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Xi’s dilemma in Ladakh

On the night of 29/30 August as per reports Indian commanders decided to send in the Vikas (SFF) battalion to occupy Black Top on the southern side of Pangong Tso on India’s side of LAC to preempt the Chinese from moving in. It could have been touch and go.

VINOD SAIGHAL | New Delhi |

Coming into the sixth month since the tension started in Ladakh with the Chinese occupying and then consolidating their ingress across the perceived LAC in Galwan Valley and adjacent areas, the chances of something more serious happening have increased manifold. On the night of 29/30 August as per reports Indian commanders decided to send in the Vikas (SFF) battalion to occupy Black Top on the southern side of Pangong Tso on India’s side of LAC to preempt the Chinese from moving in. It could have been touch and go.

In all such cases speed is of the essence without time being wasted on consultations at higher and occasionally even higher levels. Had such despatch been shown in May when the first ingress took place further Chinese build up to threatening levels would have been preempted. It is axiomatic at those heights that immediate response by an intrepid commander on the spot taken immediately or in the first 24 hours ( in the army they call it fauji ilaj) might restore the situation. It would not be possible to do so once the enemy has consolidated for months, even years. A number of examples can be cited.

Taking China first, had they reached and occupied Black Top, India’s vulnerability would have increased vastly. Had the Chinese occupied Black Top and the local commanders waited for instructions the Chinese would have firmed in. Prelude to 1962 all over again except that in 2020 the Indian Army would not only give a good account of itself but might even be in a position to vacate aggressors as a follow up. The dilemma for Xi Jinping has become very real.

It is felt that India’s options as of now remain limited to firming in while ensuring that China is not in a position to surprise India along the entire front. Meanwhile the government is taking all measures to bolster the armed forces in every way. Immediate military option before the winter sets is not an option at this juncture. The army and the government would have realised by now that putting the mountain strike on hold was a mistake that has to be rectified at the earliest. Without a riposte capability, no enemy is ever deterred.

Mr. Xi has painted himself into a corner in Ladakh. He knows that China can neither afford a full-scale military action in Ladakh nor continue with the status quo throughout the winter and beyond. For how long? If the gamble has failed the status quo is not defensible beyond a point. Any reverse in Ladakh besides shaking his position as commander-in-chief of the PLA might even oblige him to step down. After that it would be only a matter of time before it is all over for him.

Mr. Modi is in an equally difficult position. The virus shows no signs of abating with numbers having crossed the three million mark. The economic decline is no less worse. The Prime Minister seems to have compounded the difficulty for himself by stating on an earlier occasion that there had been no violation across the LAC. Neither the opposition nor the media can be expected to pause and think that prime ministers cannot afford to make such statements without consulting experts, advisers and without agonising over the matter. By his lights it would have been a bold step to give Xi Jinping whom he had met 18 times and in keeping with the Wuhan spirit to step back gracefully.

Having got a slap in his face he acted in an unexpected manner that took his critics in India, China and the world by surprise when he banned 59 Chinese apps. The US and a few other countries followed suit. He didn’t stop there, banning a further 109 apps including the wellliked PUBG. Other steps could follow. Mr. Xi has exhausted all options in Ladakh short of war, it hardly being an option any longer. Not so Mr. Modi. He has several options up his sleeve that he will exercise in his own time and in his own way. Xi Jinping has been worsted by a friend whom he betrayed. On the face of it, Moscow stands in between. Not so really. India has been a tried and tested friend of long standing since 1970 with never a cloud on the horizon in all those years in spite of both going their own way in their national interest. The coming together of Russia and China is more recent, brought on by US pressure on both and on account of economic compulsions for Russia due to Western sanctions. While Moscow is not in a position to take sides it is speeding up military supplies to India including the S-400 batteries. On the other hand, supply of the same to China appears to be slowing down.

It would be premature to say that the situation on the front has eased for India. It is difficult to presage the end of tensions, status quo ante or the return of normalcy. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that the Indian Prime Minister is in a much better position than his counterpart in Beijing whose vulnerability increases with each day. On the other hand Mr. Modi is unassailable till at least till 2024. His party enjoys an overwhelming majority. His popularity remains very high. His government has to realise that India’s vulnerability in Ladakh will remain till manufacturing speeds up because China manufactures all its weapons platforms in the country shedding its reliance on Russia.

The writer, a retired Major-General of the Indian Army, has commanded a desert division, mountain division and an independent armoured formation. He commanded the East Sikkim watershed in 1991.