The 13th round of Corps Commander level talks between India and China ending at an awkward note was not a surprise to anyone analysing Chinese activities prior to the talks. The talks happened in the backdrop of recent incidents of intrusions by Chinese troops in the Barahoti sector of Uttarakhand and the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh.
It also coincided with a heavy buildup of troops and modern arsenal along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the building of permanent structures in areas which China had encroached in April 2020, a vacation of which was the main purpose of the talks. It was, therefore, amply evident that China was in no mood to concede anything and went through the talks for optics. Post disengagement of troops in eastern Ladakh from north and south of Pangong Tso and some disengagements in Gogra, no disengagement in other areas such as Depsang plains and Hot Spring, Demchok, and thus no de-escalation, was a foregone conclusion.
The Chinese intention to coerce India to resume business as usual, sidelining the border/LAC issue and not insist on a further pullback was refuted by India earlier when it conveyed that disengagement at all friction points leading to de-escalation, peace and tranquility on borders are prerequisites to progressing smooth bilateral ties. This rightful Indian stance to get back to pre-April 2020 positions stands adversely affected by Chinese obnoxious allegations of “India pushing for unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which is creating difficulties in negotiations”.
In recent times, almost 80% of Chinese top leaders including President Xi Jinping have visited Tibet/Xinjiang. Massive infrastructure development in terms of airstrips, rail, road network to border towns like Nyngchi, accommodation and other activities are worth monitoring for India to strategise its responses.
Aims and Strategies
Beijing’s political aim has been the creation of a China-centric Asia which, it feels, is possible only by India’s subordination. This objective could not be achieved despite the prolonged standoff in Ladakh so far. The Chinese strategic aim to control eastern Ladakh was to provide strategic depth to its National Highway G-219 and the Karakoram Pass, besides redrawing the LAC as per its perception (1959-60) and negotiating the border on its terms thereafter. China can claim to have partially achieved it, with continued presence in a few extra miles in Depsang plains, Hot Spring and Demchok areas, where disengagement hasn’t taken place.
Having developed its infrastructure in areas as per its perception of the LAC, China’s aim to deny the same to India has not been successful, as India continues to develop its infrastructure at unprecedented speed to catch up with the Dragon.
The Indian aim has been to get China back to the pre-standoff position at all friction points, not to concede unilateral changes of the LAC, and pursue talks towards its demarcation, hoping to lead to border resolution. With current disengagement, the status quo stands achieved in areas north and south of Pangong Tso, albeit at the cost of losing the crucial leverage of giving up occupation of certain heights on Kailash range and north of Pangong Tso, prior to Chinese vacation of ‘other areas’. Pursuing disengagement and de-escalation in remaining areas will be an uphill task due to shortage of leverages, given Chinese past track record and recent activities.
China marched in areas where it was not supposed to be, junking all CBMs, as part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’, exploiting first-mover advantage. It soon found itself handicapped by strong Indian response, resistance and resolve, with proactive actions resulting in newly created vulnerabilities to Maldo Garrison and its launch pad, south of Pangong Tso. Despite disengagement in the Pangong Tso area, Chinese discomfort due to Indian dispositions in Sub Sector North including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, as a threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity, remains.
The Indian planners will find it difficult to explain why disengagement was not sequenced on ‘first in and first out’ basis, meaning that India should have vacated Kailash Range heights only after China had vacated all the areas, including Depsang plains, Gogra, Hot Spring and Demchok areas. It is reasonable to believe that it has left India at a disadvantage due to a shortage of leverages and no worthwhile saving in financial and human cost, as no real de-escalation has taken place. Notwithstanding the political debates over the legacy of the Depsang issue, it remains strategically important and a threat to DBO and DS-DBO Road; hence a concern for India.
Go Beyond Talkathon
Unlike all major powers, India does not have a National Security Strategy (NSS) in the open domain to steer capacity building to take on China’s challenge in a synergised manner. The classified part of NSS is kept secret by all countries, and rightly so. The reactive actions of India over several decades indicate diplomacy is driven by the “don’t annoy China Approach”, which has failed miserably as Beijing has given no concession on displaying accommodation so far.
Not calling out Xinjiang or Hong Kong by India did not prevent China from dragging India to the UN Security Council on the Kashmir issue, or not progressing CPEC on Indian sovereign territory. In absence of not even stating our challenges, expecting different agencies to synergise in capacity building to take on two-front challenges seems far-fetched. India needs to formulate its NSS and prioritise its challenges and tasks required by agencies to develop capacities. A change in mindset is required, from being reactive to proactive with the additional offensive capability to demonstrate the capacity to encroach into Chinese sensitive areas, in absence of which China has assumed no threat from India, with the freedom to encroach anywhere at will.
Over a period of time, the respective stands of China and India on their stated border positions have hardened. The resolution has become extremely complex due to rising sentiments/nationalism in respective countries, increasing the political cost of any compromise by either side. In light of no major breakthrough in the 22nd round of China-India border talks, no worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation and demarcation of the LAC is expected, which is otherwise necessary to prevent repeated standoffs.
India’s strategic goal should be to continue insisting on a formal delimitation and demarcation of the LAC, which is difficult but not impossible. A temporary solution/sidelining of the main issue is a recipe for the next standoff, leading to the LoC-isation of the LAC further. The Chinese will like to keep the border unsettled till the time the political cost of not settling it becomes higher than doing so. With no de-escalation by China, India is — and will continue to be — ready for all contingencies with similar deployment along the LAC, including creating some more leverages if situation demands so.
India must be prepared for ‘Two-Front War’ as a worst-case scenario, and continue capacity building exercise in all domains, including maritime, where Chinese vulnerable sea lines of communications can be threatened. Besides ongoing infrastructure development along borders, it is recommended that states/UTs along the LAC should allot concessional land to security forces like regional SCOUTS, ITBP, SSB, and families hailing from that area (on the son of soil concept) ready to settle in villages along own perception of the LAC. This will improve inclusive growth, integration, besides proof of our claims on the border, to ward off Chinese design of developing hundreds of new villages along the LAC. The best way to avoid a two-front war is to convince both adversaries that India can fight, backed by appropriate capacity building and intent to use all instruments of power.
Strategic partnerships with like-minded democracies and collective naval posturing to create a multi-front situation for China are efforts in the right direction. There is a need for an alternative supply chain, trade and technological ecosystem, independent of China, for which some initial steps taken by Quad countries need to be pursued. India needs to develop its strategic culture with professional strategists, as diplomacy-driven patch-ups and talkathon haven’t worked so far. The overall strategic approach has to be proactive at tactical, operational as well as strategic level.
The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years of experience in national and international fields and UN. He is currently Chief Instructor at USI of India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.