Ladakh : Defragging Beyond Campaigning Seasons
Sub Title : LAC, a Strategic Puzzle?
Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2020
Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)
Page No. : 14
Category : Geostrategy
: October 2, 2020
From a sudden build up to a tense standoff and an uncertain future, the LAC has become a strategic puzzle. The author has analysed the situation in lucid details. He has asked himself questions that trouble all our minds and provides very thoughtful and incisive answers. The analysis of the Chinese mindset and game plan provides great clarity to their intent and courses of action.
It is now almost five months into the Ladakh standoff. We are yet reasonably unclear on what China wants, how long it will continue to perpetuate this situation and what its future strategy will be. The term ‘long haul’ has been used quite extensively to the point of being flogged without definition or bracketing. Thus it is one of the most awkward national security situations that the nation has encountered and that too in the middle of a pandemic which has seriously dented our economy. This essay is an attempt primarily to bring greater clarity to the situation without taking on too many issues which tend to obfuscate. The format is simple and looks at a series of questions, answers to which will hopefully provide necessary clarity.
Was Prime Minister Modi Wrong in Courting China?
A self-isolated China was eased into the international system under a US initiative which commenced in 1969 under US President Nixon. It was hoped that China’s induction into the international community and linking of its economy with the rest of the world would create the conditions for normalization of its polity, social structures, human rights, civil liberties and other norms which make up national social and political culture. The US and the West did this without realizing that they were nurturing a civilization which felt it had been wronged and perceived grandiose dreams about its position in the world due its imagined middle kingdom status. Subsequently, over time having strengthened its economy, provided a higher quality of life to its people, acquired and developed high technology, created hubs for worldwide supply chains, all without altering its system of governance or provision of liberties to its people, China has been on the way to becoming the world’s number one economy. The Communist Party of China at its 19th Congress in 2017 gave further direction to the Chinese dream of ‘national rejuvenation’ which is what Xi Jinping set out to achieve, that too within his lifetime and stewardship.
Almost the entire world including India benefitted from cooperation with China. However, it was always assessed that besides the economic surge China would one day compete for status as the leading world power. That this ambition could be deferred was what the big powers were attempting to orchestrate. Thus, many nations, not necessarily friendly to China, such as Japan, South Korea, France, UK, Germany and the US continued to maintain stronger economic ties in the hope of leverage over China’s polity and ambitions.
The intent of the world was right but its influence on China’s thinking was insufficient. China undertook the modernisation of the PLA and muscled its way into demonstrating its will to secure its strategic interests. The world yet continued its endeavours to remain engaged with it even as its strategic ambitions grew exponentially; it was not easy to decouple economic interests and disengage strategically beyond a threshold. What the Modi government followed for six years was nothing but a continuum in Sino Indian relations which followed a widely accepted international strategic practice. It was a fair attempt to let economics and development dictate the course while keeping the border disputes on the back burner with hope that these would progressively become irrelevant or easier to resolve once the economies were strongly coupled. Allegations of strategic naiveté against the Indian Government therefore carry little weight in light of the universality of engagement with China. India anyway kept it interest based; the BRI was contested and a push back against the string of pearls did prove effective in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
What was China’s Intent; What is it Now; Could all this have been Read Earlier ?
All kinds of reasons have been ascribed towards the turn of events in May 2020. In military parlance, without understanding your adversary’s intent you tend to grope in the dark. In this case the setting for an assessment of the intent contextually looks at the international environment, the regional and bilateral one, as well as the internal dynamics of China.
On the international front, China’s patience with the proverb, “bide your time and hide your strength”, appeared running out. This was particularly in context of clear US intent to shift focus to the East. For China setting an offensive narrative, for its international strategic interests following the successful selling of BRI to Europe, Africa and much of Asia, was inevitable. The question was about the timing. The pandemic seemed an appropriate time although it could be argued that in Apr 2020 China could hardly be acting so instantaneously on a nebulous understanding of what the international strategic environment would be in a post pandemic setting. There is unlikely to be more clarity on this especially in view of other theories of China’s active involvement in the development and spread of the Coronavirus, none of which are conclusive. It needs to be left at that as just the backdrop for the time being.
