Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
The military talks at three star levels between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Chushul in conjunction with ongoing diplomatic engagements appear to have set the course in stabilization of the extremely dangerous course which the situation in Ladakh seemed hurtling towards. However, that could appear a simplistic assessment of the situation without a full spectrum analysis. On the positive side the possibility of armed hostilities seems to have passed with some mature diplomatic handling and rapid deployment by the Army. Despite social and other media pressure both the government and the Army have remained discrete in revelation of the full operational picture. They are within their rights to follow that policy as long as the situation is still panning and there is no finality about it. The concept of information handling is a call to be taken contingent upon the benefit it derives for the nation in the handling of such a situation. If such discretion assists in decision making without pressures so be it. Every situation has its own compulsions of handling. In due course necessary transparency can and should be resorted to.
From what has been made known, the overall de-escalation is based upon a decision to dilute or remove war fighting resources from the vicinity of the LAC in all areas where there was standoff except in the Fingers area which is probably going to be under greater deliberation in fresh rounds of talks. This should essentially mean status quo ante. The Fingers area has been under greater focus of China for various tactical reasons too and it will press to deny access to Indian patrols to Finger 8, our claim line. A compromise formula with a quid pro quo denial of patrolling to the PLA in another area could form part of a temporary reprieve without prejudice to any permanence in arrangement. There would be no loss of ground in such an arrangement which would anyway be temporary.
The proof of success will be the degree of verifiable pull back and establishment of a modicum of trust. Since it is clear that there is nothing permanent in these arrangements, it is necessary to assess why the Chinese have accepted such a pull back. Rationale has never been China’s greatest quality although that is the only argument with which one can assess. It seems China’s aim was never operational or tactical. It was to seize opportunity of a long standing practice of coercion to message the world and in turn message India. The communication was all about China’s clear intent of defending its strategic interests strongly and with use of force if necessary. With rapidly developing situations in the pandemic and anticipated to be even quicker in the post pandemic environment China was witnessing pressure on Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, BRI and its larger standing in the international comity of nations. Under pressure in World Health Organization (WHO) an image deficit was beginning to develop about China. Anticipated economic pressure from potential shift in supply chain bases out of China was beginning to cause a worry. With regard to India a Chinese image deficit existed after the Doklam standoff in 2017. Pictures and videos of jostling Indian troops preventing PLA soldiers from executing their tasks remained viral in cyber space. Thus coercion on the LAC could be used to achieve all these objectives; recovery of image deficit plus strategic messaging of intent without a shooting incident.
By coercion and pullback China possibly perceives that it conveyed some important messages to India. First that it will contest all claims about Aksai Chin and keep its options open about colluding with Pakistan over Gilgit-Baltistan. Its over reach in the Galwan River valley was clearly with purpose of projecting its interest in the Karakoram tract of DBO where India has developed its infrastructure to a higher degree. The airfield at DBO and the long winding road from Darbuk through Shyok to DBO have ramped up Indian capability to defend the Karakoram tract. Considering China’s propensity to think long term the DBO-Shyok-Siachen tract has the potential of becoming the sub region for the development of alternatives for the BRI to supplement the existing CPEC. It is something Pakistan will be only too happy to witness but it’s not something that China can ever hope to achieve without engaging India in a war fighting effort. India with a rump Ladakh resting its boundaries on the Ladakh range is an unimaginable situation.
It has been argued that China’s intent was to put India on warning regarding its fast developing strategic relationship with the US. This is countered by the argument that coercion in emergent times actually forces India closer to the US and its allies. In reality India has effectively followed a policy of multilaterism and retained its strategic autonomy. What should concern India is the distinct Chinese quality of following no rule based order in its international dealings. This is further borne out by the fact that serious Indian diplomatic efforts to come to a high level understanding at Wuhan in 2018 and Chennai in 2019 resulted in some movement towards development of trust. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invested time and focus on this with seriousness. Yet, China neutralized the entire exercise through a seemingly callous attempt at coercion. It did not consider the goodwill aspect of dealing with neighbours through progressive development of trust. It has actually only helped India steel its resolve to resist such coercion and abrasive attitude while defending its interests. On display is the fact that China is virtually abrogating the 1997 Treaty on Hong Kong with which One Nation Two Systems was introduced and is in total disregard of the decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on its claims in the South China Sea. While dealing with such a nation India will have to retain all elements of flexibility in diplomacy while ensuring that its military capability is never allowed to be compromised.
There is no finality about the situation in Ladakh although de-escalation is welcome but it puts India on notice to remain ever vigilant in dealing with its northern neighbour.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain