Himalayan stalemate: Who, or what, failed?

How did China manage to deceive India once again and start a massive military misadventure in Ladakh?

An Indian Army convoy drives towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, on June 19, 2020, four days after 20 Indian soldiers were killed at Galwan Valley in Ladakh.

It has been nearly a year since China began military exercises close to the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, which has since led to an armed stalemate between the two countries after clashes started in April-May 2020. More than a hundred thousand Indian and Chinese troops are deployed in the Himalayan heights in freezing temperatures and are currently eyeball to eyeball, each side testing the resolve of the other, with psychological warfare on the up. Discussions between the two countries at both the military and political levels have not yielded a truce, much less a Chinese withdrawal and restoration of the status quo ante.

India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar has said that it is still not clear what motivated China to destabilise relations with India. The Chinese have given multiple reasons, mostly implicitly or in stray statements through media mouthpieces. But official pronouncements over a period of time have been most revealing, although India may not have read into them in real-time.

In its official responses, China has stated that the western sector of the LAC with India is its “sovereignty” zone, shifting thereby from the previous discourse of it being “disputed” territory. The implication is that China had unilaterally decided to resolve the issue without regard to the over three decades of border resolution talks with India. As far back as 2012, Xi Jinping, then Chairman of the Central Military Commission, had declared that China’s “core interests” (that is, sovereignty) would not be sacrificed for “developmental interests” (investment, trade, etc).

Unread Messages?

Secondly, China’s State-run media vehemently criticised the August 2019 abrogation of Article 370 and the ending of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and its reconstitution into two Union Territories. Specifically, official statements in China opposed the declaration of Ladakh as Union Territory, calling the move “illegal.”

China’s criticism became strident after Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s 2019 speech in Parliament on recovering the Aksai Chin region for India. Jaishankar’s clarification to his counterpart Wang Yi that India was not seeking to change the status quo did not cut ice with Beijing. In India, such statements regarding disputed territories are seen as routine. Doesn’t China refer to Arunachal Pradesh as ‘southern Tibet’, as it did in 2005, implying a design to take over the territory and merge it with the rest of Tibet? Clearly, China means business when it makes such statements, and perhaps expected that India, too, means business when it makes provocative statements. Which is why it is important to ask, was China preparing to launch a military offensive in the Ladakh sector since at least late-2019? That is quite possible, although the Indian side is slow to pick up such signals.

Thirdly, China protested the construction of a feeder road to the LAC linking with the Daulat Beg Oldie-Darbuk-Shyok road. China’s concern is that this feeder line could have brought Indian forces right next to Aksai Chin and the DBO road next to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), whose security has now been exposed. Of course, China, on its side of the LAC, has built numerous such feeder roads in the past two decades.

Fourthly, senior Chinese interlocutors have been warning India not to move closer to the US, fearing that a coming together of India and the US would upset Beijing’s designs over Asia and beyond. China knows how this works, having itself joined forces with the US against the erstwhile Soviet Union after Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China from Pakistan in 1971. Outgoing US Ambassador Kenneth Juster’s farewell speech remark on January 5 about “close coordination” between the US and India during the ongoing India-China border tensions hinted at American intelligence alerts on Chinese military movements.

Fifthly, China was taken aback by the strident Indian criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative, specifically the CPEC, as it passes through the disputed part of Kashmir that is under Pakistani occupation. The Indian logic is that if China is so sensitive about its sovereignty concerns and insists that other countries follow a ‘One China’ policy, how can it display double standards when it comes to Kashmir, which legally belongs to India under the Instrument of Accession. Further, even as China argues that the CPEC is purely “commercial” in nature, it has deployed over 36,000 “security guards” in the region, thus indicating the project’s strategic nature. China’s raising of the Kashmir issue at the UN meetings, sending its defence minister Wei Fenghe to Rawalpindi, conducting the Shaheen-9 military exercise and strengthening its “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan – all point to the emerging “two-front” military scenario for India.

