Two days after I pointed out in my last post the futility of just “reviewing India’s options” even as S Jaishankar & Co. try and resolve the dispute with China through negotiations, the PLA proved with its night time (Aug 29-30) operation that it believed in more direct action. It is another matter that as the Indian army’s statement says the “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.” Instead of the forwardly deployed Indian troops being paralyzed by their surprise action, the intruding Chinese unit, for a change, found itself challenged and its plan for establishing a new LAC alignment this time, ambitiously, on the southern shore of the Pangong Lake, nullified by alert Indian jawans who had previously occupied the immediate heights.
This was all to the good. But then the very next thing did the Indian army did was predictable and wrong. Almost reflexively, the Indian field commander called for a meeting in Chushul with his local Chinese opposite number where, over a cuppa chai no doubt, the two and their juniors endlessly mulled what the PLA soldiers were up to and being told repeatedly in response that they were merely traipsing around on hallowed Chinese territory. How any of this helped is anybody’s guess.
The right thing for the Leh XIV Corps Commander to have done immediately on receiving the signal of this latest Chinese encroachment attempt was to use it as a decision pivot to order instantaneous mobilization and rapid launch of forces to drive the PLA units northeastwards to the point on the Lake where the Chinese have established a bridgehead on the southern bank for the purpose of decanting its troops from the northern shore onto the approaches to the Thakung Pass area on the Indian side.
True, Indian forces on the offensive, fighting hard to reach that south shore bridgehead, well into the Chinese side of the LAC would mean India occupying what is Beijing-claimed territory. This advance, moreover, ought to have been be followed up by the theatre command speedily pouring masses of troops into this salient — there being no dearth of troops with some 60,000-strong Indian presence in that sub-sector, and having them rush to firm up a defensive line on the southern shore with the lake in front as natural barrier. For the first time, the Indian army would have been seen as having taken the initiative and, in a fell swoop, reoriented the LAC — “possession is three quarters of the law” remember! — and, in operational terms, obtained the upper hand.
Time has been lost with the army choosing to powwow in Chushul, stopping after “thwarting” the PLA ingress to presumably preen itself. Except, had this incident been converted into an offensive opportunity and a drive set into motion, the momentum of the Indian military mass would have carried Indian formations quickly to the Pangong shoreline where the PLA troops crossed over. The reason why it would have panned out this way is because it would have been an unexpected Indian move, surprising the PLA, catching them unprepared to deal with a fast-paced and far-reaching movement. And it would have been a perfect, albeit belated, riposte to the PLA entrenching itself in the area Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore that is Indian. This is what the Indian army needs to do right away before the PLA regains its composure.
But what was China’s aim in the first place? Nothing that China does is of tactical value alone; there invariably is a larger purpose. And no Chinese move is ever innocent of geographic calculations because, unlike the Indian government and military, the Chinese have what the pioneering geopolitical strategist Halford Mackinder called, the “map reading habit of mind”.
Now look at the Pangong Tso through this map reading lens and what would the Chinese see? If they drew a north-south line roughly from the end of Finger 4 across the lake to the southern shore and extended it further down, and if the PLA were tasked with capturing the stretch of the southern bank of the lake to that point where the line meets the shore, you would have neatly partitioned the Pangong Lake area with China keeping the larger portion in the east, with the smaller lesser part left to India as a consolation. This, it appears, is the sort of partition PLA is planning to realize.
This makes the kind of Indian counter-action proposed here to secure the northeastern shoreline of the lake and ensconce the Indian military there, an absolute necessity. The sooner Modi, Army HQrs and the Leh commander Harinder Singh recognize that this is what needs to be done the better. Jaishankar and MEA can continue talking crap with Zhongnanhai.
There is however a problem of rushing unacclimated forces to the high altitude desert of Ladakh. Goodly parts of the three Divisions hurriedly deployed to eastern Ladakh will take some time to get accustomed to not merely function but fight in the thin air. But offensive operations against the PLA cannot wait. Here’s where the fullest use of regiments recruiting local mountain youth, such as the justly famed Ladakh Scouts, will come in handy. They have a decisive operating edge over other troops and even the Han-manned PLA who are uncomfortable at heights. The Ladakh Scouts along with other Special Forces in particular the Special Frontier Force featuring motivated Tibetan exiles, and especially the navy’s Marine Commando for lake-shore ops, would obviously be in the van, easing the advance of the Indian main force. And, by way of abundant caution, air defence systems would have to be readied in case the PLA uses its air assets ex-air bases it has constructed in that sector, and to deter the situation from going really askew or from escalating, have the canisterised nuclear warheaded Agni missiles in the theatre as backdrop.
However, what’s the chance the Indian army will finally go on the offense and do something this venturesome, or remotely risky, and the Modi regime permit it.