Ladakh face-off with China: Let the military prove its worth - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 17 July 2020

Ladakh face-off with China: Let the military prove its worth

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th July 20

The situation in Ladakh can best be described as one of “ugly stability”. There is no fighting but Indian and Chinese troops continue to confront each other in several places, despite limited withdrawals by both sides in three sub-sectors. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has long constituted the de facto Sino-Indian boundary would be effectively redrawn in Ladakh to China’s benefit if Beijing does not withdraw. This is not the first time after the 1962 war that India has lost territory here. China’s creeping acquisition, which involves gaining control of pockets of land through methods such as bullying Indian patrols or deterring Ladakhi graziers from taking Pashmina sheep flocks to their traditional grazing grounds, has given China control of significant chunks of Ladakhi territory. An example is the wide strip of land across the Indus between Demchok and Dungti, which, while nominally on the Indian side of the LAC, is now a no-go for locals and even for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) that watches over these areas. Yet, if one were to draw a line connecting the Chinese intrusions in (from north to south) Depsang, Galwan, Hot Spring and Pangong Tso, this new LAC would mark the biggest territorial loss since 1962. Three months ago, this would have seemed a wildly improbable thought.

The Indian military has responded by pumping in forces by land and air and has confronted the Chinese to prevent further ingress. However, the Chinese have already dug in and moved reserves to back up the troops who have intruded. If they refuse to withdraw and we do not throw them back through military action, these areas will be lost.

Taking a step back, it should be noted that Ladakh has always been an Indian military vulnerability – the sector where China and Pakistan can act in concert. Troops stationed in Ladakh have always been vulnerable to being diverted by Northern Command for counterinsurgency (CI) operations in the Kashmir valley. Indeed, in 1999, Pakistani intrusions in Kargil took India by surprise precisely because the army’s attention was focused squarely on combating the Kashmiri insurgency, rather than safeguarding the apparently peaceful Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil. In those days, the Srinagar-headquartered 15 Corps looked after both the Kashmir valley and Ladakh. After clearing out the Pakistani intruders, the army placed Ladakh under a new formation. But the new Leh-headquartered 14 Corps has divided responsibilities too. It is the army’s only corps that is responsible for borders both with China and Pakistan, in addition to the unique responsibility of defending the Siachen Glacier. Yet, 14 Corps can seldom count on reinforcements because Northern Command’s reserve formations are too often already committed in CI operations.

In contrast, the Eastern Command is better placed. Each of the three corps that defend the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim enjoy the luxury of a reserve division (15,000 troops) that can be called upon for dealing with a developing crisis. In addition, Eastern Command can be reinforced with “dual task formations” from the western theatre, if the Pakistani front is inactive. Also, a full division from the mountain strike corps is available for offensive operations in the east. So there is enough in Eastern Command to keep the Chinese at bay.

Ironically, both India and China feel vulnerable in the Ladakh and Aksai Chin sectors. A key operational objective for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is to safeguard the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway G219, which runs through Aksai Chin. Beijing also feels threatened by Islamist separatism in Xinjiang and the ethnic rebellion in Tibet, both of which come together near Ladakh. Meanwhile Indian military planners in Ladakh fear a Chinese threat to the army’s lines of communication along the LAC. In the worst-case, two-front contingency, they worry about a simultaneous attack by Pakistan and China along the Shyok River valley, and a link up between the two that cuts off the entire Siachen Glacier sector, the Nubra valley and the Daulat Beg Oldi sector from India.

While neither of these dire contingencies have come to pass, the PLA’s intrusions have clearly caught the army napping. They have occurred at a time when Indian troop levels were low, and logistics were depleted at the end of winter. Now, when army logistics should be focused on replenishing the stocks consumed during winter, planning attention is diverted to inducting troops into the sector to hold the Chinese, with all the logistics requirements that demands.

