India’s China Problem

India’s China Problem
The story of a violent clash between Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army troops on the night of June 16 has been recounted and will continue to hog space for a while, especially in the Indian media. Let’s try and make sense of it.

Firstly, the Galwan Valley clash is not the first such incident, though the losses suffered by troops from India’s 16 Bihar battalion have thrown the situation into sharp relief. Last month, two clashes occurred in the Pangong Tso area and some reports suggest that at least 72 Indian soldiers sustained injuries and needed to be hospitalised. Since then, PLA has beefed up its positions in and on the ridge-line of a spur referred to as Finger 4. Now, it appears that during one of those clashes, the commanding officer of 11 Mahar battalion sustained life-threatening injuries. He is still battling for his life.

As indicated by some independent Indian defence analysts, the Indian government and the leadership of the Indian Army chose to cover-up the reality of what was happening on the ground. Because the Line of Actual Control is undemarcated and both sides have their own perceptions and claim lines, the usual argument was that PLA had not ingressed into territory occupied by India.

That has since been exposed. The situation is that PLA troops now occupy territory claimed by India in both Pangong Tso and Galwan Valley areas. In Galwan, they now occupy high ground, including the ridge-line where the June 16 clash happened and which Indians call Patrol Point 14. These Chinese positions give PLA a superior strategic orientation. They overlook India’s Line of Communication, a road that goes to Daulat Beg Oldie in sub-sector North where India operates an advance landing ground for C-130 transport planes. In simple terms it means that PLA can interdict this road if it deems doing so operationally imperative at some point.

The level of ingress in Galwan was hotly debated in the Indian media with many analysts disputing that PLA had come into the area and was consolidating. The clash puts an end to that debate. Indian analysts say that the clash happened at a time of disengagement — i.e., post-6 June military talks, the Chinese had agreed to fall back east from Patrol Point 14. This itself shows that earlier claims of no-PLA presence in the area were wrong. Equally, the story now that Indian troops weren’t prepared and expecting a clash beggars belief. Here’s why.

Reports about the June 6 talks between an Indian lieutenant general and a PLA major-general had indicated that the Chinese side had refused to discuss PLA deployments in Galwan. Two, reports indicate that the unit that came under attack was tasked to dismantle the PLA outpost at Patrol Point 14. That being the case, it is incredulous to think the Indian unit was not prepared and thought it was going to a tea party.

Third, it remains unclear why the CO of the unit, a colonel, would be present if this was a disengagement exercise with the PLA onboard. If the PLA had indeed agreed to falling back east of Patrol Point 14, the protocols for disengagement would be clearly spelled out and communicated down to field commanders. The clash clearly means that that was not the case.

Fourth, Indian media has been reporting that the unit was attacked by PLA troops wielding rods and clubs with studded nails. This predictably got people to ask whether or not troops carry weapons. There’s much confusion about that. Some analysts suggest that there’s an informal understanding that patrols won’t carry weapons; others deny that and say they do. Some videos show troops on both sides carrying weapons; others show troops sans weapons. On the day of writing this, India’s foreign minister (note: not the defence minister or Army HQ) tweeted this: “Let us get the facts straight. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during faceoffs.”

This adds another layer of the bizarre to this episode: if the troops were carrying weapons, how come they didn’t use them when their CO was being clubbed to death or when PLA troops began chasing and clubbing to death other Indian troops from the unit? Also, the casualty count, dead, critically injured and lightly injured comes to about 150 soldiers. How many PLA troops would be required to kill and injure so many soldiers in combat gear? If it was about dismantling a PLA tent (as is being claimed), why would there be so many soldiers and, as noted above, their commanding officer? Could it be that the unit was tasked to dislodge PLA from their position without any agreement, as claimed, and PLA responded to that operation?

The story has many holes in it but one thing is clear: the Indian political and military leadership doesn’t have their ducks in a row.

Which brings us to the operational and strategic side of this flare-up.

At the tactical and theatre levels, PLA’s new positioning and posture has to be seen in light (a) of India’s aggressive moves (and statements) and (b) its development of communication infrastructure in the area, the Durbak-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road. The PLA decided, possibly at the higher levels of political-military command, that they should get the first-mover advantage and preempt India from strengthening its military presence at the LAC, both in terms of men and equipment as well as the capability to reinforce and supply those deployments. This the PLA has achieved remarkably.

At the strategic-political level, a number of issues got Beijing to sit up and take notice: the BJP government’s annexation of Ladakh as a Union Territory; the new maps showing Ladakh and Aksai Chin as Indian territory; statements about CPEC and references to Gilgit-Baltistan as Indian territory; India’s strategic partnership with the United States and being part of America’s grand strategy to checkmate China and use India as a countervailing force et cetera.

As I noted before in this space, this tactical and theatre positioning is a minor part of China’s bigger strategy but it is very significant, nonetheless, as a form of messaging. China is testing India; so far it has found India wanting.

Let’s take one example: if the PLA troops used nail-studded clubs and iron rods to batter and bludgeon Indian troops, what signal does it send to India? One, we could have done more damage if we had used military-grade weapons; two, how will you (India) respond? India can either get its troops — despite its losses — to be better prepared with their own lethal rods and clubs or tell them to act as army troops and use weapons. If India does the first, it signals to PLA that it is not prepared to climb up the escalation ladder; if it does the second, PLA still has the advantage of escalation on its side. In other words, it continues to dominate the escalation dynamic, forcing the Indian army to either react to any escalation or stay at the same rung.

It’s gamesmanship and it is psychological.

Also, if India refuses to climb up the escalation ladder, it is forced to treat the issue as a border-management rather than a military-operational problem. There, the PLA, as noted before, has a clear advantage: it holds ground and it is not prepared to cede it. India either has to accept China’s superior strategic orientation or try to change the reality on the ground.

Chess has a term for it: zugzwang. India is obliged to make a move in its turn, but making that move could become a serious disadvantage for it.

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.