The situation in Ladakh can best be described as one of “ugly stability”. There is no fighting but Indian and Chinese troops continue to confront each other in several places, despite limited withdrawals by both sides in three sub-sectors. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has long constituted the de facto Sino-Indian boundary would be effectively redrawn in Ladakh to China’s benefit if Beijing does not withdraw.
This is not the first time after the 1962 war that India has lost territory here. China’s creeping acquisition, which involves gaining control of pockets of land through methods such as bullying Indian patrols or deterring Ladakhi graziers from taking Pashmina sheep flocks to their traditional grazing grounds, has given China control of significant chunks of Ladakhi territory. An example is the wide strip of land across the Indus between Demchok and Dungti, which, while nominally on the Indian side of the LAC, is now a no-go for locals and even for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police that watches over these areas. Yet, if one were to draw a line connecting the Chinese intrusions in (from north to south) Depsang, Galwan, Hot Spring and Pangong Tso, this new LAC would mark the biggest territorial loss since 1962. Three months ago, this would have seemed a wildly improbable thought.
The Indian military
has responded by pumping in forces by land and air and has confronted the Chinese to prevent further ingress. However, the Chinese have already dug in and moved reserves to back up the troops who have intruded. If they refuse to withdraw and we do not throw them back through military action, these areas will be lost.
Taking a step back, it should be noted that Ladakh has always been an Indian military
vulnerability — the sector where China and Pakistan can act in concert. Troops stationed in Ladakh have been vulnerable to being diverted by Northern Command for counterinsurgency (CI) operations in the Kashmir valley. Indeed, in 1999, Pakistani intrusions in Kargil took India by surprise precisely because the army’s attention was focused squarely on combating the Kashmiri insurgency, rather than safeguarding the apparently peaceful Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil. In those days, the Srinagar-headquartered 15 Corps looked after both the Kashmir valley and Ladakh. After clearing out the Pakistani intruders, the army placed Ladakh under a new formation. But the new Leh-headquartered 14 Corps has divided responsibilities too. It is the army’s only corps that is responsible for borders both with China and Pakistan, in addition to the unique responsibility of defending the Siachen Glacier. Yet, 14 Corps can seldom count on reinforcements because the Northern Command’s reserve formations are too often already committed in CI operations.
In contrast, the Eastern Command is better placed. Each of the three corps that defend the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim enjoy the luxury of a reserve division (15,000 troops) that can be called upon for dealing with a developing crisis. In addition, the Eastern Command can be reinforced with “dual task formations” from the western theatre, if the Pakistani front is inactive. Also, a full division from the mountain strike corps is available for offensive operations in the east. So there is enough in Eastern Command to keep the Chinese at bay.
Illustration: Binay Sinha
Ironically, both India and China feel vulnerable in the Ladakh and Aksai Chin sectors. A key operational objective for the the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is to safeguard the Xinjiang-Tibet
Highway G219, which runs through Aksai Chin. Beijing also feels threatened by Islamist separatism in Xinjiang and the ethnic rebellion in Tibet, both of which come together near Ladakh. Meanwhile, Indian military
planners in Ladakh fear a Chinese threat to the army’s lines of communication along the LAC. In the worst-case, two-front contingency, they worry about a simultaneous attack by Pakistan and China along the Shyok River valley, and a link up between the two that cuts off the entire Siachen Glacier sector, the Nubra valley and the Daulat Beg Oldi sector from India.
While neither of these dire contingencies have come to pass, the PLA’s intrusions have clearly caught the army napping. They have occurred at a time when Indian troop levels were low, and logistics were depleted at the end of winter. Now, when army logistics should be focused on replenishing the stocks consumed during winter, planning attention is diverted to inducting troops into the sector to hold the Chinese, with all the logistics requirements that demands.
From New Delhi’s reactions, which were first to deny the intrusions and now to minimise what China has perpetrated, the lesson to both allies and enemies is that India can be bullied. Given New Delhi’s focus on keeping its political leaders looking good, Beijing can safely surmise that its aggression will continue to be underplayed in New Delhi and that it can, therefore, be continued. The message to India’s partner countries is even more alarming. The government’s obfuscation of the extent of Chinese intrusions and its playing up of the PLA’s withdrawals can fool the Indian public, but not the technical surveillance means — such as high-resolution satellite imagery and time-series photography — that are continually presenting the full picture to friends and adversaries alike. For remaining silent, even India’s friends would extract a price from New Delhi.
For India, this is an inflexion point. New Delhi has long been overly considerate of China’s sensitivities, whether in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea
or in the economic realm. But China clearly wants more. India faces the choice of moving towards becoming a vassal state or purposefully safeguarding its sovereignty and self-respect. True, China is several times more powerful and wealthy than India, and a military confrontation would incur a heavy cost. However, it is worth considering whether Pakistan, which is similarly smaller, poorer and militarily weaker than India, would condone thousands of Indian troops intruding into sovereign Pakistani territory and refusing to withdraw. Sovereignty has a price and sometimes that price has to be paid. Furthermore, at the political level, a prime minister who bases his appeal on muscular nationalism would sooner or later run into difficulty in explaining why India climbed down in the face of Chinese territorial aggression.
Nor is the Indian military without options for limited retaliation against China. The army has multiple contingency plans for local offensives and the ability to hold off the Chinese in key sectors, including in the maritime domain. New Delhi is not without good friends in the international community, especially when it is ranged against China. Furthermore, India is a nuclear power with a functioning nuclear triad and the missiles and warheads needed to deter Beijing. All the government needs to do is to identify clear political and strategic objectives and to give the military planners a free hand to operate without geographical constraints. The Indian military is often underestimated and too much is made of its equipment shortages, when it is perfectly capable of managing in an emergency. Allow our soldiers, sailors and airmen to prove their worth.