China’s Geostrategic Perspect and Eastern Ladakh
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Issue Vol. 37.1, Jan-Mar 2022 | Date : 23 Mar , 2022

“Since deterrence can only be tested negatively, by events that do not take place, and since it is never possible to demonstrate why something has not occurred, it became especially difficult to assess whether the existing policy was the best possible policy or a just barely effective one.” — Henry Kissinger, Former US National Security Advisor

Twenty months back Chinese PLA in a surprise move seized areas in Eastern Ladakh across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China and prevented Indian forces from patrolling to those areas they had been going to for years. By doing so the PLA altered the existing status quo which had been assiduously built through negotiations over the last many decades. There is no satisfactory explanation for this unprecedented assertion of power to occupy territory to what the Chinese claim as their LAC, which is, in fact, what they claimed as their international boundary in 1960.

Why should China disregard the various protocols established since the late 1980’s? Why did it undo the agreements it signed – beginning with the ‘Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement’ (formally the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India–China Border Areas), an Agreement signed in September 1993, agreeing to maintain the status quo on their mutual border pending an eventual boundary settlement?

The other agreements related to the LAC/Border Areas which have been signed are: Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, of 29 November 1996; Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas of 11 April 2005; Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, 11 April 2005; Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, 17 January 2012; Border Defence Cooperation, 23 October, 2013. By this one aggressive move they have permanently trashed all these bilateral agreements.

There is no satisfactory explanation for this unprecedented assertion of power to occupy territory to what the Chinese claim as their LAC, which is, in fact, what they claimed as their international boundary in 1960.

The Chinese Ambassador to India was invited to a webinar on 30 July 2020 for a talk on “India-China Relations: A Way Forward”, hosted by the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. Galwan encounter was still smoldering then. The Ambassador had the temerity to advice India that – “China hopes that Indian border troops will strictly abide by the relevant bilateral Agreements and protocols, and refrain from illegally crossing the LAC to the Chinese side”. His excuse for the presently stalled process for the clarification of the LAC since 2002 was, similarly, a swipe at India – “If one side unilaterally delimits the LAC as per its own understanding during the negotiations, that could create new disputes and that would be a departure from the original purpose of the LAC. I think that is why the process cannot move on.”

There are issues that India needs to review. Are diplomacy and summit meetings adequate in dealing with China? In its desire to present to the global community an image of being a ‘peace-loving’ nation, does India, more often than not, choose the soft option by putting hard options on the back burner and continuing diplomatic relations as if all is normal? The strategic community has been vocal in calling for dealing with China from a position of strength. Does India have the military and economic clout and more importantly, the will, to muster this strength? Is India’s reactive strategic defensive posture adequate to deter by denial? How is it that after Doklam in 2017 a more serious military confrontation occurred in the summer of 2020 in Ladakh taking everyone by surprise? Is our strategic surveillance below par? With modernisation of the military moving at a slow pace, is a ‘two front’ scenario is becoming reality, is confronting such a scenario with ‘what we have’ becoming inevitable? Are the internal political dynamics and fissiparous trends based on region, language, caste and religion making India vulnerable to subversion and inimical exploitation?

To come to any reasonable conclusion on the likely Chinese motive to undertake such an assertive step, it may be worthwhile to relate its actions to the power play that it has practiced.

The fact is that politics and power are synonymous. Consequently, most international interactions are political or have ramifications for politics. Power has been prominent in discussions of international interaction from ancient times to the present day. However, despite this long history of the role of power in international relations, there is not much agreement to any single definition. Scholars disagree not only with respect to the role of power but also with respect to the nature of power.

Although there are a number of terms relating to power such as – power, influence, control, coercion, force, persuasion, deterrence, compellence, and inducement etc. there are common elements underlying all such terms. It is the basic intuitive notion of one nation causing (or having the ability to cause) another nation to do something that this nation otherwise would not do. Thereby, ascribing to power the capacity to direct the decisions and actions of others. Power also derives from strength and ‘will’. Strength comes from the transformation of the nation’s resources into capabilities. And ‘will’ fortify the nation’ strength.

