A long Haul or a Short War : China’s True Designs In Ladakh

 By Col Abhishek Singh
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China is today upgrading its military posture along India’s border at a scale that is difficult to conceal and a pace that is threatening. For India, deciphering China’s true designs thus remains the key question today. A recent article[i] in a leading daily suggested that the PLA in Ladakh was preparing for ‘a long haul’ – suggesting a Line of Control akin to Pakistan now existing with China till such time a mutual resolution is reached. Is China sincerely interested in a peaceful resolution of the crisis or is it only playing for time while it continues preparations in the background for decisive military action to finally resolve matters on its terms?

“Be Prepared to Act at Any Second”

Chinese President Xi Jinping directed his military to strengthen training and be ready to ‘act at any second’ in his first training order issued in January 2021[ii]. As the year progresses, it is evident that PLA has responded with vigour to Xi Jinping’s clarion call. 

The most prominent facet of increased Chinese military preparations against India has been the improvement in PLAAF infrastructure opposite India’s borders, covered in a comprehensive report published on June 16, 2021, by The Warzone[iii]. In addition to three new PLAAF airfields identified at Tashkorgan, Tingri and Damxung, four new heliports are being developed by China at a rapid pace. China has upgraded five of its existing airfields opposite India with hardened shelters constructed at Kashgar, Ngari Gunsa and Lhasa and additional runways now coming up at Hotan and Chengdu-Bangda airfields. Air defence and SAM sites along with the expansion of maintenance and support areas and underground facilities have been detected at nearly all these airfields in the last year. The number of PLAAF fighter jets, UAVs and strategic bombers permanently stationed at these airfields has increased considerably in the last year. The recent trials conducted with China’s latest H-20 Strategic Stealth Bombers in June 2021 at Hotan raises the bar of the game many notches for India[iv]. The PLAAF has also been carrying out an increasing number of exercises in the Tibet region, operationalising its new pilots, aircraft and tactics. On June 21 The Tribune[v] reported the possible operationalisation of a Combined Air Defense System in Western Theatre Command, integrating PLA and PLAAF Air Defense units under the PLAAF, another development with serious consequences for IAF operations during war times. The Warzone summarises – “…the big takeaway here is that China’s force posture and ability to sustain a major conflict along its western border is being dramatically enhanced in a breathtakingly short period of time. That…  … should make India and even other nearby countries very nervous.[vi]

The PLA ground forces have also remained occupied in extensive training and preparation activities throughout the last year – far above normal levels. The Defence Ministry of China recently claimed to have conducted over 100 tactical exercises in 2021 alone[vii]. In February-March 2021, there were inputs of a large scale ‘multi-dimensional exercise’ by a Combined Arms Brigade (CAB) of Tibet Military Region and PLA Aviation Units which comprise helicopter-borne forces and attack helicopters. In May 2021 China carried out a Joint Air Defence exercise in Tibet with Pakistan. In June 2021, China conducted a large scale military exercise ‘Peak of the Snowy Region 2021’ in the Tibet Military Region, touted as a ‘record-breaking mass training event’ by the PLA[viii]. Inputs of another large scale joint Airborne exercise conducted in June 2021 in Xingjian Military District, entailing PLA Paratroopers and PLAAF carrying out para-drops to secure an airfield and consolidating by induction of mechanised forces and artillery, have surfaced in the media[ix]. July 2021 witnessed still more major military exercises including live-firing drills with newly inducted equipment and a major PLAAF strategic airlift exercise entailing induction of units of 81 Group Army (Central Theatre Command) and 72 Group Army (Eastern Theatre Command) into the plateau region with their heavy equipment. A PLAAF Airborne Brigade also conducted para-drop training, possibly in the Xinjiang region, with specially adapted parachutes and oxygen kits for the high altitude region[x]. The PLA exercises have increasingly focused on training under realistic conditions and in attacks on mockup defences, some of which strikingly resemble Indian defensive positions in Ladakh.

Ominous Signs

In early 1979, as China prepared to launch its ‘Counter-Attack in Self Defence’ against Vietnam, the biggest giveaway of its true intent was the PLAAF & its efforts to improve infrastructure opposite the Vietnam border in a short time, which was detected by the US satellites[xi]. The pattern is today found repeating itself as the PLAAF upgrades its infrastructure opposite India at a blazing pace. Another major giveaway of Chinese offensive intentions preceding the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979 had been the raising of local militia units in large numbers by the PLA to support its operations and act as guides for its forces. The recent inputs of the PLA raising local Tibetan militia units should also set alarm bells ringing for India[xii].

There have been regular inputs of the PLA slowly but steadily increasing the concentration of its forces opposite Eastern Ladakh with estimates putting the current strength at an alarming 200 thousand[xiii]. There has been a subtle but definite attempt by the Chinese media to sway local and international opinion against India in the last year. In February 2021, domestic sentiment against India was stoked up by releasing news of death & publicised funeral ceremonies of China’s four soldiers killed in the Galwan clash of June 2020. July 14, 2021, terrorist attack in Dasu, Pakistan, which resulted in the death of nine Chinese nationals and the August 20, 2021 suicide bombing attack in Baluchistan which injured a Chinese national, are being flagged by Chinese media as having RAWs fingerprints on it and appear as more ominous attempts at crafting of a narrative which may justify China’s aggravated use of force in the future[xiv].

