Ahsan Hamid Durrani l

The standoff between Indian and Chinese armies along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh/ Aksai Chin region continues. Both countries have deployed thousands of troops in this disputed region especially in Pangong Tso Lake and Galwan Valley. The multiple standoff points in Eastern Ladakh include:

  1. Pangong Tso Lake where the standoff began on 5 May 20, when skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops were reported. As per unconfirmed reports, the PLA has secured the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8  along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km.[1]
  2. Galwan valley, where Chinese troops have moved near Shyok-Galwan River Junction to block ingress route towards LAC. As per Indian sources, PLA has physically secured 3-4 km of Indian territory along Galwan River.
  3. Minor skirmishes have been reported near Gogra Post ivo Hot spring (80 km SE of Galwan Valley), located between the valley and Pangong Lake, provide access to Aksai Chin through Chang Chinmin river.
  4. Face off near Demchok bordering southern areas of Aksai chin in proximity to Tibet-Xingiang NH 219 Highway
  5. Daulat Beg Oldie, a revamped advance landing ground (ALG).

Implications – Ladakh Standoff.

  1. Political. China and India have built an elaborate framework of confidence-building measures for border management. In 2019, they unveiled a new program to attempt “coordinated patrolling” for the first time in a relatively peaceful portion of the LAC in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The overall framework has succeeded for several decades in preventing any mass casualties or deadly confrontations at the LAC. However, it has not prevented an increase in the number of intrusions and confrontations in recent years.[2]  Observers point out that the current stand-off, if not resolved soon, has the potential of negating all the political gains made in the past couple of years that were achieved at two informal summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in 2018 in China and in October last year at Mamallapuram near Chennai.[3]
  2. Military. Current standoff in Ladakh may force the Indian military command to reset priorities and divert attention from the current Pakistan centric military strategy based on ‘surgical strike’ doctrine towards China. This is due to the severity of strategic consequences for India if it does not check mate Chinese moves. The stand-off is happening at some strategic areas that are important for India. If Pangong Lake is taken, Ladakh can’t be defended. If the Chinese military is allowed to settle in the strategic valley of Shyok, then the Nubra valley and even Siachen can be reached.  Moreover, China is the world’s second-largest military power. Technologically it’s superior to India. Infrastructure on the Chinese side is very advanced. Financially, China can divert its resources to achieve its military goals, whereas the Indian economy has been struggling in recent years, and the coronavirus crisis has worsened the situation. China has gained superiority in current standoff which has exacerbated the military planning and deployment issues for Indian military.
  3. Strategic. The current standoff has exposed limits of Indian aggressive posturing and hollowness of its military prowess. If India failed to reclaim lost ground (which seem very likely as China is unlikely to withdrew from areas it grabbed due to their military significance for defence of Aksai Chin) through diplomacy and military means, its standing as an emerging  Asian major power would be severely tarnished. President Donald Trump’s offer of mediation to end the current standoff is unlikely to yield any positive outcome in India’s favour. Should India accept this offer (so far India has refused this offer, however, it might have to accept the offer if stalemate on ground continues), its posturing as a major power will be shattered since it would imply its inability to handle China on its own (an image it has sort to build over the decades).  The episode may force India to rethink its growing coziness with the US as to its futility to force Chinese to back off from aggressive posturing. However,  as per some analysts, hawks and ultra-nationalists in India may pursue Indo-US strategic partnership with more vigour.

Conclusion: Tensions at LAC this time are unlikely to move pass like previous stand off which momentarily impacted Sino-Indian ties. The current standoff is different from previous ones due to intensity of confrontations, number of troops involved and the kind of logistics/ equipment being deployed. Also, Beijing is controlling military initiative by keeping the element of surprise and diplomatic narrative which in turn facilitates a protracted standoff. It is therefore seem plausible that Chinese may not withdraw from the advanced areas being vital defense locations. India at the same cannot afford military actions due to capability mismatch and Chinese geographical advantage. Chinese plan to stay permanently in these areas will exacerbate political and military pressure on India. New Delhi has been totally surprised by Chinese actions and lacks a comprehensive strategy to counter Beijing’s moves.

 

[1] The Pangong Lake’s northern bank juts forward like a palm, and various protrusions are identified as “fingers” to demarcate territory. China refuted Indian claims stating its troops are within its own territory.

[2] In 2013, Chinese objected to the construction of an Indian observation post near LAC inhe Depsang Valley in northern Ladakh. A 21-day standoff ensued. The following year saw a 16-day standoff in southern Ladakh near Chumar after China tried to stop the construction of a water irrigation channel near LAC. The most hyped recent face-offs occurred in the summer of 2017 on the Doklam plateau. The 73-day standoff was the longest and most volatile in recent history, with Beijing issuing unusually direct and escalatory threats to India: unilaterally withdraw or be evicted by force.

[3] After the 2-month long Doklam crisis in 2017, both established a mechanism of informal summits alternating between the two countries to resolve any problems that may arise.

Ahsan Hamid Durrani is an Islamabad based analyst with interest in socio-political issues. The detailed version of this article has been published at Global Village Space. This version has been published here with author’s consent. 

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