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Border tensions between India and China across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Eastern Ladakh have not declined despite the 4 September meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Defence Ministers Summit between India’s Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghi. A second meeting, this time on 10 September between India’s External Affairs Minister Shri S. Jaishankar and the State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China Mr Wang Yi, again on the sidelines of the SCO meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, led to the two sides issuing a joint statement which called for the following:
- Both sides to take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes.
- Both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.
- Both sides to abide by all the existing agreements and protocols on the LAC and avoid any action that could escalate matters.
- Both sides to continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative Mechanism on the India-China boundary question.
- As the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures.
On the ground, however, little has changed, which calls into question Chinese intentions and motives. The Chinese continue to amass forces opposite the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, which leads to the assessment that the Chinese pitch for peace is perhaps a ploy which conceals hostile intent. While the meeting between the Defence Ministers of India and China were held at the behest of the Chinese, the purpose of the meeting was perhaps not so much to seek a solution as to convey a warning that, “India will have to bear the consequences”. Apparently, the Chinese were rattled with India’s pre-emptive action in occupying the high ground South of Spanggur Tso, thus foiling Chinese attempts at yet another ‘salami-slicing’ of Indian territory.
The Chinese continue to amass forces opposite the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, which leads to the assessment that the Chinese pitch for peace is perhaps a ploy which conceals hostile intent.
What then of the meeting between the two Foreign Affairs Ministers? Even if we assume that Mr Wang Yi was sincere in attempting to reduce tension across the LAC, his word counts for little in the Chinese hierarchy’ in contrast to his Indian counterpart. In the Chinese hierarchy, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has little heft within the establishment. The Minister of Foreign Affairs in China reports to the Prime Minister, whereas the Defence Minister reports to the President, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. That is perhaps why it would be in order not to place great store on the joint statement, as its implementation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in doubt.
Chinese force accretions in Eastern Ladakh give rise to the possibility of the PLA launching a winter offensive across the LAC in the current year itself, towards the end of September or at some time in October. India needs to be prepared accordingly. We cannot overlook the possibility that the meetings which took place between the Defence Ministers and External Affairs Ministers of the two countries are simply a smoke screen created by China to lull India into a sense of complacency. India’s pre-emptive action in gaining control over the heights South of Spanggur Tso has left the Chinese fuming and they could use this as a pretext to strike across the LAC at multiple points.
A Chinese offensive is unlikely to be confined to Eastern Ladakh, and would in all likelihood extend across the entire front, all the way to the Lohit Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. India need to be watchful over the Depsang area, as this could be the point where the Chinese put in their major effort to secure the Karakoram Pass and attempt to capture Indian positions astride Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), as also all positions overlooking the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road which India recently completed. This road is seen by China as a potential threat to its land route across the Aksai Chin which connects Tibet to Chinese controlled East Turkestan and which is the lifeline to its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the mainstay of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese military operations could also extend further South, in an attempt to capture features of tactical importance overlooking the DSDBO Road.
India’s pre-emptive action in gaining control over the heights South of Spanggur Tso has left the Chinese fuming and they could use this as a pretext to strike across the LAC at multiple points.
The Chinese may activate the Central Sector too, with some posturing and with an effort intended to take control of Bara Hoti. Further East, in Bhutan, they may seek to gain control over claimed areas. We may also expect the Chinese to launch an offensive across the McMahon Line into Arunachal Pradesh, perhaps in the Upper Subansiri and in the Lohit Valley. The Tawang tract is very heavily fortified which may dissuade China from launching a major offensive in the Kameng Sector, though there could be some.
Conventional deterrence remains the best bet as of now to prevent war and that means having the means, the will and the resolve to prosecute a potential conflict to its successful conclusion.
The above is but an eventual scenario which India needs to be watchful for. This time, unlike what happened in 1962, both countries will, in case war erupts, employ the full range of their military assets, to include all elements of airpower and ground and naval assets, in conjunction with cyber-attacks on both military and non-military targets. While it is hoped that such a scenario can be avoided, it is vital that India remain prepared for such an eventuality. Conventional deterrence remains the best bet as of now to prevent war and that means having the means, the will and the resolve to prosecute a potential conflict to its successful conclusion. Paradoxically, that remains the surest road to peace.