To be attacked by the Enemy is not a bad Thing but a good thing! — Mao Zedong 26 May, 1939
Introduction: Is it Land?
Despite all the noise made over the Indian media, the fact that – India’s sovereignty stands violated – was not communicated to the people in India in unequivocal terms during the month long on-going stand-off between militaries of India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) [the Pangong Lake and three other places in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh].The Indian agenda for the 06 June meeting between senior military commanders [Major General Liu Lin (Commander of South Xinjiang Military Region of the People’s Liberation Army – PLA) &14 Corps Commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh] was – “…. to ensure restoration of the status quo to what it was in April”.
If so, then where did Col Santosh Babu and his party go on the night of 15 June? Perhaps the violent clash that occurred at patrolling point P 14 was a perceptional reality of India’s claim along the LAC where Chinese military presence altered the status quo.
A day prior to this meeting, the Global Times cited an anonymous strategic expert who stated – “the Indian side should immediately stop provocative acts along the border and respect China’s bottom line stance on the common border, otherwise deadlock will not be truly resolved”. Furthermore, on India’s agenda for the Commanders’ meet on 06 June was – for China to reduce their mobilization near the Galwan valley and that the troops must be sent to their original location. It’s crystal clear that since May this year India’s sovereignty stood violated by the PLA.
However according to Prime Minister Modi on 19 June, “Neither have they (China) intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them (China) and no one can take even an ‘inch of the land’….we possess the capability that no one can eye even one inch of our land. India’s armed forces have the capability to move into multiple sectors at one go”.
If so, then where did Col. Santosh Babu and his party go on the night of 15 June? Perhaps the violent clash that occurred at patrolling point P 14 was a perceptional reality of India’s claim along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where Chinese military presence altered the status quo.
In the absence of an official statement, according to media reports China had set-forth a condition for de-escalation–‘India to stop its road construction’ [60-metre-long strategic bridge being built to give troops easy access to Daulat Beg Oldie, the last military post south of the Karakoram Pass] – at the 06 June meeting. The logic presented to the Chinese people on China’s objection to India’s road construction is – “….the road will connect with the airstrip [Daulat Beg Oldi Advanced Landing Ground] at the world’s highest altitude and with drop-off from four-engine C-130 Hercules transport planes India will be able to move its forces quickly and concentrate in the Ladakh area”.
According to Air Marshal PK Barbora (retd) this air-strip was first activated in an Indian Air Force (IAF) operation in 2008 without the prior approval from the government ofIndia. The Air Marshal in a statement to Hindustan Times said – “….now since nothing was done in writing, government was informed only after I had landed and come back from there and through proper channels. So, the government asked why did you do it? We said, it is my responsibility, air force responsibility to maintain troops, logistics supports and also any kind of emergency troops deployment, weapons deployment, whatever it might be – we can do it now, not using helicopters anymore, it’s by a transport aircraft which can carry much more load and bring back load – so we said it is our….responsibility is Indian Air Force and it falls within our jurisdiction and Indian territory, so we did it…”
The final twist to the episode was reported on 19 June, when China freed 10 Indian soldiers under its custody following the violent clash on the night of 15 June. This included 01 Lieutenant Colonel and 03 Majors.
This Advanced Landing Ground remained non-operational between 1965 and 2008.India’s position on the other hand which states that the under-construction road was well within the Indian side of the LAC does not encapsulate the inherent politico-military logic of such infrastructure development and it’s in-direct correlation to the offense-defense balance along the LAC.
Experts on South Asian affairs based in the United States [Ashley Tellis and Sumit Ganguly] had opined a possibility of conflict between India and China. However, official statements from India and China indicated the desire for the resolution of the face-off through diplomatic means. Military build-up by both sides suggested otherwise and supported the opinion of a near-conflict scenario. According to Wu Jianghao (Director-General of the Asia Department at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)in his online meeting with Naveen Srivastava (Joint Secretary (East Asia), Ministry of External Affairs) stated that – both sides agreed to “implement the consensus that two countries do not constitute a threat to each other” and “do not let differences rise into disputes”.
