China’s Adventurism in Eastern Ladakh – A Strategic Miscalculation

CLAWS (New Delhi) – Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (US) 

Joint Research Collaboration

Abstract

In its territorial quest, both in the continental and maritime domains, China is transforming from an assertive power to an ‘aggressive power’. By being aggressive in Eastern Ladakh, China miscalculated its strategy, in underestimating the timing and the potential of its adversaries by opening too many fronts simultaneously. Despite several agreements and protocols in place between India and China, and with cyclical transgressions and physical violence with fatal casualties, it is evident that China is not keen to settle the disputed boundary issue with India. It is imperative now for India to re-calibrate its China policy.


 

June 15, 2020, marked a turning point in India-China relations, when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deceitfully and lethally attacked, causing deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in Eastern Ladakh. This violent scuffle also resulted into the Chinese soldiers getting injured; however, China still maintains silence over its own casualties. This can be attributed to China’s anxiety over loss of face driven by its superpower aspirations and reprisal from its own population.

The fact remains: India displayed its unflinching resolve and spirit to contest every move of the PLA at the borders, as also in other domains of national power. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the troops at Nimu in Ladakh on July 3, strongly stated,  ‘India’s resolve to stand up to the Chinese aggression to ensure sanctity of our borders, and that the age of expansionism is over’.[1] This message is more significant than symbolic.

For in 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping categorically stated that “China cannot lose an inch of the territory left behind by our predecessors” [2]– a departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “Hide your capabilities and bide your time”.[3] Unlike ‘keeping a low profile’, China under Xi has become ‘aggressive’ in its territorial quest- both in the continental and maritime domains.

Assertive to Aggressive

China’s unilateral activities are highlighted in its artificial island build up and fortified military bases in the South China Sea (SCS),[4] Air Defence Identification Zone in East China Sea, disregard of the ICJ Tribunal on SCS and lately in Eastern Ladakh. While on India’s front, since April-May 2020, PLA activities upticked on the Tibetan high-altitude plateau, against India in Eastern Ladakh. This led to heavy and rapid movement of forces to engage and transgress across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Pangong Tso, Hot Spring, Galwan Valley and Depsang Plateau. Thus, taking a departure from the past routine stand-offs, as noted in:  engagement at multiple points over a wide front with large scale regular forces, deliberate transgressions, physical violent confrontations and resultant casualties.  Besides, China also opened another front almost 1500 km apart, in Sikkim at Naku La on May 9. In view of this design, Mike Pompeo rightly posited that Beijing has a “pattern of instigating territorial disputes” and that Chinese troops took “incredibly aggressive action”.[5] Hence, China’s adventurism in Eastern Ladakh is certainly more of a design than a default.

Eastern Ladakh has a strategic significance for it being a sharp wedge between Gilgit-Baltistan in the west (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) where China has positioned its security personnel as part of  China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and Aksai Chin in the east. Also, the proximity of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) to sensitive areas and strategic highways to the north of the Karakoram Pass, adds to the interest. This is validated by the Chinese infrastructure and military build-up,  which in the immediate interest aims to dominate the newly constructed strategic ‘all-weather’ 255 km  ‘Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road,[6] and, in the long term view, will aid China’s  ‘salami-slicing tactics’ by connecting it with the Karakoram Pass to serve its economic, strategic and political interests.

Chinese actions in Eastern Ladakh call for significant attention due to certain key pointers: What was China’s intent behind the movement of such a large force opposite Eastern Ladakh under conditions of COVID-19? Why was it aggressive in the areas predominantly to the north of Pangong Tso? Has the military and diplomatic CBMs between the two countries become redundant?

Genesis and Ground Realities

The seeds of the current boundary dispute between India and China were sown when the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950-51, followed by the Tibetan Uprising in 1959. Looking back, historically, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Henry McMahon, Foreign Secretary to British India, drew the boundary between  Tibet and British North East India, predominantly on the ‘principle of watershed’. Subsequently, the representatives of Britain, Tibet and China had initialled the boundaries between British India and Tibet at the Tripartite Conference at Shimla on 27 April 1914.[7] However, as noted, China’s response to ‘McMahon Line’ and its application to the India-China border was outrightly rejected on grounds of “imperialist legacy”. Besides, it also stated that Tibet was not a sovereign state and therefore, did not have the power to conclude the Shimla Convention.

