Decoding Chinese strategic intent in prolonged standoff at LAC

New Delhi Sep 20, 2020, 08.26 PM(IST) Written By: Major General S B Asthana

India China LAC dispute Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

India needs to avoid any quick fix diplomatic solutions like five-point agreement, seeking fresh CBMs, mutual disengagement and ideas like buffer zone, which help Chinese agenda, like many other historic errors in past. Pulling back from freshly occupied heights south of Pangong Tso will be a strategic disaster for India. 

The current China-India standoff in eastern Ladakh has seen multiple rounds of talks at various levels from ministers, to local military commanders. This has failed to ease tensions, with continued troop build-up, under the shadow of talks. While efforts for talks continue with upcoming corps commander level talks scheduled amidst environment of deep mistrust, there is very little hope that talks will make any worthwhile progress. 

India should not accept that China, having marched in areas, where it was not supposed to be, junking all Confidence Building measures (CBMs), as part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’, to unilaterally alter the status quo along Line of Actual Control (LAC) in its favour and expecting India to accept nominal disengagement, while Chinese troops continue to be sitting in Depsang, Finger 8 to Finger 4, Gogra and some other areas. 

Chinese are also not comfortable with Indian proactive gestures of effective domination of some Chushul heights/ Kailash range, in areas south of Pangong Tso and some heights north of Finger 4; hence the game of posturing and muscle-flexing continues with both sides refusing to blink first.  

Chinese strategic intent

Chinese political aim in Asian context has always been to have China-centric Asia, for which Indian subordination has been its goal. Its intention was to unfairly grab strategic piece of land, presuming that India will not be able to respond due to the rising impact of COVID-19 and resultant effect on economy, besides embarrassing strongest regional competitor. 

Indian side was quick to react to halt further encroachment and stands strong to protect its territorial integrity. 

Chinese strategic aim to pick eastern Ladakh is to provide depth to its highway NH G-219, Karakoram Pass and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), redraw LAC as per its perception and negotiate border thereafter. China does feel a threat with Indian dispositions in India’s Sub Sector North (SSN) including Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), infrastructure development including Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road (DSDBO), and Indian resolve to reclaim its territory of Jammu and Kashmir, posing threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) prospects. 

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PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations is Eastern Ladakh and build up/ intended gains in rest of LAC are efforts to pick up bargaining chips. 

Currently, with continued build-up and both sides getting ready for long haul, the operational aim of People's Liberation Aermy (PLA) is to maximise its territorial gains, wherever it finds opportunity all along the LAC before onset of winters, exploiting remaining one to two months of campaigning season, before heavy snowfall. 

It also intends not to loose any of the heights already occupied, which is evident from further build-up of forces in areas, where it encroached post-April, and strengthening fresh areas, which became vulnerable due to recent Indian domination like some heights ahead of Chushul, south of Pangong Tso. 

It is also aiming to waste out Indian infrastructure development season, by preventing/delaying construction till snowfall, although Indian infrastructure development never stopped, but got expedited, like the pace of its capacity building, due to Chinese adventurism. 

PLA’s tactical aim is to launch probing actions to gain some tactically significant features, sensitive to Indian defence, before heavy snowfall, which can collectively improve its strategic posture or bargaining position during subsequent talks on LAC/border issue. 

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. Some more incidents of tug-of-war between two forces can’t be ruled out, every time Chinese try to probe into Indian territory. 

The standoff is likely to roll over to winters for which Indian military is fully prepared, providing an option to decision-makers, not to hurry up disengagement on terms unsuitable for long term security of India.  

Existing Chinese concerns               

Strategically, President Xi Jinping miscalculated global anger against himself, while trying to make best of Chinese early recovery from COVID-19 in an unfair manner, triggering a strong global desire to decouple from Chinese supply chain. 

Having made an unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, along with similar activities in South and East China Sea, President Xi Jinping continues to underestimate collective stance of democracies. 

China now faces major democracies standing up against its overambitious aggressive design, with few bankrupt countries standing by its side, to handle multiple engagement points. 

The gross violation of CBMs in Ladakh by China has opened all military options for India to respond, besides responses in economic, diplomatic and other domains, with international opinion in its favour, and greater freedom of action. A pull back has a heavy domestic political cost for Xi Jinping, besides threat of occupation of vacated areas by India. 

Pushing PLA to make some quick gains before winters and asking for talks to freeze the situation thereafter, to retain its gains is the Chinese game plan, which is against Indian security interest. 

A transition of Chinese intent from offensive to defensive is evident, when Xi Jinping starts talking about ‘Fortifying Tibet’ due to tough Indian resolve.  

What should be Indian responses?

The Indian national resolve, speedy mobilisation, and proactive actions have surprised China. Indian response in multiple domain (including economic and diplomatic) has triggered hard global stance against unfair adventurism of China. No country wants war; hence India has gone along with talks at various levels, so far. 

India would like to have peaceful borders, but not at the cost of Chinese unilateral occupation of areas or changed LAC in favour of China. Talks alone are unlikely to make PLA recoil. 

India will have to raise the cost of PLA’s presence in unauthorised areas, even if it amounts to 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 zone, which help Chinese agenda, like many other historic errors in 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 same page. Indian strategic aim and stance should be to insist on proper delimitation and demarcation of LAC (which is difficult, but doable), pending settlement of border. Any softer stance will lead to reoccurrence of similar situation, which is not in Indian security interest. 

What should be the global response?

The world has to realise that China has got emboldened with success of incremental encroachment of territory without fighting in past, especially in South China Sea. This prompted Xi Jinping to open multiple fronts for territorial gains amidst pandemic, diverting domestic and international criticism against himself/CCP.

With multiple fronts, exposed sea lanes of communications and isolated bases, China soon finds its vast inventory of military assets too meagre to cover all its vulnerabilities. 

Chinese aggression on multiple fronts has necessitated need for an Indo-Pacific Alliance of democratic countries, which can be build up by strengthening Quad, by converting it to military alliance, on the lines of NATO. 

With global economic and population fulcrum shifting to Indo-pacific, it has become inescapable for lasting peace in the region, because if Chinese assertiveness and encroachment is not controlled now, the democracies will have to face an aggressive and much stronger threat from Chinese authoritarian regime, and punishments like choking of global sea lane of communication like South China Sea.    
 

Major General S B Asthana

Major General S B Asthana had been an Infantry General with 40 years of defence experience at national and international level.
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