China waded into Ladakh hoping to regain its claim lines, involve India in endless rounds of negotiations and project its power across the globe. It sought to warn India that the PLA is powerful enough to inflict punitive damages in case India seeks to assert itself and refuses to accept Chinese supremacy. India’s rejection of the Chinese-proposed Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was an affront to its status.
It was also irked by Indian political comments on regaining Aksai Chin and Gilgit Baltistan, which remain its weakest links in the Himalayas. The creation of Ladakh into a UT directly under the Centre enables enhancement of military deployment in the region. No nation that invests 60 plus billion dollars in developing a trade route (CPEC) would seek to place its very source at risk of intervention by hostile forces.
China is aware that India is not a current threat but could become one as its military power develops. Enhancement of infrastructure in Ladakh was a worry as it opened its strategic highways to Indian interdiction. Hence, it sought to grab territory that threaten its vulnerabilities before Indian military power grew.
It was also irked by growing Indo-US relations and the QUAD, which could pose a challenge to its sea lines of communication in the Indo-Pacific. The closer India moved to the US, the greater would be its role in the region, which could be a major challenge to China. If it subdues India it could place its terms and conditions on Indo-US ties.
Chinese operations in Ladakh were planned months in advance and had concurrence of its top leadership. Its soldiers came prepared for violence, within the agreements but armed with handheld weapons, which were first displayed at the clash at Galwan. It occupied areas north of Pangong Tso and in Depsang. It had planned to occupy its claim lines without firing a bullet.
China had not envisaged the speed with which India countered the aggression and deployed forces to block the advance. It had never expected Indian troops to display levels of violence which occurred at Galwan. Nor did it anticipate Indian quid pro quo actions by occupying heights on the Kailash Ridge, which placed their camps and deployment under Indian observation and possible interdiction in case China escalated the situation.
Indian political and economic countermeasures were also not part of their plans. While economic decoupling and banning of Chinese apps by India may not have a major impact, however, with other nations following suit, China has begun feeling the pinch. They have regularly sought to push India to reverse its measures, but to no avail. The global support India received has resulted in China being diplomatically sidelined.
Within India, possibly for the first time in decades, the support to Taiwan on its national day was resounding. In addition, there is the growing hatred for procuring anything even remotely linked to China forcing China to change labels stating, ‘made in China’ to ‘made in PRC.’ While the government, possibly for diplomatic reasons, continues with its One-China policy, there is a growing voice within India to discard this. At some stage, the government will be compelled to bend. Such anti-China sentiment has never been experienced in India.
China has been stalled in its tracks. It can neither move forward nor retreat, without escalating levels of conflict, which in turn could cause more damage than benefit. The few fingers into which it has advanced north of Pangong Tso have been rendered worthless with Indian forces deployed on heights overlooking them. It only holds some ground in Depsang, which remains way behind its own claim lines. Domestically, China has projected this small gain as a victory, though aware that it remains on a weak wicket.
China has been forced to maintain its forces through the winters in Ladakh, again a first. This confirms that its plans have gone awry. With winters yet to set in, the Chinese are experiencing medical casualties with reports from the ground stating daily evacuations. As winters become severe these cases will increase, compelling the PLA to rotate troops. China has begun paying the price for its misadventures.
The Indian deployment on the Kailash Ridge has placed both nations on a level platform in the ongoing talks. India is no longer discussing resolution from a position of weakness. Its current deployment enables it to reject Chinese demands which do not suit its own stance. It is China which has suggested that military and diplomatic talks continue to seek a resolution.
Chinese has three reasons to continue talks. Firstly, it has no other option left. It cannot attempt to attack Indian positions, where soldiers are well entrenched and prepared for escalation. Indian warnings on breaking the protocol on firing in case China crosses Indian red lines has been registered by China. Secondly, it is now seeking a face-saving solution, which cannot include moving back. To avoid losing face, it must have some gains to display. Thirdly, China cannot risk another Galwan or occupation of positions akin to the Kailash Ridge and heights on Fingers.
The ongoing military talks, at levels where there can be no decision, have a reason. In every set of talks, both nations are placing their viewpoints on resolving the standoff, new confidence-building measures and protocols to avoid clashes. These are subsequently discussed by decisionmaking bodies in national capitals and decisions conveyed. While currently all suggestions are being rejected, however, they are leading to a narrowing down of differences. As these reduce, they open doors to enhancing levels of dialogue to announce an agreement.
Enhanced distrust is the primary concern on both sides. There is always a perception that territory vacated by one would be grabbed by the other, creating new regions of conflict. Resolving this will be a priority.
China waded in hoping to win the battle of Ladakh, but in the bargain was stalled, forced to remain in Ladakh, lost the Indian market and in the overall context lost the war.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.