Having been frustrated by the persistent stone-walling by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) negotiators in the talks to defuse tensions in eastern Ladakh, India seems to have decided on a strategy that involves a dash of tit-for-tat. This is evident from the narratives that have come in on the incident that took place on the night of last Saturday, 29 August 2020.
The official statement issued by the Ministry of Defence says that Indian forces “pre-empted” PLA activity to change the status quo in the southern bank of the Pangong Tso lake. Whatever the statement may say about “violation of consensus” and “provocative military movements”, the term “pre-emptive” has a clear-cut meaning.
Simply put, Indian forces occupied certain areas near the South Bank of the lake before, what they said, was a Chinese move to do the same.
All this has happened after five rounds of talks between senior army officers of the two countries since the tensions bubbled up in April-May 2020, ironically enough at a place proximate to where the 29 August action took place.
And here we have a bit of a debate. Analysts like Ajai Shukla have argued in Tuesday’s Business Standard that on the night of 29/30 August, the PLA intruded the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and occupied two features – Helmet Top and Black Top – overlooking Indian military positions in the Chushul area.
- Simply put, Indian forces occupied certain areas near the South Bank of the lake before, what they said, was a Chinese move to do the same.
- All this has happened after five rounds of talks between senior army officers of the two countries since the tensions bubbled up in April-May 2020.
- What is revealing is that in a TOI report, Rajat Pandit notes that commandos from the Special Frontier Force (SFF) were involved in the operations on 29/30 August night.
- The SFF comprising of, among others, Tibetan exiles, is not an army unit.
- Such a force is not used for normal military operations, but covert action.
- You can be sure that what occurred on Sunday night was a carefully planned and executed counter-occupation.
Use Of The Special Frontier Force: A Dead ‘Giveaway’
But reporting in The Times of India, Rajat Pandit says that India “thwarted an attempt by Chinese troops to occupy some heights near the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake.” Citing a senior officer, he says that “the pre-emptive action” from troops in nearby Thakung and other posts prevented a repeat of the early May incident when PLA forces occupied areas in Finger 4 in the north bank of the lake.
He cites the officer to say that our forces “completed their deployment in adequate numbers, with all the requisite equipment, to occupy the previously unoccupied dominating heights within our perception of the LAC by Sunday morning.”
If this statement isn’t a giveaway, what is revealing is that in the report, Pandit notes that commandos from the Special Frontier Force (SFF) were involved in the operations.
The SFF comprising of, among others, Tibetan exiles, is not an army unit. It belongs to India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), and while its headquarters are in Sarsawa, near Saharanpur, it has a strong unit located in Leh. Such a force is not used for normal military operations, but covert action.
You can be sure that what occurred on Sunday night was a carefully planned and executed counter-occupation. This is evident too, from the noises emerging from China.
This Time, Chinese Anger Is Palpable
Now, in our experience, official statements, especially those emanating from China, must always be taken with a pinch of salt. Figuring out how much is not easy, but this is where instinct is important.
In the case of the 29/30 August incident, the Chinese anger is palpable. “Indian troops have violated the consensus reached at multi-level talks between India and China, and again crossed the Line of Actual Control at the border on Monday and purposely launched provocations,” said the spokesman of the Western Theater Command Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili on Monday. The Chinese “solemnly requested the Indian side to “abide by its commitments, and avoid further escalation of the situation.”
Earlier, the official spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said in response to a question at his regular press conference that “Chinese troops have been strictly observing the Line of Actual Control and never crossed the Line”. In its editorial, the Communist Party tabloid Global Times fumed, but also hit the nail on the head: “India is trying to turn it (the South Bank area) into a new disputed area as a bargaining chip in negotiations.”
It warned New Delhi that China was “several times stronger than India, and India is no match for China.”
Why India Cannot Afford Military Conflict, Despite ‘Temptation’
Curiously, while in the North Bank the Chinese have moved five kms west of their 1960 official claim, in this case, they are caught some 1.5 kms short of it. According to the coordinates they gave in the talks between officials of the two sides in 1960, they said their LAC crossed the South Bank of the Pangong Tso at 78°43’E, 33°40’N – which is in fact about 1.5 kms west of Thakung.
But that is perhaps no longer the issue since China has chosen to pick and choose where it wants the LAC to be.
All efforts made in the last thirty years to stabilise the LAC and move to a border settlement are now up in the air. With its actions, it has made not just eastern Ladakh, but the entire LAC ‘alive’ to military moves and counter-moves. And because this border is not recognised by either side and is manned by the military, it has the potential for instability.
This is not a good time for India to get into a military conflict with anyone.
There may be a temptation amongst the political class to divert attention from the COVID spread and the sharp economic downturn. But, not only is the quality of our politico-military leadership wanting, but the state of the military is not particularly good – having faced five successive years of underfunding.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)