It is well-known that People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) has a mobilisation differential in its favour vis-à-vis the Indian Army along stretches of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), thanks to the roads China has built on the Tibetan plateau. This was why the PLAGF was able to quickly reinforce its intrusions in April-May. But we now also know that those intrusions and the subsequent build-up were preceded by months of planning and preparation, signs of which were actually noted by Indian intelligence.

Perhaps due to an inability to piece together the larger game underway, India nonetheless found itself surprised. To be sure, the unfolding Covid-19 situation also affected the Indian Army’s readiness initially and made the Chinese plan easier to implement. But the army’s tactical operations in late August have emphatically disrupted that situation for Beijing. With its own sizeable in-theatre presence and the recent successes in pre-empting the PLAGF, India is now better placed to execute a stratagem of ‘wearing out’ the PLAGF. However, it would be wrong to assume that the Chinese will abandon their playbook altogether. Instead, there could be further escalatory steps.

But how was it that the PLAGF managed to secure those early advantages so easily? One reason for that is, no doubt, the fact that the Indian Army units responsible for guarding the Western (Ladakh) sector of the LAC were under-strength due to COVID-19 quarantining and other restrictions. It is doubtful whether the army had been able to send up enough of the patrols it does every year right before the onset of Spring in the region. To its credit, despite the initial setback and major logistical challenges, the army has succeeded in pushing in a very large number of formations to face the Chinese build-up in Eastern Ladakh. As the situation now stands, the Indian Army no longer faces any numerical disadvantage in the Ladakh theatre. It has also positioned the desired quantum of armour and artillery firepower.

With the army credibly prepared for potential escalation, it is not surprising that the tactical actions of last week, which saw the use of the secretive ethnic-Tibetan Special Frontier Force (SFF), were sanctioned in a bid to secure a positional advantage in the Chushul Sector. The operation, which involved beating the PLAGF to the command of the Chushul heights, has vastly improved India’s military position in the Spanggur Gap vis-à-vis China. Ironically, some of these heights had actually been inhabited by the PLAGF for a while in May-June 2020, but it had to vacate the positions due to personnel issues. Indeed, a similar situation also led to the PLAGF pulling back in the Galwan Valley.

The Chushul success marks a turning point in this crisis in as much as it shows that India is capable of unsettling China’s methodical multi-step game plan. New Delhi must now stay the course and allow local commanders the freedom they need for intelligence-based, small-scale manoeuvres that foreclose offensive operations for the enemy while creating opportunities for the Indian Army. For though the PLAGF may not want a major conflict, its doctrine dictates graded escalation to consolidate gains made through encroachment. Once build-ups and posturing fail to browbeat an enemy, the PLA could orchestrate precision kinetic and non-kinetic strikes to ‘gain the initiative by striking first’. If this too fails, the PLA could graduate to a ‘quick battle with quick resolution’ attack by rapidly concentrating frontline units in a particular stretch. A still unimpressed enemy would then be subject to an ‘in-depth’ strike across a frontage of the PLA’s choosing.

Truth be told, given the performance of PLAGF’s conscript personnel, the Indian Army’s massive in-theatre mobilization, and the fact that winter is not two months away, a quick battle type action or an in-depth strike may not be on the cards. Escalation to the use of long-range firepower and cyberattacks to disrupt India’s Covid-19 mitigation efforts cannot be ruled out, though. After all, the Chinese are smarting due to the Chushul fiasco. They would also want to retain the area they have encroached upon in Depsang. India, on its part, must stay the course and continue to look for tactical opportunities to ensure that China remains circumspect with respect to its playbook.