The discussion in Indian media for the past over a year continues to be the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh and their possible intent. There is no doubt that China was the aggressor. Simultaneously, Indian counteractions including Galwan, Kailash Ridge and subsequent deployments, pushed China on the backfoot,while conveying a strong message of India standing tall. It is possible that the Chinese intent was to further secure Aksai Chin, which became even more vulnerable due to India’s counterstrokes.
Recently, the Indian army chief, General Naravane,had stated that India is matching Chinese deployment in the region. To boost its firepower, the Indian army deployed a regiment each of Vajra K9 self-propelled howitzers and M 777 light weight 155 mm guns in Ladakh. China immediately accused India of enhancing tensions by deploying additional artillery. Their spokesperson stated in Beijing, ‘China opposes any arms race in the disputed border areas for the purpose of competition over control.’
Ladakh has witnessed maximum standoffs in recent times. The current standoff in Depsang precedes the Chinese intrusion and hance not yet been taken up for discussion between the two sides. China always attempted to keep Ladakh active. It has repeatedly objected to enhanced infrastructure development in Ladakh.The construction of the Zojila tunnel along with a 13.5 km approach road will provide all-weather access to Ladakh. An alternate connectivity to Daulat Beg Oldie is under construction. Improved infrastructure can change the scenario in India’s favour. Apart from deploying troops at a faster pace, it enables India to maintain additional forces.
Another concern for China has been the India’s growing proximity to the US, which gives it added confidence in countering China. China is aware that it is a declining power. Its economy is slowing, demography moving in reverse, and it is running out of resources. It is currently the world’s largest importer of food grains. The Chinese official GDP growth declined from 15% in 2007 to 6% in 2019. The past few years has witnessed increased activity within the QUAD leading to concerns in China.
While China is receding in power, India is rising in confidence. This resulted in the Indian government scraping Article 370 and bifurcating J and K into two Union Territories. During the parliament debate on the subject, Home Minister Amit Shah mentioned that India will regain Aksai Chin at some stage.The Achilles heel of China remains Aksai Chin which also contains its G 219 Highway which connects China’s two most restless provinces, Xinjiang and Tibet. China had offered surrendering its claims on Arunachal Pradesh, in return for India not pushing for ownership of Aksai Chin.
Another Chinese concern was India raising a mountain strike corps,solely aimed at it. Chinese media has mentioned on multiple occasions that India has the most formidable mountain formations in the world. They are trained and equipped to fight for prolonged durations in harsh terrain. While the raising of the mountain strike corps was slowed down by the current Government, it was not shelved. This corps was to have elements which could be employed in the North as also the East.
China would have been monitoring this development and concluded that employment of such a force, as also developed infrastructure could, in the future, pose a threat to Aksai Chin, which will perpetually remain vulnerable. Hence, it always protested Indian infrastructure development.India may not consider reoccupying complete Aksai Chin. Just cutting the highway would cause irreversible damage to Chinese global standing, its access to and control over Tibet.
Sub Sector North, where Indian road connectivity emphasis continues, provides direct access to Aksai Chin, and is also the only region where a China-Pak collusion can take place. The employment of mechanized forces supported by air power through this region could threaten Aksai Chin. Thus, China had to act to either stop or slow down India’s border infrastructure development.
Till the current standoff, Chinese troops withdrew to the mainland prior to onset of winters. However, circumstances and possibly distrust of Indian intentions has resulted in China constructing accommodation to maintain troops in the region throughout the year. Reports over the past year state that China is building troop habitat in Ladakh close to their base in Moldo as also in Aksai Chin to secure the highway. Helipad construction in Aksai Chin is being regularly reported.
Despite Indo-China bonhomie in recent years, China remains suspicious of a powerful India. Chinese strategists believe that in the event of a US-China clash, India could exploit the situation and regain Aksai Chin. The raising of a mountain strike corps indicates that trained and equipped troops will always be available.
The encounter at Galwan and occupation of the Kailash Ridge confirmed Chinese fears of India possessing the capability and determination to launch offensive operations on critical objectives as also call the Chinese bluff of a counterstroke or retaliation. The reorientation of a plains strike corps to mountains has added to Chinese concerns. China is aware that India possesses near matching firepower in terms of air and missiles. Nuclear warfare is beyond consideration. In conventional, they lag behind in terms of trained and motivated soldiers.
India still talks peace and seeks resolution of the current crisis by talks as it seeks to develop economically and reduce the comprehensive national power gap with China. Any loss of territory is unacceptable could make the current government uncomfortable. Hence, the Indian stand has been restoration of Apr 2020 positions.
For China the best solution lies in creation of buffer zones, which would provide it with advance information in case of any Indian offensive towards Aksai Chin. It would also give added depth to its vulnerable areas. The initial Chinese demand for de-escalation prior to disengagement was to ensure that India does not maintain forces which could be employed for offensive operations. India refused to consider this suggestion.
The final Chinese solution, which would flow with time will be aimed at safeguarding Aksai Chin from an Indian offensive. It would be to convert the existing deployment on the LAC with buffer zones as a permanent solution till resolution of the LAC.China will talk peace and tranquillity with the intention of adding depth to Aksai Chin from any Indian offensive plans.
The author is Major General (Retd)