The unilateral realignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), starting April 2020 and culminating with China de factoclaiming sovereignty over 1000 square Kilometers of disputed territory, has rattled India profusely. China’s relentless land-nibbling, salami-slicing, and occasional wresting of large swaths of Indian territory along the disputed LAC, has crystallized awareness in the minds of Indian citizens that China intends to solve its border dispute with India by simply seizing disputed territory. If there is no territory left to dispute, there will be no dispute!
Like the proverbial boiling frog, India hasn’t been able to strategically counter Chinese encroachments. It has no effective diplomatic counter to China periodically increasing the scope of the territorial dispute in Ladakh through new claims that move the disputed border further and further into Indian territory. Chinese actions suggest that it has no intention of solving the border dispute in Ladakh, at least not on terms that would be acceptable to India, yet the Indian government does not call out China on its perfidy. Instead, it seeks reassuring border agreements that give it nothing more than a ‘head in the sand’ sense of security!
In the following paragraphs, we will illuminate the real intent behind China’s seemingly mindless expansion into India and dwell on India’s options to safeguard its territorial integrity.
THE CARTOGRAPHIC AGGRESSION AGAINST INDIA
Over the past decade and even earlier, China has inexorably nibbled away territory claimed by India all along the LAC.
This fact has been publicly acknowledged by civil administrators as well as elected representatives. However, the Indian Army (IA), Ministry of Defense (MoD), and ruling party politicians have consistently denied the PLA’s cartographic aggression and attributed reports of border transgressions to differences in perception between India and China on the alignment of the LAC. The following are two examples.
On July 31, 2008, PLA troops transgressed nearly 1.5 km into the Indian territory near Mount Gya, located at the tri-junction of Ladakh, Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), and Tibet. They painted boulders and rocks with “China” and “Chin9” in red spray paint. The border, marked during the British era and regarded as an international border, was hitherto considered undisputed.
In December 2008, the PLA threatened Indian nomadic tribes grazing cattle in the Dokbug area of Nyoma sector of Ladakh. PLA soldiers went on to damage tents and asked the nomads to vacate the area.
In January 2010, a meeting, chaired by Commissioner A K Sahu (Leh), was held to take stock of ongoing PLA intrusions.The meeting was attended by government officials from Jammu and Kashmir, Ministry of Home Affairs, and several high ranking Army officials including Brigadier General Staff of 14 Corps Brig Sarat Chand. During the meeting, the absence of proper maps was apparent and acknowledged. Yet the meeting concluded, “it is clear and accepted that we are withdrawing from LAC and our area has shrunk over a period of time.”
In July 2019, Arunachal Pradesh BJP state president and Lok Sabha MP Tapir Gao, and Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) state president Gisho Kabak, informed the local media that China had constructed a road in Tuting sub-division of Upper Siang district. On September 4 2019, Gao also shared a video clip on social media that featured a newly-constructed wooden bridge built by the PLA over a stream, identified as Kiomru Nallah in the district’s remote Chagalam area. Gao claimed it was built by the Chinese army after entering about 25 km inside India. The wooden bridge had been noticed by local youth on September 3, 2019.
In a press statement, the Indian Army denied this transgression stating, “There has been no such incursion. The area being referred to in the media report on ‘some electronic channels’, is the area of Fish Tail. There is a differing perception of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control, as in many other areas. The terrain is thickly vegetated and all movements are undertaken on foot along Nalas and streams. During monsoons whenever the Nalas are in spate, temporary bridges are constructed by the patrols for their movement.”
Blatant Land Grabs
Every few years, China blatantly grabs a large tract of land from India in characteristic moves; relentless transgressions, followed by long term encroachments, and finally, territorial claim – an expansion technique often referred to as salami slicing. The PLA, additionally, initiates its ‘slicing’ per se taking advantage of India’s distractions. The following are some examples;
1986 Sumdorong Chu Valley
Between 1984-86, while India was still reeling from the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, distracted by a politically volatile arena in the hands of an untested unelected Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the PLA transgressed into the disputed Sumdorong Chu Valley in present-day Arunachal Pradesh and set up permanent structures including a Helipad.
Kargil War 1999
Between May to July 1999, while the IA was preoccupied in a grim battle to dislodge Pakistani troops who had surreptitiously occupied heights within India along the Line of Control (LoC), the PLA quietly built infrastructure, including a permanent road, in disputed territory on the North bank of Pangong Tso lake, extending from Finger 1 to Finger 4.
