On May 5, troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transgressed the accepted Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Sub-Sector North (SSN), Ladakh, at four places — Pangong Tso, Depsang Plains-Hot Springs and Galwan Valley — and since then, have refused to move back. This occupation is at points long accepted as Indian territory. And it does seem India’s political and military establishments were caught off-guard.
Sub-Sector North (SSN), a harsh, inhospitable, high-altitude, part-glacial zone in Aksai Chin (north-east part of Ladakh), holds strategic significance for India. To the west of SSN lies Saltoro Ridge, which separates Indian and Pakistani forces on Siachen Glacier. On SSN’s northern tip is the Karakoram Pass, which can provide access into China. On the other hand, Aksai Chin is vital for China too. It had captured a large part of Aksai Chin in 1962 and China’s Western Highway (G-219), from Lhasa to Kashgar, passes through Aksai Chin and is a critical link for China with its outlying, restive region of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
To reach SSN from Leh, one has to take the road through Karu, Chang La and then traverse the recently completed Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road. The DSDBO Road passes through Depsang Plains-Hot Springs and Galwan Valley and ends at the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip. This is our only airstrip in SSN. About 16 kms north of this airstrip is the Karakoram Pass. The PLA, now entrenched in the shallow intrusions at Depsang Plains-Hot Springs and Galwan Valley, overlook the strategic DSDBO Road and can potentially cut off Indian access in SSN and to DBO.
The ceasefire line after the 1962 War was ratified as the LAC in the September 1993 bi-lateral agreement on “Maintaining of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas”. India’s view is that this agreement and those of November 1996 and June 2005 indicate that both India and China have no major differences in perception of where the LAC, and each side’s claim lines, lie in each sector. However, in SSN, the Chinese “claim line” is that of November 1959, up to which it had reached in the 1962 War but later withdrew from. Thus, in absence of precise delineation on the ground, patrols of both India and China continued to operate in an ambiguous grey-zone, with the PLA routinely coming into China’s perception of the LAC and Indian troops going up to India’s perception. There have been many occasions on which both sides objected to the other side’s patrol(s), leading to minor scuffles — but in the end, each side usually went back. Thus, what happened in May is unprecedented — yet, there were many pointers to what was to come.
In 2009, China built a road from Sumdo up to Patrol Point 13 in the Depsang Plains. This was followed by the 2011 and 2013 trans-LAC incursions by the PLA into Depsang and subsequent face-offs with the Indian forces. During the 2013 negotiations, China refused to acknowledge that its forces had in any way violated the LAC but agreed that the issue could be resolved through diplomacy. In 2014, the PLA intruded into Chumar (near Demchok, eastern Ladakh) after objecting to bunkers being built by India. The year 2017 saw a protracted, tense stand-off at Doklam (on the Indo-China-Bhutan border) after India objected to Chinese road construction there. Although the 2011 intrusion was resolved at the military leadership level, all others — 2013, 2014 and 2017 — required higher political intervention.
In addition, are the increasing number of exercises by the PLA Army (PLAA), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) in the areas opposite India. Besides, a January 2018 article in China’s Global Times entitled “PLA training hard for potential conflict” had a warning from a retired PLA officer, “…potential military conflicts in plateau regions … on the rise since the border friction with India last year, increasing military training in the plateau region is highly necessary”.
India-China tensions rose after India abrogated Article 370 (August 2019). We see the division of J&K into two Union Territories as purely an internal matter. However, China construed the re-classification of Ladakh, India’s completion of the DSDBO Road (which improved our access to SSN), and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament last year laying claim to the whole of Aksai Chin, as direct threats to its Western Highway and access to XUAR. September 2019 thus saw a serious brawl at Pangong Tso after the PLA began blocking Indian patrols; soldiers were injured and boats damaged on both sides.
The PLA conducts an exercise every year in Aksai Chin and its immediate forward areas along the LAC. In January 2020, China’s state-run ‘Global Times’ reported that the PLA had begun major military exercises in the Tibet Plateau bordering India with “latest weapons”. The PLA exercise, which was not a secret event but well-publicised by the Chinese media, continued, even as they edged closer to the LAC. After amassing troops astride the Galwan River, the PLA moved across the LAC on May 5. It merits mention that from 2015-2016, China had commenced building ‘kuchha’ roads along the Galwan River, which flows west from Chinese’s side into Shyok River; the DSDBO Road runs alongside this river at places. Pangong Tso, in Sub-Sector Centre, Ladakh, too witnessed a serious brawl between the Indian and Chinese troops on May 5-6. The four troop stand-offs began at Pangong Tso, Depsang-Hot Springs and Galwan, with the PLA moving up a large number of troops and equipment.
In response to the PLA’s annual exercises, the Indian Army too has been deploying troops to the LAC each year to thwart any misadventure. However, this year, the Army didn’t move troops forward because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, the primary focus of the Indian Army has continued to be counter-terror operations and Pakistan. Both factors perhaps limited our ability to respond rapidly and forcefully as the crisis developed in the SSN. Nevertheless, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force soon commenced matching the PLA’s deployments and air activity.
These events were followed by the June 6 military commanders’ meeting to discuss disengagement, de-escalation and a return to the status quo ante. The PLA, however, reportedly declined to discuss its shallow ingress into the Galwan Valley, stating that it belongs to China, a claim repeated by its Foreign Ministry. This was followed by the brutal brawl of June 15 in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and about 76 injured; 50 of these injured and 10 others were briefly detained by the Chinese side. China’s claim to the whole of the Galwan Valley is serious as it’s aimed at changing the status quo.
Unlike past incursions, the present stand-off, at multiple locations, seems pre-planned with political approval. Having pre-empted us, the PLA is now entrenched at its new positions — and it seems they are going to just sit there and wait for us to try and push them out. If we don’t do that, they are likely to remain in occupation. Thus, India has three options:
- Negotiate a voluntary withdrawal from these new occupations. With both China and India adopting extreme positions, a breakthrough can only be thrust down by the top political leadership, an eventuality which currently appears doubtful.
- If that fails, then try and push back the PLA by force. This carries risks as China will contest Indian actions, which may lead to a wider confrontation. Given the ongoing pandemic and the state of our economy, even a short, sectorally-limited conflict would be disastrous.
- Or, allow China to retain, partly or wholly, the encroached territory.
India, therefore, is digging in for a long haul. A long haul will impose costs on us. SSN is a harsh, cold zone, access to which becomes more difficult in winters. The Chinese, however, have good road access almost up to their positions and the associated ability for logistics support. We have just this DSDBO Road — and as long as the PLA remains there, the Indian Army will have to maintain parity to negate the PLA’s threat to move in further.
What we need to do
Intelligence is a nation’s first line of defence and that structure is a critical constituent of its safety and security, as also of its statecraft and grand strategy. Thus, we must introspect on failures and put in place a robust, responsive intelligence structure to thwart various external threats to the nation. The high-altitude topography, extreme weather conditions and comparative paucity of infrastructure make guarding SSN a difficult task. Given the defence budget squeeze, the end of which isn’t apparent, there is a dire need to rebalance India’s military power away from the weak adversary in the West and towards the LAC to thwart more Galwan/Pangong Tso type of salami-slicing by the PLA.