With close to 80,000 troops concentrated in balance on both sides of the LAC, the chances of a decisive military engagement appears close to zero

by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

For the better part of the last four months and more, strategic experts, China watchers around the world, military institutions and others have been wracking their brains about the course of events in Ladakh. With close to 80,000 troops concentrated in balance on both sides of the LAC, the chances of a decisive military engagement appears close to zero.

The winter is six-eight weeks away and fresh positions at the LAC have recently been occupied by both sides. At the same time, two sets of high-level political engagements have taken place in Moscow during the SCO meetings. Nothing negative has emerged from these but there have been no breakthroughs either, placing the onus of further talks at the military level for a possible step forward; that is at best a decision to wait and watch.

The external affairs minister’s meeting resulted in a broad understanding that transactionally reiterates the past protocols. The question then arises as to where all this is heading because none of it inspires any hope for disengagement on the ground. China has had issues through 2020 with many nations, including the US, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan, but nowhere has it come down to a near military showdown. Why it decided to move militarily against India and then did not fully pursue that line is a question begging an answer. Strategic clarity is missing.

There could yet be military exchanges in the period leading up to winter; for Xi Jinping, this is an awkward period, especially with the fifth plenary of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in October 2020. Equally, October is likely to see the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which has suddenly emerged as a very important platform for India and China. If the Russians want to add value to the SCO’s Moscow summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi would be urged to attend.

A raging turbulence at the LAC is hardly the environment the Russians would like at such a juncture and the Chinese too may not wish to perturb them. Thus, a tenuous peace could exist but shorn of all trust. With an unlikely reduction of forces and a stiff winter ahead, the military resources of both sides are likely to stay put. China’s PLA could still afford to partially draw down, retaining the ability to rapidly reinduct. On our side, that luxury is difficult due to terrain constraints in winter.

The feasibility of an odd skirmish exists if China wishes to make a statement before winter. Contingent upon when the heavy snow comes, and that could be as late as December, an effort to put India on warning by attempting eviction of one or more of the fresh Chushul occupations by the Indian Army remains a possibility, but the chances of it succeeding appear extremely remote. China is likely to stay put with an optimum number of troops and seek to build up from a new and indeterminate situation in April-May 2021. All the more reason why we need to know what its intent is.

The initial postulation was that it was to set a new narrative for Chinese domination for the post-Covid world order, against nations considered to be emerging as immediate competitors. The use of wolf warrior diplomacy to cow down these nations was alluded to. If we go by that understanding, a conflict situation should have been expected. The PLA came with insufficient troop strength to inflict a defeat or it came with unrealistic contempt and realised the Indian military and political confidence a little too late. Alternatively, China perhaps completely misread India’s ability to defend its interests and raise the stakes by a near mobilisation to all the potential pressure points along the northern border, that too with a Covid-affected economy looming in the backdrop.

What perhaps started as a short-term coercive action by China to set the stage for the nebulous post-Covid situation has now turned into a millstone. It therefore needs to be converted into and pursued more with a long-term perspective. China’s ill-conceived strategy has actually resulted in enhanced Indian strategic confidence, especially after the recent turn of events in Chushul. That strategic confidence must be seen as a continuum from the events of 5 August 2019 when India abrogated the special constitutional provisions for J&K and published new maps of its territories, which included Gilgit-Baltistan, PoK and Aksai Chin.

It had perturbed Pakistan no end and many of the Indian actions related to this had effectively limited Pakistan’s options. China’s initial coercive action in May-June 2020 was visualised by some as collusion with Pakistan to dilute the emerging Indian strategic confidence. With none of that achieved, it’s a long call that China is now awaiting the world of 2021 after the US Presidential election and potentially the beginning of a post-Covid-19 world.

How must India prepare itself for such an eventuality? While military resources for the moment appear reasonable, fast-track acquisitions for the prioritised domains of air defence, artillery, anti-tank missiles, surveillance equipment, protective gear and more must continue irrespective of the economic conditions. India is paying the price for past tardiness and cannot ignore the transformational needs of the Armed Forces. The Ladakh deployment is near permanent now; that means more formations are required because reserves have been sucked in here.

At least two additional divisions as reserves for the Army HQ and Northern Command are an imperative. The Navy and the Air Force have their share of needs. The Indian Navy’s more proactive involvement in the Indian Ocean appears a given if we have to be seen as an effective player of the Quad and the maritime domain. On the diplomatic front, India’s squaring up to China has given a boost to its image. It must use this image positively with the right strategic messaging to Beijing of the futility of its intent. India has the will and potential to look at its future position in the world order delinked from China. This needs to be clearly projected through its military actions and diplomatic dealings. As a start, it must ensure there is no stepping back from the Kailash Range positions in Chushul, something now set in stone.