Eastern Ladakh faceoff starting May 2020
The IA initiated a massive mobilization of troops along the western LAC in Ladakh after the May 2020 Galwan Valley incursion by the PLA. In July 2020, PLA troops reportedly breached the Eastern LAC and entered Arunachal Pradesh twice. The first instance occurred sometime at the beginning of July when PLA soldiers transgressed at least 26 km inside Indian territory in district Anjaw. They reportedly camped for three to four days in the area before exiting. In the second instance, also in Anjaw, the PLA transgressed through Arunachal’s Hadigra Pass 40 km inside India and retreated only after leaving telltale marks.
In early August 2020, there was a military face-off in eastern Sikkim’s Jelep La area in which the PLA occupied the higher ground and rolled stones onto Indian Army troops. Tensions eased after senior officers intervened, but in a joint meeting between the two sides, both stayed adamant on their claim over the Jelep La area. This was the first time China had made a claim over the area!
In mid-August 2020, the IA noted PLA’s presence in Uttarakhand’s Tanjun La Pass and a transgression was acknowledged for the first time this year.
There is no clarity on what motivates China’s cartographic aggression against India. The following are some reasons ascribed to Chinese belligerence and discussed in the media.
- The May 2020 LAC realignment is thought to have been provoked by the progress in the construction of the Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road. India’s border infrastructure development threatens China’s hold over Aksai Chin (a disputed region administered by China) and Chinese communication links that pass through Aksai Chin into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
- The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is diverting its citizens’ attention from internal socio-political unrest through a manufactured threat of Indian aggression.
- The CCP is attempting to deflect the intense scrutiny of China’s role in the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
- China is securing the return on billions of dollars it has invested in the CPEC (China – Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the Gwadar port by stymying India’s ability to re-annex the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
- India’s declaration of Ladakh as union territory effectively extricates Ladakh from the J&K dispute andtightens India’s hold over Ladakh. In the past, China refused to negotiate a border settlement with India in Ladakh citing Ladakh’s disputed status.
- China was rattled by an official statement in parliament that Aksai Chin is part of the Indian administered Ladakh Union Territory. Or perhaps the public statements from senior BJP leaders suggesting that what now remained was for India to regain the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
- China is rattled by India’s growing strategic ties with the United States.
- The CCP seeks to advance Mao’s Five Fingers of Tibet strategy wherein China aims to assert control over Arunachal Pradesh (Southern Tibet), Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and Ladakh to secure China’s periphery.
We believe some of the reasons listed above are contributory factors for the aggression while others point to the real motive for the aggression – to establish Chinese sovereignty over the entire Ladakh.
The fact that China covets Ladakh is well known to Indian authorities. What confounds analysts is – why? What makes Ladakh an obsession for China? Most analysts interpret Chinese territorial claims in Ladakh as imperial expansionism, just as they do Chinese sovereignty claims over Arunachal Pradesh. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, during a visit to Ladakh in July 2020, alluded to Chinese expansionism being the reason for China’s realignment of the LAC. We believe that Chinese claims over Ladakh go well beyond mere territorial expansionism, and as such dramatically differ from their claims over Arunachal Pradesh.
China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh is focused on the Tawang Monastery built at the behest of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, by his contemporary Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso around 1680. The 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in Urgyanling village in Tawang and his appointment established a precedent that the Dalai Lama could be born outside Tibet. This precedent legitimizes the appointment of a Tawang resident as the successor to the current Dalai Lama, an outcome that China is wary of.
We believe China’s claim to Ladakh is strategic and is more important to China than its claim over Arunachal Pradesh. We would go to the extent of suggesting that the Arunachal Pradesh claim is a bargaining ploy. More likely a ploy to compromise India’s ability to defend Ladakh by forcing India to spread its defenses thin. In this context, it may be noted that in 1959, in a letter to Prime Minister Nehru written by Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier under CCP Chairman Mao Zedong, China offered to settle the border dispute by dropping its claim over Arunachal Pradesh as a quid pro quo for India accepting China’s claim over Ladakh. Also, after the 1962 war, China withdrew from territories that it had annexed in Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang!
