India-China Conflict: Do We Have a ‘Bargaining Chip’ at Depsang?
Lt General (Retd) Satish Dua explains India’s current position vis-à-vis China in the ongoing border conflict.
The tenth round of Corps Commander-level talks between India and China was held on Saturday, 20 February 2021. As per the joint statement that followed the nearly 16-hour-long meeting, both sides were satisfied with the progress of disengagement. And they noted that discussions had progressed well and borne good results, and also agreed to have further talks to resolve the remaining issues jointly, to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
Disengagement was announced on 11 February 2021, and the very next day we saw tanks moving back. Thus, the first phase of disengagement has already been achieved.
Within a week, it was heartening to see the cooling down rather than the heating up of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Although the disengagement is still work in progress, two nuclear powers have pulled back from the brink of war, after having built up huge force levels. This will go down in history as a great example of brinkmanship.
First, some ground realities merit mentioning. In unresolved borders such as these, it is important to understand the difference between presence and patrolling.
Presence is achieved by establishing posts. Patrolling, on the other hand, seeks to monitor the area under observation by doing just that — patrolling. There are different versions of the LAC between India and China. So, at several places, instead of a ‘no man's land’ as in the case of the international border (IB), there is a ‘both men's land’, where only patrolling is allowed by both sides.
The Situation at Depsang
The big question on everyone's mind is: why has disengagement not been carried out at the Depsang Plateau in the north, which has seen much discussion and action? Much has been written and said and commented on, in both mainstream media and social media, about this.
It had been distinctly decided between the Indian and Chinese sides to disengage or put a distance between the forces in places where the deployment was uncomfortably close and could lead to clashes that had the potential to spiral.
It is worth recalling that during this eyeball-to-eyeball deployment, the Indian Army captured two Chinese soldiers who had transgressed to our side in separate incidents. Such incidents could have led to shots being fired and an escalation of the situation.
Chinese belligerence in Pangong Tso area was a new development in 2020. On the other hand, the differing perception of the LAC at Depsang is an old matter of contention — since 2002. Both armies had a 20 day face-off there in 2013, which led to a similar build-up of forces at the flash points, before it was resolved. However, there were no casualties.
In Depsang, which is a high-altitude plateau, the bone of contention is about monitoring the area by patrolling and not of permanent presence by way of establishing posts. As decided, parts of older ‘agreed upon’ disputed areas like Depsang, Gogra, PP-14 and more, have to be discussed after the successful disengagement at recent friction points like the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso lake. There are 23 such ‘agreed upon’ flash points, and 22 rounds of talks have taken place in the last two decades, albeit, with little success. Hopefully there will be a fresh impetus now to resolve.
What is Our Bargaining Chip at Depsang?
What is the bargaining chip at Depsang? Six months ago, the same question had been asked about the Finger area, north of Pangong Tso. The military commanders at the tactical-level created that advantage for India by occupying the mountain peaks in the Kailash Range in end-August 2020, that made Chinese deployments vulnerable. If and when required, the military will create a similar position of advantage, both in the battlefield as well as at the bargaining table. What will it be? That latitude has to be given to the military. In any case, it should not be put out in the public domain.
Unfazed by the clamour in the media, social media and other dimensions, the Indian Army must focus on the tactical battle space — like a team that focuses on winning in the field based on their skills, rather than on the cheering or jeering of spectators.
After all, war is not a spectator sport for the military to fight and civilians to cheer on from the side-lines.
India’s ‘Balance Sheet’: A Quick Glance
With that backdrop, a quick appraisal of India’s balance sheet.
At a tactical level, we have proven to ourselves and our adversary, our ability to mobilise adequate forces — to safeguard our territorial integrity despite the tenuous road network — and set up a logistics supply chain to support the forces. This also applies to the Indian Air Force, which deployed its assets and resources at appropriate locations to be operationally effective in the tactical battlefield. The deployment of tanks and mechanised forces and other heavier platforms was executed to unthinkable heights, pun intended. Any gaps or shortcomings in weapons, equipment, special clothing of protection equipment — including living shelters —have been plugged.
The forces have gained a veritable mobilisation and operational experience at an unprecedented scale in Ladakh during 2020.
China and the world have seen that India stood up to China in Doklam in 2017, and to Ladakh in 2020.
Eventually, China had to halt or backtrack; it was not only in the military field. India was arguably the only country that banned Chinese apps, invoked economic restrictions and openly opposed the ambitious global-level Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Remember, India did not participate in a summit-level meeting in China on the BRI in 2017. It merits mention here that the ban on Chinese apps may seem like a small step, but it has big ramifications for digital security, not to mention a revenue loss of USD 200 million annually.
It has pushed us to relegate Pakistan to where it belongs and focus on China as the main challenge. Large portions of the forces are being repurposed, in line with that thought process.
This build-up of forces has held a mirror to our capability development and has accelerated the ‘Make in India’ initiative in the defence sector. No country can remain dependant on foreign defence imports to safeguard itself against foreign aggression.
There is hopefully, a reinforced understanding amongst the leadership and citizens, on the requirement of allocating an adequate defence budget for the security needs of the country to be inviolate.
Defence reforms and the CDS have proved their point in the first year itself, in terms of synergy and integrated planning.
While negotiating through the Ladakh imbroglio during the COVID-19 pandemic, India has simultaneously also developed two vaccines and emerged stronger, in contrast to the image of China as being held, in some ways, responsible for the pandemic. Vaccine diplomacy, its own handling of the COVID-19 crisis domestically and a strong economic forecast has enhanced the soft power of India.
The Way Forward
The positive results produced by the talks between India and China are testimony to the assiduous and integrated efforts of military, diplomatic and political elements. The need to continue this synergy, not only between the three services and border guarding forces, but also between different elements of power, is imperative.
India will do well to engage meaningfully with countries that have convergent interest in applying pressure on China in other dimensions.
Recalibrating our stands on Tibet and Taiwan or the need to speak out more on Xinjiang and similar issues as a leverage against China should actively be reconsidered.
India must take all the necessary steps that are in its national interest. All instruments of power must be applied in an integrated manner. Taking a positive lesson from including a diplomatic strand in military-level talks, a similar military strand in the diplomatic talks would fetch good dividends in war avoidance. The ongoing disengagement has paved the way for resolving old and new disagreements, in order to maintain peace and tranquility at the borders.
No one wants a war. The world doesn't need a war. We need to battle the pandemic together.
(Lt General (Retd) Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He tweets @TheSatishDua. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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