China Pushes the Boundary

Longer the face-off continues greater will be the threat to India

Pravin Sawhney

All is not well for India. Its distracted army, preoccupied in counter terror operations, was taken by surprise when the PLA, starting May 5, carried out well-planned and deftly-executed multi-prong deep incursions (three to five kms) across north Sikkim and east Ladakh. It not only occupied Indian territory but also audaciously built concrete defences on it. That the Indian Army was surprised by the PLA manoeuvre showed its total obliviousness to the ground reality.

RARIFIED CLIMES Though Su-30MKI now operates from Ladakh, it has been overtaken by new capabilities of PLA Air Force

The world knows that consequent to the ill-handled 2017 Doklam crisis by India, the PLA had, in its Western Theatre Command tasked for the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC), since winter of 2017-2018, located, at least, two group armies, three air force bases, and one rocket force base. With a total of 13 combined arms brigades, support arms, support services, border guards and armed police, the number totalled over 200,000 soldiers in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). They have created excellent habitat, military ecosystem and have been conducting realistic combat training. Given the increased forces-in-being threat, the Indian Army should be prepared for more similar surprises instead of blaming the intelligence services.

The recent display of PLA power was probably sanctioned by vice chairman, Central Military Commission, General Xu Qiliang. Number two to the commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping, he, a former PLA Air Force (PLAAF) commander was the architect of the 2015 military reforms and is responsible for interoperability between the PLA and Pakistan military through joint combat exercises between the three services.

The Indian Army should also not be caught napping on the increased threat to the Siachen glacier it has been holding since April 1984 at huge costs of men and finances. Speaking at a webinar organised by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on May 15, the army chief General M.M. Naravane, in the context of two-front war, said, “It is a possibility. It is not that it is going to happen every time. We have to be alive to all contingencies which can happen.”

He probably had a localised two-front war in north Ladakh (from Siachen to Sub Sector North, SSN) in mind. His ill-informed predecessor, and now the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat had on 21 October 2019 advised the defence minister Rajnath Singh to open the Siachen area from the base camp to Kumar post for tourism. Announced within weeks of the tectonic development of 5 August 2019 which reconstituted the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories of Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh, it would have irked both Pakistan and China. Especially Beijing, whose two successive protests on the creation of Ladakh UT, thereby changing the status quo, had fallen on deaf ears in New Delhi. The present PLA intrusions are a consequence of that. Plus more, as we shall see.

With the PLA now moving in strength in the Galwan valley (not a disputed area until now), it, along with the Pakistan military, is well poised to hem in the Indian Army on the Siachen glacier from two sides — the Pakistan Army on the west and the PLA on the east. What makes a localized two front war a real possibility is that (a) both partners have achievable political objectives and military aims; (b) they have been doing combined combat training since 2011 in air (Pakistan Air Force-PLA Air Force’s Shaheen exercises) and on ground (Pakistan Army-PLA Army’s Warrior exercises) since 2013, interestingly, across north Ladakh, which includes Siachen; and (c) have capability, capacity and political will to achieve their objectives.

Held in October (close to the border with north Ladakh), the month-long Shaheen-VIII joint exercise was reportedly most advanced. According to PLA commander, Xin Xin, “The Shaheen series joint exercises started as one-on-one dogfight, but now it has evolved into systematic mock battles featuring more war planes, multiple military branches which include ground forces that deploy missiles and electronic counter-measures.” Another commentary on this exercise noted that there were two opposing teams: Red team comprising the PLA Air Force, and Blue team constituted of PLAAF and Pakistan Air Force. The scope of such exercise does not require elaboration.

What could be the strategic, political, military and diplomatic objectives of the likely joint combat?

  • The Pakistan Army’s strategic objective for a localized war in north Ladakh could be to provide depth to the CPEC;
  • The political objective could be to make India’s hold over the Kashmir Valley more tenuous;
  • The military objective could be to force the Indian Army out of the Siachen Glacier; and
  • The diplomatic objective could be to draw the international community’s attention to the possibility of a full-scale war between adversaries with nuclear weapons.

China is likely to endorse the above war objectives, as well as its participation with a caveat: PLA would not use its kinetic war capabilities until attacked by the Indian military.