The first signs of de-escalation were reported on 10 June, when Indian government and military officials confirmed that the “the de-escalation exercise has started near the Pangong lake standoff point also…. it will take some time to complete the process”. Coinciding with this de-escalation was a rumored black-out in Karachi (Pakistan) and Pakistan Air Force running patrol over Pakistan air space – a case of alleviated air activity.
Amid the process of de-escalation on 16 June a violent clash broke-out between the armies of the two countries in which 20 Indian soldiers including the Commanding officer of the 16 Bihar regiment were martyred along with unconfirmed reports about 43 causalities on the Chinese side. This violence along the Eastern Sector of Ladakh was the first of its kind since 1962.
The final twist to the episode was reported on 19 June, when China freed 10 Indian soldiers under its custody following the violent clash on the night of 15 June. This included 01 Lieutenant Colonel and 03 Majors. The information was not shared with the media or the people of India until 19 June, implying the complexity of the situation wherein information is available only in an incremental manner. However, disputing such a report was Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian who told a daily press briefing on 19 June in response to a question about the China-India border situation that – ‘China has not seized any Indian personnel’.
So is this face-off between India and China just about strategic space at land or other elements of Indian and Chinese politico-military strategy at play? Why else would Chinese strategists highlight the US Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act on June 11 which establishes the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative – a new military fund to increase deterrence against China in the Pacific Ocean on 16 June following the violence along Sino-Indian border?
According to Qian Feng [director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing] – “The US regards India as a key country of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. It wants to use India to contain China [16 June]”.
So, who really blinked first during the Doklam plateau face-off – India or China? While infrastructure development was the reason behind the Doklam face-off, the real cause was not on the mountains, but on the high-sea.
The available template to run a preliminary diagnosis about this situation is the – Doklam face-off (2017) along the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction.During the Doklam face-off Chinese army engineers attempted to build a road through the Doklam plateau, claimed by both China and Bhutan. In a face-off lasting 73 days, China blinked first after Indian Army obstructed the Chinese road construction on behalf of Bhutan for reasons best known to Chinese strategists. However, while India hailed it as a ‘diplomatic victory’, China claimed itself to be acting as a “responsible big country’ in handling global affairs. China’s tactical withdrawal was temporary and is reflected in General Bipin Rawat’s statement of September, 2017 – “China was taking over territory in a gradual way and testing India’s threshold.”
In March, 2018 Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated – “”….post disengagement from the face-off in 2017, troops of both sides have re-deployed themselves away from their respective positions at the face-off sites. The strength of both sides have been reduced….In order to maintain these troops during the winter PLA has undertaken construction of some infrastructure including sentry posts, trenches, and helipads.”While India may have registered a diplomatic win at the tactical level, the same cannot be said about the strategic domain.
So, who really blinked first during the Doklam plateau face-off – India or China? While infrastructure development was the reason behind the Doklam face-off, the real cause was not on the mountains, but on the high-sea. The almost simultaneous occurrence of Doklam face-off and the announcement of the largest in the series of Malabar exercises by President Trump during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US is a case in point.
The well delayed end result of the Doklam face-off never made it to the otherwise loud Indian media – “two years after tense India-China stand-off at Doklam plateau, Bhutan could agree to let China hang on to territory it has already captured”.
According to an anonymous Indian government source – “both Bhutan and China have held over 25 rounds of discussions regarding their border disputes. We really don’t know exactly what is happening, but it seems the holding line will become some sort of a working boundary.”
It would be in gross error on part of Indian strategists to assume that China is attempting to grab land. Land is just the bait and a means of strategic communication, while the prey is the realization of China’s grand strategic goals – “stable regional order (with Chinese characteristics)”. A simple question to ask in this regard is – how much of land did China grab having routed the Indian military lacking sound leadership in the border war of 1962? For example, the then defense minister’s ‘surprising’ decision not to keep minutes to be taken of all the meetings he had with the military leadership ahead of the 1962 War.According to Jamyang Tsering Namgyal [Member of Parliament (Ladakh)] China occupied land is as following;
A simple question to ask in this regard is – how much of land did China grab having routed the Indian military lacking sound leadership in the border war of 1962?
