As the current China India standoff in Eastern Ladakh rolls over into harsher winters, under the shadow of multiple rounds talks at various levels. The proposed plan for a three-step disengagement from Pangonglake area, discussed during the eight round of talks between military commanders indicates some forward movement. Both sides in the interim continue to prepare for prolonged standoff having deployed troops forward as also arsenal, equipment. There is an ongoing information warfare including psychological battle, despite increasing cost in terms of weather casualties besides financial burdenand logistics challenges. In this strategic game of Chinese Chequer on Line of Actual Control(LAC) and elsewhere, both sides have made strategic and operational moves, some of which have gone in their favour and some against them. Its however, evident to Chinese that it may be easy to start a standoff on unsettled borders, but its extremely difficult to get a graceful exit.
How is China looking at Disengagement?
China, having marched into areas where it was not supposed to be, junked all CBMs, to pursue its overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’. It thereby unilaterally altered the status quo along LAC in its favour and expectedIndia to accept nominal disengagement south of PangongTso, while Chinese troops would continue to be sitting in Depsang, and in the area of Finger 8 to Finger 4 on the north bank of Pangong Tso. It has grossly miscalculated.The aggressive and speedy Indian response, and national resolve amidst COVID19 pandemic, combined with proactive posturing for effective domination of some Chushul heights/Kailash Range, in areas South of Pangong Tso and some heights North of Finger 4, surprised them.
Indian determination not to concede unilateral dictation of LAC and prepare for ‘Two Front War’ should the situation so demand, has added to discomfort of Chinese besides increasing numbers of weather casualties. Chinese already have better infrastructure on their side and can quickly move into areas, where they moved in May 2020, hence pulling back in winters and retaining an option to replicate similar encroachment in summer months suits its overall strategic design, besides avoiding heavy weather casualties and resultant financial and political cost. Chinese are also concerned that any pull back without a mutual agreement can lead to Indians occupying some important features vacated by them.
Analysis of Three Step Disengagement Plan
In the first step, the plan envisages pull back of mechanised elements and heavy arsenal from forward deploymentalong the LACs, to depth areas to reduce chances of miscalculation on either side.. The second step involves PLA pulling back from the north bank of Pangong Tso’sFinger 4 to Finger 8, removing all temporary structures and deployments in between since May and then establishing it as a ‘no-patrolling’ zone for both sides in foreseeable future,as against such practice existing before May 2020.The third and last step involves pulling back from heights South of Pangong Tso including heights occupied by Indian Army on Kailash Range (both shoulders of strategic Spanggur Gap). The proposed plan does not address Chinese encroachment in Depsang plains and Y Junction, and opening that area for Indian patrols, thus helping Chinese aim to provide depth to Karakoram Pass and NH219.
Indian decision makers need to consider some concerns, before agreeing to such proposals so that it doesn’t become another historic mistake. Firstly, the plan must secure Indian interest in Depsang plains and Y Junction and address vulnerability of DBO; hence vacation of the same by PLA must be integral to any disengagement plan. Secondly, the standoff was started unilaterally by China, and through this disengagement plan, it is seeking a winter break to avoid casualties on their terms, knocking off the advantage which Indian military achieved South of Pangong Tso. Thirdly, China with better infrastructure can again encroach much faster in the north bank of Pangong Tso and Depsang area than India, forcing it to be reactive once again. Fourthly, vacating Kailash range will be a major strategic and tactical disadvantage to India.
Do we have other Options?
While the human, financial and political cost of prolonged standoff is understandable, it needs to be noted that so long as the LAC is not demarcated,Chinese encroachment and standoff will continue, whenever China wants to give some strategic messaging to India. Presently, if the standoff is prolonged and some improvement of Indian posturing is carried out in winters, which is tough, but not impossible, it may pay better dividend in negotiating a demarcation of LAC, although troops will have to rough out longer. A quick fix solution will only postpone the next standoff and may lead to LOCization of LAC, which is almost the same asprolonged standoff, in terms of cost.
It may be prudent, not to run into any quick fix solution, but endure to create conditions for a long lasting strategic solution. It will also be in Indian interest, to be in sync with stance of global democracies to withstand Chinese expansionism in Indo-Pacific Region, where Chinese sea lanes of communications are vulnerable, rather than be seen to be compromising with China on bilateral basis, thus reducing its global pressure by dropping one friction point to China’sadvantage, too soon.