The Indian political leadership has categorically stated that it will not accept any violation of the Line of Actual Control(LAC) by China and China on its part, despite diplomatic parleys and military commander level discussions, does not seem inclined to disengage and revert to the status quo in Ladakh. Infact, from the satellite imagery and media sources, it appears that China, instead of disengaging, is in fact consolidating its position by augmenting its infrastructure and military presence not only in the Galwan Valley or at the Pangong Tso lake but is also doing so at many places along the disputed 4000 km LAC.
This is not the first time that China has transgressed the LAC and this definitely won’t be the last. However, this time the scale and scope of the transgression is far more grave. Not since 1967 have Chinese and Indian troops clashed and the loss of 20 Indian soldiers in the clash of 15 June 2020 has not gone down well in the country.
It appears that China ‘s actions this time seem to have been triggered by a combination of many factors, not least among them being the economic and strategic importance of this region to China over the next few years while also simultaneously sending a message to India that there is only one Asian power and this is China’s century (and not Asia’s as India likes to project). It will therefore not tolerate any resistance to its larger strategic ambition of global dominance. However, be that as it may, India has to pragmatically weigh its options on how to restore the status quo.
The Armed Forces have been placed on high alert and like any professional military force are ready for any eventuality depending on the directions of the political leadership.
The question therefore uppermost on people’s minds is how will India respond? A diplomatic solution will be the ideal way out of this predicament with both countries respecting each other’s claims and disengaging to their earlier positions. However, given our penchant for nationalist jingoism, such a move will prompt the politicians and the media to crow that China wilted under Indian pressure and claim it as a victory.
The Indian political leadership, already facing headwinds at home with the pandemic and the economy being two major concerns, can ill afford to be seen as weak either internationally or at home. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping is in perhaps a worse predicament because as he is facing increasing international opprobrium for the global spread of the Wuhan virus and the pushback to his dream project, the Belt and Road Initiative, both of which are severely denting the aura of invincibility he has projected to his own people about the country and himself.
War is not a suitable option for either India or China as neither can afford a distraction from their focus on economic development. However, in an escalatory situation where war could become a possibility, the involvement of the maritime domain is a certainty.
The Maritime Domain
The PLA Navy is the second most powerful navy in the world after the US Navy and would definitely not be a bystander in the event of an escalation. However, the PLA Navy presently lacks adequate capacity as well as capability to challenge the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. It is therefore unlikely that China would like to engage militarily with India in the Indian Ocean unless the movement of its energy and trade, a large part of which passes through the Indian Ocean is directly threatened.
India , on the other hand, would perhaps seek to disrupt this to constrain the Chinese war effort. The Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy is the predominant maritime power is unique in that access to and from this Ocean is through choke points, of which the Malacca Straits which connects the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific is perhaps the most important. China is particularly sensitive to the criticality of the Malacca Straits because it is through this passage that most of its trade and energy traverses.
Infact, one of the primary reasons for China seeking direct access over land to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and Pakistan is to address what it calls its Malacca Dilemma. South of the Malacca Straits lie the Lombok and SundaStraits which are also navigable and offer alternate routes but there are constraints. It is therefore critical for China to ensure that these critical Sea Lines of Communication remain safe and open for its shipping.
India, by virtue of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and proximity to these Straits can monitor the movement of traffic to and fro, particularly the movement of any warships or submarines. It can also put pressure on the movement of merchant ships through these waters. However, blocking the passage of maritime traffic is not an option and any attempt to do so can invite international criticism. Waters beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast are considered high seas and traffic through these cannot be impeded.
The Malacca Straits are not only important for China but are a veritable lifeline for countries like Japan which are heavily dependent on global trade for their economic well-being. Hence any attempt by India to raise the stakes at the entrance to these chokepoints could adversely affect these countries as well. Secondly, until there is a certainty of war, any kinetic action taken against Chinese flagged merchant ships or even those carrying cargo meant for China would definitely lead to an escalation. Hence, if that be the intent, the consequences would need to be adequately factored into our plans. At best, therefore India could either deter, delay or divert shipping traffic to and from China.
