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DE-CIPHERING CHINESE INTENT BEHIND: ‘KEY TO INDIA’S MILITARY RESPONSE AND FOLLOW UP STRATEGY

Maj Gen R S Yadav (Retired) Writes : 

Ever since 05 May, when the Pangong Tso stand-off and scuffle became public, and as details of other face offs then and dis-engagement talks now have been getting added, there has been an unending dissonance of news, views, critiques and suggestions. But after the loss of 20 Brave Hearts at Galwan on night 15/16 Jun, the Indian Blood has been on the boil. Recommendations spanning from hardcore punitive military action to soft diplomatic resolution have come forth from the academia and strategists. The Indian Government has since banned 59 Chinese Apps, and the common public too has swung into action to shun everything Chinese. But from what is gradually emerging, the recent intrusions and face offs backed up by heavy force levels, is all a pre-meditated deliberate PLA military action with a definite aim. It would therefore be prudent that instead of knee-jerk response(s), the ‘Chinese Intent’ be first ascertained / deduced with sufficient clarity, to tailor a response which not only thwarts its immediate military designs with minimal efforts, but also obstructs its larger strategic goals. The paper attempts to deduce the PLA’s immediate Military Aim(s) and Chinese Intent, and suggests India’s Military Response and Follow up Strategy.

Assessing PLA’s Immediate Military Aim(s) and Chinese Intent?

China, one of the oldest and vibrant civilizations of the world, is unable to digest the century of humiliation suffered at the hands of the British and Japanese (1840 to 1945), and has long harboured a dream to re-emerge as the Middle Kingdom to rule over the world. To ensure fruition of this ambition, consecutive Chinese leaders commencing from  Dr Sun Yat Sen to Xi Jinping, ensured ‘continuity of strategic thought and plans’[1] over the past century to make China reach the penultimate pedestal in world rankings with the required military and economic muscle, to now make the final push for the top slot.

As regards India, China’s stratagem is based on Mao Zedong’s statement endorsed by Deng Xiaoping, that ‘Tibet is the palm of China, and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA are its fingers’[2],, . With Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley already occupied, and reports of increasing Chinese presence in areas of Gilgit Baltistan in the name of (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) CPEC, China may finally be eyeing whole of Ladakh, or at least Eastern Ladakh up to Indus River as its western boundary. However, there are some weaknesses China’s geography that limits its options.

The Chinese Weaknesses

Any Global Power needs freedom on land, sea, air and space to freely project and exercise its military power, to secure its strategic and economic interests across the globe. While China has sufficient freedom in air and space because of its geographical size and spread, its freedom on land and sea are highly restricted:-

Land Frontier.         China has a land frontier of about 22,117 kms, the longest any single country has in the world[3]. It shares boundaries with 14 countries (with Pakistan, through occupied Indian territories). Since China has, or has had, boundary disputes with many neighbours, it limits any access through them. However, the following geographical realities too severely restrict the utility of land avenues:-

  • Out of the 14 neighbours, 8 countries are land-locked viz. Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Laos, which naturally cannot provide further access to any desired destination directly.
  • The balance 6 neighbours have access to open seas viz. North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, India, Mynamar and Vietnam. Passage through North Korea and Vietnam to sea is not required as these are adjacent to Chinese coastline. Russian access is again no good as it is largely oriented to Arctic North.
  • That leaves only three useful land neighbours viz. Pakistan, India and Myanmar.
  • Since India has boundary dispute, and Myanmar is still not relenting (on Kyaukpyu port), China has had only Pakistan to look forward to, and has accordingly put everything behind CPEC to make it successful. Actually, that is (rather will be) the only alternate access available to China, if it is blocked on its eastern seaboard. However, this corridor suffers a major drawback due to closure of Khunjerab Pass for almost five months in a year from December to April, due to heavy snow. It also needs to overcome the restive Balochistan province in Pakistan.