Under this pretext, China laid claims to the entire Arunachal Pradesh, while India maintained its claim on Aksai Chin, which has China incrementally occupied between late 1950s and 1962.

In 1957, India realised that  China had also built a strategic road connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang with Lhasa in Tibet, now called NH G219,  of which 179 km passes through the Indian territory of Aksai Chin. Currently, the 3488 km long border (LAC) remains disputed along with three distinct sectors: Western (Eastern Ladakh), Middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and Eastern (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). During the series of ‘boundary settlement talks’ (2000-2002), the Chinese delegation exchanged maps only of the Central Sector, that remains to be the least contentious, but have refused to compare the maps of the other two sectors.

Due to which, despite the CBM protocols, the tension along the LAC is mainly factored by two aspects: first, differing perception as the LAC is neither delineated on the maps nor demarcated on the ground; and second, infrastructure development and construction activities undertaken close to the border. For instance, unlike India, China had commenced its infrastructure building two decades ago as witnessed in terms of roads, railways, air bases, communication facilities, oxygen stations, storage facilities, military garrisons, and training facilities across the entire Tibetan Plateau. This is to equip and aid the Tibetan Military Command,[8] that comes under the India-centric Western Theatre Command to be ready to operate in high-altitudes. In view of this, PLA’s build-up opposite Eastern Ladakh has been premeditated. However, in the Eastern and Middle Sectors, as the LAC largely follows the well-defined geographical features,  transgressions are relatively less.

What calls for China’s adventurism at LAC? As history suggests, the severe economic downturn has often led the rising powers to resort to aggressive actions abroad. Similarly, China’s steady economic decline with a drop in GDP growth rate from 15 percent to less than 6 percent has often manifested in its assertive actions. As IMF suggests, in 2020 China’s projected growth rate is just 1 percent[9] – slowest in 30 years. This is further aggravated with challenges from both within and outside of China, such as global resentment over Wuhan epidemic followed by pressure over the investigation of zoonotic virus compounded with domestic challenges- unemployment, unrest in Hong Kong over the imposition of a sweeping National Security Law, the firm stand of US-backed Taiwan, and the US-China trade war and its effects.

Here, some link can also be drawn to Beijing’s resentment towards New Delhi over issues such as – abrogation of Article 370 and creation of union territory of Ladakh; India’s opposition to joining the RCEP compounded with longstanding opposition to BRI; India’s active participation in Quad and strengthening diplomatic and military ties with the partners and others- perceived as impediments to China’s regional and global ambitions. Furthermore, China’s actions are predominantly aimed at claiming its periphery by ‘coercion and intimidation’, but ‘without using force,’ which are intended to convey a message that China stands firm and undeterred in its quest despite the numerous challenges.

While the protracted border dispute acts as the biggest irritant between India and China,  it can be strongly argued that China is not keen to settle the disputed boundary issue with India. This suits Beijing’s interest as it helps keep India embroiled not just with Pakistan but open another front with China. This then keeps India engaged and limited to South Asia; thus, fulfilling China’s aims to thwart India’s regional and global aspirations.

Major Takeaways

Given China’s aggressive attitude to the boundary dispute, it is imperative for India to now re-calibrate its China policy involving political, economic, trade, investment, diplomatic, military, embedded technologies, and information domains. A few assessments that merit attention is:

First, the biggest casualty in India-China relations is the ‘trust factor’, wherein the deficit in trust has only increased manifold due to China’s aggressive designs in recent times. In a single stroke, China has in effect alienated a significant portion of the world’s population – hardly a good move for rising world power. On the other hand, it has, in fact, united India against a common adversary. However, despite the differences, diplomatic and military level engagements must continue to restore the status quo ante along the LAC to avert China’s intentions.

Second, militarily, India needs to review its strategy in terms of: border management, streamlining of command and control system, developing technology-enabled military capabilities, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, development of infrastructure, rules of engagement, and information warfare.

