducted in the course of the crisis. The proposals, an official familiar with the negotiations told News18, focus on distancing the positions of the two armies, to prevent accidental exchanges of fire spiralling into a full-blown conflict.
In several locations around Black Top, Gurung Hill and Magar Hill, positions south of Pangong Lake seized in Indian special forces operations in August, troops are separated by just a few dozen metres, one army official said. Nyima Tenzin, the Special Frontier Force commando killed in action this August, an intelligence source said, stepped on a landmine protecting a PLA outpost’s perimeter.
The source said that there were also signs that the PLA may be willing to pull back from Green Top, a small position on eight radiating ridges, nicknamed ‘Fingers’, that stretch out north of Pangong Lake. A PLA pull-out from Green Top to behind Finger 8 would restore the situation that prevailed before March.
There is no sign, though, that the PLA is prepared to back down in areas like the Depsang Plains, where Indian Army’s routes to patrol hundreds of square kilometres have been cut off by Chinese outposts.
In the east, from the Doklam valley to the Fish Tails area in Arunachal Pradesh, the PLA has also dramatically expanded its military infrastructure—forcing India, in turn, to commit ever-more resources to defending its territory.
Even if a limited withdrawal agreement is arrived at in the coming weeks, New Delhi is aware it would likely prove a mere punctuation mark in this wider Chinese effort. The PLA’s expanded logistics capabilities give it the ability to bring in forces at will. The Indian Army will, therefore, have to be prepared through the year for confrontations all along the LAC—scrambling, in the early spring, to take and hold key heights, as it did for decades along the Line of Control with Pakistan.
This will be no easy ask—not in the least because of significant financial constraints. In 2018, then-Vice Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Sarath Chand bluntly told Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence that “the army is finding it difficult to even stock arms, ammunition, spares for a 10-day intensive war”.
In the years since, expert Abijnan Rej has shown, funding for military modernisation—as opposed to salary expenditure—has actually diminished.
Though the Indian Army has demonstrated stellar skills in the LAC standoff, capturing key heights south of Pangong Lake to secure the routes to Chushul and holding its ground to the north, this has come at significant costs.
“Looking at these satellite photographs in the media of the Chinese building ammunition dumps or habitation on their side of the LAC,” notes a senior Government official, “you might get the impression this is a one-sided campaign. But if you saw photographs of our side, you’d see that we’ve also expanded our defensive capabilities very significantly.”
“The core problem,” said New Delhi-based strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi, “is that India’s domestic politics has locked the country into a defend-every-inch-of soil mindset, which is both irrational and impracticable in the inner Himalayas. Instead of pushing ever-larger numbers of troops up to try and guard every mountain, we need to dispassionately decide what it is truly important to defend, and think of smarter ways to do it."
Experts agree Beijing probably isn’t looking for full-blown war. Today’s one-child, affluent China—unlike the one that won wars in Korea and Vietnam by sheer weight of numbers, sacrificing lives in the tens of thousands—would likely find it hard to stomach a conflict where thousands were killed, for uncertain strategically marginal territory in the mountains.
Yet, as China moves to secure its peripheries, in anticipation of a long, grinding superpower conflict with the United States, it is certain to seek supremacy on its borders—using intimidation to ensure troublesome neighbours like India are unable to challenge its might.
New Delhi isn’t operating in an option-rich environment. This week, the Centre banned another series of Chinese apps—most, though not all, little known or used in India—in a gesture diplomats say was crafted to signal the intense pressure of public opinion on the government. These actions, though, inflict only marginal economic costs on China.
Following the Doklam crisis, the Chinese commentator Zhu Bo argued that the China-India border “would not be the same again, to India’s disadvantage”. “China will most probably enhance infrastructure construction along the border. India will follow suit, but it will in no way be comparable in either speed or scale, given China’s more robust economy."
The message is simple: rather than overwhelm India in war, the PLA is seeking to lock the country into a resource-sapping confrontation, where supremacy is achieved without actual fighting. New Delhi needs to brace itself for the grim summer ahead—and think hard, before then, about how to best avoid walking into this trap.