How is it that after Doklam in 2017 a more serious military confrontation occurred in the summer of 2020 in Ladakh taking everyone by surprise? Is our strategic surveillance below par?

In the eighteenth century, ‘the power of individual states was conceived to be susceptible of measurement by certain well-defined factors’, which generally included population, territory, wealth, natural resources, armies and navies. This approach later evolved into the ‘elements of national power’ approach. Each state tried to maximize power relative to each other, to achieve a status of ‘balance of power’ or as seeking to produce a balance of power. It would include ideas such as force, influence, energy, control, strength, cause, pressure, authority, coercion, and insight to make it tangible. The balance of power theory shared the assumption that it was possible to add up the various elements of national power, sometimes called ‘power resources’ or ‘capabilities’, in order to calculate the power distribution among the Great Powers and as the Chinese have done, to quantify the overall power as ‘comprehensive national power’.

Chinese culture – like most of those in Asia – regard cycles as one of the basic rhythms of life, including international life. Britain emerged as a leading power for more than a century from 1800. The US came to prominence after the great wars. The US envisaged a thoroughly refurbished international system built on democratic values and free market economy.

Historically, China’s glory has waxed and waned dictating its size and influence. The period 220-280 CE saw China divided into three ‘kingdoms/empires’. It was the bloodiest period of their history. San Guo Yan-Yi (The Three Kingdoms) is one of the four classics of Chinese literature. To quote the opening lines of this classic – “The empire once united must divide; and once divided must unite”, narrates the reality of China. However, China remained a power which always insulated itself from the rest of the world. It’s periods of waxing and waning was separated by internal chaos, civil war or foreign conquest and occupation. The Chinese empires were built by military conquest, expansion and settler colonialism in Asia itself. When the empires collapsed it was the framework and imperial machinery that collapsed not the culture. When it waxed it resurrected its past glory and ancient statecraft. The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 had not brought about the collapse of China. In fact it has constantly sought to regain its past glory and has done so by expanding outwards on its periphery. Xinjiang and Tibet are the victims on the periphery as a waxing China rises.

Unlike a democracy, China’s one party rule has sustained for over seventy-two years. Technology has enabled society to connect with the world at large. This has created an element of insecurity for the Party and its legitimacy. It too has used technology to tighten its hold over the population and to insulate them from the rest of the world. It also controls information; which it manipulates to suit its requirement of building a nationalistic narrative. Interestingly, ultra-nationalism and protectionism were identified as the cause of the turbulence in the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1950 when China invaded Tibet, there was internal turmoil in China and it was still recovering from the instability that was an inevitable fall-out from its long-drawn civil war. But, Mao felt that it was more important to take control of the periphery than in restoring internal order and stability at that time, and since the Western powers were weary of wars they were unlikely to intervene. Mao was confident that India would not intervene since India was more focused on its own internal issues than in coming to the aid of another neighbouring country from which it had little to gain. The Indian leadership was of the opinion that China would maintain minimum essential military presence in Tibet since India had no desire to enter Tibet with military force. That was a geo-strategic miscalculation.

The Chinese empires were built by military conquest, expansion and settler colonialism in Asia itself. When the empires collapsed it was the framework and imperial machinery that collapsed not the culture.

For the last decade or so there has been a perceptive rise in China’s assertiveness on its periphery. China’s behaviour has antagonised most of its neighbours, except for probably, Russia, Pakistan, Cambodia and Nepal. The explanations that are external to China—the dynamic international situation, an altered balance of power, China’s new found global interests, or even great power rivalry and the resulting US push back—seem inadequate to explain the choice of the course China has adopted or its timing for its aggression in Ladakh.