Third, if China seeks to act against the protocols, such actions must be responded to by the most appropriate military actions on the LAC. India should always maintain a balanced posture and create criticalities for the adversaries, whenever required – to test their resolve.

Fourth, India’s long-term goal must insist on the resolution of the boundary dispute. Thus, as the fact remains, a country can achieve peace and stability only by being strong, and that deterrence is a function of ‘capability and the resolve’ to act against an adversary. While addressing these two, India must take proactive actions to build comprehensive national power (CNP), advance economic growth, develop military infrastructure both along the borders and in the Indian Ocean Region. It must build strategic partnerships with select countries to maintain peace, and follow a ‘rules-based order’, which should be applicable to all countries in the region.

Fifth, India should thwart China’s hyperactive information campaigns of false narratives by formulating its own information warfare strategy, to counter China’s psychological cum propaganda initiatives against India.

Sixth, undoubtedly, the global resentment towards China’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new mileage to the longstanding ‘China Threat’ theory against China’s rise. The fallout effects are witnessed in support extended to India by US and other countries; Germany and US blocking of China’s move to indict India in the Karachi terror attack at UNSC, and others. Besides, worldwide countries are uniting against China’s bullying and unilateral behaviour; and a few have increased their defence budgets as also taken actions in response by banning its apps and use of Huawei for 5G networks.[10] More may follow.

Seventh, in contrast to a few strategic analysts, who highlight the asymmetry between China and India’s conventional force structure, Belfer Centre’s Report of March 2020[11] suggests, ‘India’s defense position is more secure than is sometimes argued’. This is evident from Eastern Ladakh where China did not expect a quick-cum-synergised mobilisation of the Indian Armed Forces, that called out the expansionist designs’ of Beijing.

India has not just checkmated but conveyed its political, economic, diplomatic, and military will on China. On balance, such dynamics will invariably harm China’s economic, political, social, diplomatic, psychological, and military domains. By being aggressive in Eastern Ladakh, China miscalculated its strategy. It not just underestimated the timing but also the potential of its adversaries by opening too many fronts simultaneously and thus, got caught in its own quandary.

 

End-Notes

[1]  Special Correspondent, ‘Age of expansionism is over’, Narendra Modi says in Ladakh, The Hindu, 4 July 2020,

[2] China won’t give up ‘one inch’ of territory says President Xi to Mattis, BBC News, 28 June 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-44638817

[3] Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy” Global security.org,  https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/24-character.htm

[4]  Dipankar Choudhary, ‘China’s increasing belligerence in South China Sea threatens international peace and regional stability,’ Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/chinas-increasing-belligerence-in-south-china-sea-threatens-international-peace-and-regional stability

[5]  European Union Bars Travelers from US Due to Surge In  COVID-19 Cases Across America 1 July 2020, news.yahoo.com › european-union-bars-travelers-u-02

[6]  Nirupama Subramaniam, The newly constructed strategic ‘all-weather’ 255 km  ‘Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road, The Indian Express, 16 June 2020,

[7]  Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh, India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond, Chapter 2, Viva Books, New Delhi, 2009. ISBN: 8130911957 HB. Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 279-80. ISBN 978-0-231-11814-9.

[8]  Amrita Jash, ‘Tibet Military Command: People’s Liberation Army Combat role in High Altitude’ CLAWS, Issue Brief No 181, May 2019,

[9]   World Economic Outlook Reports, World Economic Outlook Update, June 2020

[10]   Leo Kelion, Huawei 5G kit must be removed from UK by 2027, BBC News, 14 July 2020; These actions are indicative of disengagement process against China.

[11]  Frank O’Donnell, Alex Bollfrass, ‘The Strategic Postures of China and India A Visual Guide’,  Belfer Centre, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/india-china-postures/China%20India%20Postures.pdf


Lt. General (Dr.) VK Ahluwalia is director of CLAWS and former corps commander, Ladakh, and Army Commander, Central Command. The views expressed are the author’s alone.

This piece is part of a joint research collaboration project between the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

The article was first published by Woodrow Wilson Centre: https://bit.ly/30zvbHR

Perspective from Woodrow Wilson centre will be published soon.