Sea Frontier. China has a total sea frontage of about 14,500 kms[4]. However, its freedom for naval operations is again highly restricted:-

  • The Yellow Sea in the North is almost blocked by the Korean Peninsula and Kyushu Island of Japan in the East.
  • The East China Sea is again blocked on the East by Japanese Islands of Kyushu and Ryukyus, and in the South East by Taiwan.
  • The South China Sea is hemmed in by Vietnam in the West, Philippines in the East and by the Indonesian and Malay archipelagos in the South.
  • China’s sea passage to the South further suffers a bottleneck at the Malacca, Sunda, Lumbok, and Makassar Straits, and then faces surveillance from Indian Islands of Andaman and Nicobar before it has clear access to the Indian Ocean Region. Thereafter it needs to move either through the Suez Canal or around Cape of Good Hope to Europe.
  • These long sea passages, even if secured, would require multiple Logistic Support Bases enroute. Thus, the Chinese quest to secure various ports/bases viz. the artificial islands in South China Sea, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Djibouti in Africa. And its hunt for newer locations, especially in Africa, continues. However, only one sea passage for an emerging global power, with many constrictions, definitely does not meet its strategic needs!

New Emerging/Anticipated Threats. With India re-asserting its claims to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Gilgit, Baltistan and Aksai Chin in 2019 (at the time of abrogating Article 370, and subsequent creation and de-lineation of the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh), China would definitely be worried on following two counts:-

  • CPEC. Any physical attempt by India to regain Pak occupied areas will directly impact the CPEC.
  • Chinese National Highway G 219. G 219[5] is a lifeline for Tibet from Xinjiang. From Karghalik in North to Shiquanhe in South G 219 is a solitary axis with no alternate connectivity through any other road, and therefore, its blockage/disruption can be a major strategic vulnerability. Moreover, it is from this vulnerable patch of G 219 in Aksai Chin, from where five laterals have been developed to the LAC viz. to Depsang Plains (areas of PP 10, 11, 11A, 12 & 13), Galwan Valley (PP 14), Hot Springs/Gogra (PP 15 & 17A), Pangong Tso North Bank (till Finger 4) and Pangong Tso South Bank (almost till opposite of Finger 4, and where an additional road from Rutogh to Spanggur-Chushul also exists). As per rough estimations from various maps, the length of all these axes is varying between 100 to 125 kms (In addition, DBO itself is only about 10 Kms west of LAC, and from DBO to Karakoram Pass is also about 10 kms only as the crow flies)[6]. The military capability and sustainability of all these five axes have been well proven by recent Chinese build up to the LAC. Since 1962 till early 2000s, a comparatively weaker India was hesitant to initiate border area developments near LAC fearing Chinese usage during any hostility. However, now with resolve of a stronger India to develop air and all weather multiple road connectivity all along the LAC, in Ladakh (especially activation of DBO airstrip, near completion of DSDBO Road, and even some of its eastwards connectivity across River Shyok towards LAC), is raising apprehensions in China regarding its capability to secure Aksai Chin, with only limited Border Defence Troops.

PLA’s probable immediate Military Aim(s)

It is possibly the above mentioned geographical constraints, and related security needs, which are pushing China to lay claims and secure territories in East China Sea and South China Sea to create a buffer for its mainland, as also to gain freedom of manoeuvre for PLA Navy and ensure safe transit for its trade vessels, and secure alternate access corridors on land. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) Project now Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013 under the garb of ‘economic development’ of about 70 countries, a venture with masked strategic dimensions[7] is primarily aimed at securing land corridors, with discrete priority accorded for access into the Arabian Sea at Gwadar through Pakistan, and into Bay of Bengal through Mynamar (through Kyaukpyu, whenever feasible).

Moreover, with continuing pressures for independence of Tibet, and fresh traction gaining prominence regarding atrocities on Uyghurs in Xinjiang (both extensive, remote and resource rich regions), China would naturally be concerned about strategic connectivity to these volatile areas at the time of fresh emerging situations that it has created, from India to its Eastern Seaboard.

Since there would be numerous opponents to face on the eastern sea board to secure its claims in East and South China Seas, and the tussle could be long drawn with international players coming into the fray, it makes pure military sense for it to first ensure availability of an assured alternate supply route (though extended) for sustenance during the anticipated crisis on eastern seaboard, and also secure strategic connectivity of the two troubled remote areas of Xinjiang and Tibet.

An aggressive PLA action in Eastern Ladakh would address all these concerns and provide the PLA a chance to recce and practice mobilization into Aksai Chin, study & upgrade defensive and logistic layout along all five axes, push as far forward astride LAC as possible to lay fresh claims or gain territory, gain vantage positions to overlook DSDBO Road to make it redundant during operations, and in the bargain secure G 219 and impose caution on India. Pakistan, which is now almost a subservient state of China, too could be easily roped in to facilitate this operation, and also assist in the Chinese ingress into Gilgit Baltistan in the name of securing CPEC. Thus, it would give a message to India that hereafter, because of commonality of interests, both China and Pakistan would stand together thereby, raising a spectre of Two Front War for India.

