LAC Row: Strategic options, post-Ladakh

LAC Row: Strategic options, post-Ladakh

Chinese withdrawal is the sacrifice of a pawn in an ongoing game of chess to grab one of our major pieces downt the line

Military trucks carrying supplies move towards forward areas in the Ladakh region. Credit: Reuters File Photo

The disengagement process in Ladakh is hopefully the concluding scene of another military episode in India-China relations. Political and strategic relationships, especially those involving neighbours with whom we have disputes, are in reality an unending mind game, with the parties concerned competing for advantages aimed to protect, preserve and promote their vital interests. In this episode, China threatened India’s territorial integrity, India reacted firmly, and if the disengagement goes according to plan, India would seem to have quite successfully defended its interests for the time being. 

A deepened military mind game can be expected to endure in the form of military preparations. The scene now shifts to where it finally matters the most – in the minds of the opposing political leaderships, which will be reflected in the future politico-diplomatic manoeuvres.

China’s military aggressiveness in the Himalayas must be viewed as part of the big picture of the larger global geopolitical contestation. A rising China that is economically buoyant, politically authoritarian, assertive and aggressive, is being increasingly opposed by the US, which is slipping from its status as the lone Superpower.

Paradoxically, for India, while the military tensions may ease, political tensions are likely to increase. India’s moves to alter its strategic posture with the key nations in the neighbourhood and especially in the maritime spaces of the Indo-Pacific will form the primary political landscape.

The world seems to be between orders. Possibilities of alliances and partnerships are being explored and preparations are ongoing for large-scale war in the name of preventing one. Some believe that with Biden’s election, global geopolitical turbulence could ease and that the worst may be over.

Such notions ignore the pervasive presence of underlying geopolitical forces that have produced the contemporary situation. Economic, social, technological and environmental disruptions are widening rifts and are creating frictions through distrust and fear between constituents of the international geopolitical structure.

India, as a medium power, is inevitably drawn in. Going forward, the political impact of the Ladakh episode must be judged by how India attempts to shape its relations with the big, medium and the smaller powers in its neighbourhood.

 At the global level, India’s challenges are framed within the US, China, India, Russia quartet. The primary driver of tensions in this cluster is one where China sees India ‘ganging up’ with the US against it. A resultant tension that India experiences would arise from Russia’s perceived proximity to China, though it is mostly driven by strategic competition between the US and Russia.

India’s deal with Russia for the S-400 air and missile defence system is symptomatic of the complications wrought by bilateral interdependence running afoul of superpower rivalries. The US is threatening to apply to India a domestic legislation that invites sanctions on countries sourcing arms from Russia and China. Even if a waiver is given, it might come only as a payoff to nudge India towards deeper cooperation aimed against China.

In essence, the form and substance of relationships that India now seeks bilaterally and multilaterally with the US, China and Russia could well underscore the strategic legacy of the Ladakh episode.

Will India go back to business-as-usual with China once territorial status quo is restored? If that happens, would there be a concomitant weakening in India’s role in the QUAD and strengthening of its economic relations with China? If so, it might also signify that China came out on top in the mind game that was played out in Ladakh. China would have succeeded in weakening the QUAD and strengthened its economic leverage with India.

Considering the setbacks suffered by the Indian economy, the logic of geoeconomics might dictate that China will retain a major role in India’s economic growth though there would be an ever-pervasive influence of security factors. It is therefore important that India avoids knee-jerk reactions favouring China which would muddy the waters, making things difficult for ourselves, and complicate equations with other players.

Politically and strategically, India must deal with China based on the assumption that its security concerns regarding its trade routes and India’s strategic posture will only deepen. China will therefore attempt military and economic coercion to keep India from playing a significant role in strategic partnerships like the QUAD, which it has described as an ‘Asian NATO’. Russia, too, is averse to the QUAD.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is strategically vital, however, and India’s foreign policy and diplomatic challenge is to be uncompromising in dealing with the security concerns in the IOR. India’s role in the IOR must have as its primary focus maritime initiatives encompassing the nations of the littoral. This should include the US, France and the UK, who have territories in the IOR. India must play a key role for coordination and fostering interoperability. It must also prioritise for the development of maritime power, the Bay of Bengal, including the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

China will make all possible attempts to impede India’s growth as a maritime power. No amount of bilateral understandings is going to change this fundamental posture as it derives its logic from the contestation with the US on the global stage. India should therefore act to preserve the growth of its maritime power even while China and Pakistan up the ante in the continental domain.

This calls for a political and military understanding that looks beyond Ladakh and the disputed borders. No doubt, defence of continental borders cannot be neglected. What is feasible is a transformation in doctrine, strategy and tactics of land and maritime warfare. This calls for adoption of methods that are attuned to the imperatives of India’s political objectives and detached from the flights of military imagination that often ignore the type of wars that can be fought under the nuclear shadow. Any deeper exploration of using force below the threshold of war should not be ruled out.

Politically, deepening cooperation based on common interests is the way forward. We should not get misled by a seeming concession here and a seeming allowance there by the Chinese. We should look at the Chinese withdrawal as the sacrifice of a pawn in an ongoing game of chess for grabbing one of our major pieces down the line. Clearly, there are no free lunches on offer.

(The writer is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat)

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