With India's Options in Ladakh Crisis Narrowing, the Way Forward is High-Level Dialogue

While the stakes for both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are high, obfuscation of reality by India could lead to wrong choices with serious geopolitical and military implications.

The Ladakh crisis has two narratives: Indian and Chinese. In the perception versus reality war, it will be a battle of nerves between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, who having met 18 times, seemingly know one another.

Both Modi and Xi know that the 1993 Line of Actual Control (LAC) has unilaterally been consigned to the dustbin. And with it, all agreements — 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, and 2015 — meant for peace on that LAC. China has decided to go beyond even its 1960 claim line in Ladakh. Given this, the PLA will not vacate the territories it has come to occupy in Galwan, Depsang, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso. Modi hopes to overcome these complications by creating a perception in India that the LAC remains inviolable, and no Indian territory has been lost to the PLA. It’s another matter that no one bothered to ask which ‘line’ he was referring to — the 1993 LAC, China’s 1960 claim line or the one that is going beyond that.

The Modi government’s version is predicated on his two addresses in the span of 10 days —  June 19 at the all-party meet, and June 28 ‘Mann Ki Baat’ where he unequivocally said that the battle of Galwan has been won. With the exception of the Congress and the Communists, other political parties appear least bothered about the imbroglio. The majority in the media is happy parroting the official line. Retired military officers, with few exceptions, are cheering the government from the side-lines. Those contesting the official line are being labelled ‘anti-national’.

At least domestically, India seems to have won the perception war against China. But what the prime minister cannot explain is that if indeed no Indian territory has been lost, what have the talks with China at various levels — foreign minister, diplomats and military leaders — for the restoration of the status quo ante been all about?

And if indeed no territory is lost, why has India broadened the ambit of the conflict from the Ladakh theatre to economics?

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In a show of strength, the government has banned 59 Chinese popular mobile apps. Also, it is certain that Huawei 5G telecommunications will be prohibited from the Indian market. Never mind that legacy information and telecommunication technologies, power and defence grid equipment with India is of Chinese origin, as these companies have been the lowest bidders. Since no technical audits were done of equipment bought from the lowest bidders, nothing stops the Chinese – who know the backdoors – from doing scalable cyber assaults.

In the current fit of nationalism, there is a clamour that all Chinese products should be banned in India. This populism overlooks two critical issues: One, so entrenched are Chinese products in global supply chains that banning them will hurt India more than China, whose overall trade with India is two per cent of its global trade. And two, in the event of cascading effects owing to prolonged stand-off, a total ban on imports from China would kill Indian MSMEs, disrupt the pharmaceutical industry and ruin the local economy in the hinterland.

To buttress Modi’s perception win, two more elements have been added. All friendly nations — Russia, US, Israel and France — have been asked to fast-track war materiel for the troops inducted into the theatre to match PLA numbers on Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Given the transactional deals, Israel has offered its own, currently in service, air defence system as an interim measure to fill in for the Russian S-400 air defence missile system. Even after its induction into the Indian inventory (in 2021), the S-400 would require at least a year to get operationalised and ready for war by training.

Moreover, the army build-up on the LAC to match the PLA assets continues at a furtive pace. Not be left behind, senior diplomats, unaware of military power dynamics, are suggesting the strengthening of partnerships with the Quadrilateral nations (US, Japan and Australia), France, South Korea and Taiwan, as close identification with democratic powers.

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However, two issues come in the way of winning the perception war which portends a longish stalemate on the ground: Reality, and the PLA’s refusal for an early dis-engagement of opposing forces standing eyeball to eyeball. Modi knows that another border skirmish will not be weapons’ free since the government of India has changed the rules of engagement. But if even one shot is fired, an escalation is assured, which will be controlled by the PLA, being militarily stronger. Eventually it could lead to war, bringing India face to face with reality.

That reality is grim for India. An accidental war, which neither side wants, would likely lead to a decisive victory for the PLA in quick time. For one, the PLA will not fight to the Indian Army’s strength of land warfare. It will fight in the domains of cyber, space and the electromagnetic spectrum by disrupting, disabling or destroying communications and command and control nodes at all levels — from the Prime Minister’s Office to the frontline troops. Communication/ information denial will severely affect India’s war waging capacity.

The PLA has, since 2018, been doing realistic combat joint exercises comprising land, air, space, cyber, and rocket forces under its Western Theatre Command responsible for the LAC. These include live firings for re-calibration of its long-range weapons which are critical for accuracy in altitudes of 12,000 feet and above. In LUOYANG-2018,  a significant training exercise , the PLA did a series of force-on-force exercises in which a Strategic Support Force (SSF) base challenged a PLA group army (8,000 troops) brigade’s communications with hostile jamming and interruptions to its operational electromagnetic environment. The PLA has good habitat for 200,000 troops, storage for war materiel and uninterrupted supply of war logistics including ammunition and spares.

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The Indian military lacks all of the above. What the army has been doing till now is border policing duties on the LAC. The combat experience that army veterans talk of is limited to counter terror operations on the western front. War and counter-terror operations are as different as chalk and cheese. Moreover, imported war-fighting platforms, ammunition, spares, and so on will preclude intense rates of fire to match the PLA’s rockets and missiles inventory.

The good news is that China does not want war with India in the near future for two strategic reasons. One, its principal adversary — the United States — needs to be tamed first in the western Pacific theatre through ASEAN as the pivot. Instead of challenging US military power, Beijing has unleashed its economic power on the ASEAN through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has nearly one trillion dollars of annual trade with ASEAN. It now seeks to strengthen the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) established in 2006 to promote mutual trust and understanding of security and defence matters among ASEAN members. Once China is confident about views compatibility amongst the ADMM, it will sign the Code of Conduct (promised by it decades ago) with ASEAN. Once that happens, ASEAN, instead of China, is likely to tell the US to stop its freedom of navigation patrols in the region for peace.

