Chandigarh: With the mutual pullback of Chinese and Indian troops from around the Pangong Tso having been successfully completed, Beijing’s jalebi, first in breaching the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh in May 2020, and thereafter in agreeing to a withdrawal over nine months later, remains inscrutable.
Equally mysterious is the reason behind China’s recent admittance that four of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers had died in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley region eight months earlier, following a clash with an Indian Army (IA) patrol. Twenty IA personnel, including a colonel-rank officer, died in the skirmish that involved hand-to-hand combat and the employment, by the PLA, of bespoke clubs studded with nails.
Beijing has offered no explanation for either the ingress or the subsequent pullback, but a polemical and propagandist one for admitting it suffered causalties. It claims to have revealed the deaths of four PLA soldiers to ‘set the record straight’ in view of distortions by India regarding the Galwan incident. Incredulously, the PLA further accused the IA of ‘slandering Chinese troops’ and released footage of injured regimental commander Qi Fabao who too was honoured for ‘defending the border’ from IA troops, along with the four others who died.
Various explanations, hypotheses and arguments at the wider geostrategic, regional and bilateral levels have been proffered for each of these three occurrences. But neither security, military, diplomatic or other officials in New Delhi engaged with these matters, or even analysts and media persons, for that matter, can pinpoint with any level of exactitude the rationale behind either of these interconnected events. For now, these remain swathed in obfuscation within a Chinese jalebi which defies unravelling.
Without belabouring the multiplicity of these innumerable cause-and-effect computations, the recent incursions along the LAC are, ironically reminiscent of earlier PLA actions in precipitously launching a border war against India in October 1962, in which the latter came off worse. Exactly four weeks later, on November 21, the PLA unilaterally pulled back, like it opted to withdraw 59 years later, in early February 2021 from the LAC at a juncture when Indian military planners were convinced that China was poised for an extended haul till the advent of summer, if not beyond.
On both occasions, China’s decision to pullback came as a welcome relief to Delhi that was militarily, diplomatically and economically stretched to meet the PLA’s superior numbers ‒ or waves of soldiers ‒ in 1962 and better infrastructure, logistics and overall equipment along the LAC in Ladakh some six decades later.
Furthermore, the standoff which currently endures in Hot Springs, Gogra, Depsang Plains and Demchok was, for India exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked financial havoc upon it over the past year. Nonetheless, India’s military, especially the IA, unlike in 1962, delivered a robust riposte by deploying steadfastly against the PLA at heights of over 15,000 feet along the LAC and in brutal temperatures averaging -30 degrees Celsius.
The IA’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), comprising Tibetan expatriates, also exhibited operational brio, in seizing control last August of the strategic Rechin La and Rezing La mountain passes at a height of over 18,000 ft on the Kailash Ranges on Pangong Tso’s southern bank. The IA and other officials cite this operational one-upmanship, which resulted in the IA overlooking the PLA’s Moldo garrison, thereby rendering it vulnerable, as one of several reasons cited for China agreeing to pull back its troops from Pangong Tso.
“We occupied (those heights) with a purpose, to push the negotiations to disengagement,” declared Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, the IA commander overseeing operations along the LAC.
“It was meant to give us an advantage, but it cannot be an advantage in perpetuity,” he stated recently in an online interview with the Indian Express, adding that it had helped secure the PLAs disengagement along Pangong Tso’s north bank.
But several senior retired and serving military officials remain sceptical.
They maintain that for years after the 1962 war, service officers, diplomats and analysts had speculated widely over China’s perplexing attack and equally sudden withdrawal, arriving eventually at a series of postulations, but without any great degree of accurateness. And though it is much too soon to expect any such plausibility for the military pullback from Pangong Tso ‒ and possibly other areas along the LAC following the 10th military commanders meeting on February 19-20 ‒ China’s operational volte-face is more than just intriguing.
Superficial certainties, however, abound in each of the military bushwhacks, separated by nearly six decades.
