Face Off In Ladakh

Face Off In Ladakh

K.M. Chandrasekhar

K.M. Chandrasekhar

That there is trouble brewing in eastern Ladakh is no longer in the realm of speculation. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday that China has moved in a sizeable number of its troops. Taylor Forrest, writing in The Washington Times on 3rd June (as reported in NDTV) said that 5000 Chinese soldiers have entered the region near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in three places. They have entered areas which India considered to have been “settled”. Business Today, on 27th May, reported, “Massive construction activities were observed at the Chinese airbase, which is located just 200 kms away from the Pangong lake, according to satellite images posted by ‘d-atis’, an analyst with ShadowBreak Intl on its Twitter account.” On 1st June, Business Today again reported, “Fighter aircraft of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) were flying along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, while India continues to keep a close eye on the movement of planes stationed around 100-150 kms at their bases in Hotan and Gargunsa. The tension along the border has soared after China deployed military fighter planes along the border, signaling that the confrontation between the two military powers could become the biggest face-off after the Doklam episode in 2017.”

The sudden, and rather unexpected, show of aggressive intent by China could have political as well as strategic reasons. China did not take kindly to India’s action of changing the status of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh last year. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang said in October 2019, ”India's unilateral move challenges China's sovereignty by revising India's domestic law and administrative division, which is illegal and invalid. It will not change China's control of the region.” Recent political action in J&K, particularly in Gilgit-Baltistan, has also possibly created concern. Besides, there are apprehensions regarding India’s western border with Pakistan China is strongly aligned with that country. That border has been restive for long, particularly after the Balakot air strike. After declaration of President’s Rule, there has been a great deal of action against militants in J&K and Pakistan President Imran Khan has been talking of India giving a “false flag” cover to those involved in such actions, as he is of the view that the trouble in Ladakh is orchestrated not by Pakistani terrorists, but by Kashmiri resistance fighters. If India is looking westward to show its strength, China’s intention could be to pose a threat on the east.

Besides, China is generally in a bad mood presently. It has been irritated time and again by the unrestrained utterances of President Trump, his determination to fix the blame for the Covid pandemic on China, his crusade against WHO for its alleged defense of China and his repeated threats to strike at the Chinese economy. Their problems with Hong Kong, the efforts they had to make to contain the pandemic in their own country and deep apprehensions about the future of their economy add to their worries. Modi’s perceived proximity to Trump and the open attempt to draw foreign investment out of China into India, albeit without much success, must be additional thorns in the flesh for China.

China is also apprehensive of India’s moves to strengthen its force in the area. Taylor Forrest, in his opinion piece cited earlier, said that India has created two mountain divisions and a mountain strike corps. Besides, our infrastructure in the area has been considerably strengthened. The completion of the DS-DBO road in 2019 and the recent construction of a feeder road from the DS-DBO road to the LAC near Galwan has improved India’s ability to move troops and equipment faster. Our military airports in the region, such as Daulat Bagh Oldie, have been strengthened and India’s battle strength has undisputedly improved.

China has been blowing hot and cold. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army spokesperson, Colonel Wu Qian, asked India to remember the “lessons of history” in response to a statement made by the Indian Army Chief on India’s ability to fight a two and a half front war. On the other hand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, was quoted by the Chinese People’s Daily as saying that India and China have a sound border related mechanism and communication channels. Three days later, on 31st May, the same daily said, ”Since the Doklam standoff with India in 2017, the Chinese military has expanded its arsenal with weapons like the Type 15 tank, Z-20 helicopter and GJ-2 drone that should give China the advantage in high-altitude conflicts should they arise,”

The “lessons of history” , referred to by the Chinese, are encapsulated in the report prepared by Lt. Gen. Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat in the well-known Brooks-Bhagat report, prepared at the behest of the Indian Defence Ministry. In April 2010, then Defence Minister, AK Antony, refused to declassify this document as its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.” He was roundly criticised for this by then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. Later, when Jaitley became the Defence Minister in the Modi Government, he, too refused to declassify it. However, the Australian journalist, Neville Maxwell, who had written the book, “India’s China War” had managed to procure Volume 1 of the report, which he put out on his website in the internet.

The version of the Brooks Bhagat report put out by Neville Maxwell does not paint a happy picture of the way in which India fought the war in 1962. First, there was a serious miscalculation in that the Chinese would not retaliate even if India were to adopt a “forward policy”. India’s interest was more in recovering territory in the Kameng Frontier Division in the North East Frontier Agency ( NEFA). Our sensitivity to Ladakh was not as great. While the Western Command of the Indian Army gave a clear indication that the Chinese would fight back in Ladakh, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, at a meeting in the PMO, is reported to have said that the Chinese would not use force, were we to set up new forward posts. In another meeting held by the Defence Minister, the Foreign Secretary is reported to have said that, even if we set up forward posts in our territory in NEFA, the Chinese are not likely to react very strongly in Ladakh. Reports were coming in from the Western Command to Army Staff in Delhi that we were heavily mismatched in Ladakh, that the posts we were holding were thinly manned, that we did not have adequate stores or back up forces. What followed was complete confusion, failure of communication between the political executive, the Defence Ministry, the Army Staff at Headquarters and command structures in the field. In the NEFA region, poor leadership added to the woes of a hapless army. But the Brooks Bhagat report is all praise for the Western Command and the manner in which our troops fought in Ladakh, despite the myriad handicaps they faced.

India has learnt well the lessons of history. India is much stronger militarily in Ladakh and the North East than it was sixty years ago. Our infrastructure is strong, our troops are in place in sufficient number we are far better equipped and trained for high altitude battle. We have better intelligence, better communications, greater capacity to move men and arms fast into the border. The Chinese are obviously very strong militarily, but in a limited conventional battle at the borders, we can hold our own. The Chinese know this for a fact despite the posturing we have seen in the last few weeks. Neither country would want hostilities to start. Both have their own internal and external problems.

This is the time for quiet diplomacy. If negotiations at military level are not making progress, it is time for political action.