The joint statement issued after the meeting of foreign ministers of India and China in Moscow on September 10 might end the deadlock over the Ladakh crisis with the possibility of an early disengagement. However, this will come at huge cost to India and by opening a can of worms in the future.
According to a report in The Hindu, the PLA is in control of 1,000 square km of Indian territory in Ladakh. For a perspective on the amount of land India has traded for peace, here’s a comparative figure – the total area of the national capital Delhi is 1,464 square km.
The fact that the PLA will not vacate territories occupied through multi-pronged deep intrusions in eastern Ladakh since May has been accepted by India.
This is obvious from the fact that there is no mention of the Indian demand that the PLA restore the status quo ante – i.e. the April positions – in the joint statement. Also missing is the reference point of the 1993 Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Rather, the quiet obliteration of the acronym LAC – which was at the heart of the Ladakh crisis – from the statement spills the beans on the compromise India has made.
China had said that it abides by the November 1959 LAC which was mentioned by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to Jawaharlal Nehru.
India, on the other hand, has stood by the 1993 LAC which, though not mutually identified on maps and on the ground, was, according to the Ministry of External Affairs’ June statement, well known to both sides.
For 27 years, the Indian Army had been guarding this military line. It was to defend this line that 20 soldiers lost their lives, scores were wounded and 10 soldiers including three officers were taken captive in the savage ambush inflicted by the PLA on the night of June 15 in the Galwan area.
Having dispensed with the LAC, the new normal is ‘border areas’ which originates from the Chinese suggestion to end the political and military deadlock.
Writing in FORCE, a prominent Chinese scholar Qian Feng had said that “the concept of a ‘zone of actual control’ can replace the concept of ‘line of actual control’ in some areas without human population or obvious natural geomorphological features. In the future, the two countries could go beyond the traditional ‘border line’ approach and adopt the method of delimiting the disputed ‘border belt’ in question which do not involve population adjustment.”
Consequently, while borrowing the idea to ‘maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas’ from the 1993 agreement, the joint statement has dropped the term ‘Line of Actual Control,’ which was clearly mentioned in the aforementioned agreement.
The 1993 agreement is actually called the ‘Agreement between the government of the Republic of India and the government of the People’s Republic of China on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.’ (emphasis added)
The new emphasis on ‘border areas’ has implications as the blunder of the 1993, which created the LAC, has been repeated. Like the LAC, which was agreed by India before a mutual formal clarification on how it ran on the maps and ground, the ‘border areas’ too would be indistinguishable on the ground, open-ended, and worse, impossible to defend.
Therefore, unlike the LAC (line) which allowed the PLA to transgress it at will for 27 years, an ‘area’, unless delimited, would be an amorphous concept, and would provide unlimited possibilities for the militarily powerful side (the PLA) to keep extending its territorial claims. For the record, China also claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh which it calls ‘south Tibet or Xizang’.
For immediate disengagement of forces, especially in the south Pangong Tso area, the statement says that the existing agreements and protocols would be followed to ‘avoid any action that could escalate matters.’
Given that the PLA insists that the Indian Army in a preemptive action occupied two of its dominating posts on the Kailash range on August 29-30 night, it would be interesting to observe how the Modi government would fulfil this Chinese demand when a Special Frontier Force soldier of the army has lost his life in action.
At the corps commander-level military meetings, creating an understanding on ‘border areas’ would not be easy with any deadlock requiring political intervention once again.
After the disengagement, according to the statement, the two sides would work on new Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) for peace and tranquillity in ‘border areas.’
Replacing existing CBMs with new ones heavily favours the PLA. For example, the 1993 agreement had the concept of ‘mutual and equal security’ which could balance operational shortcomings on the Indian side today.
Unlike the Tibetan plateau which is flat terrain with excellent infrastructure and border management (done by technology), the Indian side has difficult terrain across mountains prone to landslides, archaic border management and inadequate infrastructure.
Similarly, the 1996 agreement dealt with ceilings on manpower, weapons systems, missiles and firepower, scope and level of military exercises close to the LAC.
It also had restriction on air force and ‘unarmed transport aircraft, survey aircraft and helicopters’ flying within 10 km of the LAC.
These agreements were done when both the Indian Army and the PLA were struggling with their border management. Over time, the PLA raced rapidly ahead, eliminating the possibility of a ‘catch-up’ by India.
The PLA wants to retain its present combat lead, which would only grow with time. With old CBMs gone, there would be no restrictions or limitation on what it can do close to the ‘border areas.’
Thus, the PLA would retain and improve its infrastructure, habitat and ecosystems created since the 2017 Doklam crisis for nearly 200,000 troops under the Western Theatre Command facing India’s ‘border areas.’
It will continue with its combat training both from within the resources of the theatre and other theatres. It has laid fibre optics cables (internet) on occupied territories (which will not be its own) and has built radar chain to fight to its technological strength across the entire battle space.
It has also installed its formidable integrated air defence and missile systems across the entire disputed border. The PLA is sharpening its operational base in Tibet Autonomous Region for capabilities to be launched at short notice.
The existing heightened threat of ‘forces-in-being’ will continue to increase with time as the PLA brings in new disruptive warfare capabilities into the theatre. India should bear in mind that such formidable war-fighting capabilities with new concept of operations are not needed for a mere border war.
Having won the Ladakh round from an ill-prepared India, without a fight, the PLA has further entrenched itself in an area which is going to be the likely site of a future bigger conflict.
Pravin Sawhney is editor of FORCE magazine.