What could be a likely joint war plan? In a military pincer, Indian positions on the Saltoro ridge and the Siachen glacier could be outflanked by Pakistan and China. The Pakistan Army could attempt to capture NJ9842 in sub-sector west presently held by India. The PLA, while throwing its weight behind the Pakistan military could (a) sever India’s operational logistics by land and air maintenance to Sub-Sector North (SSN) facing the Chinese in Ladakh, and (b) share its non-kinetic capabilities. The PLAs’ strong objection to Indian Army’s attempt to construct feeder road in the Galwan valley to link up with the 224km long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road as well as the bridge (explained below) should be understood in the context of such a war plan. This construction provided the trigger for the PLA’s present blitzkrieg across the LAC.

This is also the reason why in the military-level talk on June 6, the Chinese insisted that their incursion in the Galwan Valley was off the table. Clearly, the importance of Galwan Valley lies in what it means in relation to other objectives in Ladakh.

HOSTAGE TO ELEMENTS Road connectivity to eastern Ladakh remains a challenge

The Siachen glacier lies between two mountain spurs of the Karakoram Range: the Saltoro ridge in the west which separates Indian and Pakistani forces fighting for the glacier. And the Sasser ridge which separates the glacier from east Ladakh where the PLA has gradually been shifting the 1993 LAC westwards towards its 1960 claim line closer to the Sasser ridge. This area, called Sub Sector North (SSN), with extreme weather conditions at altitudes of 18,000 feet and lacking adequate infrastructure on the Indian side, is extremely vulnerable to ingress by the PLA as they have roads on their side right up to the LAC.

To the north of SSN lies the famous Karakoram (KK) pass which provides the shortest route from Leh (capital of Ladakh) to Xinjiang. The PLA has a road from its garrison having a combined arms battalion (basic tactical unit capable of conducting independent operations) near the KK pass to its post on the pass. From atop Teram Sher Glacier, west of the KK pass, the north and central portions of the Siachen glacier are in full view.

Having dug itself into the Galwan valley (hitherto non-disputed area), the PLA, with a combined arms brigade — backed by the artillery and armour elements in the rear — is well positioned to check Indian Army’s use of the 224km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) road, the easier of the two routes available to reach SSN. Starting from Tangtse northwards to Darbuk, this route goes along the Shyok River, crossing it at two points — one downstream and the other upstream — to finally reach DBO. In the summer months, between May to October (when the winter stocking for troops is done), this route is unavailable as the Shyok River gets flooded because of the melting glaciers, making crossing it downstream impossible.

During this period, only the other difficult route across the Sasser ridge is available to the troops to reach SSN. Lacking a proper road, it takes Indian troops anything from 18 to 25 days to trudge the treacherous track along Sasoma, Sasser La to Chungtash, Margo and Burtse near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). The Indian Army has a vehicle relay service on this route — once troops cross the Sasser La and come to Chungtash they are ferried onwards towards DBO in vehicles. In order to make the Darbuk route to DBO available round the year, the defence minister, Rajnath Singh on 21 October 2019 inaugurated the 430-metre long Colonel Chewang Rinchen Sethu (bridge) across the Shyok river. The bridge while facilitating troops movement to SSN also reduced the travel time by half. This will be denied by PLA’s move and dominance of heights in the Galwan valley. Hence, its refusal to bring Galwan to the discussion table.

With Indian Army’s reinforcements being difficult to come through, what stops the PLA from helping the Pakistan Army with good observation from Teram Sher Glacier? Aided by the observation provided by the PLA, the Pakistan Army, could fire its cruise missiles to both interdict the Indian Army’s logistics lifeline from the base camp to the glacier and on troops’ positions itself.

Meanwhile, PLA’s non-kinetic capabilities ensconced in its unique Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) comprising cyber, space, electronic and electromagnetic spectrum management could dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. This would disallow and disrupt Indian Army and Indian Air Force’s communications; command and control; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), satellites, and Position, Navigation and Timing essential for firing of cruise missiles. A potent capability, the SSF has been exercising extensively under the Western Theatre Command since 2018. It has done series of force-on-force exercises and has vastly improved PLA Army and PLAAF joint operations in advanced electromagnetic environments.

I had asked a former director-general military operations (DGMO) before 2017 Doklam crisis, what he thought of collusion between the PLA and the Pakistan military in north Ladakh. According to him, the army had amply war-gamed this and concluded it to be unlikely. The main reason was that China had no political and military objectives in this area and little reason to build up troops close to the LAC. This situation has changed.

