After the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Indo-China border affairs (WMCC) meeting last Thursday, both sides issued vague and guarded statements. The Indian statement made no mention of ‘progress’ nor ‘early and complete disengagement.’ It read, “The two sides had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on the existing situation in the India-China border areas. They agreed to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner and in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols.”
Beijing commented that the meeting, “positively evaluated the process made in the disengagement of front-line forces of the two countries and agreed to conscientiously implement the consensus reached between the two sides.” The Chinese ambassador commented on similar lines. Evidently, a stalemate has been reached, with China sticking to its claim lines and placing unreasonable demands for withdrawal.
A day after the talks, inputs flowed that China displayed a willingness to pull back but sought to place conditions the details of which remain unavailable. These could possibly be linked to patrolling of claim lines, equal distance withdrawal or construction of infrastructure. India had earlier refused the Chinese offer of equal pull back and would reject other demands too.
China gained by accepting partial disengagement, after the Galwan incident. It cannot accept losses as they occurred at Galwan. This would be detrimental to its force’s morale. By accepting disengagement, China ensured that distance between forces would prevent further clashes. It was compelled to pull back the demoralized PLA unit which suffered heavily at the hands of Indian soldiers in Galwan. Its blaming India for Galwan is only to safeguard itself from a similar incident where losses may be beyond concealment.
By initial disengagement and subsequently placing unacceptable demands, China is presently in locations that it holds without having fired a bullet or having conducted any offensive action. It is bargaining from a position of advantage and expecting India would succumb to pressure. Propaganda actions continue from the Chinese side, in the hope of maintaining pressure on India to resolve the standoff as per its demands. India is unwilling to succumb to any pressure.
India has announced that it would maintain its forces in the region till disengagement is complete. To that end it has begun constructing accommodation for additional forces deployed in the region. It is unwilling to accept any change to the existing alignment to the LAC. The current scenario remains stable with equal force levels maintained at a distance to prevent recurrence of any clashes.Forces maintained are below the levels needed for full scale conflict.
Simultaneously, there have been reports of Chinese troop presence in other regions of the LAC, the latest being Lipulekh, close to the IndoNepal border. Chinese construction activities have been reported across the LAC in the middle sector opposite Himachal. It is only a matter of time before reports begin flowing from other sectors of enhanced Chinese troop presence, including Arunachal.
With its current deployment in Ladakh, China has already raised the costs for India by tying down additional army formations in the sector.
The economic impact on India is high as it is compelled to allocate funds for defence procurements as also stocking and clothing its forces through winters, despite funds being needed for boosting the economy and medical support in view of the spreading pandemic.
The Indian strategy of handling Chinese incursions has not changed since they commenced decades ago. It is basically to prevent China from expanding by deploying similar force levels while holding talks to resolve the situation. Each time the demand has been the same – the side which entered first must pull back first.
Recently, this was adopted in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017. In each case India succeeded in compelling China to withdraw, as the incursions were minor, and China was testing the Indian resolve. China is now attempting the strategy it adopted in the Sumdorong Chu standoff, where it sought equal withdrawal by both forces, with India withdrawing within its own territory.India has refused to comply with this demand.
This oft-adopted strategy is currently not working, though Indian strategists believe it will at some stage. India had earlier never adopted any other action to increase costs to China. This time, in retaliation, it is seeking to raise the cost by activating multiple measures, mainly economic and diplomatic.In its most recent actions, India placed visa restrictions on Chinese citizens connected with business, think tanks and advocacy groups.
Basically, Delhi is conveying to Beijing that it cannot be business as usual if China does not back down and end the standoff. Indian decisions, mainly economic, have impacted China as it seeks to delink economic actions from military standoffs.India continues to stand firm.These measures however may not be enough to add to costs for China.
India may have to consider further options to compel China to withdraw.
As a first step, India must cancel all levels of talks. These have failed to provide the desired outcome. More important, if India has decided to continue with its deployment in the region, unless China withdraws then talks at any level have no meaning unless China displays seriousness in intent. If it needs to convey a message to Beijing, it should be done by summoning their ambassador in Delhi.
Secondly, even in regions where there is no Chinese presence as of now, India must enhance troop presence, compelling China to deploy its forces as a counter measure. It should aim to place China in doubt of Indian offensive intentions. Thirdly, Indian forces in Ladakh must be redeployed for possible offensive eviction actions.Fourthly, India should reconsider its One-China policy. Finally, India must push for a trade embargo on China.
Simplistically, India must enhance costs on China employing all elements of power. China must know that it could lose in multiple arenas if it continues to remain inside Indian perceived LAC. It must be conveyed to China that India will not bow and is a strong neighbour that can challenge it and is willing to risk escalation, defending its territory.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.