Opinion | China-India stand-off at LAC: Extrapolating possibilities in 2021

Written By: Major General S B Asthana WION
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Feb 07, 2021, 07:27 PM(IST)

India China LAC dispute Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Various clauses pulled out by diplomatic community of both countries, in terms of ‘Five Point Consensus’ or ‘Three Mutuals and Eight points’ were more like old wine in new bottle, taken out of graveyard of old Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between the two countries, where Chinese buried all of them in May 2020.

The stand-off between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in January 2021, saw the ninth round of military commanders level talks. But it made no worthwhile headway, like all other talks at various levels, in past. 

Various clauses pulled out by diplomatic community of both countries, in terms of ‘Five Point Consensus’ or ‘Three Mutuals and Eight points’ were more like old wine in new bottle, taken out of graveyard of old Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between the two countries, where Chinese buried all of them in May 2020.

Beijing entered February 2021 with Indian forces well entrenched at existing positions in the stand-off, prepared for all contingencies, with Chinese garrison South of Pangong Tso becoming vulnerable to Indian occupation of heights on Kailash range. With lack of trust between the two countries, the Chinese are also concerned that any pull back can lead to Indians occupying some important features vacated by them, which can be a political disaster for CCP.

The Indian concerns include extra kilometrage with China in Depsang, Finger 4 to 8 and other areas, restrictions on patrolling, vulnerability of DS-DBO road. Hence, commencing business as usual with China, at this juncture will de facto alter LAC, which will add one more chapter to avoidable historical errors for India. Both sides continue to reinforce their positions, infrastructure development to improve sustainability of troops and to thwart next move of adversary.

What are China and India aiming for in Ladakh in 2021?

Chinese political aim of forcing Indian subordination couldn’t be achieved, despite its adventurism in Ladakh, but will remain unchanged in future. Chinese strategic aim in Eastern Ladakh was to provide depth to its National Highway G-219, Karakoram Pass and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), redraw Line of Actual Control (LAC) as per its perception and negotiate border on their terms thereafter. China can claim to have partially achieved it, through illegal occupation of some extra kilometrage in Eastern Ladakh, but at the cost of newly created vulnerabilities for itself South of Pangong Tso.

The discomfort China faces can be attributed to many factors -- including Indian dispositions in Sub Sector North including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, viewed as a threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity. The Chinese aim of preventing Indian infrastructure development hasn’t been achieved, as both sides continue development of infrastructure in areas they perceive to be theirs.

Chinese future strategic aim in 2021 is likely to be to hold on to its gains, and get Indian troops out of Kailash Range. The approach of talks to reach an agreement for disengagement and de-escalation based on mutual and equal security, are aimed to make Indians pull back from Kailash range in exchange of PLA pulling back slightly from some unimportant areas. 

A military action post winters to evict Indian Army from Kailash Range by China cannot be ruled out, but the option is marred with a major risk of loss of face for Xi Jinping, as a military defeat is the last thing which he would like to face, that too in centenary of formulation of CCP. PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations will continue to be East Ladakh and actions along rest of LAC will be to increase the cost of stand-off for India, and strengthen its bargaining position.

Indian aim should be to not concede unilateral shift of LAC as LAC-2020, be prepared for ‘Two Front War’ as a worst case scenario, and continue capacity building accordingly. The talks should continue, but by any strategic calculations, I do not see China conceding to Indian official demand of pulling back to pre-April 2020 positions through talks. 

With such operational compulsions, commencement of some tactical probing actions, and resultant patrol clashes are likely, as we improve infrastructure in 2021. In light of no major breakthrough till the 22nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation and demarcation of LAC. As long as the LAC is not demarcated, a temporary solution will only postpone the next standoff and may lead to LOCisation of LAC. 

The Chinese will like to keep border unsettled till the time the political cost of not settling it, becomes higher than doing so, for CCP, China.

