China is doing what it does best — confuse and confound. Its recent actions have only gone to prove the long-term and diverse strategies that the nation follows. It began with the sequential escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Naku La in Sikkim and then at Pangong Tso in Ladakh. This has been followed by a face-off at the Galwan Valley in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector of the LAC in Ladakh. The activities, with soldiers engaged on three border points, have the potential to escalate due to the intrinsic linkages between and the changed circumstances of the present clashes from the earlier incidents. There were also some indirect actions on both sides that have been in focus like the objection by Nepal to the development and inauguration of the road from Dharchula to Lipulekh pass in Uttarakhand. This is despite an agreement between India and China to have trade across the pass in the tri-junction of Nepal-India-China. Beijing accepted the pass as one of the commercial and cultural transit points with India under its 1954 Peace and Tranquillity Agreement. This was reiterated when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in 2015. The route has deep-rooted spiritual and civilisational significance for India. In contrast, the recent broadcasting of weather reports of Gilgit-Baltistan on Indian news channels and the pre-conditions set for Foreign Direct Investment in segments of the Indian economy has definitely upped the ante for the Chinese.

The three sectors where India and China have a recurrence of disputes are in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. The Arunachal sector is largely dormant despite China’s claim to the entire State. The Sikkim sector is strategic as any Chinese road and infrastructure development in its proximity can threaten the narrow Siliguri Corridor which is the gateway from India to the seven states of North-East India. The Doklam stand-off for 73 days from June to August 2017 amply demonstrated the strategic relevance of this sector.

It is in the Ladakh sector that the geostrategic implications of the face-off and incursions assume significance. The Chinese have made an immense investment of $62 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Recent assertions by India on its right to Gilgit- Baltistan through which the CPEC passes on its way to the Karakoram Pass in the Shaksgam valley (illegally conceded by Pakistan to China) have obviously rocked the boat. China does not make short-term tactical moves without a long-term plan which may unfold in the winter when terrain and weather put India at a disadvantage. Unlike Doklam, where the Chinese movement was restricted to the single track which they were trying to develop along a narrow valley, in Ladakh the LAC is open and rugged. There are various “disputed areas” and “areas of differing perceptions” from the DBO in the north to Fukche in the south (the point of entry of the Indus River from Tibet to India). The scene of the recent scuffle has been on the banks of the Pangong Tso Lake. Its centrality to the entire LAC in Ladakh and proximity to the Spanggur Gap and Chushul make the south bank of the lake a secure flank for large-scale moves by the Chinese. Hence, it holds operational importance to both armies.

The western Ladakh region of DBO provides a buffer against Chinese direct access to Shaksgam valley and the Siachen heights. India therefore strongly holds on to DBO. Here the Galwan valley has witnessed similar stand-offs in the past with Chinese encampments detected far inside the alignment of the LAC into the valley. Strong deployments along the Line of Control (LoC) at Kargil and Drass opposite Pakistan have also to be maintained by India at all times. Reinforcements and additional forces will perforce have to be moved into Ladakh mostly from the plains and will require acclimatisation to operate in high-altitude areas of 11,000 to 16,000 feet. Logistics and sustenance of forces are a key factor, especially in Ladakh.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces involved in the skirmishes are not their regular army but the Border Defence Regiments (BDR) backed by PLA garrisons and camps with acclimatised troops along the Chinese East-West Highway. In contrast, Indian regular troops get sucked in as reinforcements and readjustments of command and control are necessitated as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police force (ITBP) readjusts from its border posts held in peacetime.

Hence, two imperatives for the Department of Military Affairs and the Ministry of Defence to resolve in the present will be in the fields of command and control of border management forces and logistic preparedness. The office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is best suited to resolve intra-service coordination of both areas as also the inter-ministerial resolution of the command and control lacunae of forces on the LAC. India’s approach must include a myriad of agencies and all elements of national power. The annual defence allocations have been shrinking regularly (experts say the percentage available for modernisation has shrunk from 40 per cent to almost 32 per cent) and cannot sustain the human and equipment inventory needed to effectively deter China. In such a situation and in the post-Corona reduced resource basket, the prioritisation of requirements rather than a dilution of weapon qualitative requirements is recommended. There must be a push towards operationalising the Rohtang tunnel to full capacity especially in view of logistic sustenance and troop reinforcements for the road closed period starting in November.