• Aksai Chin (37,244 square km) in 1962 during Congress regime.
• Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley (250m length) in Chumur area till 2008 during UPA time.
• Zorawar Fort in Demjok was destroyed by PLA in 2008 and setup PLA’s Observing Point in 2012 during UPA regime and also created Chinese/new Demjok/Colony with 13 cemented houses.
• India lost Doom Cheley (ancient trade point) between Dungti and Demjok in 2008-2009 during UPA regime.
The Methodology: The Research Question to Ask?
The question often asked with respect to Chinese politico-military strategic decision making is – “why did China decide to do so?” and an attempt is made to analyze and assess the strategic gains made following this decision in the political and military domain – typical of an analysis based on the rational paradigm. However, from a methodological perspective China’s decision making in the politico-military domain is better answered when asked – “what would have happened if China did not do so?”
The Concept of Whole Situation [zhengti qingkuang]:
The concept of “whole [overall] situation” determines the decision making behind China’s use of force and is at best comprehended at the level of strategic decision making, although it is also applicable at the tactical (operational) level. This concept is widely used in Chinese political rhetoric and is a highly subjective interpretation of the strategic situation. For example, following the violent clash on 15th June, Zhao Lijian (spokesperson from Chinese Foreign Ministry) stated – “The overall situation on China-India border is “stable and controllable”.
This concept of whole situation is made of multiple parts that cumulatively constitute the whole situation. A particular part of the strategic situation is significant only to the extent of its relationship with the whole situation. China’s absolute silence with regard to the violent clash along the India-China border signifies the Chinese leadership’s intent of not letting this incident effect the overall situation of the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship.
However, this time around factors beyond China’s immediate control have affected the whole situation between India and China – India’s nationalism. Two articles – “Rising Indian nationalism will harm business ties” and “India should curb ‘boycott China’voices after border clash” [Liu Xiaoxue] – on 17 June underscore the importance of this concept in decoding the methodology of Chinese politico-military strategy.
China’s aggressive military build-up and renewed territorial claims over the Galwan Valley suggests its importance to China’s subjective understanding of the whole situation.
The relationship between the whole situation and its constituent parts is such that, if part of the situation does not adversely affect the whole situation then it remains inconsequential. China’s aggressive military build-up and renewed territorial claims over the Galwan Valley suggests its importance to China’s subjective understanding of the whole situation.
On 17 June, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lijian Zhao said – “the sovereignty of the Galwan Valley area has always belonged to China”.The immediate rational provided for China’s aggressive military buildup [not limited to Ladakh] was – the new bridge being built by the Indian Army to connect the all-important Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road with the Patrolling Point 14 in the Galwan area [also the site of violence]. In light of the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas signed between India and China on 07 September, 1993, India’s defense of its initiative of building the new bridge being well within its perception of Line of Actual Control is a cause for concern. According to the agreement – “The two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this Agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question”.
The subsequent military build-up on part of India following that of China since the first week of May, 2020 preceded by air intrusions grossly violated the border agreement of September, 1993. The agreement states;
• In case of contingencies or other problems arising in the areas along the line of actual control, the two sides shall deal with them through meetings and friendly consultations between border personnel of the two countries. The form of such meetings and channels of communications between the border personnel shall be mutually agreed upon by the two sides.
• The two sides agree to take adequate measures to ensure that air intrusions across the line of actual control do not take place and shall undertake mutual consultations should intrusions occur. Both sides shall also consult on possible restrictions on air exercises in areas tobe mutually agreed near the line of actual control.
Following this border agreement with China on 22 February, 1994, the Indian Parliament firmly declared that-
• The State of Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India and any attempts to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted by all necessary means;
• India has the will and capacity to firmly counter all designs against its unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity;