Decoding Chinese intrusion at LAC: India should not lower guard despite Beijing's conciliatory tone, here's why

The threat of “war” and the context make it obvious that Xi Jinping demands both domestic and global attention.

Sreemoy Talukdar May 28, 2020 11:23:35 IST
Decoding Chinese intrusion at LAC: India should not lower guard despite Beijing's conciliatory tone, here's why

In Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro’s black comedy Wag the Dog, a war was fabricated to turn public attention away from a presidential sex scandal. So why are we talking about a 1997 Hollywood film while discussing the latest China-India stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)? Because the Communist regime that rules China is nothing if not deliberate and Xi Jinping, as  Vijay Gokhale has presciently noted, is a “deliberate man”.

There are odd similarities. On Tuesday, the Chinese president asked the military to “prepare for war.”

Decoding Chinese intrusion at LAC India should not lower guard despite Beijings conciliatory tone heres why

File image of Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

The context is worth noting. As the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi’s comments came during a meeting with the military (People’s Liberation Army) and the police (People’s Armed Police Force) at the ongoing National People’s Congress, China’s annual Parliament session.

In the words of China’s State-controlled media, chairman Xi “ordered the military to think about worst-case scenarios, scale up training and battle preparedness, promptly and effectively deal with all sorts of complex situations and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

The threat of “war” and the context make it obvious that Xi demands both domestic and global attention. In fact, he is almost trying too hard for it. When the rhetoric on war is more important than war itself, two questions arise. China is threatening a war against whom? And why?

Let’s tackle the second question first.

Why did Xi talk of ‘combat readiness’?

China watchers have noted that Xi is under pressure at home. The combined weight of heading the country, the party, the military and the CMC may turn into a millstone around his neck in a society where political legitimacy of the authoritarian regime is linked closely to the prosperity of the people.

It is this delicate compact between the party and the people that the pandemic has disturbed due to its debilitating impact on the economy. At the height of the crisis, the popular discontent could no longer be hidden by party propaganda.

COVID-19 has not only caused China’s GDP to record its biggest drop in decades, it has, crucially, messed up Xi’s ‘China Dream’ deadline — unveiled in 2012 — of making China a “xiaokang” (moderately well-off) society by 2020. It may even affect Xi’s long-term plan of making the country “fuqiang” (prosperous and strong) by 2050 so that it may surpass the United States.

As this compact faces pressure, murmurs of unrest are audible even through the soundproof opacity of the Chinese Communist Party. As China scholar and former foreign secretary of India Vijay Gokhale has noted, Xi is gearing up for a challenge to his authority, and telltale signs are visible in sudden removal of certain ministers and their powerful aides for “violating party discipline and law.”

Gokhale writes that Xi has established an innocuously named Safe China Construction Coordinating Small Group, a band of powerful officials whose job it is to “prevent and crack down on activities that endanger the political security of the country.”

Whom is China threatening?

It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the fog of war has been created to relieve some domestic pressure. But that still doesn’t identify the object of China’s military readiness. It is a legitimate query since China has opened several and simultaneous fronts of conflict at once.

It is conducting a major military drill near Taiwan simulating the seizure of Taiwan-held Pratas island off South China Sea. It is cracking down on pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong and permanently ending Hong Kong’s autonomy.

It is taking a series of aggressive postures on South China Sea and locking horns with Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam all at once. It is taking on the US and threatening a new Cold War and opening new fronts against India in the protracted border dispute along the LAC by intruding in large numbers into areas that were previously considered well-settled.

Deliberate confusion

Xi didn’t make it clear against whom China is issuing threats of war. This confusion is deliberate. It is possible that Xi may be referring to Hong Kong or Taiwan but importantly, Xi’s statement came at a time when Chinese soldiers have transgressed into areas that India perceives to be its own side of the undemarcated LAC, and Chinese intrusion has been accompanied by belligerent rhetoric accusing India instead of aggression.

New Delhi may take Xi’s threat seriously because Chinese troops have intruded into four different sectors along the LAC drawing India into a diplomatic face-off and military stand-off, consequently ratcheting up tension along the border.

The nature of the current set of intrusions give it a character quite unique from past cases along a 3,488-km volatile boundary that stands undemarcated, un-delineated, undefined and subject to varying perceptions of control.

The reporting on the ongoing India-China border incident has been vague, confusing and often contradictory. That is not surprising given the circumstances. The western sector (Ladakh) is the least clearly demarcated, and varying cartographic perceptions have given rise to frequent clashes and overruns in this sector that includes — as ORF scholar Dhruva Jaishankar has pointed out — Daulet Beg Oldi/Depsang Plain/Chip Chap river, Galwan river valley, Kongka La, ‘finger areas’ of Pangong Tso (lake), Demchok and Chumar. These areas have been the stage for fierce clashes in the past and continue to be patrolled by troops from both sides.

Amid this backdrop, more layers of complexity have been added due to ambiguity of the LAC and overlapping claim lines that are largely based on historical assertions, cartographic errors, past treaties and agreements, Himalayan watershed principles and Chinese strategy of relentless ‘salami-slicing’ to ingress into Indian territory and advance its own claim lines with an aim to keep shifting the status quo in its favour.

What happened at LAC?

The current tension is the result of an almost two-month buildup that started with intrusion of the PLA in three areas in the western (Ladakh) sector and one in the eastern sector (Sikkim). Reports indicate Chinese troops intruded beyond its own claim lines (and overrode Indian claim lines) in at least four different locations. These are Demchok, Galwan river valley and ‘finger areas’ of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh and Naku La in north Sikkim.

‘Fingers’ around the 135-km Pangong Tso in Ladakh are protruding folds of the Chang Chenmo mountain in the lake’s northern bank. India’s claim extends till ‘Finger 8’ but it controls area up to Finger 4, while China claims that LAC passes through Finger 2. 

According to various reports, several thousand Chinese troops are stationed on Indian side of the LAC spread across the two sectors with heavy presence in Pangong Tso and Galwan nalah, and comparatively lighter presence in Demchok and Naku La. They have brought heavy trucks and equipment, pitched tents, dug trenches and bunkers forcing India into a “mirror deployment” which involves “matching any move of the Chinese with their own.”

At least in the initial stages of the conflict, reports indicated that de-escalatory mechanisms in the form of flag meetings, hotline talks and even brigadier-level engagements under the ‘Border Management Posture’ were unresponsive with the PLA reportedly showing little interest.

The chronology of the events is no less interesting.

The Indian Army initially called these intrusions and resultant violent fisticuffs between rival troops “localised” and “unrelated” to any grand scheme. On 14 May, India’s Army chief General Manoj Naravane identified the latest stand-offs as “nothing new” and claimed that would be dealt as per existing protocol.  Things either didn’t go according to plan, or India’s attempts to play down the seriousness of the incidents became untenable when the army chief was forced to fly to the 14 Corps headquarters in Leh on 22 May to oversee the developments.

Media reports at this stage caught the alarming rise in tension. Indian Express reported that Chinese intrusions were “well inside Indian territory” and have “crossed the LAC at three places: at Hot Springs and in two locations 15-20 km to the north-west, Patrolling Point 14 (PP-14) and PP-15”. The report put the number of PLA troops around 800 to 1,000 who have occupied two to three kilometres of Indian territory with Indian troops deployed around 300 metres away.  The Hindu noted that “Chinese troops are maintaining positions at three to four points along the Galwan nalah, from point 14 to Gogra mountain” and threatening the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, “a vital link for the military.”  Obviously, this resulted in India increasing fortifications and ramping up its own troop presence in primary and secondary formations with more soldiers from reserves being deployed at 14,000 feet and more being pushed into reserves to get acclimatised.

Five reasons why this stand-off is different

That this not an ordinary border-patrol scuffle quickly became clear. There were several departure points. One, the number of troops involved. In several points of skirmish, Indian soldiers were outnumbered by the Chinese in the ratio of dozens to hundreds. The Chinese brought more men from Border Defence Regiment (some reports say these were diverted from a nearby exercise), built more bunkers, put more vehicles on road and more boats on Pangong Tso. In Business Standard, retired army Colonel Ajai Shukla writes that around “5,000 Chinese troops (have) crossed into the Galwan River valley, followed by another incursion in similar numbers into the Pangong Lake sector on 12 May.

Simultaneously, there were smaller incursions near Demchok in southern Ladakh, and in Naku La in north Sikkim.” The report claimed around 10,000 PLA soldiers are on Indian territory.  Second, the aggression shown by the Chinese troops. It was a marked departure from earlier stand-offs where restraint was key: be it in Chumar, Demchok or Doklam. More than 70 Indian soldiers were reportedly injured in the violent confrontation near Pangong Tso on 5 May and many were flown out for treatment in hospitals.

Lieutenant General (Retd) Deependra Singh Hooda, who was the commanding chief of Northern Command, wrote in News18, “The tensest of stand-offs between soldiers of the two sides in the past have been marked by a remarkable degree of restraint and an understanding of not using force. If this restraint breaks down, each transgression (more than 600 annually) could become a mini-battle.” There were reports of PLA troops wielding nail-studded wooden batons, indicating a willingness to ramp up violence.

The Hindu quoted Ashok Kantha, director of Chinese studies and former ambassador to Beijing (2014 to 2016) as saying: “The current standoff and recent incursions appear to be different from the past, as Chinese troops have shown more aggression, engaged in physical skirmishes and disregarded agreed protocols.”  Third, notwithstanding Indian Army’s initial claims that these intrusions were “localied”, the coordinated, well-planned and simultaneous push across different sectors at roughly the same time indicate planning at a higher level, possibly at the level of PLA theatre command and not by hot-headed local military commanders.

Fourth, revisiting existing claim lines. Areas such as Galwan and Naku La are considered well-settled. Gen Hooda noted that “there has never been a dispute about the LAC alignment.” The Chinese have now claimed the entire Galwan river valley in a marked divergence from its past claims. As Ajai Shukla noted in another article “in sending thousands of PLA troops three-to-four kilometres into the Galwan Valley, China has violated its own claim line and occupied territory that Beijing has traditionally acknowledged to be Indian.” 

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who carried out three surveys to upgrade India’s border infrastructure, was quoted as saying in an interview in The Times of India that the “subsequent incident in the Galwan river area in Ladakh is more worrying because our forces have been active in this area, including in undertaking road building, without Chinese objection in the past. Reacting to such activity on our side of the LAC with a build-up of forces and, in effect, expanding its territorial claim, is escalatory behaviour.”  Fifth, the timing for the coordinated push into Indian territory (or what India perceives as its own territory) is well chosen when the world, including India, is battling the pandemic. As Gen Hooda writes, “In these circumstances, even local incidents along the LAC can acquire a larger meaning.”

China’s motivations: tactical and strategic

What caused China to up the ante? Experts have reached consensus on tactical and strategic motives. India’s construction activities along the border has heightened Indian army’s ability to observe, patrol and manage the LAC. This also means that they are more likely to brush up against Chinese troops that have long enjoyed a tactical advantage due to a more favourable terrain and considerably better infrastructure. Tactically, it makes sense for China to lock the competitive advantage and it is more likely to consider India’s border construction activities (to gain equanimity) as a “threat”.

The Narendra Modi government has given high priority to quality and quantity of construction activities along the LAC to reduce China’s tactical advantage during a conflict. By December 2022, as an article in The Hindu pointed out, “All 61 strategic roads along the border, spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, will be completed, adding up to 3,417 km in length.” In a situation where China opposes India’s building of even civilian infrastructure, India’s effort to increase access to these remote locations through targeted road-building — even though entirely on its own side of the LAC — seems to have triggered the latest stand-off.

Pranab Dhal Samanta, writing in Economic Times, said India was building a branch road off the crucial 255-km Darbukh-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) thoroughfare. This branch road apparently “moves across a bridge and leads up to the Galwan point, a dominant hill feature that India wants to service and maintain as it overlooks the area around the DSDBO road. While Indian troops have been patrolling up to the point, the effort now is to improve road access and regularise presence. This is unacceptable to China, which is keen to retain ability to deny India any sense of comfort on security of the DSDBO road. Hence, the stand-off.” 

