In this satellite image provided by Planet Labs, the Ngari GÃnsa civil-military airport base taken on May 17, 2020, near the border with India in far western region of Tibet in China shows development around the airport. Tensions along the China-India border high in the Himalayas have flared again in recent weeks. Indian officials say the latest row began in early May, when Chinese soldiers entered the Indian-controlled territory of Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts. China has sought to downplay the confrontation while providing little information

The essence of Chinese strategy is to develop the existing border dispute in the high Himalayas into an opportunity for military coercion

by Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Public understanding of security-related issues with Pakistan is far better than those related to China because the former are geographically better imprinted in the Indian public mind. China is much more complex, and India’s relationship has a lot to do with coexistence with a neighbour who the entire world is attempting to demystify. The puzzle that is China befuddles with its deep civilisational complexity providing little clarity on its intent, especially in suddenly triggered border standoffs. With the ongoing events in Ladakh, the PLA-Indian Army talks are shortly to take place at the traditional meeting spot of the two militaries near Chushul. These are significant as Ladakh has become a far more important ground for contest than all the other areas under dispute. So, what are those boxes that one should tick off in the mind to put this entire China-initiated drama into perspective for a simpler understanding about recent events, from the strategic to the tactical.

China has long been uncomfortable with India’s yet unrealised potential. It senses that the gap between the two nations will close at some stage. Its own rise is not uncontested, and it fears the feasibility of India’s pragmatic cooperation with China’s detractors to put limits on the latter’s rise. Thus, while fully appreciating the need for economic cooperation with India for its own benefit, the fear of India’s strategic potential dictates the need to slow it down and deter it from both individual and collaborative ambitions. The essence of the Chinese strategy is to develop the existing border dispute in the high Himalayas into an opportunity for military coercion. It thus favours non-resolution and perpetuation of the dispute. This helps in diverting the world’s attention away from its true vulnerability -- which lies in the maritime zone. Besides this basic strategy, China desires to limit India’s options and psychologically disallow it to ever go the full way to either achieve its own geopolitical aspirations or cooperate with others. Towards that end China’s limited border-related military adventurism is always supported by massive doses of information warfare, which is usually played out professionally in keeping with its developed doctrines.

Why 2020 and why Ladakh, with Sikkim as a sideshow? Geopolitically, the coronavirus pandemic has created a flutter and recreated other pressure points for China -- Hong Kong, Taiwan and the WHO deliberations being the main ones. The sudden show of boldness by nations such as Australia doesn’t add to its confidence. The pandemic, more than just its fallout on China’s image, has probably triggered the need to strongly message the world that China will adopt all options to safeguard its interests; no better way to communicate than through coercive action against a large and strong neighbour, the security relationship with which lies in the grey zone. Doklam 2017 was perhaps an accident, although many analysts had us believe that the short hop to the Siliguri Corridor from the Chumbi Valley was the threat China wished to play up. I believed that China was hedging its bets as the Indian operational potential in East Sikkim is at an unappreciated high level. Ladakh 2020 attracts far greater geostrategic value. Importantly, it is in Ladakh that the so-called collusive strategy with Pakistan works optimally. Here three fronts exist for India -- Eastern Ladakh, the Karakoram-Siachen tract and Kargil. It is the second one which is least understood, and yet its potential is the highest.

The Karakoram-Siachen tract, which lies to the northwest of the Ladakh range, is a geographically separated segment with the Shyok Valley as the dividing line. For India, it is strategically significant to maintain operational depth for the Indus Valley in which lies the capital, Leh. If the Karakoram-Siachen tract, with Siachen and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) as the two main landmarks, were to fall to China in collusion with Pakistan, it would spell a couple of advantages to that combine. First, it will broaden their geographical linkage. Second, it will offer potential for the development of another arm of the Karakoram Highway, a more stable one. Third, it will severely limit India’s military options to recover Gilgit-Baltistan, which remains an aspiration. This is so especially since August 5, 2019, when India abrogated Article 370 on Kashmir and reiterated its desire to recover all territories of the erstwhile J&K as per the 1994 joint resolution of Parliament. The holding of both Siachen and DBO is crucial for India to enable the defence of Ladakh. Pakistan, with its options seemingly running out on J&K, could well have projected to China the vulnerability of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with Indian aspirations towards Gilgit-Baltistan being spelt out more often by India’s political and military leadership. The recent decision to go ahead with the $14 billion Daimer Bhasha dam in Gilgit-Baltistan increases China’s stakes in the region, thus potentially acting as a dampener for Indian aspirations. This analogy may appear too ambitious and too premature for a Sino-Pakistan collusive strategy to have developed, but there is no denying that Pakistan’s continuous efforts to get India to agree to a “mutual withdrawal” from Siachen have been in progress for many years. Nothing would spell greater disaster than acceptance of that master deception. It’s the larger understanding of the military community that has ensured the continued occupation of Siachen.

The ramping up of Indian capability in Ladakh through augmentation of equipment, vastly improved infrastructure and troop reserves is raising China’s apprehensions, and thus the attempted coercion to create a psychological dampener before confidence levels go beyond the threshold. It will also help in some image recovery for the image of the PLA, partially compromised at Doklam. It will be helpful for the Indian Army’s leadership to keep all this in mind. Most of this is at the strategic and operational level, although it’s the tactical which will be more under discussion at Chushul. What must be made starkly clear to the PLA is that tactical gamesmanship without a delineated LAC is likely to lead to a conflagration sooner than later. The dilution of troop deployment and early initiation of the process of the LAC’s delineation are issues that must be strongly advocated. We must not be forced into more static troop deployment. Until that happens, Ladakh is likely to be the persistent theatre of confrontation between India and China.