China’s game of politico-military coercion in the Himalayas is currently at a stalemate
As the Himalayan stand-off between India and China in eastern Ladakh entered its fourth month, the Indian armed forces remained on high alert. On July 28, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing seemed to signal that the crisis was over when he said that Indian and Chinese troops had “completed disengagement in most parts of the border”, implying that they had pulled back from most of the areas where they had been engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.
However, Indian defence ministry officials say there has been no change in the ground situation. The Chinese have pulled back from the Galwan Valley and Patrol Post 15, but not from the Gogra and Hot Springs region. And the biggest bone of contention, on which commander-level talks between the two militaries have been deadlocked, is the Chinese military presence between Fingers 5 and 8 of Pangong Lake, which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have refused to withdraw.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has been pulling all the levers, diplomatic, economic and political, to get the Chinese to withdraw and restore the ground position to what it was before May 5. It has invoked the support of like-minded countries such as the United States, Australia and Japan, conducting a naval drill with the USS Nimitz carrier strike group on July 21, deploying the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, through which China’s energy lines flow—and imposed economic sanctions, such as banning Chinese smartphone apps from the Indian market.
Regardless of the immediate outcome, India and China are looking at the biggest reset in their relationship in over three decades, since Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to Beijing, where the two countries set up a joint working group to seek a solution to the boundary question. The rearrangement comes about because recent events have made New Delhi realise that China’s brinkmanship in eastern Ladakh was not disconnected from events across its periphery, from Taiwan to the South China Sea.
Regardless of the stream of mealy-mouthed diplomatese being issued by Beijing, the fact remains that Chinese belligerence began with a massive military mobilisation in late April; ironically, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. This military mobilisation along the 840-km stretch of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh could not have been possible without the explicit approval of the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the first Chinese president to appear publicly in military uniform, Xi Jinping.
Indian intelligence sources point to a surge in the number of VVIP flights to China’s joint battle command centre, the PLA’s nerve centre 20 km northwest of Beijing, in early June. This, they say, happening around the time of the stand-offs strongly suggests that Xi intended the border incidents to start after the third session of the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, ended in late May.
HOW THE PLA GAME PLAN UNFOLDED
In late April, as India’s national lockdown approached its second month, the PLA was engaged in mock wargames on the Tibetan plateau. For several years, China had been exposing its troops to the harsh realities of warfare on the high-altitude Tibetan plateau, at over 15,000 feet. Thinner air means that fighter aircraft cannot fly with full fuel and weapon loads, and artillery shells follow trajectories different from those in the plains.
Since 2016, the tempo of the exercises had accelerated as China combined the Xinjiang and Tibet military districts to set up its giant Western Theatre Command (WTC), as part of Xi Jinping’s sweeping reform of the PLA, the largest in China’s history. With 230,000 troops and 157 warplanes, the WTC became China’s largest military command, key to the PLA’s transformation into a mobile, mechanised force capable of rapid deployment. Post Xi’s arrival as President in 2013, China also stepped up its incursions across the LAC, with foot and vehicle-borne patrols asserting territorial claims.
These had begun in 2006, after the Chinese had built up over 36,000 miles of black-topped roads on the Tibetan plateau, completed a Qinghai-Tibet railway and, more importantly, built feeder roads to allow their troops to move right up to the LAC. Under Xi, border incursions turned into bigger stand-offs, the biggest at Depsang in 2013 and Chumar in 2014.
On January 6, 2020, China’s state-run English daily, the Global Times, had reported that ‘the exercises deployed helicopters, armoured vehicles, heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles across the region, from Lhasa to border defence front lines with elevations of more than 4,000 metres’. The object of these exercises was clear, to prepare for war with the only adversary China faced over the plateau. India. Every PLA exercise simulated combat with adversaries who had ‘captured mountain passes’ and featured a range of weaponry, from light tanks to self-propelled howitzers, optimised for combat in super high-altitude regions.
This is also why the Indian security establishment tracks these exercises every year. But military manoeuvres are an effective way of masking a real mobilisation, the vast movement of armoured vehicles and fighter aircraft that, in the normal course of events, would trigger alarm across the border. The PLA’s plan, reconstructed by INDIA TODAY with military and intelligence officials, was as follows.
In late April, elements of two motorised infantry divisions, soldiers riding in trucks and armoured personnel carriers, that had been conducting exercises in Hotan left their exercise area and began moving down the G219, also known as the Western Tibet Highway, onto the LAC. They included the South Xinjiang Military District’s 6 Mechanised Infantry Division and the 4 Highland Motorised Infantry Division infantry with tanks and howitzers. The LAC is 115-155 km from the Aksai Chin highway, a 12-hour drive through two mountain passes.
The soldiers were soon in position. In late April and early May, the next phase began. Smaller groups of PLA troops moved forward across the LAC and established temporary camps at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh. These sprang up, near-simultaneously, at places like Gogra, Hot Springs, Depsang, the Galwan Valley and on the Pangong Lake, asserting Chinese territorial claims. It was a variant of the ‘Forward Policy’ used by India before the 1962 war. It was also military subterfuge at its best and combined diverse elements, manoeuvres and incursions, into a hybrid mobilisation plan. The deployment of troops was a blocking move, to keep the incursions from being militarily evicted by the Indian Army.
India’s response, after an initial lull, was to beef up its strength in eastern Ladakh. By the end of May, it had begun pushing two divisions, or around 30,000 soldiers and two armoured brigades with 180 tanks, into eastern Ladakh while the Air Force deployed helicopter gunships and fighter jets and used its heavylifters to airlift tanks into the theatre.