Regionally for China the situation with relation to South China Sea, Japan, Taiwan and particularly Hong Kong demanded a push back. The US needed to be unsettled by the chaos of potential conflicts in the making. For all the friendly engagement with India and the personal rapport that Xi Jinping had with the Indian PM there was something which made China uncomfortable. My conjecture is that it was the emerging supremely confident attitude of India, not only related to its status in the world but also to its security perceptions; this was perhaps a first in a long time, in fact almost 50 years and thus unnerving. A couple of recent milestones contributed to it. Prime among them was the response to Pakistan’s sponsored proxy war events in 2016 and 2019; I refer to the triggered surgical strikes and the Balakot air strike. The world largely supported the Indian response and it was repeated with the abrogation of the special constitutional provisions for Jammu & Kashmir in Aug 2019. In the middle of all this came the 72 days long Doklam standoff (2017) which perceptually went India’s way without a shot fired. When Indian political leaders and officials started publicly speaking about the return to Indian control the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK through which ran CPEC, the Chinese probably perceived a threshold situation. Anything beyond this could give wrong signals of China’s tolerance and encourage other nations on its periphery to be emboldened against its strategic interests. In all probability China chose to employ hybrid war against India rather than exercise any conventional option. There are a couple of reasons for this decision. Hybrid war allows a protagonist to test the waters and calibrate further response or draw back without burning the fingers. Hybridity here involves border friction, politico-diplomatic intimidation, volumes of psychological warfare, cyber threats, expansion of fronts, forcing of costly mobilisation, posturing, projection and economic war. The PLA came prepared for LAC engagements and not a campaign style conventional effort. Its strength betrayed its operational intent. In jumping into conventional war against tried and tested Indian mountain troops the PLA rightly felt it could not perceive positive outcomes and negative ones at this juncture would spell disaster towards Xi Jinping’s ambition of advancing the time lines set by the 19th Congress to be in sync with his lifetime.
It was the Galwan incident which changed much, truly living up to an age old adage about such lines of deployment as the LoC and the LAC; ‘here anything tactical can become strategic in a few minutes’. My observation is based upon the fact that till this point the PLA refrained from firearms although it chose to adopt other vicious weaponry. If a conventional intent existed PLA’s capture of tactical heights at South Pangong Tso would have been inevitable and executed very early before the Indian Army mobilized its reserves. China has activated sizeable air resources, artillery, armour and missile units but one thing appeared evidently missing; foot infantry to deliver the mountain tops. Progressively the Indian defensive positions will be much stronger but China cannot run the risk of setbacks by attempting adventurism against Indian positions at this stage; it is this perception which held it back from converting the hybrid concept it came prepared with, to anything conventional.
The PLA probably deployed to the LAC to deliver a couple of messages, among them being the relative advantage it enjoyed in calibration, restricting Indian response and transgressing at will to obtain advantage; a kind of moral bullying and coercion to obtain advantage in the relative geopolitical power game. The Galwan incident and the subsequent occupation of the South Pangong Tso heights by the Indian Army have put paid that aim. It has now to reconsider, recalibrate and re-strategise, for which it needs time.
Very briefly, for those who have knives out for the alleged Indian intelligence failure, reading hybrid intent of an adversary is never easy. Just the movement of troops on training exercise and their forward advance to areas of transgression isn’t sufficient reason to initiate military response in an environment of near symmetry on the LAC. It is this bit of hesitation which provides the window of opportunity to a force but such situations for the first time will inevitably be difficult to respond to. The Indian Army responded reasonably well in time.
What is the Current Military Situation and the Portends of the Near Future?
