It was the Chinese who initiated the current crisis by wading across the LAC and occupying locations which were vacant, being in the grey zone and only patrolled at regular intervals. It managed this on the pretext of conducting exercises, because Indian forces, normally deployed during the same period, as a counterbalance to China, were held back due to the Chinese originated pandemic. As soon as India caught onto the Chinese game, it enhanced force levels and blocked further Chinese movement. By this time, China had managed to push the LAC partially westwards and attempted to hold forth, despite multiple rounds of diplomatic and military parleys.
Galwan came as a shocker for the Chinese as they never expected the powerful retaliation, to their planned ambush,by Indian forces. It caused panic all the way upto Beijing, leading to China seeking immediate talks for disengagement. This move was led by their foreign minister who called his Indian counterpart to initiate peace. The intention was to safeguard Chinese troops from future violence by Indian forces.
China still fears releasing casualty details, knowing it would break the myth of the PLA. Such was the impact on morale of Chinese troops that the unit involved in the brawl was immediately moved out of the region. The disengagement agreement, arrived at between the two military commanders, led to the creation of a non-patrolling zone, a space between forces, ensuring that troops would no longer come in physical contact. To achieve this, China was willing to accept a symbolic withdrawal, which it did.
Once this was achieved, China changed stance, refused to adhere to agreements reached and resorted to placing unacceptable demands. All this while, it continued enhancing force levels, increasing pressure on India, militarily and through propaganda warfare while delaying Indian requests for meetings.
Politically the Government in India was under pressure for its failure to act. While the CDS mentioned employing the military option, the Indian foreign minister spoke of dialogue being the solution. China was smug in belief thatIndia would seek dialogue as the solution, something which it could delay and ignore, as it had been doing for the past few months. It even contemplated further salami slicing, hoping to enhance pressure to push through their claim lines.
The Indian counterstroke of playing reverse Chinese checkers hit them hard. India grabbing dominating heights on both banks of the Pangong Tso, beating a similar action by China, changed the tactical scenario. This coordinated tactical operation had vast strategic impacts, which are still being felt by China. India occupied Rezang La, Recehen La, Goswami Hill and other strategic heights on the Kailash Ridge on the Southern Bank as alsodominating heights on the Northern Bank. India also blocked Chinese attempts to capture Mukhwari heights last week.
The Kailash Ridge dominates the Chinese main camp at Moldo and any ingress into the Chushul sector. It provides protection to Chushul and permits India to push an offensive employing armour through this route.
Indian forces advanced faster than they had rehearsed, secured these heights, strengthened defences, set up cameras to monitor Chinese attempts to dislodge them, deployed armour and announced its red lines marked by barbed wire, crossing which would imply opening fire. This has left the Chinese with limited choices, either accept Indian domination or plan an assault willing to accept large casualties. China deployed troops armed with spears and machetes to challenge Indian troops in a similar manner as Galwan,but they were observed and warned that if they made any such attempt, India would open fire. They retreated, post firing a few rounds in the air.
This has been exploited by the Chinese propaganda machine which accused India of opening fire. The Indian statement denied their claims. Propaganda from China displays their sense of defeat and loss at losing key terrain features to Indian forces. Any military commander on the ground knows that regaining tactical heights in high altitude terrain comes with high cost of lives.
The fact that India could play the Chinese game on a complacent and overconfident Chinese army led to panic within the Chinese hierarchy. China officially accused India of crossing the LAC, which India denied. China also sought a series of Brigadier level meetings, insisting in each that India must withdraw or face Chinese onslaught. India refused to bend, rather enhanced its defence potential and warned of serious consequences in case China violated Indian red lines.
The situation currently has forces, in places, as close as two hundred meters from each other and in other places upto 500 meters. In such a scenario the situation could escalate for which India remains prepared.
India’s current deployment places it in a dominating position and leaves China fuming. There were reports that Beijing was unhappy of being pushed on the backfoot after being in dominating positions for months. Its entire game plan has changed as its forces are currently under Indian observation and domination. Rumours also state that Chinese troops were unwilling to assault Indian defences and their local commander was summoned to Beijing in anger.
China which had till then presumed they held the cards now realised that they may hold onto some areas in the Finger region, north of the Pangong Tso, but every move would be under observation and dominated from the current Indian deployment. India now has the power to stall any Chinese attempts to further change the status quo. India which had been seeking Chinese de-escalation has now stopped demanding the same, throwing the ball in the Chinese court.
Evidently, Chinese are bad losers. They played, were beaten plain and square and now they cry foul.It was in this changed scenario in which talks between the two foreign ministers were held. From the outset, differing perceptions, a serious trust deficit and a determination to hold onto their current positions, any positive outcome was unexpected. The joint statement once again mentioned disengagement, de-escalation and continuing talks. India would now determine where it would seek to disengage.
The author is Major General (Retd)