Not all quiet on the western front: China going by 1960 claim on LAC, unlikely to vacate Galwan Valley land
While India and China are engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation in the north, war clouds are gathering elsewhere to the west, explains defence and strategic expert Pravin Sawhney
Both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping know that the 1993 Line of Actual Control (LAC) has unilaterally been consigned to the dustbin. And with it, all agreements — 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, and 2015 — meant for peace on that LAC.
China has replaced the 1993 LAC with its 1960 claim line as the new LAC in Ladakh.
While the PLA is unlikely to vacate the territories it has come to occupy in Galwan, Depsang, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso in Ladakh, Modi has overcome these complications by creating a perception in India that the LAC remains inviolable, and no Indian territory has been lost to the PLA.
It’s another matter that no one has bothered to ask which LAC he was referring to — the 1993 one which was agreed between New Delhi and Beijing or China’s 1960 claim line.
With the exception of the Congress and Communist parties, other political parties appear least concerned about the imbroglio. The majority in the media is happy parroting the official line. The retired military officers, with a few exceptions, are cheering the government from the side-lines. Those contesting the official line are being labelled as anti-national.
At least domestically, India seems to have won the perception war against China. No one has asked the Prime Minister that if indeed no Indian territory has been lost, what have the talks at various levels — foreign minister, diplomats and military leaders — with China for the restoration of status quo ante been all about?
And if indeed no territory is lost, why has India broadened the ambit of the conflict from the Ladakh theatre to economics?
In a show of strength, the government has banned 59 Chinese mobile applications. Also, it is certain that Huawei 5G telecommunications will be prohibited from the Indian market. Never mind that legacy information and telecommunication technologies, power and defence grid equipment with India is of Chinese origin, as these companies have been the lowest bidders. Since no technical audits were done of equipment bought from the lowest bidders, nothing stops the Chinese (they would know the backdoors) from doing scalable cyber assaults.
In the current fit of nationalism, there is a clamour that all Chinese products should be banned in India, eventually leading to a complete stop on trade. This populism overlooks two critical issues: One, so entrenched are Chinese products in global supply chains that banning them will hurt India more than China, whose overall trade with India is two per cent of its global trade. And two, in the event of cascading effect owing to prolonged stand-off, total ban on imports from China would kill Indian MSMEs, disrupt the pharmaceutical industry and ruin the local economy in the hinterland.
To buttress Modi’s perception win, two more elements have been added. All friendly nations — Russia, US, Israel and France — have been asked to fast-track war materiel for the troops inducted into the theatre to match PLA numbers on Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Given the transactional deals, Israel has offered its own, currently in service, air defence system as an interim measure to fill in for the Russian S-400 air defence missile system. Even after its induction into the Indian inventory (in 2021), S-400 would require at least a year to get operationalised.
Even as the army build-up on the LAC to match the PLA assets continues at a furtive pace, senior diplomats are suggesting strengthening of partnerships with the Quadrilateral nations (US, Japan and Australia), France, South Korea and Taiwan, as close identification with democratic powers.
However, two issues come in the way of winning the perception war which portends longish stalemate on the ground: Reality, and PLA’s refusal for an early dis-engagement of opposing forces standing eyeball to eyeball.
Modi knows that another border skirmish will not be weapons’ free since the government of India has changed the rules of engagement. But even if one shot is fired, an escalation is assured, which will be controlled by the PLA and eventually lead to war.
An accidental war, which neither side wants, could see the PLA enjoying an edge because PLA will not fight to the Indian Army’s strength of land warfare. It will fight in the virtual domains of cyber, space and electromagnetic spectrum by disrupting, disabling or destroying communications and command and control nodes at all levels — from the Prime Minister’s Office to the frontline troops. Communication/ information denial will severely affect India’s war waging capacity.
The PLA has, since 2018, been doing realistic combat joint exercises comprising land, air, space, cyber, and rocket forces under its Western Theatre Command responsible for the LAC. These include live firings for re-calibration of its long-range weapons which are critical for accuracy in altitudes of 12,000 feet and above. The PLA also enjoys better habitat for 200,000 troops, storage for war materiel and uninterrupted supply of war logistics including ammunition and spares.
Indian military lacks all of the above. The army has been doing border policing duties on the LAC. The combat experience that army veterans talk of is limited to counter terror operations on the western front. War and counter-terror operations are as different as chalk and cheese. Moreover, imported war-fighting platforms, ammunition, spares, and so on will preclude intense rates of fire to match the PLA’s rockets and missiles inventory.
The good news is that China does not want a war with India in the near future (until 2035 when PLA expects to complete its modernisation) for two strategic reasons. One, its principal adversary — United States — needs to be tamed first in the western Pacific theatre through ASEAN as the pivot. Interestingly, China is playing this differently. Instead of challenging the US military power, Beijing has unleashed its economic power on the ASEAN through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has nearly USD One trillion annual trade with ASEAN. It now needs to strengthen ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) established in 2006 to promote mutual trust and understanding of security and defence matters. Once China is confident about views compatibility amongst ADMM, it will sign the Code of Conduct (promised by it decades ago) with ASEAN. Once that happens, ASEAN, instead of China, is likely to tell the US to stop its freedom of navigation patrols in the region for peace.
China is pursuing similar agenda with ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) whose membership includes India and Russia. According to the Russian ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev, who spoke with Force newsmagazine, “The first trilateral meeting between RIC defence ministers under the Russian chairmanship could take place by the end of the year… Broadly speaking, we believe that the RIC format is very important because it helps to expand ties between the three countries. Such cooperation is not targeted against anyone rather than at building trust and stability in the Eurasian region.”
Russian stakes for peace between India and China are huge. Having invested heavily in both the BRI and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (that includes Central Asian Republics, India and Pakistan) for the Eurasian region, China and Russia, though with different geopolitical agenda, have converged strategically to meet the United States’ challenge to their Asia-Pacific security mechanism. India, though not a geo-strategic player like China and Russia, could play an important role in the realisation of this objective. Moreover, Russia remains India’s closest partner for its defence and energy, including nuclear energy, needs.
The other strategic reason why China does not want war with India is that it would demolish its peaceful rise format through the BRI. This would have an adverse effect on its Asia-Pacific strategy, its ‘Two Centenary Goals’ (2021 and 2049) and the China Dream.
China has given up the hope of India joining the BRI. For this reason, China, after its 2019 BRI forum (presided jointly by Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin), which India did not attend, quietly dropped the Bangladesh-India-ChinaMyanmar (BCIM) as one of the six economic corridors under the BRI.
What China wants from India is neutrality in the competing AsiaPacific and the US-led Indo-Pacific with the Quadrilateral mechanism at its core. This is one of the two key reasons for the present PLA massive intrusions in Ladakh. China argues that India has gone back on the 2018 Wuhan consensus, which was reinforced in the 2019 Chennai Connect Summit, between Xi and Modi.
The consensus was that China and India would cooperate with one another for regional (hard-wired) connectivity and security ties – two areas which also distinguish Modi’s Act East policy from the earlier Look East policy. Importantly, India and China will not be rivals.
China claims that with India’s growing closeness with the US and Quad members, Modi has reneged on his promise. The PLA intrusions are, thus, meant to both remind India forcefully of its Wuhan promise; and to get a reality check on how much the US could come to India’s help in its hour of reckoning.
The other reason is India’s 2019 issuance of new maps showing Aksai Chin (under Chinese occupation) as a part of Ladakh Union Territory of India. Considering that China never had a border with India in Ladakh, reinforced by its December 2010 declaration that its border was mere 2,000km (which does not include Ladakh), China believes that India by its cartographic aggression changed the status quo. Angry about it, the PLA has changed the status quo on ground in Ladakh. Rubbishing the 1993 LAC, it has by force, made its 1960 claim line as the new LAC.
What about a long stalemate that Indian officials are talking about? This suits Modi. It would show him as the winner who could stop the PLA juggernaut in its tracks, despite being the relatively weaker power.
Given this, expect China to exercise its options short of direct war with India in the coming days. Three such options are:
1. PLA has moved massive combat trained forces backed with combat support elements (artillery and long-range missiles of its Rocket Force) along with elements of Strategic Support Force (electronic warfare) closer to the LAC in the eastern sector (1346 km of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). This has compelled the Indian Army (still waiting for specialised ammunition from Russia and Israel) to match the numbers on the LAC.
2. PLA has the option to use its silent cyber capabilities to target whole of India. Its space capabilities too are impressive. While it is unlikely to use its Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (DS-ASAT) kinetic capability involving use of ballistic rocket, nothing prevents it from using its co-orbital ASAT weapons to target India’s GSAT series satellites. PLA has powerful Electronic Warfare (EW) jammers capable of blinding satellites. In short, PLA has multiple counter space capabilities to deny or destroy enemy’s space-based assets during a crisis or conflict; and;
3. The most alarming scenario which could be unfolding is of a limited war between India and Pakistan fully supported by PLA’s massive invisible capabilities in north Ladakh. The groundwork for such eventuality lies in the growing interoperability (ability to fight together) between Pakistan military and the PLA around Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Areas) since 2011.
The Modi government has brought this region, under Pakistan occupation, in its new maps as a part of Ladakh UT. With Chinese Beidou navigation satellite global constellation operational with 35 satellites — Pakistan is the sole foreign nation with rights to military resolutions — accuracy of Pakistan missiles would be good. The Beidou satellites are equipped with radio frequency and laser inter-satellite links, and new atomic clocks.
Meanwhile, there are reports that the Pakistan Army has moved additional forces closer to LC and GB with the Pakistan Air Force on high alert. Relations between India and Pakistan are at an all-time low, with Pakistan blaming India for sponsoring the recent terrorist attack at Karachi stock exchange where Baloch Liberation Army has claimed responsibility.
Considering that the PLA has blocked Indian Army reinforcements through the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie route, and has made deep ingress into the Depsang plains, the situation is ripe for a Pakistani assault on Siachen glacier.
India’s options post the Ladakh crisis are narrowing by the day. This is the only reality.
(The writer is Editor, Force newsmagazine. Views expressed are the author’s own. The complete analysis can be read on nationalheraldindia.com)