China’s integration into the global economy and its export led growth has given rise to a new security dynamic which has compelled it to secure itself from any disruptions. In doing so it has sought to establish bases abroad and increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, in particular and integrating the South China Sea as its maritime territory. China for the first time in its long history is transitioning into a maritime domain. In the process it has jeopardised the freedom of navigation in a common sea passage for the rest of the countries in the region.

China has considered its land frontiers with Central Asia as being secure. But after its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the link through Pakistan to Gawdar under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) the Gilgit-Baltistan area of J&K became vital for the success of the project. India’s demarches to China on the CPEC violating India’s sovereignty were seen as a spanner in the wheel. In August 2019 when the Indian Parliament divided J&K into two Union Territories, and the media projected Ladakh, including Aksai Chin, as one entity, the Chinese were caught off balance. The Indian Government emphatically reiterated that Gilgit-Baltistan was part of J&K and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) would be taken back. As a corollary it implied that Aksai Chin too, being Indian territory, would be taken back since Indian maps projected in the media had included it as an integral part of Ladakh and thus was sovereign Indian territory under illegal occupation. Aksai Chin would thus become a zero-sum game in India’s favour. China realised that it was losing out in the region in seeking “discourse power” (the ability to set and shape global/regional narratives). It had to act and act fast.

A former National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon says: “In other powers public opinion and populist politics drive external behaviour to a greater or lesser extent. In China, regime survival and calculations of internal stability and economic growth seem to count far more in determining her external behaviour.” Party is central to China. Regime survival remains central to the Chinese leadership. Xi Jinping has projected himself as central to the Party. He has taken charge of all the key departments – Central Military Commission, Public Security, State Security (which includes all internal and external intelligence agencies), Foreign Affairs (there are views that Foreign Policy has many other stake holders but that is debatable), etc. and creating a personality cult. In the Party propaganda he is described as the “core, backbone and anchor” of the Party. As some dissidents put it that Xi is now the “Chairman of Everything”. In essence, he has usurped control of internal and external discourse and now sets the narrative. As Chairman of the CMC, Xi Jinpingis now fully in-charge of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which is responsible for the entire LAC/International Border with India.

Such centralisation has created a “single point of responsibility and failure”. The stakes are too high for failure. This has resulted in a negotiating environment of inflexibility. Thus there are no ‘fall back’ options, and pre-emptory use of force has become their preferred modus operandi.

India is now faced with a more politically hostile and militarily robust China. This new strategic reality features a larger military deployment and reserves along the LAC.

Rewinding back to Doklam, it now appears that China reluctantly acquiesced to end the impasse in August 2017. But it learnt a lesson; that was that it needs to strengthen its military presence in Tibet more so that it is in a stronger position to be able to dictate the course of action in any such an eventuality anywhere along the LAC in future. It would also choose where to do so too. On the other hand, India took it as a major diplomatic victory and sat back in smug satisfaction with a false sense of victory, and thereby not correctly appreciating the potential danger that was going to buildup not far in the future. Determined to ‘teach India a lesson’, Xi Jinping, in his capacity as Chairman of the CMC, instituted a new process of issuing a Training Mobilisation Order (TMO) which, inter alia, called for enhancing the level and scope of training in Tibet region. The first one was issued on January 4th, 2018. This format has been followed in successive years and has since become the norm. Indian intelligence agencies, both civil and military, probably, did not appreciate these as being out of the ordinary. They failed to monitor the buildup for the exercises and the joint live fire exercises that were conducted. No comprehensive analysis of these was carried out resulting in underestimating the import of these exercises. Relying on the Chinese government controlled media inputs they were lulled into complicacy. So it is not surprising that the scale and scope of the exercises in Tibet in 2020 were treated as routine and no hostile action by the PLA expected. It is also the failure of the Indian mission in Beijing to not have even got a whiff of what was in the offing. It is the bane of the Indian Foreign Service in not institutionalising region/domain expertise – for them the attraction of tenures in the West supersedes all else.

