Why Disengagement and De-Escalation Have Been Stalled at Ladakh
To begin with, there’s a need to dispel the ‘urban legend’ that President Jinping orchestrated this intrusion.
Multiple reports indicate that disengagement between India and China in Sub Sector North, Ladakh, remains stalled after the 4th Corps Commander level meeting on 14 July 2020. Further, there has been no de-escalation.
Disengagement seems to have occurred at two of the contested points. Troops of the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have reportedly disengaged from standoff positions at PP-14 (Galwan; site of 15 June clash; now a ‘buffer zone’) and PP-15 (south of Galwan). At PP-17A (Hot Springs), about 50 troops of each side still remain in close proximity.
In Pangong Tso, the PLA has pulled back from Finger-5, but have yet to move to their permanent location at Sirijap; they also continue to occupy a ridge near Finger-4. Importantly, reports also suggest that the PLA is not allowing Indian troops to patrol from PP-10 to PP-13 (Raki Nala-Bottle Neck/Y-Junction area) in the Depsang Plains, thereby restricting Indian access to an area of about 700 sq kms (this was earlier patrolled by both sides).
So far as de-escalation is concerned, the PLA continues to have over 40,000 troops along with heavy weaponry in that general area, and given their infrastructure and forward logistic bases, seems prepared for a protracted stay. This raises a question – why are disengagement and de-escalation stalled?
Two Messages from China’s Intrusion
To begin with, there’s a need to dispel this popular ‘urban legend’ that President Xi Jinping orchestrated this intrusion in order to distract domestic attention away from his problems at home. The reality is different – Xi Jinping is neither an elected leader of a democracy nor coming up for re-election, nor is he facing any threat internally. Since assuming power in 2012, President Xi has consolidated his control both as president and head of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), and placed his confidantes in both political and military positions.
In 2017, the CCP reaffirmed Xi’s dominance and in March 2018, the party congress amended China’s constitution to roll back term limits for China’s president, thus paving way for Xi to remain in power beyond 2022. He has also run an aggressive anti-corruption campaign; silenced dissent; further controlled the media; constrained religious groups; as also embedded the CPC further into the Chinese society and economy. Experts, therefore, label him as the “most influential Chinese leader since Mao Zedong”.
The reason for this intrusion therefore, is deeper, geopolitical and meant to convey two messages to India, one territorial and another, strategic.
The territorial message – if India can change the status quo of Ladakh, then so can China. There’s a need to note that these intrusions have happened only in Ladakh, and not anywhere else along the long Indo-China boundary. The strategic message is – despite India’s strategic expansion and increasing stature in the international arena, China doesn’t deem it a challenger.
The un-demarcated border with India provides China an ideal platform for such messaging – it can ad lib, exploit it to try and influence Indian policies through intrusions. There has been a set pattern to this Chinese process – India embarks on something China dislikes; the PLA intrudes; India and China talk; we assuage China privately, claim victory publicly, and they withdraw.
This intrusion is, however, dissimilar to past intrusions – it was sanctioned at the highest level, planned and executed aggressively at the tactical level. The 15 June violence was unprecedented (martial arts experts brought-in; use of clubs studded with nails and spikes etc) and Chinese would typically label it as “crushing blow messaging”.
China’s Interest in J&K
There is thus a need to dwell on the chronology of this ongoing imbroglio – and the story seems to start with the Pulwama attack.
- On 14 February 2019, a suicide bomber of the Jaish-e-Mohammad killed 40 CRPF troopers with a vehicle-based IED. Since this terror attack occurred months prior to India’s general elections, the democratically-elected government was bereft of options – and contrary to the popular narrative of India abandoning “strategic restraint”, it does seem that India actually fell into a trap. Unable to overlook the dastardly attack, India conducted airstrikes against Balakot (26 February) and the Pakistan Air Force retaliated a day later. This crisis re-ignited international apprehensions of war between two nuclear-armed powers. On 28 February 2019, US President Trump stated that with the US involved, the Indo-Pak tussle would end soon. Later, on 22 July 2019, sitting next to Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House, he offered to mediate on Kashmir dispute. Clearly, President Trump was intervening again, in what India has been emphasising as a “bi-lateral issue”.
- On 26 July 2019, Beijing asked India and Pakistan to peacefully settle the Kashmir issue through dialogue, and expressed its support to the international community, including the US, in playing a "constructive role" to improve Indo-Pak ties.
- On 5 August 2019, India abrogated Article 370 and restructured the State of J&K into two Union Territories. The US’ Congressional Research Service Report entitled ‘Kashmir: Background, Recent Developments, and US Policy’, 16 August 2019, alludes that President Trump’s repeated offers of mediation likely spurred India to abrogate Article 370, adding that his warm reception of Pakistan’s leader, his desire that Pakistan help the US “extricate itself” from Afghanistan, and recent US support for an IMF bailout of Pakistan led to considerable disquiet among Indian policymakers. It would be recalled that Pakistan’s geopolitical objective during the 1999 Kargil Conflict was to “internationalise Kashmir” – and it succeeded given the US intervention and mediation.
- China has an interest in the status of J&K – it’s in illegal occupation of Shaksgam Valley (ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963), and also has the Karakorum Highway and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor running through Northern Areas/POK. It thus called upon India to “stop unilaterally changing the status quo”, blamed it for undermining China’s territorial sovereignty and vowed to “uphold justice for Pakistan on the international arena”. On 16 August 2019, China called on the United Nations Security Council to hold a closed-door informal meeting on the issue.
- Pakistan continued agitating on Kashmir till about November 2019, after which, strangely, it went quiet, plausibly, after consultations with China.
- In January 2020, President Xi signed a new Training Mobilisation Order (TMO) for strengthening military training in real combat conditions and “to maintain a high level of readiness”, and the PLA commenced its annual military exercise in the Tibet Plateau bordering India. On 5 May, the PLA, in a surprise move, simply crossed over at five points in Sub-Sector North of Ladakh.
Now, to vacate Chinese occupation, India has to either address certain Chinese “concerns” in negotiations, or exercise a military option.
In negotiations, China is bound to raise its “concerns” about India’s growing closeness to the US, activation of the QUAD and India’s progressive clampdown on Chinese businesses.
As far as the military option is concerned, for a successful outcome, India will require far more forces than they have currently there. Defence, particularly in mountains, is a far stronger form of warfare, and the PLA has dug in and coordinated defensive positions there. While India has displayed resolve by swiftly inducting substantial military assets into Ladakh, frugal infrastructure and the collusive threat from Pakistan thwart the Indian military from focusing fully on the LAC.
Besides, maintaining large forces east of Siachen, in an area only slightly less inhospitable, will be an economic drain which could thwart plans to reduce the army’s numbers and effect savings in the forces’ salary bill (about 70% of the overall annual revenue budget). In turn, given the state of the economy, this could hinder the Indian military’s long-deferred modernisation.
The Chinese therefore, seem to be proffering three options to India, (i) revert to the hitherto fore friendly posture; or, (ii) suffer economic pain through a protracted military deployment; or, (iii) take chances with a debilitating military option. In sum: the stalemate is likely to persist and statements that the “Indian Armed Forces are prepared for a long haul” underscore that the powers-that-be understand what’s happening.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. 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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