China has ‘a series of accumulated complaints’ against India as repeatedly voiced in local media and forums[xv]. These include India’s improvement of infrastructure along borders with China, India’s defiance of China at Doklam and Ladakh, the abrogation of Article 370 and the declaration of Ladakh to include Aksai Chin as a Union Territory and India forming part of the Quad to contain China. Strikingly similar to the situation preceding the 1962 war, China is likely again contemplating its response options to the perceived aggravations by India. One available option remains to maintain protracted military pressure on India’s borders, a tacit which has, however, in the past only produced a defiant response from India. An alternative exists of launching another ‘Counter-Attack in Self Defence’ which could be limited in its scale and adequately convey China’s military superiority and its willingness to employ it if provoked.

In Conclusion

The current geopolitical situation tends to favour the second alternative. A world engrossed in fighting COVID-19 is today least prepared to interfere in a border skirmish between India and China if it were to occur. The US’s disorderly pullout of Afghanistan weakens its international standing considerably and hands over Afghanistan to a Taliban warming up to China. Russia today stands shoulder to shoulder with China and Pakistan remains a staunch ally sworn against India. The Indian Army today is in the midst of a major re-balancing to its Northern borders and will take some time before it is able to truly harden its position against China in Ladakh.

The scale and more alarmingly, the pace of China’s preparations raise serious questions on its true intent and as the recently concluded 12th round of Corps Commander level talks have been able to change little on the ground, experts read it as ‘warning signs that all might not be going well between China and India at the LAC[xvi]. It thus augurs well for India to be prepared for the worst in the coming times. Forewarned is forearmed!

Endnotes:

[i] Dinakar Peri,”A Year After Galwan clash, China beefing up positions along LAC”, The Hindu, June 14, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/a-year-after-galwan-clash-china-beefing-up-positions-along-lac/article34806645.ece

[ii] PTI, “Xi Jinping asks military to be ready to ‘act at any second’, Business Today, January 6, 2021, https://www.businesstoday.in/latest/world/story/xi-jinping-asks-military-to-be-ready-to-act-at-any-second-283716-2021-01-06

[iii] Tyler Rogoway, “Tracking China’s Sudden Airpower Expansion On Its Western Border”, The Warzone, June 16, 2021, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/41065/tracking-chinas-sudden-airpower-expansion-along-its-western-border

[iv] Rakesh K Singh, “China conducts final trials of H-20 stealth bombers opposite Ladakh”, The Pioneer, June 12, 2021, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2021/india/china-conducts-final-trials-of-h-20-stealth-bombers-opposite-ladakh.html

[v] Ajay Banerjee, “LAC: China’s air defence at play, joint drill with Pak”, The Tribune, June 1, 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/lac-chinas-air-defence-at-play-joint-drill-with-pak-261828

[vi] Tyler Rogoway, “Tracking China’s Sudden Airpower Expansion On Its Western Border”

[vii] Sutirtho Patranobis, “China carries out military drill in Tibet”, Hindustan Times, June 24, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-carries-out-military-drill-in-tibet-101624544749959.html

[viii] PTI, “More ammunition used for real-time training this year than previous years: Chinese military”, June 25, 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/more-ammunition-used-for-real-time-training-this-year-than-previous-years-chinese-military/articleshow/83839164.cms?from=mdr

[x] Liu Xuanzun, “PLA holds intensive drills in northwest plateau, tests new weapons, tactics”, Global Times, July 11, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228358.shtml

[xi] Edward C. O’Dowd. Chinese Military Strategy in the Third Indochina War, 2007, p. 51 & pp. 67-68.

[xii] Rajat Pandit,” China recruits young Tibetans in PLA, militias along border”, The Times of India, July 22, 2021, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/china-woos-young-tibetans-to-join-pla/articleshow/84624395.cms

[xiii] George Thomas,” Border Tensions Escalate as Asian Giants India and China Battle for the Himalayas”, CBN News,               July 23, 2021, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2021/july/border-tensions-escalate-as-asian-giants-india-and-china-battle-for-the-himalayas

[xiv] GT Staff report, “Truth on Dasu terror attack surfaces amid unanswered questions, as China and Pakistan step up security for Chinese”, Global Times, August 13, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231423.shtml

[xv] Liya,” The border conflict is China’s “a lesson” for India?”, Voice of America, June 27, 2020, https://www-voachinese-com.translate.goog/a/china-India-border-conflict-who-has-lesson-to-learn-20200626/5479129.html?_x_tr_sl=zh-CN&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=nui,sc,elem

[xvi] Antara Ghosal Singh,” Decoding the Latest China-India Military Talks on the Border”, The Diplomat, August 19, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/decoding-the-latest-china-india-military-talks-on-the-border/