Decoding Chinese Strategic Intent in the Standoff at the Line of Actual Control

29 September 2020 Major-General S. B. Asthana, SM, VSM (Veteran), FDI Associate Download PDF

Key Points

  • The Sino-Indian military posturing and muscle-flexing in Ladakh continues, along with diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions between the two.
  • The People’s Liberation Army’s locus of military operations is eastern Ladakh and its build up along the rest of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is part of that military posturing.
  • India should insist on proper delimitation and demarcation of the LAC, pending a permanent settlement of the border, while also firmly holding its ground in any prolonged standoff through the approaching winter.
  • There is, in the interim, the need for an Indo-Pacific alliance of democratic countries, which could be done by converting the “Quad” grouping to a military alliance, like NATO.

Summary

The current China-India stand-off in eastern Ladakh has seen multiple rounds of talks at various levels, ranging from Ministers to local military commanders, fail to ease tensions, and a consequent continued troop build-up. While negotiations continue, with military-level talks rolling over to a seventh round, given the climate of deep mistrust, there is very little hope that talks alone will make any worthwhile progress.

India should not accept China’s tactic of patrolling and occupying areas where it is not supposed to be, thereby invalidating previously-negotiated “confidence building measures”, as part of its overall “Incremental Encroachment Strategy” or, as it is more commonly and colourfully known, “cabbage slicing”. Were New Delhi to do so, it would allow China to unilaterally alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in its favour, and require India to accept nominal disengagement while Chinese troops remain in Depsang, Finger 8 to Finger 4, Gogra, and other areas. The Chinese military commanders are uncomfortable with India’s proactive measures to effectively dominate some parts of the Chushul Heights in the Kailash Range, areas south of Pangong Tso (Lake) and some heights to the north of Finger 4, hence the continued posturing and muscle flexing by both sides.

Analysis

Chinese Strategic Intent

A major foreign policy aim of Beijing has always been to have a China-centric Asia. That objective, however, demands Indian subordination to China’s will. Its intention, in the current context, was to occupy a strategic piece of land, that being predicated on the notion that India would not be able to respond effectively due to its pre-occupation with the domestic impact of COVID-19 and the resultant effect on its economy. Embarrassingly for Beijing, however, India not only reacted quickly to halt further Chinese encroachment and protect its territorial integrity, but also occupied positions that could offer its troops an advantage in a conflict.

China’s strategic goal of controlling eastern Ladakh is in part to safeguard its National Highway 219, the Karakoram Pass, which is immediately to the north of Daulat Beg Oldie in India (see map below) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and to redraw the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto Sino-Indian border according to its perception and thereafter negotiate a permanent border from a position of strength. China feels threatened by Indian military positions in its Sub-Sector North (SSN) including Daulat Beg Oldie, its infrastructure development including the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road, and, arguably most importantly, India’s resolve to reclaim its entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which poses a threat to the crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity and the regional viability of its Belt-Road Initiative. The PLA’s locus of military operations is Eastern Ladakh, making its build-up of military assets in the area and its intended gains along the rest of the LAC little more than an attempt to pick up bargaining chips.

With the continued build-up and with both sides preparing for the long haul, the operational aim of the PLA is to maximise its territorial gains, wherever it finds opportunity, all along the LAC before the onset of winter; it needs to exploit the remaining months before heavy snowfall in winter prevents operations until the following spring. It also must ensure that it does not lose any of the heights it currently occupies, which could account for the further build-up of its forces in areas where it encroached after April, and is strengthening the areas that have been made vulnerable by India’s recent occupation of some heights above Chushul and to the south of Pangong Lake. It also seeks to delay India’s infrastructure development in the region by preventing/delaying construction until the next northern-hemisphere spring. Indian efforts to develop its infrastructure have not stopped, however, but have been expedited because of China’s aggression.

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) tactical aim is to launch probing actions to gain some tactically significant features that are important for India’s defence, before winter snowfalls; any such gains could collectively improve its strategic posture or bargaining position during subsequent talks on the border issue. The Indian military is aware of those intentions, however; hence, India’s insistence on verifying any negotiated Chinese withdrawals and the reluctance of the Chinese to acquiesce to such verification, since any withdrawal could lead to probing Indian actions to improve its tactical position. As a consequence, tussles between two forces cannot be ruled out every time the Chinese probe Indian territory. The stand-off is likely to continue through the northern winter, an eventuality for which the Indian military is fully prepared, thus providing Indian decision-makers with the option of not hurrying to disengage with Chinese troops on terms that are unsuitable for India’s long-term security.

China’s Concerns

General Secretary Xi Jinping miscalculated the global anger against the Chinese Communist Party and himself, while trying to take advantage of China’s early recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. His actions have triggered a strong global desire to decouple from Chinese supply chains. Having made unwarranted and aggressive moves in Ladakh and in the South and East China Seas, Xi Jinping continues to underestimate the collective pushback of democracies. China now faces major democracies in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania standing up to its over-ambitious and aggressive actions, leaving only a comparatively few bankrupt countries standing by its side to handle multiple points of friction.

China’s violation of negotiated Confidence Building Measures in Ladakh has given India the option of responding militarily, as well as economically, diplomatically and otherwise. With international opinion in its favour, India has the option of greater freedom of action. A withdrawal of PLA troops would have a heavy domestic political cost for Xi Jinping, besides the threat of occupation of vacated areas by India. The Chinese game plan, therefore, is to push the PLA to make some quick gains before winter and call for talks to freeze the situation thereafter, in order to retain its gains. That is clearly against India’s security interests. The approaching winter adds a logistics dimension to the build-up, as well as urgency to any tactical moves. A visible transition of Chinese intent from offensive to defensive tactics is evident, therefore, in Xi Jinping’s calls to “fortify Tibet” due to tough Indian resolve and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit there.

What Should be India’s Responses?

The Indian national resolve, its speedy mobilisation and proactive actions have surprised China. India’s economic and diplomatic responses to China’s aggression have triggered a hard global stance against Beijing’s adventurism. No country wants war; hence, India has gone along with talks at various levels so far. India would like to have peaceful borders, but not at the cost of the Chinese occupation of disputed territory or a LAC changed in favour of China. Talks alone are unlikely to make the PLA call a halt to its strong-arm tactics.

India must raise the cost of the PLA’s presence in unauthorised areas, even if that amounts to preparing for the long haul along the LAC and considering some military options in addition to those that are being undertaken. Unlike many other past errors in dealing with China, India needs to avoid any quick fix diplomatic solutions like entering into a five-point agreement, seeking fresh confidence building measures, mutual disengagement and creating buffer zones, all of which support the Chinese agenda. Pulling back from freshly occupied heights south of Pangong Tso, as demanded by China, would be a strategic disaster for India and, hence, cannot be conceded. This requires political, diplomatic and military decision makers to be on the same page, to co-ordinate their efforts towards finding a negotiated and lasting solution. India’s strategic aim and goal should be to insist on a fair and formal delimitation and demarcation of the LAC, which is difficult but achievable, pending a permanent settlement of the Sino-Indian border issue. A softer stance will almost inevitably lead to the recurrence of a similar situation, which is not in India’s security interest.

What Should be the Global Response?

The world needs to realise that China has grown emboldened due to its successful strategy of incremental acquisition of territory without fighting in the past, especially in the South China Sea. That (over)confidence has prompted Xi Jinping to open multiple fronts for territorial gains amidst pandemic, diverting domestic and international criticism against the CCP and, especially, himself. With multiple fronts, exposed sea lanes of communications and isolated bases, China now finds its inventory of military assets too meagre to cover all its vulnerabilities.

China’s aggression on multiple fronts has necessitated the need for an Indo-Pacific Alliance of democratic countries, which could be built up by strengthening the US-India-Australia-Japan “Quad” and by converting it to a military alliance along the lines of NATO. With the global economic and demographic fulcrum shifting to the Indo-Pacific, such an alliance has become necessary for lasting peace in the region. If Chinese assertiveness and encroachment is not controlled now, regional democracies (and those beyond), will face a much more aggressive and stronger future Chinese threat, and punishments like restricting global sea lines of communication in the South China Sea. The world could not countenance that outcome.

 

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About the Author

Major-General Asthana is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran infantry general with 40 years’ experience in national and international fields and the United Nations. He is a globally acknowledged strategic and military writer/analyst who has authored over 350 publications. Maj-Gen Asthana has been interviewed by various national and international news channels, newspapers and organisations, including the Economic Times, Washington Post, Modern Diplomacy, South China Morning Post, Voice of France, Hindustan Times and Gulf Today.
He is currently Chief Instructor of all courses for military officers at the United Service Institute of India, the oldest established think-tank in India. Maj-Gen Asthana is a doctoral researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, holds two MPhil degrees, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Human Resource Management and various management degrees.
Maj-Gen Asthana has served as Director-General of Infantry of the Indian Army and has been twice awarded by the President of India, twice by the UN, and by the Governor of Haryana state. He serves on the Board of Advisors/Security Councils of the Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE), International Organisation for Educational Development (IOED), International Police Commission (IPC India), Security Council of Internet TV Media News Network (ITVMNN) and other UN organisations. He is also on the Advisory Board of the Swedish Armed Forces International Centre (SWEDINT) and is a member of the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON).

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