The military power play between India and China has reached a politically crucial point, with forces on both sides fully deployed in Ladakh, prepared for any eventuality. So, how far does China want to escalate matters, given that the stakes have gone up considerably since it first moved troops in April?
The prospect of two large armies, armed and fully mobilised, facing off each other in the height of winter on the upper reaches of the Himalayas is as bewildering as it’s unnerving. Which is why any reassessment has to be over the next few weeks.
It was around this time of the year in 1962 that China took the call to end months of eyeball-to-eyeball deployment and press ahead with an assault in October, which was already early winter.
A 1964 CIA staff study, ‘The Sino-Indian Border Dispute 1961-62’ (bit.ly/327BVyB), stated that China chose the date only when it was certain that ‘their opponents would fight alone’. Politically, the situation now is quite different. But militarily, the winter question is still relevant.
Having already mobilised, one significant part of that political call has already been made. Both sides are prepared to brave the harsh winter.
But what happened on the southern banks of Pangong Tso just a week back tells us that such deployment is fraught with the danger of escalation — and in quick time. It’s clear now that disengagement without larger de-escalation serves little purpose.
But for some reason — which has evoked considerable suspicion on the Indian side — China is keen to continue with the military conversation on disengagement despite displaying less convergence and expressing more belligerence at these talks.
This was also a key agenda point by China at the two defence ministers’ meeting over the last weekend in Moscow on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting. India’s position is clear — the ground situation must return to status quo ante as on April 15.
Which effectively means that China withdraws forces it has amassed in the area, and not just tinker with deployments to create distance among Indian and Chinese troops. That approach had a specific utility in averting clashes after the June 15 incident at Galwan, but it’s not a sustainable solution.
Before the Trail Turns Cold
The onset of winter provides that window of opportunity for China to reassess the political fallout of continuing with this aggressive deployment for the coming months. If a diplomatic conversation is to be had, then it would have to be now, so that the threat subsides, and doesn’t perpetuate through the winter.
Much will depend on the impact all the rallying against China has had on Beijing, especially on its actions against India. The India-China stand-off has not got dovetailed with the US-China conflict.
Instead, it has acquired a narrative of its own in which most countries are willing to give the Indian script a shot. The launch of the India-Japan-Australia Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) is a case in point.
For Delhi, matters have moved beyond the border dispute and into the economic sphere, especially the digital arena, where India has found willing allies, because China has used economic coercion on countries much worse than what India has so far done to China on account of its border aggression.
Beijing took some 40-plus retaliatory measures against South Korea, when along with US help, Seoul had decided to deploy the sophisticated THAAD anti-ballistic missile system as a defence against North Korean missiles in 2016-17.
China had even launched investigations in Shanghai and Chengdu against South Korean company Lotte, which had provided its golf course to be used as a THAAD-deploying site. So, when India bans apps, the playbook is very much Chinese. China resorted to economic coercion against Canada when it arrested a top Huawei executive there; against Australia over Manus Island, and a host of other countries.
Which is why other countries seem to want to mirror Indian measures, at least on the digital side. Did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) anticipate any of this when it gave the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the green signal? Unlikely. India, until now, has not let developments on the border permeate into other aspects of the relationship.
So, what does China stand to achieve in political terms from this aggressive deployment? It is highly improbable that PLA may have acted on its own. It is deployed to strictly pursue political objectives. In Ladakh, however, this political objective is not fully clear.
Also, PLA is speaking an aggressive language — both on ground and in military conversations — compared to what China’s diplomats are parroting to their Indian counterparts.
Multitasking at Hand
What’s clear in this complication is that the point of confluence is the party, not the State.
Which means India will have to devise a strategy to deal with all elements separately — one with PLA on the military side, another with the Chinese State machinery through the foreign affairs department so as to nurse the relationship and keep communication channel open; and yet another to pressurise CCP by taking strategic measures, including economic ones.
Has enough already happened on all these fronts for China to yield? It’s difficult to say. What’s certain is that India has managed to raise the political and strategic cost for China to be adventurist. The test is whether it’s sufficient for China to negotiate for peace.