The Moscow meetings of the Defence Minister and External Affairs Minister remained essentially transactional transferring the burden of talks to a lower military diplomatic combination. It is China’s way of playing for time to re-strategize. Additional troops and other war fighting resources have reportedly been moved forward by the PLA. The option yet exists for it to use overwhelming strength at one or two friction points to capture some ground without triggering a border war. India may follow likewise as a response at another friction point but will probably not initiate such action as it views de-escalation in its interest. There is much speculation that the Pangong Tso front is a deception while the PLA actually means business at Depsang Plains where it has a psychological advantage by having blocked Indian patrolling points from being accessed. Vulnerability of DBO from direction of Depsang Plains is being assessed by many as an inevitability of PLA action. There is no doubt that DBO is the remotest of the sectors of friction. It offers a difficult and deeply contested option for China to enter the Nubra valley and turn the flank but it is terrain friction which holds the key and progress towards Nubra is against the grain of the country. Also without a strong collusive effort from Pakistan in the Siachen sector and clear intent of a long campaign to wrest the Nubra and Shyok valleys, the effort at DBO may pay insufficient dividend. Pakistani efforts against the Saltoro Range seem highly improbable, if not impossible.
It is Pangong Tso North and South where the PLA has lost credibility and it is here it may attempt to regain it. A PLA counter attack on one or two heights of the Kailash Range could be attempted in Oct-Nov 2020 even as talks at Moldo garrison or Chushul continue. An attempt to dislodge the Indian dominating position above Finger 4 could also be on the cards. However, no strategic, operational or tactical advantage would accrue to China by any of these actions unless there is a willingness to address all the alleged Indian transgressions; that is improbable. As a face saver PLA could occupy some of the unoccupied Kailash Range heights closer towards Demchok and Dungti to threaten the Indus axis. However, remembering the idiom ‘mountains eat up men’ the PLA may have better employment for that manpower.
The ‘siachenisation’ (a term coined on Siachen glacier experience)) of the LAC for this season is inevitable and already complete. It’s now a question of effective winter management. China probably seeks to stay through the winter with some pull back of forces. It is relatively simpler for the PLA to deinduct and induct along the flat stretches with a good road infrastructure. On our side although a monumental operational logistics effort is underway, some constraints of habitat would occur. There is little scope of deinducting any troops back due to trust deficit and potential for winter operations. The latter may run against common belief but there have been winter shootouts in Siachen too. Eastern Ladakh in various stretches has terrain where ‘White shod’ operations are difficult but not impossible and therefore surprise will remain a major consideration.
Contingent upon the international geopolitical situation, the results of the US Presidential election, the status of the pandemic and the search for the vaccine, all of which are imponderables with high elasticity, China will decide its international strategy. The loss of face that it may have perceived due to India’s ability to gain tactical advantage in end of Aug 2020 may be retrieved through passage of time and memory fade, or by something more drastic in the next campaigning season. What it would have achieved is the imposition of high economic cost for India’s higher status of readiness. Paradoxically, to some that could be considered a boon in the context of India’s overall strategic matrix; a forced expenditure on transformation of India’s Armed Forces.
In the Army one was used to spelling out operational analyses with inclusion of operational logistics as the key to sustenance of any war effort. In the context of the current Ladakh standoff there was good and early decision making with regard to induction of additional forces and their maintenance should the need for their extended deployment arise. It is less known that the challenge here is about levels of stocks and the staging locations. Stocking Leh is less of a challenge; the two feeder roads and the strategic airlift capability ensure this. It is the deployment across the Ladakh range which is a challenge with some of the highest motorable passes of the world having to be kept open in winter. The Chinook helicopters will be the workhorses through this winter; their full worth will be realized then. It is also good that the Government has decided to hasten the completion of the third axis, Nimmu-Padam-Darcha (NPD) which will not be in use this season but should add to the infrastructure for use next year; especially since the current level of troops may have to remain deployed in Ladakh for some time. An additional airfield in depth in a Zanskar valley may be needed as reliance on the single airfield at Leh is militarily not prudent.