The volatile Kashmir valley after the 5 August 2019 revocation of Article 370 would play havoc with the Indian Army’s lines of communications. What’s more, the PLA forces-in-being would keep the army tied down on protecting the LAC instead of reinforcing numbers in SSN and Siachen. Besides, nothing stops the PLA Special Forces from capturing the Advanced Landing Ground and air-strip at Daulat Beg Oldie. This could be done as part of reaching their 1960 claim line. It needs to be remembered that China and Pakistan are non-status quo nations with willingness to use military power in support of their foreign and security policies.

What are India’s options now? Since it has little military capability to change things on the ground against the PLA, it cannot much influence the diplomatic talks going on between the two joint secretary level officials to end the crisis. The meeting between the two general officers (GOC 14 corps, Lt Gen. Harinder Singh and PLA’s Maj. Gen. Liu Lin) held on June 6, which ended with no results to show is proof of Indian military’s lightness of weight on the negotiating table.

Aware that little would be achieved, the Indian Army did what no serious interlocutor does: it gave its red lines including the demand for status quo ante to April 2020 positions held by both sides to the media beforehand. While this was meant to project it as an equal interlocutor at talks, it had the opposite effect. An official told this writer that the PLA agreeing to the meeting (at the last minute) was the breakthrough itself. India would be reluctant to request China to raise the talks’ level to the National Security Advisor or the Chief of Defence Staff. Given the expansive PLA’s incursions and China’s agenda for discussions, the raised level, unlike previous times, would leave India red-faced.

What do the Chinese want from the diplomatic talks?

Two things: Indian adherence to mutually agreed Wuhan consensus, and revocation of the new constitutional status of Ladakh. Cleverly inbuilt into the second demand is revocation of the status of Jammu and Kashmir as well. After all, one cannot be done without the other. This would satisfy the core concern of its all-weather friend.

China is willing to walk half-way on diplomatic and military fronts. Should India agree, the PLA, in a phased manner would be willing to withdraw troops as well as its tanks and artillery guns from the rear. Defences and roads made by it would remain implying that the change on the ground would be irrevocable.

What is the Wuhan consensus?

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi informally (without a prepared agenda) met up with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. This was after the 2017 Doklam crisis. Both sides agreed that they would ‘cooperate with each other’ and not be rivals. According to China, India has reneged on that consensus. Their long list citing instances of betrayal includes India’s growing strategic footprints in support of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral dialogue meant to contain China, and a host of bilateral trade issues where India has acted against the interests of Chinese companies keen on business in India; ostensibly at the behest of the US.

The immediate provocation for China was the 5 August 2019 constitutional and legal change made to the state of Jammu and Kashmir when it was divided into two separate Union Territories of India: Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh. Within days, China had protested saying that the creation of the UT of Ladakh has altered the status quo. Unmindful of China’s protests, the Union home minister, Amit Shah declared in Parliament that Aksai Chin (under Chinese occupation) was part of the Ladakh UT. Indian foreign minister, S. Jaishankar’s explanation given in Beijing that the new constitutional status of Ladakh had not changed things on the ground did not assuage the Chinese leadership.

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The reason being that China never had a boundary (defined jurisdiction limits) with Ladakh. Right from the time when British India annexed the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846 and till it left the subcontinent, it had failed to persuade China to convert the existing frontier (undefined areas which allows free passage of people, trade and other civilizational matters) into a boundary. As inheritors of the British mantle, India, in its maps of 1950, issued to announce proclamation of the Republic, showed the western sector (Ladakh) as ‘undefined boundary.’

In his letter of 7 November 1959 written to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai proposed boundary settlement where China agreed to de facto accept the McMahon Line (which it did not recognise) in the eastern sector in exchange of India accepting the actual positions held by the two sides in the western sector, read Ladakh. While Nehru rejected the proposal, China called its actual position line as Claim Line in Ladakh. Consequent to the 1962 war, China, after declaring unilateral ceasefire ordered the PLA to withdraw 20km behind their Claim Line — thereby creating an unofficial demilitarised zone. Overtime, the Chinese Claim Line was forgotten by both sides.

