Geopolitics

Decoding Chinese Strategic Intent in Prolonged Standoff at LAC
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Sep , 2020

Key Points

    • Military posturing and muscle flexing in Ladakh continues with talks, as both sides refuse to blink first.  
    • PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations is Eastern Ladakh and build up/intended gains in rest of LAC are part of bargaining chips.
    • India should insist on proper delimitation and demarcation of LAC, pending bordersettlement.
    • Need for Indo-Pacific Alliance of democratic countries, by convertingQuad to military alliance on lines of NATO.

Backdrop

The current China India standoff in Eastern Ladakh has seen multiple rounds of talks at various levels from Ministers, to local military commanders, failing 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 shortly, 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 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 Chushulheights/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 surreptitiously grab strategic piece of land, presuming that India will not be able to respond due to rising impact of COVID-19 and resultant effect on economy. Thus embarrassing strongest regional competitor and to signal to Chinas smaller neighbours its dominance in the Asian region. However, the Indian side was quick to react to halt further encroachment and stands strong to protect its territorial integrity and debunked its ambitious plans.

Chinese strategic aim to pick Eastern Ladakh is to provide depth to its highway NH G-219, 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 DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, and Indian resolve to reclaim its territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, posing threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity and BRI prospects. PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations is Eastern Ladakh and build up/intended gains in rest of LAC areefforts to pick up bargaining chips.

Currently with continued build-up and both sides getting ready for long haul, the operational aim of 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 had also aimed to waste out Indian infrastructure development season, by preventing/delayingconstruction till snowfall, althoughIndian 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 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 forlong termsecurity of India.

Chinese Existing Concerns

Strategically, President Xi Jinping miscalculated the level of global anger against his government, 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 itsoverambitious 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 for PLA for its gross violation of the LAC, 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 Chineseauthoritarian regime, and punishments like choking of global sea lane of communication like South China Sea.

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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

Maj Gen SB Asthana

Chief Instructor, United Service Institute of India.

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3 thoughts on “Decoding Chinese Strategic Intent in Prolonged Standoff at LAC

  1. Excellent write up about the current sit, options available and some does and don’ts. We only hope that polilitical, diplomatic and military leadership work in close coordination and do not settle for some thing for which we have to repent keeping in view our national security issue and our aspirations of a regional / global power.

  2. Very well articulated. I have been advocating for a stronger Quad for a long time rather than adding one more cultural(pun intended) organization. If the world is hoping that the ghost of China would go away, it would be a classic repetition of mistakes of the pre-WW2 era.

  3. Do you not know when some has declared war on you, your family, your country, your kind ? What are you waiting for ? are you a coward who does not want to die ? or do you think that by avoiding a war you will live for ever ?

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