At a larger level, it appeared to the Chinese that India not joining the BRI meant that Delhi rejected China’s “all under heaven” (tianxia) notion and “community of common destiny” strategy, tantamount to rejecting its ‘Middle Kingdom’ status and hegemony over Asia. Beijing reads this along with India’s growing proximity to the US. While Beijing wants India to maintain its “strategic autonomy” with respect to the US, it does not want Delhi to do the same with respect to China.

Thus, in Beijing’s mind, this Indian “standing up” to it needs to be curbed and Delhi “taught a lesson,” as in 1962. An India tied up with fighting Covid-19 provided the perfect opportunity for China to do so. And it chose to act on its simmering anger since August 2019 in the Ladakh sector.

Seventhly, as the asymmetry in power relations began shifting in favour of Beijing, thanks to the Western nations, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pumping up China’s rise with dual-use technologies, capital and markets, China’s moment seemed to have arrived when it had to announce its hegemony over the rest of Asia. This is reflected in the tensions it has created over Taiwan, in the South China Sea, the India-China border, on the Senkaku Islands, and with the US and Australia.

Finally, there is the rising nationalism in China, and ambitious generals like Zhao Zongqi of the Western Theatre Command in Chengdu (which has operational focus on the LAC with India). Zhao, who retired recently, was involved in the Doklam stand-off in 2017 when China launched the “three warfares” (legal, psychological and media).

Intelligence failure?

China’s aggression that led to the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley on June 15 came a full three months after the armed mobilisation by the People’s Liberation Army since early 2020 but, as explained above, there was this whole background to it of several years. Did India, even as it rejected China’s overtures, ambitions and warnings and stood up to Beijing over the years, not see the danger from the latter, especially under a leader as ambitious and all-powerful as Xi Jinping? Were not lessons learnt from the experience in Doklam, where China has since built vast new infrastructure and assets after India had claimed victory in the 2017 stand-off? Were the large Chinese military mobilisation efforts and exercises in early 2020 not visible to the Indian side? Were intelligence inputs inadequate or not actionable enough, like in the run up to the 1999 Kargil conflict?

For assessing the situation on the borders, both ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities and realistic military-political assessments at a high level are required. India’s ISR capabilities are not insignificant. In space assets, India has 14 earth observation satellites, of which nine are of the Cartosat series and five are radar imaging satellites. Cartosat-2A, launched in 2008, is dedicated for the use of the Indian military, while Cartosat-3 has one-metre resolution imagery capability.

The Army operates dozens of drones, including 12 Searcher platforms. The Indian Air Force has substantial ISR capabilities with a squadron of Phalcon AWACS, several squadrons of Heron, Harop and Searcher drones – all Israeli-made.

However, Indian capabilities are constrained by various agencies working in silos, with no seamless communication and coordination between them. Besides, human intelligence capabilities were curtailed due to bureaucratic orders.

Assessment failure?

The Wuhan meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in April 2018 had five major outcomes, of which the most relevant is the guideline to the armed forces to maintain stability in the border areas.

At the ‘Chennai Connect’ in October 2019, they decided to “prudently manage our differences without letting them turn into disputes.” However, events on the border just months later have opened up a different prospect now. Was it a failure of political assessment of the threat? Was our political leadership lulled into complacency by the two “informal summit” meetings at Wuhan and Chennai?

The silver lining in all this has been the way the Indian Army moved swiftly and took over five hill tops in the Kailash ranges on August 29-30, beating months of Chinese preparations and China’s better-funded intelligence apparatus, forcing China into a stalemate. But that’s solace only for the time being. With eight rounds of local army commander-level talks and 20 foreign ministerial border consultative meetings so far not improving the situation on the ground, the costly and dangerous stalemate is expected to continue in the medium term. It’s a wake-up call for India for the long term.

(The writer is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University)