One Year of Ladakh

India continues to misread the Chinese threat

Pravin Sawhney

The genesis of the Ladakh crisis, which started in May 2020, lies in the creation of Ladakh Union Territory on 5 August 2019 and release of new maps by India on 31 October 2019. One year since, the situation has deteriorated sharply with India oblivious to the military threat from China and Pakistan. Moreover, the Indian military trained in the Air-Land battle concept of the 1980a, is preparing for the wrong war: It has failed to differentiate between China’s informationised conventional war, and information war, which is done during crisis, as a prelude to war, and in concert with war

Air-Land battle lays emphasis on gaining initial success by the clarion call of ‘win the first battle’. Placing undue importance on tactics, the Air-Land doctrine divides the enemy area into tactical level—for fighting battles and engagements--, and operational level for dealing with major operations and campaigns. There is an inflexible relationship between commander’s mission and military art: Tactics is meant to win battles; operations to win campaigns; and strategy is designed to win wars. This doctrine was designed for a show of force at the beginning of the campaign since it lacked rationality for three-tier spatial division of the battlefield.

The Indian military follows Air-Land as the basic framework for war, with excessive focus on tactics. This has led to three fall-outs: Commanders at all levels have become risk averse and unimaginative; they pay little attention to optimising military art—how to exploit technologies with new concepts of operations; and the operational level simply became a more enhanced version of the tactical level, with quantitative rather than qualitative difference.

Given the 30 year’s gap in concept of operations and capabilities between the Indian military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a decisive war of occupation between India and China within five years cannot be ruled out since India continues to misread Chinese intentions and military capabilities.

However, going back to the seeds of the current crisis, within hours of India’s announcement of the Ladakh UT, China rejected the new reality. External affairs minister, S. Jaishankar was impelled to travel to Beijing on 11 August 2019 to explain to Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi that notwithstanding the new realities of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, India will not make new sovereignty claims, and its position on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Line of Control (LC) would not change. China refused to accept India’s explanation. It insisted that British-India did not have border between Tibet and Ladakh. Moreover, India formally accepted Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in 2003. Hence, from Beijing’s perspective, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had created a border where none existed.

Do recall that in December 2010, China had announced that its border with India was merely 2,000km. This excluded Ladakh. Once India created the Ladakh UT, the PLA, finding an opportune time in May 2020, made multiple deep intrusions in Ladakh and occupied territory up to its 1959 claim line at most places without firing a single shot. With this act, India’s military threat to Ladakh increased with China and Pakistan joining hands there. Moreover, at the height of the Ladakh crisis, China, in September 2020 said that the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (some 90,000 square kilometres) called Zangnan (south Tibet) was its territory. Incidentally, Chinese supremo Xi Jinping has on numerous occasions said that China would reclaim all territories bequeathed to it by its forefathers.

Since Tibet is China’s core concerns--others are Taiwan, Xinjiang, and South China Sea --over which it would fight and not compromise, the military threat to India is not border dispute, but PLA’s war of occupation for what it calls south Tibet. Indian military leaders consider border dispute as the threat and continue to talk about limited war, salami slicing, border war and so on, which it is not. An added threat has been created in Ladakh, which should have been evident to India when on 27 August 2019, China’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC)--People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) highest policy making and planning organisation--Xu Qiliang travelled to Pakistan for a week where he met the entire political and military leadership.

A slight digression to explain Xu’s stature. The US’ Biden administration had recently made three unsuccessful requests for interaction between US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Xu which China refused saying the head of US Pentagon was not his appropriate level. It instead suggested Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe for the meeting. The US knows that Xu carries greater authority (next only to Xi Jinping) on military matters.

It was, therefore, unusual for Xu, a serving third term member of the CMC to go to Pakistan for international military cooperation which is the job of Chinese defence minister. Pakistan media reported that Xu’s visit was in line with China’s 2019 international military cooperation plan agreed by the two countries. Number two to CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping, Xu’s Pakistan visit was meant to assure China’s support strategically, politically, and especially militarily on common mission (against India). It was no coincidence that in August 2020, Pakistan inaugurated its Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (CAIC) under the Pakistan Air Force which had shown a good account of itself during operation Swift Retort on 27 February 2019 against the Indian Air Force.

Xu, a former PLA Air Force commander and the man responsible for China’s 2015 military reforms, succeeded in impressing upon Pakistan the significance of making the PAF the lead service in war. It’s no secret that Pakistan military is dominated by its army. The PLA was ready to share select virtual war domains capabilities (cyber, electronic warfare, electromagnetic spectrum, outer space) with PAF for war in north Kashmir comprising Sub Sector North (Depsang plains), Daulat Beg Oldie and Siachen which is Indian military’s operational vulnerability.

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