Indo-China Standoff and New Delhi’s strategic miscalculation

Lt. Gen (R) Tariq Khan

India and China are once again engaged in a military confrontation. To some, it may seem like a spontaneous event triggered by some sudden happening. Indians would like the world to believe that it is on account of a Chinese intrusion. Others may want to find the cause of conflict in steps taken by India, such as building roads and developing military infrastructure. However, the cause of this conflict goes much deeper with far greater consequences than a simple border spat. So, if we were to analyse the event in its entirety, we should start with obtaining the environment against the backdrop of geography.

Ladakh is part of Kashmir and, as such, is a disputed territory under the UN Resolutions on the matter. There are many UN Resolutions on the matter including numbers 47 to numbers 122 of which, the most important ones speak of a plebiscite and setting up an international observer group UNMOG (United Nations Military Observer Group) to monitor the Line of Control between two parts of Kashmir. The matter is further validated by the Simla Agreement, in which, whatever the substance of the Agreement, it is clearly stated that the resolution to the Kashmir conflict, when resolved, will not be in prejudice to the existing UN Resolutions. Furthermore, Ladakh falls into another dispute; between China and India. China has so far neither recognized the McMahon Line, nor it accepts Tibet as a legitimate sovereign state authorized to draw up independent agreements with other States. The dispute led to the 1962 Indo-China War, in which India was defeated and lost a lot of territory, leaving Aksai Chin in the Chinese hands. Thus, the region was living a de-facto status quo existence pending a political settlement.

However, India continually attempted to unilaterally set aside the UN Resolution on the matter of Kashmir and kept taking steps to strengthen its position concerning the other stakeholders. Things came to a head-on when the Indians abrogated Article 370 and 35 A in August 2019, making Kashmir a Union Territory. This was in violation of the UN Resolution and an illegal step.  Pakistan was disturbed by this move, the resultant lockdown of the Sri Nagar Valley, the militarization of the area and the deliberate attempts at changing the demographic order of the State. The matter was taken up at the United Nations and Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke about it at the Security Council in September 2019.  Meanwhile, India, in a bid to militarise the area, also took some steps in relevance to securing Ladakh. These were:

a. New developments in a small town called Daulat Beg. India had a military base there for decades. The critical factor about this base was that it is only 8 miles from the Karakorum Pass.

b. In the last year or so, India raised the base to brigade level and connected it to their internal road network. This was a crucial development.

c. India constructed a road called Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Road, in October last year, with the sole purpose of supplying the DB Brigade. This again was critical.

d. It was a significant change in the status quo with a military posture that indicated intent as well as a will to permanently annex Ladakh. China considered Ladakh as a disputed territory and this a violation of the bilateral status quo.

e. Resultantly, China landed 5000 troops in the Galwan Valley, on the Western Ridges, dominating the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Road; the only Lines of Communication to the DB Brigade. This brigade is now in an unsustainable position and operationally untenable.

The above are some of the immediate causes of the Chinese intrusion, however, some deeper causes that need to be considered are:

a. India’s belligerent claims over Gilgit Baltistan (GB); that is, to take over GB and Azad Kashmir, as announced on 03 May 2020.

b. Indian’s continual attempt at trying to stop the Bhasha Dam construction claiming this to be Indian territory. This is a CPEC Project.

c.  India’s claims that the CPEC route passes through disputed territory.

d. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Indian irrelevance in this region; the US’ losing influence and needing to assert itself looking for India to challenge the Chinese.

e. The Malacca Strait is dominated by the Indo-US nexus and is likely to be circumvented by the CPEC, thus diverting $ 5 trillion trade through Gwadar to Khunjrab.

f. The connectivity of the East and the West by the BRI, making China central to international economic synergy and slipping into a Global leadership role.

Keeping this in mind, the superficial ground movements by the Indians are simply a coverup for its real ambitions, which are actually to scuttle the CPEC, thus denying China a strategic advantage and at the same time benefiting the United States by forcing the Malacca Straits to remain relevant. The rewards for India appear tempting, i.e. regional dominance, containing Chinese superpower status, getting international recognition as an influential global player leading to a permanent seat to the Security Council with the US support.

In my reckoning, India has made a serious miscalculation and a strategic blunder. First, India has forfeited the offices of the UN and the Security Council by their unilateral actions of abrogating Article 370 and its continued violations of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir.

Will India now address it as an internal matter? It is now a bi-lateral issue as India loves to address Indo-Pak disputes; maybe even a tri-lateral one.

Second, India has lost any high moral ground and China appears to be responding to an Indian initiative of constantly creeping ahead with its activity and disregarding UN Resolutions.

Thirdly, if India tries to respond to the Chinese intrusion, it is likely to be thoroughly exposed to be what it is; an antiquated force with grand visions.

Fourth, this will give an impetus to the internal resistance in Kashmir and will finally strengthen Pakistan’s position on CPEC and Kashmir.

What is likely to happen is that India will try to find a narrative where it can diffuse the situation but the ground situation will not change. The Chinese will not return territory. That would mean that the Karakoram Pass would always be under threat and a link-up with Pakistani troops and the Chinese at Kargil will remain a real possibility for times to come.

This ground reality, as it exists now, allows for the only place where Chinese and Pakistani military collusion is possible. If such a collision ever comes to pass, it will open the Srinagar Valley to Pakistan and cut off Siachen from India. This probability will remain a huge Indian vulnerability, forcing them to address it, thus consuming resource and manpower. India would have to back down and negotiate a more permanent and lasting three-way solution to Kashmir or then address the matter militarily. The latter is not likely. So, the situation is likely to diffuse and lead to a negotiated settlement.

A lot of face-saving narratives will be forthcoming, new diplomatic initiatives by India and the smiling Buddha radiating peace may be the line that will be taken by India, and war. There may be some sabre-rattling, troop build-up and concentration of force with dome brinkmanship, but probably nothing more. Nevertheless, in the event the political rhetoric and aggressive posturing force the Indian Armed Forces into a reluctant military adventure, India would be exposed. India, trying to live beyond its potential with illusions of grandeur and trying to see itself as a legitimate challenge to China as a regional power, would be exposed in terms of its vulnerabilities on the global stage.

This is a major development with far-reaching consequences. In the realms of international power projection, nations must always live within the limits of their potential. If they try and go beyond their capacity, the world will clip their wings to size. This is a natural phenomenon.

India has been suffering from grandeur illusions based upon a self-inflicted exaggerated opinion of itself. However, such falsities are easily exposed with time and the fall is usually not only terrible but it has unintended consequences spinning out of control.

I think, for India, that time has arrived. A “developing” country with huge pretensions, stricken by poverty, with a miserable populace barely surviving, yet having illusions of grandeur, was always an unsustainable position, to begin with. Ideologies do not make nations but can contribute to their destruction in almost every case regardless of which ideology it was. It is the people that make nations, but when you have people, who are now divided, caste-ridden, driven by hatred and expected to rise to the occasion and become a regional power, it is a far-fetched hope.

1 comment

  1. An excellent analysis. Let’s look back to constant border scuffle between China and India from NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) to Ladakh since 2014.
    Ladakh and Aksai Chin dispute reopened in 2018 but blowup came in 2020.
    China having tried to warn India diplomatically not to create problems at Khunjerab Pass by holding military exercises close to LOC. India kept ignoring so China had to jump in. Some governments are interested in knowing where does China-Pakistan Defense Relations stand if India infiltrates GB and blocks KKH.

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