China too has continuously upgraded and added to its infrastructure through the reported construction of 13 military positions in depth all along the northern border after 2017. Three airbases, five permanent air defence positions and five heliports have been completed and more may follow, considerably enhancing the conventional war fighting capability of the PLA. Much of this may never be put to use but it makes for good visibility for psychological warfare, an expensive indulgence though.
What can the Military Talks Achieve?
The silver lining in the prevailing situation is the readiness of both sides to continue with talks at the military level. The recent one on 21 Sep 2020 was converted into a military diplomatic engagement with induction of a seasoned diplomat from the Indian side. The agreement not to enhance troop levels is good but not verifiable in the environment of the trust deficit. There will have to be many more of these meetings even through winter when even the meeting locations Chushul Bowl and Moldo garrison areas are filled with snow. These meetings must not compromise readiness for contingencies.
‘Status quo ante’ is not being mentioned by both sides now that India has acquired a tactical advantage of its own. In literal terms status quo ante would now translate into PLA vacation of Finger 4 to Finger 8 transgression as also any residual transgression in Hot Spring and other locations while the Indian Army vacates the Kailash Range occupation. The challenge in negotiations now lies in ensuring the application of status quo ante in all other locations less South Pangong Tso. A spinoff of the ongoing standoff should be the far better realization that the option of withdrawal from Siachen Glacier no longer exists. The DBO-Siachen connect for Sino-Pak collusive effort to access the Nubra-Shyok Valley always remains a threat at higher level.
Non Military Threats from China: How Serious are These?
The Ladakh situation has triggered an interest in examining other domains not normally yet considered serious threats in Indian security perceptions. The Chinese hawala scam to influence some monks in the Dalai Lama’s order will perhaps trigger the search for more. It is for this reason that I began this analysis by referring to the Ladakh standoff as a part of hybrid war. China is working in conjunction with Pakistan to exploit its social media networks to use information warfare against the Indian public. The experience China has gained in attempting to influence networks in the US especially in the run up to the current Presidential election will probably be put to effective use against India in the domain of grey zone warfare to garner political influence. Hybrid war will not be restricted to India alone but extend to the neighbourhood to influence governments and influencers there. It’s the lack of realization in India that is worrisome because we seem to be sticking to age old concepts of kinetics being the only forms of warfare. That is reason enough for our strategic community to study hybrid war in far greater detail. I do believe India will be pressurized militarily to a great extent but will remain vulnerable far more to the threats of hybrid war in which economic warfare could form the crux. The term ‘long haul’ applies most appropriately to hybrid war.
Lastly we should expect progressively bigger cyber-attacks and endeavor to strengthen our networks, particularly banking, travel, power grids and communications. Defensive capability has to be ramped up even as offensive is more seriously developed. There is also every possibility of Chinese support to sub-conventional groups in India, riding on the back of support being extended by Pakistan. Extension of Indian covert support to antigovernment groups in China including the Tibetan and Uyghur movements must remain on the canvas; that of course requires deep research and insights besides some collaboration with likeminded nations.
Making sense of China’s actions is a challenge at most times with it being master of deception and the art of indirect assault. Thus far it has chosen to calibrate through hybrid coercion against India. Indian pushback too has been cautious but mature. An economic asymmetry exists which China may attempt to exploit to advantage. A military capability asymmetry also exists but can be exploited much less convincingly due to the risk factor and fail proof necessity for Xi Jinping’s ambition. We may assume that China’s stage setting exercise this year played out thus far has not achieved its intent. Our focus should remain on hybrid response while we formulate our strategy for 2021 and beyond based upon assessed Chinese revamp of its current strategy. In that strategy a much greater angle of foreign cooperation needs to be built in to cater to increasing international disenchantment with China I can foresee one of the more challenging decisions for Indian decision makers in 2021 will be the persistence of additional deployment in Ladakh if China chooses to pull back all its additional forces. We will cross our bridges when we come to them, I suppose.