While China has possibly been getting away with its old ‘Salami Slicing’ tactics along the LAC all these years, it is now facing an  ever-increasing resistance from India off late. With the enhanced pace of border area development by India, and its ever improving international stature, the PLA seems to perceive that only an early operation (of strategic land grab) may succeed. So, learning from Doklam, that India may use force to resist Chinese designs in future, Chinese PLA appear to have come well prepared with adequate strength, back up reserves and ready for a long haul.

So as Step 1, PLA as per a pre-meditated surprise plan, has moved in at the beginning of the campaigning season under the ruse of an ongoing exercise, unilaterally attempted to change the status quo at LAC abrogating all previous Agreements, and has attempted to secure areas right up to their perception of the LAC thereby trying to gain local tactical advantages all across. Going back on disengagement terms agreed upon during the meeting of 06 Jun 2020, and bringing in special troops in to the Galwan area leading to a face off on night 15/16 Jun, could also be a pre-planned affair to gauge Indian resolve and create an excuse for lengthy negotiation processes to have an alibi for continuing the stay at LAC.

Now agreeing only for phased disengagement (or just giving its semblance), but retaining/ increasing force levels in the rear areas, mobilization of Pak Reserve Forces into Gilgit Baltistan areas, and reports of Chinese aircrafts landing in Skardu, reasonably point towards a likely Chinese design (with direct/indirect collusivity of Pak) to possibly make a likely push for securing territory in Galwan and Depsang areas later in the campaigning season. This attempted land grab is likely to be a part of its larger ploy to connect to Pakistan over a wider land corridor (connect Gilgit Baltistan to Aksai Chin), or an initial step to grab Eastern Ladakh.

Ongoing debate in some corners to say that China is only undertaking an action of ‘Coercive Diplomacy’ to make India retract from anti-China actions viz. declaring new UTs of J&K and Ladakh, laying claims to Aksai Chin, Gilgit, Baltistan and PoK, supporting WHO inquiry on COVID, and joining of US led Quad, is a big fallacy. PLA, the world’s second largest Army with massive resources, will not undertake a planned offensive posture against India, just to retreat later on a verbal assurance from India.  Need to remember that Chinese, who are so sensitive to Mianzi (meaning ‘keeping Face’), may never venture into any empty rhetoric. And also need to recall that Chinese planning for this operation probably started around 2006 when a Google Image showed a 1:500 Model of Aksai Chin area created in Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia Autonomous Region)[8] to practice PLA, and that was also the time when Siachen De-militarization talks between India and Pakistan got stalled for the third time[9], possibly drawing a curtain on negotiated settlements in the region.

Probable Chinese Intent

China has likely aimed to achieve the following strategic objectives, which is in sync with the much talked about Chinese intent of teaching India a lesson and relegating it to a subordinate position in the Asian power  structure (to then let China compete unhindered with USA for the Global Leadership):-

  • The CPEC would have been secured for posterity. It would also facilitate later re-configure CPEC to an all-weather route meeting the requirement of China
  • Concurrently, it would also secure Gilgit, Baltistan and POK for Pakistan, and would also facilitate a tighter strategic embrace of Pakistan.
  • It would militarily disgrace India, give an image-makeover to PLA, and China would still continue to have strong leverages over India across LAC in the Middle and Eastern Sectors.
  • Any fresh setback against PLA would be seen as a weakness of India, forcing Nepal and Bhutan overtime acquiesce to all Chinese demands as a fait accompli, and the Tibetan Govt in Exile lose faith and momentum.
  • However, China has not taken in the Indian resolve, the disastrous impact of the pandemic on China and Pakistan, especially their economies, China’s internal fissures, external pressures and its capability to continue the confrontation in Eastern Ladakh through the winter with limited infrastructure for supplies and troops.

India’s Military Response and Follow Up Strategy

 India’s Military Response

The Indian Armed Forces, in their current state, can definitely blunt the PLA in a short confrontation in a chosen area. However, considering the challenges of ongoing corona pandemic, a foreseeable economic downturn, and the possibility of Pak collusivity, an all-out confrontation could best be avoided. Judging from the PLA activities and response unfolded till now, the following may be the best military response during the ongoing disengagement process: –

  • Maintain a close deployment with PLA in Eastern Ladakh, with adequate reserves to thwart any PLA aggression.
  • Strengthen ISR to keep track of any PLA and PLAAF move into Pak occupied areas.
  • Maintain preventive deployment all along LAC and LoC to avoid any loss of territory.
  • Maintain sufficient reserves in critical areas of Central and Eastern Sectors to deny any bargaining chip to China in case of a limited show down. Have plans ready for quid pro quo to address China’s vulnerabilities.
  • Ensure adequate logistic support for all deployments through the winter
  • Utilise the current favourable international opinion for making up all capability development and force modernisation.

China is known for its ‘two steps forward, and one step back policy’ during negotiations. Therefore, any reneging on reversion to status quo ante in totality, should be taken as an act of continuing aggression, and dealt with accordingly.

India’s Follow up Strategy

International relations are always energized and guided by congruity of ‘National Interests’. Fortunately, today, while facing the Chinese onslaught, India is well placed with US and other major players who too are equally concerned and impacted by Chinese aggressions. Having stemmed the PLA tide in Eastern Ladakh India needs to take concrete pro-active steps to stop China from continuing to pursue  its strategic objectives . The following are felt to be the minimum essential during the short term: –

  • Build military capacity and ensure Force Modernisation on priority.
  • Guard , retain the emerging Leverages of CPEC and G219, and review India’s Tibet Policy.
  • Utilise all diplomatic and economic pressures (both national and international) to force PLA to revert to status quo ante in toto, accept the demarcation of the boundary in an earliest specified timeframe.
  • Streamline operational responsibility along active borders (by placing CAPFs under operational control of Indian Army).

As for the Long Term, an additional aspect needs to be considered. Geography cannot be ignored i.e. neighbours cannot be chosen – they exist and will continue to be there for eternity. Peace and harmony on the frontiers are the basic requirement for sustained growth of any nation. Since a powerful China will only respect a strong India, India needs to quickly build capacity in these favourable times, and then use all the leverages to bargain for mutual accommodation on equal terms. There is a definite need to stem perpetual ‘military confrontations’ in the region and change focus to ‘development & wellbeing of masses’ by ushering in mutual faith and boosting healthy intra-regional trade.

End Notes

[1] Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan (Retd), USI Occasional Paper Vol No-01-2018: Strategic Continuum of China’s Strategic Behaviour : Implications for India post the 19th Congress of the CPC (Accessed on 05 Jul 2020 from https://usiofindia.org)

[2] Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd), 15 Sep 2014, China’s Finger Problem – will President Xi cure? (Accessed on 09 Jul 2020 from http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/chinas-finger-problem-will-president-xi-cure)

[3] Article –  The 14 Countries Bordering China : China’s Neighbors (Accessed on 06 Jul 2020 from https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/countries-bordering-china.htm)

[4] Oliver Smith, 12 Dec 2018, Mapped : The Countries with longest coastlines – The Telegraph (Accessed on 06 Jul 2020 from https://www.telegraph.co.uk)

[5] Derek Wong, 20 Nov 2019, Lhasa to Kashgar Overland, Xinjiang Tibet Highway – Tibet Vista (Accessed on 09 Jul 2020 from https://www.tibettravel.org)

[6] Nirupama Subramanian, 16 Jun 2020, Explained : The Strategic road to DBO (Accessed on 09 Jul 2020 from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/lac-stand-off-india-china-darbuk-shyok-daulat-beg-oldie-dsdbo-road-6452997/)

[7] Rolland Nadege, 12 Aug 2019 : Mapping the footprint of Belt and Road influence operations (Accessed on 06 Jul 2020 from https://synopsis.cz)

[8] Lt Gen P C Katoch, SPS Land Forces Issue 2/2013, Anatomy of China’s DBO Intrusion (Accessed on 09 Jul 2020 from http://spslandforces.com/story/?id=251&h=Anatomy-of-Chinas-DBO-Intrusion)

[9] Suhasini Haider, 07 Sep 2017, The Hindu, India, Pakistan nearly agreed on Siachen Three times : Shyam Saran (Accessed on 09 Jul 2020 from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-pakistan-nearly-agreed-on-siachen-three-times-shyam-saran/article19631457.ece)

 

 

Maj Gen R S Yadav (Retired) was a President’s Awardee from the National Defence Academy, and had headed Media and Information Operations desks in Service HQs.

Article uploaded on 16-07-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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