An Indian soldier stands atop a vehicle as the Ladakh standoff escalates in September 2020. Photo: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto/AFP

The 10-month confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in the eastern Ladakh region of India is gradually coming to an end.

After nine rounds of talks between military commanders, diplomatic parleys and meetings between political leaders, an actionable blueprint has evolved between the two countries.

The first withdrawal is in the region of the Pangong Lake with the Chinese pulling back beyond the Indian claim line.  Simultaneously, Indians will clear out from south of the Pangong Lake and vacate the heights of Rechin La and Rezang La, which overlook Chinese positions to the north.

The latest reports say the disengagement of troops has progressed as planned. The next phase of disengagement will be worked out.

The Chinese Global Times quoted Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University as saying, “This event will ease the border tensions and play important roles in resuming peace and stability to the region as soon as possible.”

Notwithstanding the withdrawals, Indians will remain skeptical about China’s next moves as the winters recede in Ladakh. Incursions by the Chinese have been routine in the past. The last major standoff between the two countries was in 2017 at Dolam (Doklam), near the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China.

Salami slicing – essentially acts of creeping forward beyond existing working boundaries between nations – has been the Chinese strategy both on land and at sea. Southeast Asian countries have lost large stretches of their EEZs that are claimed and controlled by China.

Disputed island territories in the South China Sea have been converted to military bases. As such, no predictions about the summer of 2021 can be made. However, there are enough takeaways for nations in the region from the Indian experience.

The efficacy of the Indian intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities is under the scanner. Continuous tracking of Chinese movements of formations and beefing up along the borders was inadequate for an informed analysis of Chinese intent. However, once the incursions were undertaken on a broad front, the Indians were able to mobilize rapidly.

Indian soldiers cross a river during an incident in which Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas. Photo: CCTV/AFP

The pace of buildup and the ability to provide logistics support, in turn, possibly surprised the Chinese. The fact that the Chinese didn’t attempt any bigger maneuvers was dictated more by the speed and strength of Indian response capabilities and less because of their objectives being limited. They would, in all likelihood, have pressed the advantage if there was room for it.

With an over-ambitious nation trying to recalibrate the world order, securing peace requires investments in military capabilities by Asian countries.

The resolve of the Indian leadership was also a major issue and is of relevance to China’s neighbors who often face Chinese coercive pressures. At Dolam, the Indian leadership displayed unflinching resolve. Apparently, the Chinese wanted to test the waters again.

The message from eastern Ladakh for China’s neighbors is to resist the Chinese usurping of their areas, be it in the South China Sea or along land borders. They stop, only when they encounter a determined pushback. Further, had the Indians buckled in eastern Ladakh, and the Chinese made tangible gains, China’s Middle Kingdom fixation and aggressive posturing would have cruised.

Chinese influence is receding, globally. Their coercive diplomacy is unable to garner trustworthy partnerships. Even the Belt and Road Initiative is shuddering. Success in eastern Ladakh could have been a great flag to waive. Unfortunately, the Chinese hope perished under the weight of the Indian response.

People Liberation Army soldiers and tanks disengage along the Line of Actual Control at the India-China border in Ladakh. Photo: Handout/ Indian Defense Ministry/AFP

 

The Chinese would also have had to prioritize resources between Taiwan and their ability to make ostensible gains against India. They would have debated their capabilities in terms of both fronts being activated with extra-regional players getting actively involved. Obviously, such a situation is beyond its conventional capabilities.    

China and India are bound by multiple agreements with each of these aimed at retaining stability, peace, and tranquility along the Indo-Tibet border. The degree to which Chinese are committed to honoring such arrangements lie trashed.

During the course of the Ladakh standoff, the Chinese raised the issue of the Russian port town Vladivostok on social media. Protests also broke out in Nepal when the Chinese constructed huts in Nepalese territory, along the Nepal-China border. These abrasive actions are important for China’s neighbors to assimilate. Not many countries are insulated from Chinese greed.

Many countries are anxious about BRI projects; even Pakistan which is embedded deep in the Chinese constellation. No one is clear about where the BRI road is leading.

According to an article in Forbes on February 28, 2020, by Wade Shepard, “Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Kyrgyzstan, among other countries have canceled, downsized, or postponed key BRI projects, and the initiative seems to be going through a period of retreat to an extent that some researchers are suggesting that we may have already seen “peak” Belt and Road.” The list of such countries is only longer, now.

How President Biden builds his China strategy will be of great relevance for the Asia Pacific. If he retains the fundamentals of Trump’s approach, the Chinese will remain cautious. However, should he opt for a softer stance, the pressures will be felt by South and Southeast Asian counties, as with debt-ridden African nations. So far, the signals lack clarity, and hopefully, the Democrats will not balk.

The Quadrilateral (Quad) of India, Japan, the US, and Australia can be an excellent instrument to keep the Chinese at bay. The Indian Navy’s Malabar exercise last year witnessed the re-joining of the Australians.

Chinese belligerence on Indian borders has of course boosted the pace of harmonizing between the Quad members. However, as yet the Quad has not progressed to being a coalesced asset reflecting a shared strategic intent. Yes, interoperability is enhanced by militaries exercising together, but no defined parameters have been evolved to consider a situation as adequately compelling for coordinated operational deployment.

An Indian Air Force Hercules military transport plane prepares to land at an airbase in Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh, on September 8, 2020. Photo: Mohd Arhaan Archer/AFP

The global Covid-19 pandemic had its origin in Wuhan. Though the Chinese seem to have been able to calm the storm, people, irrespective of national identities, believe that China didn’t do enough and has gained, while others have lost much. The Chinese stock in the global capitals is at its lowest ebb. The confrontation in eastern Ladakh has only accentuated the slide. The inability of the Chinese to post any tangible gains, has further reinforced the decline.

For nations in the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea, it’s an absolute imperative that they enhance their military preparedness and be poised to push back Chinese attempts at interfering with the maritime commons. It will be difficult to win back any ground that’s lost to the Chinese if these countries remain bystanders. 

For India, it’s quite clear that it has to fight its own battles with China, especially along its land borders. However, Indian forces have huge experience of fighting in the mountains that the Chinese lack.

At the rank-and-file level, the Indian evaluation of the Chinese soldier is of a soft conscript who wants to serve his time and move on. However, looking at it at the strategic level, to what extent will the Quad or any other country/grouping pitch in depends on India carrying its battle to the Indian Ocean.

A greater conflict between the two Asian giants will definitely lead to India pressing home its geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such a situation of course will be a huge gamble to which the Chinese will be averse.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.