China is pursuing a similar agenda through other forums too. Interestingly, at the recently-held Russia-India-China (RIC) foreign ministers meeting on June 23, the strengthening of tri-defence was discussed and agreed upon. According to the Russian ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev, who spoke with Force newsmagazine, “The first trilateral meeting between RIC defence ministers under the Russian chairmanship could take place by the end of the year… Broadly speaking, we believe that the RIC format is very important because it helps to expand ties between the three countries. Such cooperation is not targeted against anyone rather than at building trust and stability in the Eurasian region.”

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the SCO summit in Qingdao. Credit: PMO

Russian stakes for peace between India and China are huge. Having invested heavily in both the BRI and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (that includes the Central Asian Republics, India and Pakistan) for the Eurasian region, China and Russia – driven, no doubt, by different geopolitical agendas – have converged strategically to meet the US’s challenge to their Asia-Pacific security mechanism. India, though not a geo-strategic player like China and Russia, could play an important role in the realisation of this objective. Moreover, Russia remains India’s closest partner for its defence and energy, including nuclear energy, needs.

The other strategic reason why China does not want war with India is that it would demolish its peaceful rise format through the BRI. This would have an adverse effect on its Asia-Pacific strategy, its ‘Two Centennial Goals’ (2021 and 2049) and the Chinese Dream. China has given up the hope of India joining the BRI. For this reason, China, after its 2019 BRI forum (presided jointly by Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin), which India did not attend, quietly dropped the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) as one of the six economic corridors under the BRI.

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What China wants from India is neutrality in the competing Asia-Pacific and US-led Indo-Pacific with the Quadrilateral mechanism at its core. This is one of the two key reasons for the present PLA massive intrusions in Ladakh. China argues that India has gone back on the 2018 Wuhan consensus, which was reinforced in the 2019 Chennai Connect Summit, between Xi and Modi. The consensus was that China and India would cooperate with one another for regional (hard-wired) connectivity and security ties – two areas which also distinguish Modi’s Act East policy from the earlier Look East policy. Importantly, India and China will not be rivals. China claims that with India’s growing closeness with the US and Quad members, Modi has reneged on his promise. The PLA intrusions are, thus, meant to both remind India forcefully of its Wuhan promise; and to get a reality check on how much the US could come to India’s help in its hour of reckoning.

The other reason is India’s 2019 altering of the political status quo in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Considering that China does not believe its border with India in Ladakh is disputed – since 2010 it has been saying that that the length of the undelineated border with India is only 2,000km (i.e. it excludes Aksai Chin in Ladakh a a dispute), China believes that the creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory marked out on the map of India constitutes cartographic aggression. The PLA’s response has been to change the status quo on the ground in Ladakh. Rubbishing the 1993 LAC, it has by force, pushed to encroach on areas beyond even its traditional claim line.

China prepared for three scenarios

While Modi would prefer a long drawn out stalemate, China is prepared for three possible options short of direct war with India in the coming days.

1. The PLA has moved massive combat trained forces backed with combat support elements (artillery and long-range missiles of its rocket force) along with elements of its Strategic Support Force (electronic warfare) closer to the LAC in the eastern sector (1346 km of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). This has compelled the Indian Army to match numbers on the LAC. If a shot gets fired in excitement by the Indian side, an escalation by the PLA is assured;

2. The PLA has the option to use its silent cyber capabilities to target the whole of India. Its space capabilities too are impressive. While it is unlikely to use its Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (DS-ASAT) kinetic capability involving use of ballistic rocket, nothing prevents it from using its co-orbital ASAT weapons to target India’s GSAT series satellites. The PLA has capability to detect, track, and guide an interceptor towards target satellite with its own satellite weapons which until activated can remain dormant for years. The PLASSF has specialised units training on DS-ASAT and co-orbital ASAT weapons. The PLA has powerful electronic warfare (EW) jammers capable of blinding satellites. In short, it has multiple counter space capabilities to deny or destroy an enemy’s space-based assets during a crisis or conflict; and

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3. The most alarming scenario is of a limited war between India and Pakistan fully supported by the PLA’s massive invisible capabilities in north Ladakh. The groundwork for such an eventuality lies in the growing interoperability between the Pakistan military and the PLA around Gilgit-Baltistan since 2011. The Modi government has brought this region, which is under Pakistani occupation, in its new map as a part of the Ladakh UT. With the Chinese Beidou navigation satellite global constellation operational with 35 satellites, Pakistan is the sole foreign nation with rights to military-grade resolution imagery, so the accuracy of Pakistani missiles would be good. The Beidou satellites are equipped with radio frequency and laser inter-satellite links, and new atomic clocks. Meanwhile, there are reports that the Pakistan Army has moved additional forces closer to the line of control and Gilgit-Baltistan with the Pakistan Air Force on high alert.

Relations between India and Pakistan are at all-time low, with Pakistan blaming India for sponsoring the recent terrorist attack at the Pakistan stock exchange in Karachi, for which the Baloch Liberation Army has claimed responsibility. Considering that the PLA is seeking to compromise Indian Army reinforcements through the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie route, and has made deep ingress into the Depsang plains, the situation is ripe for Pakistan to escalate matters on the Siachen glacier. Whatever its outcome, this would have an extremely damaging effect on India’s Kashmir policy and its status in the neighbourhood, region and the world.

Given this, the Modi government should favourably consider the option of talks with China at ministerial or summit level. Without adequate military power, India’s options in the Ladakh crisis are narrowing by the day. This is the only reality.

Pravin Sawhney is editor, Force newsmagazine