Military confrontations are like the great game of chess. The overall aim is to place the pieces in advantageous positions to get an upper hand. This needs planning, anticipation and an understanding of which piece is at its strongest in which position. At times due to luck or poor situational appreciation, a player lands up with black pieces, with the opponent making the first move. But that does not imply that the player with black pieces cannot come out on top.
The current Indo-China standoff in the Ladakh appears to be akin to the game of chess with each side making moves and counter moves to gain an upper hand. The faceoff had its genesis in the Chinese attempt to change the status quo in its favour in the contested areas of Ladakh. The situation was exacerbated when an aggressive China was confronted by India beefing up its forces.
The eyeball to eyeball confrontation turned violent at Galwan valley resulting in 20 Indian soldiers laying down their lives and China suffering equally severe casualties. This raised the spectre of the situation spiraling out of control into uncharted waters. Better sense prevailed and the two sides have thereafter engaged in a dialogue to disengage and deescalate. What would be the end game or denouement of this game?
A settlement of the Indo-Chinese confrontation at the LAC can hardly ever be perfect. The solution would have to meet conflicting requirements of the two sides and can at best be of a satisficing nature. However, what needs to be underlined in bold, is that a settlement between China and India can only emerge if it ensures an honourable outcome for both. Is this possible?
India will seek a return to the status quo of early May 2020. Since China initiated the standoff, it will seek some advantage beyond the status quo that existed before May 2020. China cannot afford to lose face since it may adversely impact its relations with other countries. While the Indo-Chinese negotiations and talks are expected to be a long and extended, nothing would be gained by calling them off.
There is a lot of wisdom in continuing talks as these buy time and certainly avoid unnecessary violence and bloodshed, the bottom line being: core interests are not compromised.
A question that comes to mind is what was China seeking when it moved troops to change the status quo? China has explicitly stated its ambitions to become a global power by 2049 and has laid out plans for achieving this status. In this context, it may be pertinent to recall the actions of the earlier superpowers; the USA and USSR.
Even as these countries aspired for the superpower status, they ensured dominance in their immediate neighborhood. China is presumably taking a leaf out of their book by attempting to dominate its near abroad to fulfill its superpower ambitions. In this respect it finds India a hindrance. India has not joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and raised objections to the Chinese projects as part of the CPEC in Pak occupied J&K. Besides this, India recently brought Ladakh directly under the central government by making it a Union Territory and indicated Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh.
China’s main road linking Tibet to Xinjiang runs through Aksai Chin. The earlier standoff between the two militaries at Doklam resulted in a stalemate without China gaining an upper hand. India is thus proving to be a major obstacle in China’s path to superpower status. China worries that others may also join India in challenging it dominance. Therein lies the rub. Following India’s lead, ASEAN recently questioned China’s claims in the South China Sea which contravene International Laws governing maritime entitlements of countries. Cowing down India thus become an essential part of Chinese aspirations.
Let’s take a deeper look at the Chinese approach to gaining dominance. In this regard there was a remark by one of the Commandants of Defence Services Staff College that comes to mind. In one of the country studies he said that, “Chinaman makes himself look 10 feet tall, but don’t worry, he is shorter than most Indians”.
The overall aim then is project China as a highly evolved state, which is miles ahead of others. Like the well-publicized American way of war, China follows a unique methodology of seeking to dominate countries. It builds historical narratives to claim territories using information/ disinformation, mobilizes forces, threatens to use force, uses information warfare, but avoids an open war. It tries to psychologically cow down opponents by openly displaying capabilities of its armed forces through exercises and screening videos of technological prowess.
China puts itself across as a perspicacious and intelligent state whose planning stretches to the next 50 or even 100 years. That is how great the country is. It uses its state-controlled media to spew venom on the adversary. In India’s case, it keeps harping on the 1962 war in which it routed the Indian forces.
The overall aim is to psychologically dominate the opponent by a show of force and indicating a vast power differential between China and the adversary. In most cases such actions produce the desired impact. India somehow has recently shown that it is not overawed. India must however, avoid falling into the trap of matching China’s defense allocations by increasing its military expenditure to unaffordable levels. The lessons of erstwhile USSR may be relevant in this regard that gunpower come out of economic heft and the former cannot be prioritized disregarding the latter.