Viewed in the short term perspective, China’s obsession with Ladakh is aimed at securing the billions of dollars that it has invested in building CPEC and the Gwadar port. Viewed in the long term, China’s obsession with Ladakh is aimed at establishing its imperial power status starting with Asia, the Middle East, Africa and eventually replacing the United States as the global hegemon.
THE CCP’S IMPERIALISTIC ANTECEDENTS
The CCP, which seized power over present-day China in 1949, represents imperialism in the garb of socialism. It’s claimed socialist credentials are aimed at providing legitimacy to imperial rule in the modern-day world. Under its socialist wrapping, the CCP is akin to an imperial dynasty no different in outlook from the imperial dynasties that ruled China in the past.
As an imperial power, China has to continuously enrich itself to augment its military strength. Typically, an imperial power enriches itself through trade of goods and services on terms that are extremely favorable to itself. Trade of goods over land or sea, requires infrastructure. Trade over sea mandates establishing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that route through friendly ports. Trade over land mandates building highways and economic corridors that spur economic development in the regions of the host nation through which the highways pass. The economic development of the host nation ensures amortization of infrastructure costs incurred by the imperial power. China refers to its trading routes as silk routes, a reference to historical trade routes across which China traded expensive, widely sought after Chinese silk with countries in Asia and the Middle East.
The CCP may be imperialistic in its outlook, but it is pragmatic in its approach. It’s not living in the past, it’s meticulously pursuing its imperialistic ambitions carefully calibrating its disruption of the existing world order to keep it below the threshold of a kinetic war. The CCP understands very well that its SLOCs through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), critical to the supply of oil and natural gas from the Middle East, are not secure because of geography and the overwhelming capabilities of the US Navy.
Despite the breathtaking pace of China’s warship building, the Chinese Navy will not be able to stand up to the US Navy for another 25 to 30 years, possibly forever. Even if the Chinese navy was able to stand up to the US Navy in open seas, it would not be able to ensure safe passage of Chinese merchant ships through the narrow Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lambok, through which China’s SLOCs to the Middle East via the IOR must run. Considering that the CCP’s imperial ambitions are aimed at dislodging the US as a global imperial power, it’s easy to understand why China would want to rely more on its land-based communication links, rather than SLOCs. Silk routes are sheltered by the sovereignty of the nations that they transit through unlike SLOCs, even if the nations concerned are tributary states.
Not Expansionism, But Imperial Expansionism!
At the risk of sounding bizarre, we believe that Chinese occupation of Ladakh is aimed more at Pakistan than India! China has made very deep inroads – political, economic, and military – into Pakistan; as such the hapless failed state of Pakistan is unlikely to perceive a threat from China. Ironically, India might survive a Chinese annexation of Ladakh, but Pakistan won’t! Our contention will become clearer in the subsequent paragraphs.
One reason why India has been unable to effectively counter China’s moves on Tibet is because India wrongly perceives itself to be contemporary of China and views the threat from China purely in the bilateral context. India is missing the woods for the trees by perceiving itself as the sole victim of Chinese aggression. We need to take a higher altitude view.
China’s moves on Pakistan, Ladakh, and Tibet are as old as the CCP! Over many decades China has assiduously drawn Pakistan into a deep debt-based friendship. Pakistan is now tottering on the brink of becoming a tributary state of China.
China’s ultimate aims go well beyond Pakistan – through Afghanistan and Iran to the Middle East. China has already made political inroads into Afghanistan and Iran and is selling weapons to Irans. In due course of time, China could establish the two nations as tributary states!
As much as possible, China would want to wrest Ladakh from India without fighting a war. So far it has an excellent track record in capturing territory without firing a shot. But all good things come to an end. With the May 2020 LAC realignment, China bit more than it could chew!
There are at least three good reasons why China would not be inclined to fight a war with India over Ladakh at this point.
- Winning the war would be well beyond PLA capability. Not winning it would not be an option as the CCP’s desire for world hegemony does not exceed its desire to rule China.
- A war with India would alert the world to the CCP’s hegemonic ambitions and reduce the chances of future success.
Under the circumstances, China is likely to keep the territorial gains from the May 2020 incursions and bide its time. We can be sure the CCP will try again!
As far as India is concerned, militarily rolling back PLA’s unilateral realignment of the LAC is not an option because of heavy costs – economic and human. There is also the possibility of undesired escalation. India’s best option would be to impose costs on China – Military, Political, and Economic.