Infrastructure offensive

The Chinese have taken an unprecedented lead in infrastructure development along LAC in past, which is gainfully being utilised to create pressure on India all along the LAC. Sinicisation of Tibet, as part of ‘Strategy of Three Evils’, has been its old strategy, but a new dimension of infrastructure offensive has been added to its strategy to construct over 400 villages along LAC, and develop to settle pro-Beijing population to pursue encroachment. It will thus help in shifting claim lines on negotiating table. China will continue to try encroaching Bhutanese land to create more space in Chumbi Valley, to threaten the Siliguri corridor.

India will also have to adopt an infrastructure counter strategy. It's recommended that states/UTs along LAC should allot land to security forces like Ladakh SCOUTS, Garhwal, Kumaon, Sikkim, Arunachal SCOUTS, ITBP, SSB, other security forces and families hailing from that area (on son of soil concept), ready to settle in villages so constructed, along own perception of LAC, as the Chinese are doing. This will improve inclusive growth and integration, besides proof of our claims on border. This will have to continue along with other infrastructure development including road, rail, airstrips and communications along LAC.

External factors

US President Joe Biden’s first major foreign policy speech on February 4, 2021, has clearly indicated that USA is in no mood to give walkover to China, which he named as most serious competitor. Linking it with earlier statements of Biden’s Administration indicate no change in Indo-US global strategic partnership and common agenda in Indo-Pacific. It indicates strong military posturing in Indo-Pacific by US to counter Chinese expansion, resulting into Beijing's commitment of military assets at multiple friction points -- hence an option for India in Indian Ocean and various chokepoints. 

This will remain a major factor of consideration for Beijing in enlarging its scope and dimension of standoff into any possible military confrontation.

The ongoing stand-off at LAC, Chinese compulsion of pushing BRI/CPEC through, has further increased the strategic relevance of Pakistan for China. 

Beijing has increased its efforts to develop military capability of Islamabad, and use it, along with its terror potential, should its national interest demand so. This brings out a long term threat to India in terms of ‘two-front war’. The recent Chinese backing of Myanmar military in UNSC, regarding the recent coup indicates some additional leverages, which can be helpful in Chinese attempt to re-ignite insurgency in north-eastern India, although given the level of integration, it may not be as easy, as it was few decades back.

What should Indian response be?

India needs to adopt multi-pronged strategy. Preparing for ‘two front war’ is not a choice, but a compulsion, although it may/may not happen in 2021. The only way to avoid it is to convince the potential adversaries that it is capable of fighting it successfully and pose multiple front for the Chinese. This convincing has to be backed by building capability to do so. 

India seems to be working on it with unprecedented speed, fast tracking procurements and boosting indigenous production of necessary equipment through ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’, besides a tough stance by forces on borders.

China will attempt to convince India to delink border issue with trade and other engagements. India will have to hold its ground, not to run into any quick fix solution, as these issues are inseparable. For many decades, many foreign policy pundits have been trying to pursue 'rest of relationship' sidelining border issue, going slow on capability development of military, expecting soldiers to protect territorial integrity on un-demarcated LAC by pushing each other without firing. 

Patrol clashes like the one in Naku La, (Sikkim) last month indicates the need to revisit responses, as scuffles can lead to another Galwan-like episode; hence, we need to ensure that right to fire in self-defence is assured to own troops, despite intent for peace.

India needs to be prepared to pose a threat to Chinese vulnerabilities in maritime domain in collaboration with other friendly navies. In any future escalation, the strategy should be to draw PLA Navy, out of its comfort zone in South China Sea to Indian Ocean, where it’s Sea lines of Communications (SLOC) face maximum vulnerability.

(The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site -- https://asthanawrites.org. He can also be reached at shashiasthana29@gmail.com)

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

Major General S B Asthana

The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years of experience in national & international fields and UN. He has been awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Moldova and Governor of Haryana. He is currently Chief Instructor at USI of India.

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