The Chinese move had shredded every provision of the 1996 peace and tranquility agreement. It left the Indian political, diplomatic and security establishment second-guessing Chinese intentions and just what had been the trigger for the sudden belligerence, the August 9 bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, the spurt in India’s border road construction, or even perceived slights like India staying out of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. The end state of the deployment, however, was very clear. More than just being a blatant attempt at altering the LAC, it was a giant game of politico-military coercion along the 3,448 km stretch.
“This operation would have taken several months of planning,” says Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and president of the China Centre for Analysis and Strategy. “It was part of Xi Jinping’s plan to ‘teach India a lesson’. Perhaps in their assessment, they had factored in the fact that we would not react.” The two divisions were insufficient for a trans-LAC invasion; for that, the PLA would need at least six. The forces are just enough for what Lt General P Ravi Shankar, former DG Artillery, calls “belligerent war avoidance”. The vehicles, tanks and artillery pieces were left in the open and not emplaced, in full view of satellites, Indian analysts take this to mean that the Chinese intent was messaging, not invasion.
WAS THERE AN INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?
Army officials deny there was an intelligence failure and say they had been constantly tracking Chinese troops, which is why there were face-offs. “We stopped them and sent them back. The premise (that we didn’t know they were deployed) is incorrect,” they say. “We knew he (Chinese soldiers, the PLA) was in the exercise areaevery year, he would go back as per CBMs. It is a breach of trust and faith. We also do it (conduct exercises), but we don’t go and sit [on the LAC]. He has publicly broken all these agreements,” a senior army officer says.
“Troop movement was noticed by unmanned aerial vehicles,” and official tells INDIA TODAY. “[Chinese] tanks and howitzers are in their depth areas (several kilometres from the frontlines) but truck loads of PLA troops advanced rapidly towards the LAC. The Indian army quickly mobilised to counter the Chinese troop build-up. The Chinese were trying to make inroads into the Galwan valley, where they do not have a road. On May 5, as Chinese troops advanced towards the confluence of Shyok and Galwan rivers, Indian troops clashed with them in an effort to stall them.”
The first confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops occurred on the evening of May 5, and then, at Naku La in north Sikkim on May 9. A bigger clash followed on May 15th, at Finger 4 on the north bank of Pangong Tso, when the Chinese army arrived with multiple armoured personnel carriers and trucks and deployed troops between Finger 4 & 8. (‘Fingers’ are mountain spurs jutting into a lake.) “The Chinese had built a road between Finger 4 & 8 in 1999. Indian troops may have carried out patrolling till Finger 8, but hold ground only up to Finger 4.
The Chinese had built a road up to Finger 4 and have easier access to logistics from their base, [which is] barely 10 km away at Sirijap,’’ a source says. Groups of Indian soldiers who were prevented from reaching their patrol points by Chinese soldiers got into scuffles with them. These were many more than in the past where the scuffles had been confined to single locations. Even by mid-May, the army did not think this anything out of the ordinary, or did not let on publicly that it did.
“It is reiterated that both these incidents are neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities,” the army chief, General M.M. Naravane, told the media on May 14. “All incidents are managed by established mechanisms… as per established protocols and strategic guidelines given by the PM after the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits.” Exactly a month later, on June 15, a deadly clash took place at Galwan. The commanding officer of the 16 Bihar Regiment, Colonel B. Santosh Babu, and 19 Indian soldiers were killed, along with an unknown number of Chinese soldiers.
The Army’s Udhampur-based Northern Command is responsible for guarding a 2,000-km-long horseshoe-like stretch of territory, from the plains of Jammu to the rugged high-altitude deserts near the border of Uttarakhand. This Army command has a Leh-based 14 Corps, which has one division facing Pakistan and another facing China. On the ground, the army’s own intelligence capabilities are restricted to a short 50-km belt along the LAC, which it can monitor using ground-based sensors, tactical drones, spies across the border and foot patrols.
“If they are doing something in their depth area, how are we to know?” A former northern army commander says this could be because the LAC lacks a dedicated satellite with a ‘24-hour revisit capability’ (continuous monitoring). But while technical intelligence would reveal movements, the task of monitoring an adversary’s intent and hence, forewarn of military misadventures, is a more complicated job.
In this case, performed by a labyrinth of agencies in New Delhi. The specific task of collating external intelligence is the task of India’s external agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). It collects inputs from spy planes and overseas agents. The NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) has reconnaissance satellites and drones, and scoops intelligence from computers. The Defence Intelligence Agency, under the Union ministry of defence, has a Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre, which is tasked with analysing satellite and spy plane imagery.
And all of this intelligence flows into the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), which is under National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The NSCS used to have a Joint Intelligence Committee, which collated intelligence and sent out weekly assessments to 29 addressees in the security establishment. The JIC was disbanded in 2014 and the NSCS reorganised under four verticals (see Need for a Shake-Up) to perform the JIC’s tasks. It is not known whether the NSCS warned the army about the larger deployments (a request for comment to the NSA’s office went unanswered). A former member of the NSCS acknowledges the organisation’s Achilles heel, a shortage of analysts. “We didn’t have the capability to see a punch coming, we are weak at analysing the intelligence that flows in to make dispassionate assessments.”
By June, it was clear that the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit had evaporated. The Chinese side had violated multiple peace and tranquility agreements even as its diplomats mouthed platitudes. On July 3, while inspecting troops at Nimu in Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without naming either China or President Xi, said that the “age of expansionism was over”. A little over 48 hours later, NSA Doval spoke with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi before both sides agreed to commence the process of disengagement. The Indian side hyped it as a breakthrough, but nearly a month later, it seems anything but. The PLA remains where it is, dug in for the long haul.