BY Maj Gen (Retd) SB Asthana
The current China-India standoff in Eastern Ladakh has seen multiple rounds of talks failing to ease tensions, with continued troop build-up under the shadow of talks.
The Chinese political aim in the Asian context has always been to have a China-centric Asia, for which forcing Indian subordination has been its goal. The Chinese strategic aim to pick Eastern Ladakh is to provide depth to its highway NH G-219, Karakoram Pass and CPEC, redraw LAC as per its perception and negotiate the border thereafter. China does feel threatened by Indian dispositions in India’s Sub Sector North (SSN) including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, and the Indian resolve to reclaim its territory of Jammu and Kashmir, posing a threat to the crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity and BRI prospects. The PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations is Eastern Ladakh and the build-up/intended gains in the rest of the LAC are efforts to pick up bargaining chips.
The PLA’s tactical aim is to launch probing actions to gain some tactically significant features sensitive to Indian defense before heavy snowfall, which can collectively improve its strategic posture or bargaining position. The Indian military is well aware of these intentions; hence the reluctance of Chinese verifiable withdrawal could lead to probing actions/reactions to improve tactical posture.
Strategically, President Xi Jinping miscalculated global anger against himself while trying to make the best of Chinese early recovery from COVID-19. Having made an unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, along with similar activities in South and East China Sea, President Xi Jinping now faces major democracies standing up against China’s overambitious aggressive design, with few bankrupt countries standing by its side to handle multiple engagement points.
The gross violation of confidence-building measures (CBMs) in Ladakh by China has opened all military options for India, besides responses in economic, diplomatic and other domains, with international opinion in its favor. A pullback has a heavy domestic political cost for Xi Jinping, besides the threat of occupation of vacated areas by India. Pushing the PLA to make some quick gains before the winters and engaging in talks to freeze the situation thereafter to retain its gains is the Chinese game plan.
Talks alone are unlikely to make the PLA recoil. India will have to raise the cost of PLA’s presence in unauthorised areas like Depsang even if it amounts to a long haul on LAC and some military options besides what is being done.
India needs to avoid any quick fix diplomatic solutions like five-point agreement, seeking fresh CBMs, mutual disengagement and ideas like buffer zones which help the Chinese agenda like many other historic errors in the past. Pulling back from freshly occupied heights south of Pangong Tso will be a strategic disaster for India.
This requires political, diplomatic and military decision makers to be on the same page. The Indian strategic aim should be to insist on proper delimitation and demarcation of the LAC (which is difficult but doable), pending settlement of the border issue.
Chinese aggression on multiple fronts has necessitated the need for an Indo-Pacific alliance of democratic countries which can be built up by strengthening Quad, by converting it to a military alliance on the lines of NATO.