MIT professor Taylor Fravel, a noted expert on China’s military and defence strategy, agreed on the tactical motivations behind Chinese actions. In an interview with The Hindu, Fravel noted that “China lacks a road similar to the DSBDBO that runs parallel to the LAC, and that can facilitate the lateral movement of troops along the Chinese side of the LAC. Specifically, China appears to be responding to increased activity and road-building near the Galwan River and Pangong Lake. Even though this construction activity lies on the India side of the LAC, China likely views it as challenging their position…” 

Make no mistake, the capability gap between China and India still remains huge and there is no reason to believe that the Chinese are sitting idle as India goes about improving its own infrastructure. For instance, Shyam Saran says in the interview quoted above that “from DBG when you fly in a helicopter to the Karakoram Pass the flight is monitored by an array of Chinese surveillance cameras placed on the hills on either side of the valley.”

It is obvious that any attempt by India to diminish this asymmetry would be seen as a “provocation” and a justification for action by the Chinese. Beyond the tactical motivation lie strategic considerations. China’s comments during India’s decision to turn Ladakh into a Union Territory bears mention. China saw it as “undermining” its own sovereignty beyond India insistence that it was an internal arrangement not infringing on external boundaries. Recent Chinese intrusions into multiple points at Ladakh sector could be part of China’s long-term plan to salami-slice Indian territory as well as expand and consolidate its own claim lines in Ladakh.

Noted China watcher P Stobdan warned in Indian Express that the PLA is clearly trying to “snatch the lake at Lukung through a three-pronged strategy” to “cut off Indian access to the entire flank of Chip Chap plains, Aksai Chin in the east and Shayok Valley to the north, which means that Indian control is pushed to the west of the Shyok river and south of the Indus river, forcing India to accept both rivers as natural boundaries.” He contended that if India allows China to grip “southern side of the Karakoram it can easily approach Siachen Glacier from the Depsang corridor and meet at Tashkurgan junction from where the CPEC crosses into Gilgit-Baltistan.” This may eventually impact “India’s hold over Siachen.” 

A sudden détente?

With these considerations in mind, a sudden de-escalation and even a possible détente should be seen with a healthy dose of skepticism. Late on Wednesday night, it appeared that China is keen on de-escalation and is showing renewed interest in dialogue and existing mechanisms to resolve the stand-off. The rhetoric — compared to earlier MFA statements and Global Times articles (one GT piece had called “the latest border friction” not accident but a “planned move of New Delhi” — has been conciliatory.   

In what may appear as an olive branch, China’s ambassador to India Sun Weidong has said “we should correctly view our differences and never let the differences shadow the overall situation of bilateral cooperation… China and India should be good neighbors of harmonious coexistence and good partners to move forward hand in hand.”

In a likely coordinated response, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing that the situation at the border with India is “overall stable and controllable” and that “we are capable of resolving the issues properly though dialogue and consultation.”

Interestingly, these Chinese statements that indicate a conciliatory gesture or at least, a willingness to talk and trust existing de-escalatory mechanisms coincided with a tweet by US president Donald Trump self-installing himself as the mediator between India and China to solve their “raging border dispute”.

This was duly noted by Beijing and a quick response from the editor of Global Times, China’s State-controlled ‘wolf warrior’ newspaper, followed.

It is possible that the sudden conciliatory tone from the Chinese, after months of intrusion, has been triggered by a larger geopolitical consideration of not pushing India too hard so that New Delhi’s costs of maintaining a working relationship with China exceeds the costs of a closer strategic tie-up with the US.

However, as long as Chinese troops stay on the territory that India considers its own and status quo is not maintained, India would be well advised to stay on guard and not lower its defences, a position that has rightfully been taken by the army.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu is believed to have said “the whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” Unless China matches its words with action on ground, the détente means nothing.

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