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China May Provoke Fresh Crisis Along LAC

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The standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh is set to continue through the winter. There is minimal possibility of any significant military moves during the winter months, and it has been reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has already moved 10,000 soldiers from depth areas back to their permanent garrisons in Xinjiang and Tibet military regions. The Indian Army, even if it wishes to, will find it more difficult to pull out soldiers. With the roads to Ladakh closed, both the moving out of troops and their re-induction in an emergency, is extremely difficult.

Even as soldiers battle the winter conditions, the greater challenge for the Indian Army lies in anticipating events and preparing for contingencies in the coming summer months. The overall political intent of the Chinese leadership in precipitating the crisis along the border is still open to differing interpretations, but eight months into the standoff, there is greater clarity to their military aims. The PLA military strategy appears to be focused on two objectives — strengthening control over the disputed areas along the LAC and overcoming their war-fighting weaknesses in Tibet.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the primary element of the PLA’s military strategy is to change the nature of disputed areas to give permanence to their claims. In Ladakh, this is being attempted by physically occupying the disputed areas on the north bank of Pangong Tso or physically preventing the Indian patrols from going up to their claim lines at Depsang. Despite nine rounds of military-level talks, there has been no movement forward on disengagement from these two areas.

The construction of a village in the disputed Longju sector of Arunachal Pradesh is another ploy to firm up China’s claims. While this area has been under Chinese control since 1959, the fact that India also has a claim to this area is well known to both sides. It had been an accepted norm that both countries should avoid any provocative move in the disputed areas. In 2014 and 2016, the PLA had objected to the construction of small irrigation projects at Demchok, claiming this was a disputed area. However, all protocols and norms have now lost their sanctity.

In 2005, both countries signed an agreement on the ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question’. Article VII of the agreement states, “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” By building villages and settling civilians in disputed areas, India could be presented with a fait accompli during the border negotiations.

The second element of the PLA’s strategy is to overcome its war-fighting weaknesses in Tibet, and many of the steps undertaken by the PLA in this regard precede the Ladakh standoff. The most obvious disadvantage is faced by the PLA Air Force due to the rudimentary support facilities at the airfields and the problems in operating from high-altitude facilities, which limit the fuel and weapon payloads that can be carried by an aircraft. Some of these weaknesses are now being attempted to be overcome through the development of new military facilities. A September 2020 Stratfor report by Sim Tack pointed out that after the Dokalam incident of 2017, China “started constructing at least 13 entirely new military positions near its borders with India.”

The new constructions include three air bases, five permanent air defence positions, and five heliports. Four air defence positions are coming up within the existing airbases, along with other facilities such as additional runways and blast pens. The report states that the recent Chinese infrastructure developments are aimed at “strengthening its ability to project air power along the entire Indian border.”

Another area where the PLA has a deficiency is its training standards and the ability to fight a high-altitude war. Here again, some attempts to improve standards are visible. In the last few years, the Chinese Army has attempted to introduce realism in training by setting up “blue forces” in the combined-arms training centres that act as an enemy to PLA units.

Coming specifically to Tibet, the PLA Army and Air Force training exercises have steadily increased over the years. These details have been comprehensively covered in an Observer Research Foundation paper, “PLA joint exercises in Tibet: Implications for India.” What is noteworthy is that in 2018, 2019 and 2020, major PLA exercises were held in January and February, the coldest months of the year. However, for now, the Indian Army still retains its superiority in high-altitude warfare.

The 2020 Ladakh incursion by the PLA was an operation that was preceded by many months of preparation and military infrastructure development in Ladakh. It also shows that China is now moving aggressively to establish its claims over the disputed areas and has discarded all the agreements that had kept the peace along the LAC.

What does this mean for the coming summer months? It would be strategically prudent for the Indian Army to prepare for a contingency in which the PLA attempts to move into more disputed areas along the LAC, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. To counter this, we must aggressively secure these areas now before the snows melt and the PLA movements become easier across the Himalayan watershed defining the LAC.

An argument is often made that the existing stalemate resulting from our firm stance is a victory for us because we are not acquiescing to Chinese demands. There is certainly some merit in this argument because a stalemate is generally considered a setback for the superior power. However, remaining entirely on the defensive could also mean that we have passed on the initiative to the Chinese and will continue to react to their actions. With talks not making any headway, the summer months could see military jockeying in the disputed areas. Strong and visible military preparation in these areas would serve as deterrence to any PLA action and strengthen our hand in future negotiations.

Courtesy – Tribune India

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