The second meeting at Chushul-Moldo between Lt. Gen. Harinder Singh, India’s 14 Corps GOC, and his PLA counterpart on June 22 continued for over 11 hours, and resulted in only a short, crisp decision to disengage.
The devil now lies in the detail, that has to be analysed, speculated, extrapolated and simply conjectured, to make sense of the events which began on May 5 and have led to the current tensions.
What should we be making of the ongoing parleys? Is there a possibility of serious disengagement and restoration of the status quo ante?
There appears to be a long haul staring us in the face, and it needs a quick but detailed think through.
It will be recalled that an exchange of fisticuffs on the banks of the Pangong Tso lake took place on May 5 between the Indian Army and the PLA. From April onwards, a gradual PLA buildup had been taking place with the onset of the patrolling season.
The PLA came with the clear intent of a change in China’s strategic approach, that had to be translated on the ground at the tactical level. It was China’s way of signalling that it was grabbing an opportunity as the world was wrestling with the pandemic.
Events at the Sikkim border, although not pressed, and in the central sector (Uttarkhand, Himachal), along with those in the South China Sea, pointed to a coordinated Chinese strategy. Xi Jinping, as China’s lifetime President, isn’t satisfied with the roadmap laid out by the CPC’s 19th congress in 2017, which envisages 2035 and 2049 as waypoints towards China’s ultimate destiny as the world’s number one power.
President Xi wants it faster, maybe in his own lifetime, and has adopted what is termed “wolf warrior” diplomacy as his doctrine; supposedly a deliberate pushback against nations adopting a defiant and insulting attitude towards China.
In reality, this doctrine also translates into denting the strategic confidence of potential detractors and competitors against China’s march to greatness, through a combination of manoeuvres in different domains.
The events of the past three years or so fit India into this mould. Doklam 2017, the abrogation of Article 370 and the projected Indian intent to absorb Gilgit Baltistan, PoK and perceptibly even Aksai Chin, and its resistance to the Belt and Road Initiative right from the outset, have placed India into the category of becoming a target of the “wolf warrior” doctrine.
Limited military coercion, out of sync with the ongoing diplomatic bonhomie, economic promotion and multilateral cooperation (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation being an example of the latter) helps obfuscate intent and confuse an adversary. The pandemic appears to have been sensed as a strategic opportunity.
China is also trying to shape the environment for the future should its pet project BRI have to be given a boost through some forceful measures on the ground.
Employing weapons other than firearms to browbeat is China’s perception of risk reduction while achieving moral domination over the adversary. An important element of its overall strategy is also the non-implementation of agreements and rules to delay engagements.
This perpetuates standoffs with the intent of keeping the adversary off balance, forcing him to mobilise out of proportion resources and achieve general obfuscation in the way an engagement is progressing.
All this was being executed on the ground all through May-June and everything may have been going as per the plan until the Galwan incident on June 15. The initiation of hostilities leading to bloodshed and loss of lives appears out of sync with this strategy, which leads us to believe this could have been a local situation having gone awry.
The loss of lives of 20 Indian soldiers, including Col. Santosh Babu, and many more of the PLA has reversed the tide of apparent success that China may have perceived from its manoeuvres since April 2020. It has caused it to halt temporarily while it re-evaluates its loss of credibility.
India agreeing to diplomatically engage China in the Russia-India-China (RIC) forum is obviously the correct approach, placing us on a higher moral plane. China is morally on the defensive although the global community isn’t yet willing to go the extra mile to chasten it for its misdemeanor.
This is a reality India must live with as economics still rules the international strategic environment, especially in the post-pandemic reset. China perhaps feels it has lost just a little due to the Galwan incident, in terms of its intent towards controlled coercion.
It needs time to recalibrate.
Open hostilities with India do not fit into the strategy as the risk is too high. The Chushul-Moldo military talks must be seen from this angle. The decision to agree to disengage at the friction points is a good breather, and like all agreements China perceives this one too is not exactly set in cement.
One can expect a limited drawdown in the Galwan Valley but there will be a slow and reluctant execution elsewhere, and surely none in the Pangong Tso area which may emerge as more than just a friction point. India’s mobilisation is always a difficult process due to terrain conditions.
Now completed, it will give the Indian Army far greater confidence. Yet this, along with the correct decisions to alter the rules of engagement in terms of the use of firearms in extreme contingencies, also enhances the risk.
The PLA is likely to exhibit reluctance to fully disengage and would keep the coercion alive through the campaigning season till November 2020 while it re-evaluates the benefits of friction points heating up. The risk factor in this must continuously be brought up by India in all future meetings at the military and diplomatic levels.
While Indian confidence appears to have enhanced, on display is also a sense of balance. India equally needs time to think through, assess China’s long-term intent and recalibrate its own strategy. Prudence demands patience, but the longer this faceoff continues, the greater the risks. India may also have to deploy enhanced resources on a semi-permanent basis all along the Line of Actual Control.
Preparations for this may have already begun as the terrain on our side is almost as big an adversary as China.
Thus, while we prepare for one and perhaps more bleak winters in Eastern Ladakh’s desolate environment, Lt. Gen. Harinder Singh’s ominous task is to keep his men alert, retaining the moral high ground, preventing friction and in future parleys setting the course for a full drawdown by both sides.