The way the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed its troops and the armament in Ladakh and Arunachal and so has India matched its forces in equal numbers, it does not indicate that India and China will disengage during winters despite their “pledge to disengage as quickly as possible” during the diplomatic and military level talks. The chances of a full-fledged war are remote however, the skirmishes will continue for the domination of heights/vantage points to improve their supremacy. India has a massive support from the QUAD countries – the US, Australia, and Japan besides other countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, Russia and EU. Any disengagement will take a long time but the talks must continue to ensure that both the armies maintain distance and respect Line of Actual Control (LAC) as it existed in April 2020.
Indian troops are quite used to remain fit in the high altitude areas during extreme winters of -30 degree C. The troops from Special Frontier Forces (SFF) during a preemptive and surprise move captured vantage point Table Top in south Pangong Tso on 29/30 August, which dominates Pangong area. SFF troops are very tenacious during the winters in high altitude areas, which is an added advantage for Indian troops psychological supremacy being Tibetans who are highly motivated to get their motherland liberated for which China is extremely agitated and disturbed. Even the armour is handled very well by the Indian troops during extreme winters. Compared to PLA, Indian soldiers are far more experienced and well versed with the tactical pursuits in war.
The meeting between Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, a veteran China hand who’s said to enjoy good chemistry with Chinese diplomats, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Moscow during Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting did seem to lower tensions a notch, and, conspicuously, both sides avoided blaming eachother. The talks raised prospects of confidence-building measures (CBM) to preserve “the peace and tranquillity” along the LAC. It was a great relief for both the countries because the situation in Eastern Ladakh was quite explosive.Surprisingly, the decisions taken during various meetings at diplomatic and army levels by both the countries are not honoured by PLA because LAC is not properly marked on the ground.
The biggest problem is that both the countries have been negotiating for disengagement for the last six months without much result because little bit of withdrawal of troops from either side will mean loss of face unless Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping use their good offices.
The biggest worry is that both the countries have so far failed to agree on a pullback resulting in heavy cost for the deployment of about 50,000 troops and war equipment during Ladakh winters especially when India has already drained its economy in Covid pandemic. There will be a cost for the maintenance of Indian troops, however, no cost is too much for the nation’s sovereignty. On the other hand China will be ready with the Covid pandemic vaccine by November 2020 and the cost of the maintenance of PLA may be half that of India because they depend on Sattus.But there may be a weakness in the overall logistic infrastructure for the PLA this first winter out in Tibet.
Ideally, Jaishankar and Wang should have created room for a pullback but it doesn’t appear they even got within hailing distance of that possibility. Let us hope the sixth meeting of corps commanders level with a representative of external affairs ministry brings some reasonable results of disengagement if some good sense prevails on China.
Conclusively, given the border dynamics and what is likely to be a protracted diplomatic and military engagement, India and China still have to worry about military confrontation under the present circumstances. It would be tough for either side to achieve a conclusive victory as the surprise element vanished months ago. But to keep the standoff peaceful, India has to remain extra alert, as the PLA is unpredictable. The PLA Western Theatre Command reports directly to Beijing and it’s clear every major move must have been cleared with Chinese supremo Xi Jinping hence, there is a need to hold a dialogue between the two heads of state.
Unfortunately, India has been concentrating its guns towards Pakistan and neglected Chinese perspective planning on One Belt One Road (OBOR) – Silk Route – initiative originally coming from Xi Jinping in 2013 with the support of 68 countries and organisations. Hence, Modi neglected Chinese strategic moves for the lack of intelligence inputs resulting in weak defence budget 1.6 per cent of GDP lowest since 1962. It affected operational readiness to deal immediately. Luckily, China has given India enough time to procure itsimmediate defence equipment to deal with China.
China has always been keeping a watch on Indiabecause it knows that India is the only country in Asia that might eventually be able to challenge it both economically and militarily. China therefore, tries its best to keep India on its toes by fingering on LAC and Arunchal throughout the year. It also keeps good relations with Indian neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldivesand, of course Pakistan. It will spare no expense in helping these countries build the infrastructure they may or may not need, undermining the advantage of geographical proximity. Any future war/conflict with China will force Pakistan to come in China’s support. Hence, India must always be ready to deal with twin adversaries simultaneously. Indiatherefore has to maintain good relations with its neighbours for an all out support during contingencies.
It is in a higher-stakes game since it shares an almost 4,000-km border with this global power. India must counter China at all levels — from the high seas to the mountainous heights to ensure that it’s not pushed to the sidelines even in its own region.