India has already started imposing economic costs by restricting bilateral trade. Imposing political costs would entail India distancing itself from China’s positions on Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Military costs could be imposed through a live LAC, wherein IA troops continuously attempt to seize heights and other geographical features that facilitate easier defence. With a border around 4000 km in length through mountainous terrains there would always be gaps in the defences of either adversary! Indeed the term “border area” that replaced the more precise term LAC in the September 10, 2020, joint statement by the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Moscow, legitimizes a live border!
Imposing costs on China would necessarily entail bearing economic costs. India’s ability to absorb economic costs would likely be more robust than China’s ability to absorb military setbacks, or even a stalemate, and consequent loss of stature in international forums.
One could even speculate that China’s national power would not be able to stand up to India’s national pride simply because the CCP is not truly representative of the Chinese people. Once body bags with young soldiers raised under the authoritarian single child family norms start to arrive, the CCP, acutely aware of its illegitimacy, would prefer to restrain itself or even purge its current leadership rather than risk political unrest.
Live LAC – Good or Bad Idea?
Some analysts believe that a hot LAC would be the worst possible option. In an article in The Hindu, Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramanium (Retd.) wrote “A ‘hot’ LAC will favourthe PLA with its greater reserves and will test India to its limits. It is the worst option that India must prepare for, even more than a localized and limited conflict.”
We disagree with the analysis. A hot LAC would certainly strain India economically to a greater extent than it would China. Since China’s strategic planning pivots around the concept of national power, China likely believes a live LAC over a prolonged period would progressively weaken India, which has lower national power, into submission.
While National Power is an important factor in determining the outcome of a prolonged conflict other factors such as National Pride cannot be overlooked. How else would you explain the unexpected outcome of China’s attempt to teach Vietnam a lesson in 1979 over the latter’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia!
A live LAC would favour India for the following reasons:
- It would allow India to carefully calibrate its military engagements and avoid escalation.
- Operations would be largely limited to Special Forces(SF) putting the IA and PLA on a level playing field.
- India’s endeavour would be backed by the US and the West because a live LAC would force the PLA to commit a disproportionate number of troops to its Western Theatre Command, compromising China’s ability to launch operations against Taiwan. (While China has reportedly war-gamed simultaneous operations against Taiwan and India, the CCP would not be inclined to initiate a multiple front war.
- Because India would have access to Western and Israeli warfighting technology, the military costs imposed by Indian forces on the PLA would likely be more severe.
- Internally, a prolonged conflict could draw focus to the CCP’s illegitimate rule.
- China’s disruptive rise would become increasingly evident to the rest of the world. The country would lose more trading partners resulting in reduced economic growth. The festering conflict would embolden other nations in the region to stand up against Chinese bullying.
Special Forces Operations
As stated earlier, a live LAC would include Indian SFsoperations. These would not be constrained by advantages that the PLA currently enjoys over the IA – better logistics, armed drones including low observable armed drones, better intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance drones, better EW capabilities, and light tanks.
Indian SFs are well trained and better equipped than their PLA counterparts because of our access to Western technology. Vast stretches of flat unpopulated areas in Tibet and the tacit support of the Tibetan people would give Indian SFs an advantage. The Tibetan plateau is ideal for surreptitious drops and landings behind enemy lines at night and in bad weather by C-130J transport aircraft which are splendidly equipped for special operations.
It would not be possible for China to mount similar SF operations behind Indian lines because of the hostility of the Ladakhi people and the absence of unpopulated areas.
In conclusion, India must view the threat posed by China to Ladakh in a global context, rather than a bilateral context.
From the CCP’s perspective, India’s dismemberment is a happenstance in the CCP’s quest for global hegemony. Ladakh just happens to be in the way of China’s march into the middle-east. The threat to Ladakh is not mindless territorial expansionism, it’s well reasoned and planned imperial expansionism!
A strategic approach to effectively counter China would be for India to deepen its military partnerships with other nations similarly threatened by China’s disruptive rise. India must alert its strategic partners that the threat to Ladakh is a threat to global order, besides being a threat to India’s territorial integrity. If there is to be a Quad, the Quad must extend to Ladakh!
While deepening relationships with some strategic partners, India must not compromise on its sovereignty, nor should it dilute its strategic partnership with other strategic partners such as Russia. India has never stood up to US demonizing and sanctioning of Russia, so it should gracefully accept Russia’s neutrality in our conflict with China.