India is now faced with a more politically hostile and militarily robust China. This new strategic reality features a larger military deployment and reserves along the LAC. That it will lead to violence is a moot point. Post Galwan, China has reigned in the PLA and has also continued the process of dialogue. It has sought to keep the LAC issue aside while wanting to build bilateral relations. This is not acceptable to India in the changed circumstances. The mantra is – distrust and verify. China had not expected the type of reaction in Galwan as brought out in the recent report by an Australian journalist, Anthony Klan – “It was a bloody clash between soldiers from the world’s two biggest armies, played out in sub-zero temperatures in almost pitch-black darkness at 14,000 feet – on the “roof of the world”. The battle, despite being held between two nuclear-armed powers, was almost medieval: fought in hand-to-hand combat by soldiers armed with sticks, stones and metal bars.” According to him the PLA suffered 38 soldiers killed but China has refused to disclose the truth. Chinese soldiers abandoned their officers and comrades and ran back to save their own lives. Xi realised that the PLA is not combat ready hence has resorted to political and diplomatic overtures to pacify India. A war at this juncture would prove costly in geopolitical terms and China’s concern over the “profound changes unseen in a century” that it visualizes, could be destablising.

Conjectures abound on China’s further aggressiveness to deliberately generate tension on the border to force India to defer its military modernisation and its Indian Ocean domination. These conjectures also relate to the strategic competition, where China has set the conditions for India to react in ways that suit China’s ambitions. China may consider the US as its main adversary in its global ambitions for power but to dismiss India in a passing way may be a grossly flawed policy.

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In that context, India’s strategy of deliberately generating the risk of a broader downturn in the bilateral relationship took on added prominence. As Arzan Tarapore, a researcher has stated in the Lowy Institute Analysis that – “On the ground, the PLA was quickly satisfied with the operational gains of its incursions. More broadly, this would also have been an assertion of the balance of power, with China imposing its will on India. Those goals achieved, China had signalled it was willing to pull back its forces as early as June 2020 in a disengagement plan that led to and was derailed by the Galwan Valley skirmish. Satisfied on the ground, and facing unrelenting pressure on multiple foreign fronts, Beijing seems to have calculated that enduring Indian enmity would serve no useful purpose.” This, in my view, is a false front put up by China. Post Galwan the pressure by Xi Jinping on Western Theatre Command (WTC) to perform is evidenced by the fact that in two years there have been four Generals rotated in as head of WTC. Xi Jinping’s direct involvement had thus become inevitable. Also, there are major weaknesses in the PLA Army that are not highlighted – the constant flux caused by the turn round of soldiers in the conscript system, the lack of combat experience of the fighting forces and the political control of field commanders by the Political Commissars – to state a few. The TMO for this year was signed by Xi on 4th January 2022. How the training/troop mobilisation pans out will be an indication of whether there will be any further disengagement to deescalate the crisis or will China up the ante?

