PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) keeping pressure up in Ladakh and probing all along LAC may be diversionary as it prepares to move on Arunachal

Writing to US Secretary of State Cordel Hull in 1943, Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, averred that, “If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbours, penetration of the next immediate neighbours becomes at a certain time equally logical.” The logic of expansionism delineated by Harriman becomes acute when applied to the Himalayan frontier, characterised as it is by a peculiar historical geography that compels a power sitting to the north to always seek to exude influence south in what Mao called the five fingers of Tibet, i.e., Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Conversely, the power sitting to the south must also seek to exert influence north, and this creates a bedrock of tension, tempered only by a balance of military capability. Perceived opportunities are difficult to let go of.

For China, the power sitting to the north, an India beleaguered by waves of Covid seems like that ‘certain time’ to execute a strategy of forward movement in the five fingers. While China has already shown its hand in Ladakh and is probing all along the Himalayan range, it is the PLA’s activities along the McMahon line that should be of the greatest concern to New Delhi. Indeed, there is a likelihood that Arunachal Pradesh could be the next finger on Beijing’s list, especially if India experiences a problematic third wave.

At the moment, however, media attention in India seems more focused on PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) exercises in the Gobi Desert, given that the Chinese have essentially reneged on the ‘written agreement’ that was reached in early February to disengage in the Hot Springs-Gogra area, much less the Depsang Plains. Besides continuing to block Indian patrols from reaching traditional patrolling points (PPs) in these areas, the PLAGF also seems to be involved in major construction activity, as indicated by commercially available satellite images. New Delhi should be particularly concerned about Chinese activities in and around the PLA’s Tianwendian forward post in the Depsang Plains. An analysis of imagery of the sector reveals that the Chinese are constructing a new border lateral which, when extended, has the potential to bisect points between PP-4 & PP-5.

The PLA also continues to put pressure on the Indian side through a general expansion of their sustenance bases in Western Tibet and the Tarim Basin, as well as through heightened drone activity. Regardless of these trends, the Chinese seem to have already extended themselves as much as they wanted to in Eastern Ladakh. Their operational tempo in the region is designed to keep the Indian side preoccupied there, while the PLA probes other sections of the LAC.

Indeed, contrary to expectations that they will keep it localised, the Chinese have also been rather active near the stretches claimed by them across the watershed in Himachal Pradesh and even Uttarakhand. However, Chinese claims across the watershed in these states are relatively modest and aimed at tying down some Indian formations in static defence. Likewise, Chinese activity in the passes to the north of Sikkim is also unlikely to turn into a forward movement, since India has credible options for a riposte in this vicinity. Also, for what it is worth, the Chinese premier publicly stated in 2005 that Sikkim was “no longer a problem between India and China.”

This is in sharp contrast to the periodic Chinese reiteration of their main claim on Indian territory — Arunachal Pradesh. Having never accepted the McMahon line, China has been overtly stating its claim in a variety of forms since 2006, including the arbitrary ‘renaming’ of locations in the Indian state. Beyond cartographic aggression, the PLAGF has been sending long-range reconnaissance patrols into areas where Indian infrastructure is still rudimentary, besides apprehending Indian nationals who they claim have strayed into ‘Chinese territory.’

Most egregiously, it was revealed earlier this year that the Chinese had expanded an erstwhile border post into a 101-home ‘village’ on the banks of the Tsari Chu, some 4.5 km south of the watershed in Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. China, perhaps, would like to argue that this Tsari Chu development and the creation of other ‘model’ border villages is in keeping with its 2021 White Paper on Tibet, which calls for improving the conditions of border populations. However, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that such villages could well be thinly disguised staging grounds.

As such, the PLAGF certainly seems to be preparing for an escalation. While the summer exercises in Xinjiang and Western Tibet have been much discussed, what has been less talked about is a major exercise in Shannan Prefecture opposite Arunachal Pradesh that involved not only units from the Tibet Military District, but accretion forces from the 76th Group Army as well. This exercise, which carried on till late June, saw several new pieces of hardware, such as the 122-mm PCL-171 mounted gun system, being tested.

It also coincided with a PLA Joint Logistics Support Force exercise which was aimed at augmenting the resources of Nyngchi, the main military hub in Shannan. Nyngchi today hosts a vastly expanded airbase, protected by a PLAAF S-400 surface-to-air missile unit, and was recently connected with a high-speed rail link to Lhasa. Simply put, the augmentation of Nyngchi means that the PLA is now much better placed in the region for long standoffs than it was at the time of the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986-87.

Such a standoff could well ensue during a third Covid wave in India, which is expected to peak in October, which incidentally also marks the beginning of ‘campaign season’ along the McMahon line. The PLA would be especially tempted if it leads to a diversion of Indian military resources, quarantines and a fall in the output of defence industries as was witnessed during the second wave.

Indeed, the Indian Army vacating a strategic peak in the Kailash Range that had been kept as surety to negotiate further disengagement in Eastern Ladakh in the middle of the second wave would do nothing to discourage the Chinese. Beijing would also think that a Covid wave is when cross-domain threats such as cyberwarfare or pharmaceutical supply chain disruptions would be effective in deterring Indian counteractions to an encroachment.

China may be planning to present India with a moth-eaten Arunachal Pradesh, and it is up to India to stand firm, no matter how trying the circumstances. To begin with, New Delhi must authorise more substantive human intelligence operations in places of interest along the Eastern Himalayas.