Ladakh Standoff: The Simmering Story

Ladakh Standoff: The Simmering Story
News cycle is fickle. New events overtake the old ones, the story of the day pushing out yesterday’s story. But some events continue to simmer until things boil again. That’s the China-India standoff for you.

For India’s military planners, the issue is not only alive eight months down the line, it is now a permanent problem.

Reports indicate that India has redirected one of its three strike corps positioned against Pakistan towards the north in Ladakh. Two infantry divisions of 1 Corps will be pivoted north while its armoured division will become a reserve force. In essence, 1 Corps will now be reconfigured as a mountain strike corps. The change of role means reequipping the two divisions, retraining its fighting elements to fit the new role and developing new operational plans for the corps.

In 2013, India had approved the raising of a China-specific mountain strike corps. The 17 Corps raising was inaugurated in January 2014. The plan got stalled by 2018 for lack of funds and the corps had to make do with only one division. The ‘truncated’ corps, to use the term employed by Indian reports, was then tested for a different concept: it was configured as three independent battle groups (IBGs) of 4000 men each, commanded by a major-general, to be employed for swift, limited offensive operations. The concept was tested in a field exercise in 2019 to validate it. The second division of 17 Corps, which was to be based in Pathankot, never materialised because of paucity of funds.

There was much debate in India following the skirmishes in Ladakh in May-June 2020 about the role of 17 Corps with some experts contending that had the full raising gone according to the original plan, the corps would have been an effective deterrent against what India described as “Chinese aggression.” Since that didn’t happen, this argument rests on a counterfactual. Also, the manner in which the People’s Liberation Army troops caught the Indian military off guard and PLA’s logistics infrastructure as also training, it seems somewhat implausible that even a full 17 Corps could have been effective in responding to PLA’s moves.

Another fact that Indian experts lamented about as the crisis unfolded last year was lack of forward-leaning infrastructure and numbers on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The redirection of 1 Corps seems to address the numbers problem and also relieves 17 Corps’ one division to focus on the eastern theatre while the two divisions of 1 Corps take care of the defence in Ladakh.

But while the move tackles the numbers problem, it adds to the problem of infrastructure. Both the redirection and creating infrastructure (developing, essentially, a military habitat) require money. With India’s economy in a bad shape, that is a costly proposition. Experts are warning that falling growth will negatively impact defence allocations for at least two to three years and a real spike will be contingent upon how quickly India recovers from its current recession. The Chinese economy, already five times larger than India’s, has already bounced back from the initial Covid-19-related shock.

Two other issues will continue to worry Indian planners. One, increasing numbers and developing infrastructure — even at great pains — can address the physical battle-space in any limited conflict or conflicts (if there’s horizontal escalation at multiple points at the LAC), but they do not address other Chinese capabilities that PLA can exploit in the event of a broader conflict. Two, India has long wanted to modernise its military. Now forced into hard-manning the LAC, 365 days, to secure the Line and given the cost of that, its modernisation plans have got disrupted and delayed. Juxtapose that with the continued pace of PLA’s modernisation and one can see how difficult the catch-up will be for the Indian military. Put another way, that hands over a strategic advantage to China.

The situation on the ground also favours the PLA. Since the skirmishes and standoff began in May 2020, there have been multiple rounds of political and military talks — to no avail. The PLA has refused to return to the status quo ante even as India insists on restoring the pre-May status quo in Ladakh.

Bluster on Indian TV channels, aside, India knows that China has a superior military advantage. India’s attempts at punishing China economically — banning Chinese apps etc — has had limited effect. Also, India has clearly avoided any serious escalation on the ground, i.e., it has made no move to try and dislodge the PLA from areas it claims belong to India, except occupying some unmanned heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake in the area which the LAC cuts through, south-north.

As in 1962, this time too the United States helped India, as revealed by the US ambassador to New Delhi recently. While he declined to give any details, it is generally understood that Washington was providing New Delhi with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. India knows that any ground escalation can be done only through US support. That also means coming out openly as a US ally. Last time it happened, India had to allow a major CIA covert operation against China from its soil. The details of that war, India’s desperation, US help and the subsequent CIA operation are fully discussed in Bruce Reidel’s book, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. Further, with a new US president about to assume office, domestic political conditions in that country, and the Covid challenge, the US is in no position at this time to consider the Ladakh standoff as a high priority issue. The new administration also needs to recalibrate relations with China.

So, what’s the bottomline?

One, there’s no quick resolution through conflict and India, at the moment, cannot afford one with China.

Two, its hand has been forced into a long and drawn-out border standoff against China. That requires beefing up its physical defences through numbers and building up a military habitat. Both require money, not just capital cost but continuous operational cost.

Three, physical defences take care of only one battles-pace, the physical. In case of a broader conflict, the PLA will use other capabilities — cyber, electronic, integration of platforms with artificial intelligence etc — against which physical defences will not mean much. Remember, China is prepping to match US military capabilities.

Four, India’s deployments, while continuing to cost it, cannot punish the PLA or dislodge it from its gains. In theory, they are meant to ensure that India doesn’t lose any more territory.

Five, flowing from four, it means a two-front (in fact, three-front, if we factor in the eastern stretch of the LAC) scenario. That is never a preferred option even for very strong states.

Six, the redirection of 1 Corps could have made space for a reach-out to Pakistan, but India has lost that possibility because of its general intransigence towards Pakistan and its actions in occupied Kashmir. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere, India’s current problems at the LAC can also be traced back to its action to illegally annex an occupied territory. That said, it still has a greater number of fighting formations deployed against Pakistan than China.

Seven, while the Indian army has experience of deployments and fighting in harsh terrains, to that we can add eastern Ladakh now, another punishing terrain. Equally, the experience of harsh terrains also means the Indian planners are aware of the heavy toll of men and equipment such deployments take. The logistics and maintaining the lines of communication are a permanent headache. The initial years are the worst and while the system gets attuned over the years, the punishment is only relatively mitigated.

Finally, as I noted earlier, this is a story that will continue to simmer in the background, waiting to boil over. Until, next time then.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.