Ladakh Standoff: Brinkmanship Gone Wrong
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 02 Dec , 2020

Ever since the border standoff between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC for short) in Ladakh in May 2020, strategic analysts have been struggling to decipher the Chinese motives. Irrespective of nationality or ideological preferences, most agree that it was China that initiated the crisis. Some Indians tended to blame the current Modi regime for it saying that the Chinese were angered by the Indian buildup of border infrastructure. But it needs to be pointed out that this effort has been an ongoing activity since 2014 and there is nothing new that happened in May 2020 to trigger the Chinese actions.

Some analysts have linked the Chinese actions to India’s revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and subsequent Indian statements laying claims to Northern Areas of Pak Occupied Kashmir (POK) consisting of Gilgit and Hunza provinces. It was claimed that this posed a threat to the CPEC or China Pakistan Economic Corridor (part of China’s One belt one road OBOR initiative) and Chinese investment of $ 60 billion. Again, India’s claim on whole of J&K is not new and part of India’s declaratory stand. As to the ‘threat’ to CPEC, any military analyst will accept that India has not taken any serious or concrete military steps to fulfill this ‘dream’. Frankly, India lacks the kind of military resources needed to take up such a difficult military operation, Indian home minister’s bombastic statements in the Indian Parliament notwithstanding.

Given these facts and very limited tactical gains likely to accrue, it is difficult to find any military rationale for Chinese actions. It seems that China was interested in scoring political points through brinkmanship without actually provoking an armed conflict. The Chinese must have calculated a muted Indian response as in earlier such crisis in Depsang plains, at Chumaror even Doklam on Bhutan border, both sides refrained from violence and there were no casualties on either side.

The Chinese motivations seem eerily similar to one in 1962. At that time too China had very little to gain militarily since it already was in control of Aksai Chin that it needed to have a road link between Tibet and Sinkiang. Its aim in launching the offensive in 1962 was to teach India a lesson and diminish India and Nehru on the world stage.

Like in 1962, so in 2020, China is worried about the repercussions of Covid-19 and felt that India under Mr.Modi was attempting to gain ascendency through its vaccine diplomacy. China saw the opportunity of raising military tension on border to distract India from dealing with the economic fallout of the Covid-19. By forcing India to deploy over 100,000 troops on the border, China has certainly imposed economic costs on India. This comes at the most difficult time as Indian economy contracted nearly 23%. Internal violence and disturbances due to economic distress is a real possibility and that is precisely what China hopes for. If the border crisis was not to have erupted, there was every possibility of India managing the Covid-19 induced economic and social crisis. So far so good, but what China had not bargained for was a decisive Indian shift to anti-China camp led by the US and whose members include powerful nations like Japan and Australia.

The clash in Galwan valley on the night of 15/16 June 2020 in which 23 Indian soldiers and unknown number of Chinese soldiers died was a watershed. China did not expect the kind of response it got since on earlier occasions Indian troops were not so aggressive. Once the news of clash and loss of Indian lives leaked, it inflamed public opinion in India and a small tactical incident had strategic implications that ranged from major redeployment by India and activation of Quad anti-China alliance.

The fact that post Galwan incident China has not taken any further military action and in fact has begun negotiations for de-escalation shows that China was not prepared for the kind of reaction that it faced. It is reasonable to assume that even India abandoned its ambivalence to military alliance like ‘Quad’ only under the compulsion of circumstances. Galwan incident saw the law of unintended circumstances under full play.

The suspicion that has generated between India and China has set back the mutual relations by decades. The Ladakh standoff has also raised a question mark over the thesis of ‘peaceful rise’ of China. Since the world is still reeling under the impact of Covid-19 related economic impact, many countries have not yet reacted to China. Chinese will realize the full extent of their folly only in around a year’s time when most of the world turns hostile to it. In the recent past only Nazi Germany has seen the kind of dislike China is likely to see. It would not be unlikely that China’s dream of becoming a super power would be as elusive as Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’. Ladakh miscalculation will be noted by future historians as merely the start point of this process.

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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

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996, and ‘Quest for Peace: Studies in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies' as a Chatrapati Shivaji fellow of the USI.

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3 thoughts on “Ladakh Standoff: Brinkmanship Gone Wrong

  1. ‘So far so good, but what China had not bargained for was a decisive Indian shift to anti-China camp led by the US and whose members include powerful nations like Japan and Australia.’

    I strongly suspect that Beijing not only factored this in, but considered India to be a part of the Quad even before Galwan. In which case, the CCP may have decided that to push New Delhi further in that direction was not much of a price to pay, because the other members of the Quad would provide little more than verbal support for India. Plus, portraying India as a Western puppet suits Communist propaganda very well.

    They may even have calculated that the closer India-US ties become, the more vulnerable New Delhi becomes to pressure from Washington – most notably over dealings with Islamabad. This obviously suits Beijing fine, since Pakistan is the linchpin of their strategy in the Indian subcontinent – and so long as New Delhi does not undermine it (by attacking, defeating and dismantling Pakistan), the strategy can be pursued slowly, but steadily – to make India an outcast in its own neighbourhood.

  2. Widely accepted that this confrontation was started by China, intentionally, due to different presumed reasons, but India was caught off guard once again. We could balance out the sit subsequently by occupying vacant hill positions on the southern bank. It is now about six months, end to this is not in sight. As you mentioned above, HM talked big in parliament, but in reality we could not push the Chinese back beyond finger 10 or so, leave aside Depsang plains and other area around. There are news (believe these are genuine) that Chinese have consolidated their positions in Dokalam and intruded about with a road into Bhutan. Wonder, Where do we stand? Will Finger 4 will be the new normal? Akshaichin, GB and POK are illusions only or a day will come for us to feel pride in re acquiring these lost territories……….!

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