In 1993, under the agreement of peace and tranquillity, the two sides agreed to call the entire disputed border as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). With this, there were three lines to contend with: the boundary as India believed; the boundary as claimed by China; and the LAC. Indian diplomats did not understand that the LAC, by definition, is a military line which could be tactically shifted by the side with greater power and political will without being called an act of war. So, the LAC, which was to usher in tranquillity became the millstone around Indian Army’s neck.

Commensurate with PLA’s improved border management — coupled with the 1998 nuclear tests where China was cited by India as the reason for conducting them — PLA’s transgressions across the LAC increased. They were emboldened by India’s appeasement policy, which was reflected in the way Indian government explained the transgressions by telling domestic audience that since the LAC was not an agreed line, these happened both ways. In reality, all transgressions since the creation of the LAC had been done by the PLA. None by the Indian Army. This fact was finally acknowledged by the ministry of external affairs in its 21 May 2020 statement which read that Indian Army was fully aware of the how the LAC ran on the ground and it always abides by it.

Threat from PLA’s comparatively excellent border management got a huge fillip after the 2017 Doklam crisis. After the resolution of the crisis, PLA created massive habitat, ecosystem, and inducted nearly 200,000 troops in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) who started regular combat training there. With this, two things happened: One, PLA’s border management threat to India increased exponentially. Unlike earlier, when in case of crisis escalation, PLA’s mobilisation and combat readiness estimated to be 15 to 20 days, was the warning time available to the Indian Army, after Doklam, this was over. With PLA’s forces-in-being in TAR, the threat has risen exponentially. And, since PLA has been exercising regularly in TAR, it could turn around its exercising troops to surprise the Indian Army anywhere on the LAC. This is precisely what they did in large numbers, estimated between 10,000 to 15,000 troops, in eastern Ladakh with deep ingress (estimated three to five kms) across the LAC at three points — Demchok, Pangong Tso and Galwan valley. The ingresses, authenticated by satellite imagery, compelled defence minister, Rajnath Singh to concede that the PLA has crossed the LAC more than earlier times.

With few available options — political, diplomatic and military –, unmindful of sizeable land grab done by the PLA and the growing threat to Siachen and SSN, the Modi government decided to do what it does best: Adopt a tough posture and build an alternate narrative of victory for domestic consumption. In the middle of the border crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a virtual summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the level of bilateral relations giving fillip to the Quadrilateral Dialogue and the Indo-Pacific strategy much to Beijing’s dislike. This led to further hardening of positions between China and India at the diplomatic and military level talks.

At the same time, government officials and government media started spinning yarns of victory in the Himalayas. The most bizarre being that since the LAC is a concept and a mythical line, the PLA’s three to five kilometres occupation of Indian territory was still outside India’s perception of LAC – the PLA had not crossed the LAC. Never mind, the MEA’s recent confession that the army was aware of LAC’s alignment on the ground. No one bothered to ask the government that if this was indeed the case, what line had the Indian soldiers been holding for 27 years (starting 1993), round the clock, at the average height of 15,000 feet, without proper habitat, roads or even pony tracks at some places?

Meanwhile, the government has asserted that the pace of infrastructure development would be hastened. Once the Pandemic gets over, 11 special trains would be commissioned to ferry thousands of labourers for building operational roads close to the LAC. How will that help? For one, the PLA would only object to infrastructure building in Ladakh, and not on the rest of the LAC. Since India has changed the status quo of Ladakh on its maps, the PLA would not allow status quo change on the ground. So, expect these workers to toil in Arunachal Pradesh. For another, the Algorithm war that the PLA is preparing for (and Indian military is oblivious of) would make the Indian soldiers fighting on the frontline meaningless.

While India believes that its strategy of hardened posture would overtime work to it advantage, it would have the opposite effect. To ensure that the PLA gives no more surprises, large numbers of the Indian Army would be committed permanently to policing the LAC. This would include theatre reserves and troops of the 17 Mountain corps. The army’s plans of substituting technology on the LAC in order to relieve troops for training would die a natural death. While the PLA would hone itself for futuristic Algorithm war, the Indian Army would be compelled to abandon its military reforms for Network Centric War.

Between CI Ops in J&K, political strikes on the Line of Control against Pakistan and policing the LAC, modernisation and preparing for the futuristic war would have to be put on the backburner. After all, there is only this much that the forces can do, and the nation can afford, economically. One can only hope that this does not spur the Pakistan military and the PLA to capture Siachen and SSN.


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