Lt. Gen K J Singh, PVSM, AVSM(Bar)
Indian Army Officer(Retd.) & GCTC Executive Board Member
Foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow, in an atmosphere of unease and palpable distrust. Notwithstanding altered ground realities, media projections included rank optimism; forecasting PLA withdrawal to doomsday predictions of imminent, all-out war.
In order to take a considered view, it is appropriate to recount the Sumdorong Chu incident. The stand-off started in June 1986 and lasted nearly one year. It required a visit by former PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, followed by five years of tortuous parleys (in characteristic Chinese style), to arrive at ineffective protocols, now smashed to smithereens by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Unfortunately, China pushed its agenda to de-link border resolution from the template of bilateral relations. It managed to convince India to remain focused on economic development, leading to debilitating supply chain dependencies. Concurrently, border talks were put on the backburner and in ‘slow wok’.
Now, much belatedly, realisation has dawned that it was a clever ploy to gain time to ramp up border infrastructure. This interregnum was also utilised for modernisation and reforms in PLA. Unfortunately, we were lulled into following the Chinese game plan and neglected our armed forces. The status of our forces and pandemic convinced PLA to apply the fifth maxim of, “Loot a burning house,” as enshrined in their war fighting manual titled, “The 36 Stratagems”. We also bound ourselves to protocols of flag/banner drills and banning fire arms, promoting the use of barbaric stone age weapons.
The critical requirement in parleys is to ensure coupling of progress on border resolution with overall bilateral relations. Putting it bluntly, it has to be stated unequivocally that ambiguity in border definition can’t go hand in hand with trade. The model has to be like our current stand with Pakistan; wherein terror and talks are not acceptable concurrently.
It will be appropriate to incorporate defence experts in diplomacy to signal our concern and focus. The contrast in two defence delegations; uniform heavy Chinese with bureaucrat dominated Indian side, is too stark to be missed. Desired end state should be to convert LAC from Line of Ambitious (Imagined) Claims to Line of Articulated (Agreed) Clarity.
It is rather disappointing that diplomats have reinforced status-quo rather than providing any clarity or commitment on critical aspect of delineation of LAC. Despite attempts to give it an optimistic spin by official sources, the five-point agreement has made the task of commanders more complex.
The only silver lining is that we are still talking and promulgating joint declarations, though China has issued its own addendum, reiterating that border resolution can remain de-linked from other bilateral issues. This is like reference to ‘strategic guidance to commanders’ spelt out only in the Indian declaration, after Wuhan. This resulted in one-sided Indian compliance and continued licence to PLA hierarchy.
Corps Commanders are expected to kickstart stalled disengagement process, even when original set of protocols has been destroyed by China and trust is conspicuous by its total absence. PLA will attempt to shift the focus of de-escalation to Spanggur gap. India has to remain centred on sequencing it, in the correct order, i.e. Hot spring, Gogra, Finger 5 to 8, North of Pangong Tso (PTSO), Depsang and only after due verification in Spanggur gap.
Buffer zone formulation needs review because it limits freedom of patrolling. Before analysing possible scenarios, it will be appropriate to reiterate that the hype on PLA’s technological prowess in cyber, electronic and surveillance has been debunked as nearly five months into the stand-off, it is yet to manifest.
The limitations of technology in such terrain and altitude are fairly evident with Indian troops managing to surprise and secure features south of PTSO. Efficacy will further reduce, with winter making LAC largely non-kinetic. In contrast, our Army has proven niche capabilities in high-altitude and winter warfare. It is particularly heartening to see spontaneous mobilisation of Ladakhis, making it a genuine peoples’ war, generating potent signal to Chinese.
Utilisation of SFF has added a sharper edge to psychological messaging. The most likely scenario can be described as – grab to improve posture before winter. PLA, stung by the surprise manoeuvre to secure Spanggur gap, may even resort to desperate measures to even scores. We will have to keep our guard up, particularly in areas south of PTSO, Depsang and even Arunachal.
The second possible scenario is, drift to next campaigning season. It will allow both sides time to negotiate more reliable Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). The most dangerous but mercifully, least likely scenario is – limited conflict. It is learnt that China has not provided any credible explanation for the huge build-up (in the garb of training) and its treachery. However, hints have been given on two accounts.
Media reports indicate that PLA is attempting to shift blame on theatre and other commanders, akin to the narrative rolled out after the Doklam crisis. In the highly centralised CCP-PLA system; such scapegoating seems most ludicrous. It is also being suggested that PLA may not be averse to pull out from rear areas, albeit maintaining their posture in forward areas.
This is attributable to realistic appraisal of challenges of maintaining large forces through winter. Consequently calibrated thinning out is likely. Our forces face a complex challenge but comforting thought is that they are the best in this domain and may even surprise us with more leverage for diplomacy. PLA at Mukhpari indulged in failed ‘Hulla-Bol’ operations complete with spears. It is time they realise that Indian Army can’t be coerced by such rush drills and propaganda manoeuvres.