India will deal with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a firm and peaceful way, but if it comes to war or conflict, the country will emerge victorious, Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said on Wednesday.

While expressing hope that the ongoing dialogue with China will help resolve the lingering border row in eastern Ladakh, where the two armies have been locked in a standoff for more than 20 months, he said the Indian Army was at its highest level of operational preparedness in the sensitive sector, where the situation was under control.

“What happens and whether a situation escalates or not is difficult to foretell or predict. But whatever we have done so far (augmenting troops, weapons and infrastructure), we’re in a position to meet whatever is thrown at us in the future. I can assure you that. War or conflict is always an instrument of last resort. But if resorted to, we will come out victorious,” the army chief said at his annual press briefing ahead of Army Day on January 15.

Naravane’s comments came in response to a question on the possibility of escalation of hostilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

“The situation is stable and under control. Talks are underway and there is always hope that through dialogue we will be able to resolve our differences,” he said on a day when Indian and Chinese military commanders held the 14th round of talks to defuse border tensions at the Chushul-Moldo meeting point on the Chinese side of LAC.

The focus of the current round of talks is on resolving outstanding problems at Hot Springs or Patrolling Point-15.

Naravane was optimistic about the ongoing dialogue resulting in a breakthrough in resolving the LAC standoff though he said it was unreasonable to expect every single round of talks to end with an outcome. The 13th round of military talks between India and China reached an impasse on October 10, with PLA not agreeing to suggestions made by the Indian Army.

“The fourth and fifth round of military dialogue resulted in resolving the issue at PP-14 (in Galwan Valley), the ninth and 10th rounds helped resolve issues in the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and Kailash ranges, and by the 12th round, we were able to resolve PP-17 or Gogra. We have to keep talking to each other to understand each other’s viewpoints and perceptions and the differences, and every time we talk, the differences keep getting narrowed down,” Naravane said.

“In this series of talks that is going on, we are hopeful that we will be able to resolve the issues at PP-15 and once that is done, we will go on to the other issues (Depsang) that predate the current standoff. We are hopeful that those issues will get resolved from time to time.”

“What the army chief has implied is that India is prepared for the worst even as we work towards and hope for the best --- the restoration of status quo ante of April 2020,” said former director general of military operations Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (Retd).

‘Threat Not Reduced’

The Indian Army’s patrolling activity has been affected in Hot Springs and PLA’s forward presence in Depsang has also hindered access of Indian soldiers to routes including the ones leading to PP-10, 11, 11-A, 12 and 13.

Despite three rounds of disengagement at friction points on LAC, the two armies still have 50,000 to 60,000 troops each and advanced weaponry deployed in the Ladakh theatre.

“After persistent joint efforts, mutual disengagement has taken place at many locations. So there has been positive movement… But while there has been partial disengagement, the threat has by no means reduced. Force levels in areas where disengagement is yet to take place have been adequately enhanced,” the army chief said.

Threat assessment and internal deliberations have led to reorganisation and realignment of forces and a significant infrastructure push to ensure India’s territorial integrity and to counter the major augmentation of PLA forces and military infrastructure, he said. “We will continue to deal with PLA in a firm, resolute and peaceful manner, while ensuring the sanctity of our claims. Necessary safeguards are in place.”

He said that India has enhanced its military capabilities manifold not only in Ladakh but all along the northern border with China during the last one-and-a-half years, and it is in a much better position to take on future challenges.

“We have inducted additional troops and made infrastructure and billeting facilities for as many as 25,000 extra troops who had gone into that area. These facilities also cater for any more increments that might take place in times to come.”

Naravane said it was unclear if Chinese forces will remain permanently stationed in their forward areas or eventually move back.

“It remains to be seen whether they will permanently station themselves there or will be amenable to some kind of de-induction in times to come. First, disengagement has to happen from friction areas. After some confidence is built, we can think of a little bit of de-escalation or moving back from being bang on LAC to areas in depth but remaining in that general area. We can then think of de-induction wherein troops can go back to their permanent locations and garrisons. Till we reach those steps, we will have to be prepared to stay there for as long as it requires,” he said.

‘Resolve Boundary Question’

General Naravane said there was a silver lining to the border crisis as India used it as an opportunity to fast-track infrastructure development, undertake doctrinal reviews and fill operational voids through emergency purchases.

On a new Chinese border law, he said it was not in keeping with past agreements and not binding on India and the country was more than adequately prepared to deal with any possible military ramifications. China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), adopted the “new law on the protection and exploitation of the country’s land border areas” on October 23.

The legislation gives more powers to PLA and state agencies to use civilians in border areas as a first line of defence, to strengthen infrastructure, and to build more border towns.

On China building villages and other infrastructure on what India perceives to be its territory, Naravane said such issues would keep cropping up till the boundary question remained unresolved.

“The long-term solution is to resolve the boundary question rather than allowing these issues to become a point of difference every now and then and a pinprick in our bilateral ties. We are well poised all along our border and there is no question of the status quo as it exists today being altered by force,” he added.

Bhatia said the two countries should resolve the boundary question but the chances of that were bleak in the near to mid-term given China’s military coercion against India.