In India’s case, China keeps it embroiled through Ladakh like military standoffs and needling by its neighbours. It also attempts to exploit India’s internal political dissensions to adversely impact its national resolve.
Even as we talk about likely outcomes, it may be instructive to understand how the current crisis evolved and the moves by the two sides. There is little doubt that Indian response was delayed. This could be due to intelligence issues or even preoccupation with the COVID pandemic. The reasons may need to be investigated, but only after conclusion of the talks or negotiations. After the initial delay, the subsequent Indian response was rapid and it confronted the provocation head on. India moved matching forces near the contested areas. It activated the Air Force which is expected to play a pivotal role in any war. The air assets were deployed at forward bases.
The Air Force plans an early deployment of the Rafale fighter likely to be inducted towards end of July. Maritime strike Jaguar aircraft have been positioned at Car Nicobar island within striking distance of the Malacca Straits choke point. Indian Army has also readied itself for the long haul by starting the stocking of supplies for the additional troops to cater to the forthcoming winter season. All these actions clearly indicated to China that India is well prepared for an extended confrontation and is unwilling to compromise on its core interests.
The few hand to hand scuffles revealed that the Chinese were well prepared for such faceoffs providing its troops with hand held weapons wrapped with sharp protrusions. Chinese soldiers were thus exploiting the earlier protocols which prohibited use of arms in encounters at the LAC. The encounter at Galwan valley led to bloodshed not witnessed for decades.
The strong response form the Indian soldiers was certainly a pointer to the Indian resolve. India then unilaterally amended the rules of engagement giving freedom to the commanders on the ground to handle tactical situations depending on their assessment and removed the restrictions on the use of firearms to respond to extraordinary developments. These changes in the rules of engagement are significant because they signal a change in India’s approach towards China and its recent military adventures along the LAC.
The first signal is that India will unilaterally exit any agreements or protocols if such a need arises. It will not be bound by such protocols or rules if China attempts to interpret these in a manner favourable to it. The signal is that Indo-China relations are not a one-way street. There has to be an acceptable degree of reciprocity. The second and more important signal is that India is willing to raise the stakes by permitting its troops on the ground to use firearms if needed. This clearance changes the terms of engagement, which have to a large extent ensured that skirmishes between patrols or troops at the LAC do not flare up leading to exchange of fire and casualties.
With this change, a possibility exists that a confrontation may easily spiral out of control and lead to horizontal and vertical escalation. The move signals to China that India is prepared for an escalation if the situation demands and is quite confident of more than countering the Chinese threat.
Moving further afield, India has also indicated very bluntly to China that commercial dealings cannot be decoupled from military confrontations. India banned the use of 59 Apps of Chinese origin. Indian public companies have cancelled contracts for import of Chinese components. Similar restrictions are likely to be placed in other dealings as well.
The future of the Huawei 5 G is likely to be in jeopardy. When one puts all things together it does emerge that India reached an inflexion point in its relations with China during the LAC standoff in Ladakh. Based on the above analysis it is evident that India is unwilling to accept Chinese hegemony.
China is unlikely to close this chapter unless it sees some advantage in doing so. It is expected to delay withdrawal and would continue to keep the border undefined to unsettle India with many more such intrusions. One can thus expect talks on both military and diplomatic channels to continue for some time. Resolution if any is likely to be inconclusive without any significant advantage to any side. One would also expect that Chinawill continue to use its financial clout to engage India’s neighbours and create pressure points by acquiring bases and incite anti-India sentiments.
India would need to be prepared for the long haul and continued resistance from China to revert to the status quo of early May 2020. India will also need to play the long game patiently. Joining the league of big nations is always accompanied bysuch pinpricks from competing powers. India needs to take these in its stride.
The issue of using India’s neighbours as pressure points will continue till China’s financial muscle weakens or India builds adequate financial strength to become a donor. Till such a time it would be best for India to maintain its positive relationships without reacting to minor irritants. However, a clear cautionary note must be sent to the neighbours that use of their bases or facilities by China during hostilities with India would invite retaliation.
All said and done the current faceoff is unlikely to be fully resolved. A quid pro quo in other areas such as trade or removal of restrictions may well be on the anvil. Unlike in chess, where the end game leads to a win or peters out in a draw, the face off on the LAC may surprisingly end up with both sides being losers.