The 1962 conflict followed the Sino-Indian Agreement of 1954 ‒ better known as the Panchsheel Treaty ‒ in which both sides agreed upon mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression and mutual non-interference in bilateral internal affairs. The neighbours also agreed upon mutual equality and above all, peaceful co-existence.
Eight years later the border war unexpectedly erupted and PLA troops captured Rezang La in the west and Twang in the northeast. Four weeks later, the PLA mysteriously withdrew as hastily as it had attacked, leaving behind 1,383 dead and 1,000 wounded IA soldiers. Another 4,000 were taken captive by the PLA, while 1,700-odd were declared missing.
But the PLA’s messaging was clear, permeating at least three future generations of IA officers, who continued to look upon the Chinese military as a boogeyman to be feared and treated with trepidation. In the meantime, the LAC remained nebulous, poised for reactivation at Beijing’s will.
The May 2020 violation of the LAC followed an analogous, but extended trajectory: five bilateral agreements, 1993 onwards, that included Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and Border Defence Co-operation Agreements (BDCA) to manage the de facto frontier. These included elaborate measures that involved both patrolling armies, with their weapons sheathed, but on full display, waving their respective flags whilst on patrol and issuing warnings via foghorns in the event of a perceived transgression of the LAC by either side.
Video cameras to film the LAC patrolling, and cloth posters in Chinese and English, warning the other side against violating the line, comprised some of the IA’s and the PLA’s bag of props. Much buffoonery was enacted, said IA officers involved in such horseplay along the LAC for years, confident in the illusionary belief ‒ flowing from the 1962 fear syndrome ‒ that the border would remain peaceful if they followed these norms, however ridiculous.
Physical contact between rival patrolling parties was prohibited, as was ‘tailing’ each other. Like children playing hide and seek, both armies would frequently resort to cheekily transgressing areas claimed by the other side, absurdly leaving behind empty cigarette packs, biscuit wrappers, soft drink bottles or other gewgaws to indicate their defiance. Periodic meetings between commanders from the rival armies too were also part of these intricate protocols that kept the peace till May 2020, by which time Beijing had achieved global economic supremacy.
Unfortunately, and once again inexplicably ‒ much like the Panchsheel Agreement ‒ these protocols transformed overnight from CBMs and BDCAs into Distrust Building Measures and Border Defence Interference Measures BDIMs, to coin revised terms to elucidate Chinese duplicity. “Trust (between India and China) is low” General Joshi, told India Today television recently. It (trust) now has to be built up, he added in response to question on ways to deal with future Chinese chicanery.
Meanwhile, the host of multiple possible reasons on offer for the PLA’s ingress of the LAC include Beijing ‘probing’ India’s military reaction to its aggression, and its unpredicted pullback after gauging it. Objections to Delhi abrogating Article 370 in Kashmir and declaring Ladakh a federally administered region and threats by senior Indian leaders of India re-taking the Aksai Chin, which China steadily occupied through the 1950s, and consolidated control over after the 1962 war, are some of the other causations tendered for the LAC transgressions.
Beijing’s reported nervousness regarding the Indian Navy (IN)-enabled Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad involving the Australian, Japanese and US navies, is also part of this putative list. Previously, in 2007-08 China had viewed the Quad as a direct threat to its legitimate entry into the strategic Indian Ocean Region and successfully pressured India and Australia into ditching it. But in view of China’s growing militarism and hegemony, the Quad regrouped in November 2020, dividing its three-day-long joint exercises between India’s eastern and western seaboard.
India’s strategic and military cooperation with Washington and Joe Biden’s election as US president too are viewed in Delhi as reasons behind China’s recent calculated adventurism, which has successfully panicked Delhi into considering permanent manning of the LAC as it negotiates the path ahead with Beijing from a position of total distrust. “Having displayed military determination at the LAC, India must seek to move beyond just seeking peace and tranquility on the undefined LAC and seek to definitively define it,” said military analyst Major General (retired) A.P. Singh who has served in Ladakh. It’s time for Delhi to play hardball and continue to play a reactive role, he declared.
But as the fastmoving events imply, perhaps Beijing’s enigmatic jalebi strategy has more perplexing surprises in its spirals.