Two weeks after the meeting between senior army commanders there has still been no major progress in de-escalation in Ladakh.
An Indian official stated, “There has been no forward movement in disengagement of troops in friction areas along the LAC, including Pangong Tso and Depsang. The overall de-escalation of conflict is a long way off.”
India has moved three extra divisions into the region along with additional air power resources.
It has begun planning for the long haul and commenced stocking up for the winter. After the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC), on border affairs meeting on Friday, the Ministry of External Affairs stated, “They agreed that early and complete disengagement of troops along the LAC in accordance with bilateral agreements, protocols and full restoration of peace and tranquillity was essential for smooth overall development of bilateral relations.”
China agrees, issues statements but ignores implementation. What are India’s options in case China does not relent? To assess this, there are few basic facts which must initially be accepted.
Firstly, there is an immense trust deficit between the two nations. Unless India is certain of Chinese pull back, it would not replicate. Mike Pompeo’s China policy of ‘Distrust and Verify’ is the current government mantra.
Secondly, the real reasons why China resorted to the intrusion remain unclear. Currently, justifications being given are just opinions.
China, which commenced the intrusion, has been stating that India should meet it halfway to resolve the standoff. It seeks to blame India; an accusation India denies. It could also imply accepting the status quo, which India rejects.
Thirdly, the impact of the weather is similar on both sides; hence Chinese commencement of winter stocking would display their intention of prolonging the standoff.
Fourthly, India has no choice but to face China eyeball to eyeball. It would not back down despite every Chinese attempt. Backing down once would open doors for similar actions elsewhere.
Finally, restoration of status quo ante would possibly flow from diplomatic talks and not military or WMCC on border affairs. India has currently adopted talks as the option. Apart from ongoing interactions, the two Special Representatives (SR) have spoken and may do so again.
To placate Chinese concerns on India’s growing proximity with the US, a possible major reason for Chinese intrusion, Mr S Jaishankar, the foreign minister, said last week, “We were never part of an alliance system and we will never be.”
He was referring to closer coordination with the US.
Before analysing Indian options, it is essential to consider Chinese alternatives. They intruded into the grey zone of the LAC in May, hoping to reach depth areas.
Despite misjudging their intentions, Indian forces responded swiftly and blocked China from moving forward. Galwan displayed Indian determination leading to a pause in Chinese intent.
They realised any further attempt could lead to escalation and large loss of lives, which could be detrimental to them. There was also no guarantee of success. Hence, it became a stalemate. China faces a predicament. If it remains in situ, its ill-trained and largely conscripted troops would face winter hardships, with their support bases way behind.
As winter approaches, the advantage shifts to India as its troops are hardened, experienced and have administrative bases close to their current deployment areas. If India desires, each intrusion in the winter could be tackled independently as a localised action.
Further counter escalation may not be in Chinese favour as passes close and operations become difficult, compelling them to resort to non-contact warfare.
The next concern for China is withdrawing to status quo ante. If it does so early, it would signal a Chinese defeat as at Doklam. If it delays, then it would face the tough Ladakh winter.
Hence, it could attempt to delay disengagement till just prior to the onset of winter or attempt to push for current status quo, hoping to consider it as a face-saving victory.
This, it is aware, is unacceptable to India. It would also be considered a global defeat, as it has achieved nothing despite large force levels.
Hence, talks would continue until an amicable solution is found. What are the options open to India? India has options in every sphere – diplomatic, economic and military. Diplomatically, it could enhance interactions at the SR levels to achieve the required breakthroughs.
However, this could display Indian weakness and desperation. It could persuade other nations to follow its actions and ban Chinese products, including Huawei. India could resort to sale of BrahMos missiles to Asean nations in dispute with China while enhancing joint exercises and patrols with QUAD nations.
However, currently India should desist crossing Chinese redlines of Taiwan and Tibet. These should remain India’s final cards. Economic actions are being enhanced. China understands that each action taken now is irreversible, even if it restores status quo ante in Ladakh. Militarily, India could continue with the current standoff, refusing to back down or resort to a quid pro quo action in another region.
It could display offensive intent by disregarding adherence to terms agreed in military level talks by recommencing patrolling its claim lines, willing to risk escalation, an action which could impose caution on China. More important is to monitor Chinese activities of further build-up including stores, ammunition and winter stocks.
This would expose Chinese intentions. There is no doubt that in case China fails to pull-back, India may have to adopt one of the multiple offensive options available to it, though it claims these are not on the cards presently. It cannot let the current scenario continue indefinitely.
The timing for taking this decision is crucial and should be when China is weakest, weather in our favour, as also in an area which is advantageous. India possesses that capability.
The right moment and location to act is well known to Indian military planners. Currently, India should let talks continue at their ongoing pace, hoping China realises that restoring status quo ante is their best bet prior to losing terrain and weather advantage.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.