However, in the event of a full-fledged war, if the gloves are off, India could cause considerable damage to Chinese merchant shipping and its tankers in the Indian Ocean itself even if these were to be escorted by PLA Navy warships which would be severely constrained logistically and operationally in their ability to retaliate. China too would be factoring its limitations into its plans to deploy its forces accordingly in adequate numbers with logistic support from friendly countries included if it senses a threat from the Indian Navy.
The Indian Navy has developed an adequate capability to effectively monitor as well as deter the movement of the PLA Navy ships and submarines into the Indian Ocean through these choke points. The focus in the last few years on enhancing its Maritime Domain Awareness and augmenting its Anti-Submarine Warfare capability in all three dimensions (the air, surface and underwater) will stand it in good stead should the PLA Navy attempt to venture into the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy, on its part, is unlikely to engage with the Chinese in the South China Sea where the PLA Navy has a definite edge. The IN would be constrained in its ability, both quantitatively and qualitatively to beard the Chinese dragon in its own den. In any case, a confrontation with the PLA Navy in the South China Sea would be useful only if there were a larger aim of either causing large scale attrition to it in its own backyard or if the intention is to open a front from seawards to attack China’s economic centres like Shanghai. Both of these are unlikely scenarios.
The Extra Regional Dimension
China is presently faced with a global backlash which is not entirely unexpected except to China itself. Its military belligerence in the South China Sea and with its maritime neighbours has led to a pushback even from countries which had earlier been intimidated by its aggressive attitude. The UShas also deployed three Carrier Battle Groups in the Western Pacific, including two in the SouthChina Sea in an unprecedented and awesome display of naval firepower.
Their presence will demand greater attention from the PLA Navy in the South China Sea and therefore limit the availability of resources available for deployment in the Indian Ocean. Japan and Australia too have become more vociferous in their criticism of China. International opinion across Europe is also becoming increasingly frosty towards China. In these circumstances, India has a distinct advantage of getting global support in its attempt to restore the status quo.
Infact,India’s foreign policy initiatives of recent years including the ‘comprehensive strategic partnerships’ with most of the important countries in the region and the initiation of 2+2 dialogues with the US, Japan and Australia provide India considerable diplomatic leverage in the region. The signing of Foundational agreements, particularly for logistic support significantly shorten India’s logistic lines thereby increasing India’s ability to project power even in distant waters. Therefore, while it will perhaps be too much to expect any overt military participation from these countries in a Sino-Indian conflict, the tacit support integral to these initiatives would definitely benefit the Indian effort.
China can of course count on Pakistan’s support in the Indian Ocean and even if reluctant, will be arm-twisted into providing it. This could lead to the Pakistan Navy getting embroiled in a naval conflict with India in the Indian Ocean and the North Arabian Sea. However, given the existing asymmetry between the two navies and India’s ability to open a front from seawards and influence the outcome of even a land war, it is unlikely that Pakistani naval support will significantly alter the outcome.
Besides Pakistan, China has few friends in the region. Russia’s recent assurance to India of not only early delivery of the S-400 but over USD 1 Bn support in spares and equipment would have been a setback to China. By now raising a claim on Vladivostok, it is further burning its bridges with Russia. Iran is another country being actively courted by China in its bid to develop an anti-US front. However, given India’s historical ties with Iran and the mutually beneficial hydrocarbon trade between both countries, it is unlikely to interfere.
Given the current mood of the nation, it is highly unlikely that India will blink first in the current stand-off with China along the LAC . It is hoped that China too has realised this and will work constructively towards restoring the status quo and thereby avoiding an inevitable escalation. However, should that happen, India can be reasonably confident of having a distinct edge in the maritime domain over its adversary while also successfully causing adequate attrition to the Chinese war effort.