Understanding China’s LAC deployment capabilities

Broadening of the India-China standoff into multiple theatres will present formidable challenges for Chinese forces
Last Updated 09 September 2020, 13:29 IST

All eyes are on the meeting between Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart on September 10 in Moscow, nevertheless, it has increasingly become clear over the past few weeks that the two countries are preparing for a long-drawn standoff in Eastern Ladakh.

Despite multiple rounds of military and diplomatic talks between India and China, the disengagement and de-escalation process along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) appears to have stalled. In fact, the last few days of August and early September witnessed renewed jostling along Pangong Tso, one of the sites where India says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had advanced in April-May to change the status quo.

The spike in tensions at Pangong Tso came after nearly two months of talks leading to little material change in the ground situation. In that time, the rhetoric from Beijing had been positive, but this did not translate into actions on the ground. This approach, at best, reflects a willful denial of the changed bilateral circumstances after the Galwan Valley clashes and, at worst, a complete lack of understanding about the mood in India.

For the Indian government, restoration of the status quo ante in Eastern Ladakh is not just a critical military objective but also a political imperative. One can view Indian ambassador Vikram Misri’s recent outreach to officials from China’s Central Military Commission and Foreign Affairs Commission in this context. Nevertheless, it appears that neither have these meetings nor have the punitive economic measures or posturing by New Delhi forced a rethink in Beijing. What complicates the situation further is the opacity around the political objective that the Chinese leadership aims to achieve through this standoff, because, at present, it appears that Beijing has made minor tactical gains in exchange for strategic losses.

The question that then arises is how well is the PLA positioned to deal with such a situation. In our assessment, organisational and structural reforms carried out over the past few years along with new equipment development have enhanced the PLA’s capacity to hold the fort. Chinese troops could continue to hold the territories that they have encroached upon, with logistics, supplies, equipment maintenance, and the weather being the key challenges. In fact, given the infrastructure development on the Chinese side and equipment availability, the PLA might enjoy a relative advantage in this context. For instance, former Indian army generals have written about the PLA troops at the LAC being fresher during patrols because they travel in centrally-heated vehicles. However, an exchange of hostilities and the broadening of the stand-off into multiple theatres will present formidable challenges for the Chinese forces.

Chinese troop strength and firepower

Reports say that China continues to deploy at least 40,000 troops in the front and rear areas in the Eastern Ladakh sector. Over the past three months, it has also built semi-permanent structures at some of the disputed sites. The Indian army has reportedly mirrored such deployments. If the stand-off proceeds well into the winter, both sides will face challenges of maintaining deployments. The PLA could further augment troop numbers if needed, but this will come with its own set of complexities.

First, multiple assessments have noted that the total troop strength for China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC), which is responsible for the Sino-Indian border, is around 2,30,000. This includes 70,000 troops from the Xinjiang Military District and 40,000-50,000 from the Tibet Military District. But total strength does not imply deployable strength. WTC is not just responsible for the Sino-Indian border but also maintains vigil along China’s boundaries with Central Asian countries.

Besides, it is also home to China’s two most politically sensitive and unstable regions: Xinjiang and Tibet. Here, the PLA supports the work of the People’s Armed Police in maintaining social stability. Thus, WTC’s total strength cannot be deployed in entirety for an Indian contingency along the LAC in the short term.

In case of a long-drawn stand-off, reinforcements to WTC would most likely come from China’s Central Theatre Command (CTC) and strategic reserve forces. Notably, since the implementation of Xi Jinping’s military reforms, troops from China’s Southern and Eastern Theatre Commands have also undertaken occasional exercises on the Tibet plateau. This will likely hold them in good stead if needed on the Indian border.

But, one swallow does not make a summer. This process of deployment from other theatres will be challenging. These soldiers will require at least 10 to 14 days of acclimatisation before being deployable and combat-ready. This is because CTC and Southern Theatre Command forces are largely based along the plains of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Deployment on the Tibet plateau with tougher climatic conditions, therefore, cannot be immediate without acclimatisation.

More importantly, the PLA does not have a rotational policy at junior officer-level. For instance, if a soldier starts in Eastern Theatre Command (ETC), then it is most likely that he would be a part of that theatre command throughout his career, except in case of contingencies or during occasional military exercises and drills.

Yet, some recent changes, like bringing the Qinghai region under WTC, which was earlier with erstwhile Lanzhou Military Region, have enhanced opportunities for acclimatisation and training of reserve forces. Besides, the PLA’s strategic airlift capability, which is still developing, has improved over time, enabling the airlift at least a division in 24 hours. More importantly, the use of civilian resources due to improved infrastructure along the LAC on the Chinese side has also boosted the PLA’s mobility.

In terms of firepower, since the Doklam crisis, newer weaponry like the T-15 tanks, the PCL 181 towed howitzers, the GJ-2 advanced attack drones and the Z-20 multi-utility rotary-wing have been deployed with the WTC. Some of these were specially manufactured for operating in the Tibetan plateau region for an Indian contingency. Besides this new equipment, the WTC commands around 160 fighter aircraft and surveillance and attack drones.

The aircraft range from the J-10s, J-11s, J-16s to Su-27s, among others. As of now, there have been no reports of the Su-35s being deployed at forward bases facing India. However, the H-6 strategic bombers, whose jurisdiction went to CTC from WTC during the recent reforms, are reportedly deployed with China’s forward bases facing India. These were also deployed in the frontline bases during the 2017 Doklam stand-off.

Under the current circumstances, both China and India have made significant deployments to ensure that a stalemate continues for an extended period. Yet, the possibility of escalation cannot be ruled out. This, however, will depend on events on the ground along with the changing incentives of each side.

(Manoj Kewalramani and Suyash Desai are with the China Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 09 September 2020, 13:29 IST)

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