In conclusion, the questions asked earlier here could be now answered:–

    • It should be the norm that in dealing with China, summits and diplomacy need to be backed by hard power. While maintaining its strategic autonomy, India should align with like-minded nations.
    • Since China’s inception, India has tried to appease China and has accepted the word of that country in good faith. In the early 1950’s India went out of the way to help China in it consolidating its presence in Tibet. It never anticipated China going to war in 1962. 1967 duel in Sikkim was China’s doing and it backed out badly bruised; ambush by the PLA of an Assam Rifles patrol in 1975 in Changste, West Kameng/Tawang Sector was again an unprovoked action; occupying an Indian Intelligence Bureau post 1986 on the south bank of Sumdrong Chu, West Kameng/Tawang Sector again was to unilaterally redefine the LAC; 2013 in Depsang, Ladakh; 2014 in Chumar, Ladakh; 2017 in Doklam, Sikkim and 2020 in Ladakh in the stretch from the North Bank of Pangong Tso to Depsang. In all these cases the PLA’s aggressive designs to redefine the LAC to suit its larger calculus have manifested. Therefore, in dealing with the fork-tongued Chinese, always be armed with a big stick.
    • Deterrence and negotiating from a position of strength need national commitment and political will. A strategic defensive posture is basically reactive in nature tying down too many combat forces in ground holding role. Defending ‘every inch’ of the border does not make military sense; there is need to change the military and political defensive mind set to carry the battles into the enemy’s territory. That ‘threat in being’ needs to be credible and have commensurate weight as a substantial quid pro quo.
    • In this hi-tech age, intelligence failure is unacceptable. Domain experts in the Foreign Service and Intelligence community should be mandatory. A pool of Chinese language experts is a must. Software for translation from Mandarin to English/Hindi must be developed duly assisted with Artificial Intelligence for faster dissemination of information and intelligence. Taiwan has been ever willing to help. There is no need to be polite to the Chinese and not avail this facility.
    • Two Front war; Pakistan-China collusion is a reality. To have another Chief say that “we will fight with what we have” would be a calamity. The ‘hollowness’ pertaining to the deficiencies in weapons, ammunition and equipment, existing in the Army, as raised by another Chief, has, apparently, been given a ‘decent’ burial!! It will impede modernisation.
    • China is fighting a war on multiple fronts – information, cyber, social media, and subversion. It is exploiting India’s political freedom, freedom of speech, the free media (which is supposed to perform the ‘checking function’ of the government),and the vulnerabilities arising due to division of the society on the basis of caste, religion, language, and region. Political parties of all hues must stand firmly with the government in its stand against China.

In 1963 Mao had stated to a visiting foreign delegation that the 1962 War was not so much about the India-Tibet border but to thwart Nehru’s ambition to wrest Tibet. Nearly sixty years later, Xi Jinping and China’s Communist Party’s feel vulnerable due to their occupation of Tibet by force. Evidently Tibet remains the Chinese ‘Achilles Heel’.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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4 thoughts on “China’s Geostrategic Perspect and Eastern Ladakh

  1. Yes Tibet is a trouble- some source on the international stage but however Russia is far more of a quandary.
    An unstable Russia is trouble for China and India and neighbors, hopefully unsecured nukes will not be obtained by terrorists.

    Or, a Coup that puts an anti China government in Kremlin is the worst outcome but best scenario for India.

    Russia military is now in dire Straits and there is far more for China to lose when the invasion fails and almost nothing to gain otherwise.

    China’s ‘ no limits’ to Neutral stance is a de Facto surrender to American Interests, Swift, and trade.
    Another Long March, anyone??

  2. There is a very simple way to deal with China: eliminate its main ally in the subcontinent. Overnight that would put it on the defensive, as India would only have an enemy on one front, whereas China would not.

    New Delhi’s preference for doing nothing, instead of doing the necessary, has cost it greatly in the past and will invariably cost it more in the future.

  3. A very lucid write up about what China has been upto. The glaring mistake of Tibet as a geo strategic blunder has been clearly brought out by the author. The understanding of China is so important and it appears that it is searching for a foothold on the borders since the abrogation of Article 370 where J&K and Ladakh were made UTs.. It feels insecurre as its prime project the CPEC is under threat. China’s attempts to brow beat India inspite of our intelligence failiures have not produced the desired results.China exhibits lack of confidence in being battle worthy and this aspect is clear from the frequent changes made in the Command.. This weakness of not being battle tested should be exploited by India if situation warrants. The current crisis in Ukraine has also brought about a change in the Dragon’s strategic thinking and I see a thawing of ice on the northern borders.

  4. China does what it does because it can. India always turns the other cheek to China and Pakistan. It is Indian nature. Anything else is like too much hard work. Simple. China wants Ladakh and Arunachal Pardes. any further analysis, philosophising is just to find sophisticated excuses for turning the other cheek. It is a way of a coward.
    You want China to stop bothering you? 1. They have broken treaties, then tell the world and stop trade. 2. Hit them hard. They use medieval methods so can India. Send thousands with spiked sticks.

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