From New Delhi’s reactions, which were first to deny the intrusions and now to minimise what China has perpetrated, the lesson to both allies and enemies is that India can be bullied. Given New Delhi’s focus on keeping its political leaders looking good, Beijing can safely surmise that its aggression will continue to be underplayed in New Delhi and that it can, therefore, be continued. The message to India’s partner countries is even more alarming. The government’s obfuscation of the extent of Chinese intrusions and its playing up of the PLA’s withdrawals can fool the Indian public, but not the technical surveillance means – such as high-resolution satellite imagery and time-series photography – that are continually presenting the full picture to friends and adversaries alike. For remaining silent, even India’s friends would extract a price from New Delhi.

For India, this is an inflexion point. New Delhi has long been overly considerate of China’s sensitivities, whether in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea or in the economic realm. But China clearly wants more. India faces the choice of moving towards becoming a vassal state or purposefully safeguarding its sovereignty and self-respect. True, China is several times more powerful and wealthy than India, and a military confrontation would incur a heavy cost. However, it is worth considering whether Pakistan, which is similarly smaller, poorer and militarily weaker than India, would condone thousands of Indian troops intruding into sovereign Pakistani territory and refusing to withdraw. Sovereignty has a price and sometimes that price has to be paid. Furthermore, at the political level, a prime minister who bases his appeal on muscular nationalism would sooner or later run into difficulty in explaining why India climbed down in the face of Chinese territorial aggression.

Nor is the Indian military without options for limited retaliation against China. The army has multiple contingency plans for local offensives and the ability to hold off the Chinese in key sectors, including in the maritime domain. New Delhi is not without good friends in the international community, especially when it is ranged against China. Furthermore, India is a nuclear power with a functioning nuclear triad and the missiles and warheads needed to deter Beijing. All the government needs to do is to identify clear political and strategic objectives and to give the military planners a free hand to operate without geographical constraints. The Indian military is often underestimated and too much is made of its equipment shortages, when it is perfectly capable of managing in an emergency. Allow our soldiers, sailors and airmen to prove their worth.


  1. # and this is exactly the scenario that beijing's wargamers at 'PLA land forces' have worked out. when our military decides to up the ante, this will give beijing the opportunity to make abundantly clear to those contemplating taking on PR china exactly what they are up against. until now, beijing has wargamed on the sand model, then in tactical exercises without troops, then tactical exercises with troops and finally a few weeks ago a full fledged war game in central tibet, with troops and live munitions. at each stage mistakes have been committed, lessons learnt, corrective alternatives put into place and once again the entire exercise has been re-run, re-tested. now in a limited offensive in eastern ladakh, beijing will take the opportunity to test under actual combat conditions a raft of materiel, munitions, weapons systems, command, control and communications platforms, confirming practicability of battle drills, coordination, back up manoeuvres. in short the 'PLA landforces' ability to think, act, on its feet. 'PLA air force' will have a limited role, as this test will be to demonstrate beijing's ability to take on, neutralise enemies, seize objectives, and hold ground, at multiple locations. this will give a message to those contemplating adventurism on its littorals along the pacific to desist. beijing has no wish to compromise its markets, commercial interests, and most important, geo-strategy goals. in new delhi beijing sees a heaven sent opportunity; to give a clear message to washington through this limited military action in uninhabited, uninhabitable terrain. a bonus will be to move the line of actual control further west, establish a new alignment along the line of chushul, tangtse, shyok, satti, sasoma.
    let us not forget, chess was invented in india, as were higher algebra, calculus. taking a step back to take in the big picture, not getting lost in details, abstraction, optimising under multiple constraints, and the ability to think two, three moves ahead are powerful cognitive skills.

  2. Indian troops need to be have a clear strategic objective on what is our position to the incursion. The meandering position "We are going to talk", "We are going to fight" would be highly demoralizing. All of this is so chillingly familiar to 1962.

  3. We need to suppress the china Pakistan combo. We need to buy additional 24 to 36 rafale.

    A wet lease option must be worked out asap.

    1. A country which can afford to give only 5 kg rice per dying family per month, and one with such a ‘Atmnirbhar’ oriented PM for 6 long years now, should not consider buying more Rafales.

    2. Rafael or for that matter even additional Su-30 or Mig-29s will come not before 1.5-2 years. All the talks of allotting some 36000 crore is more a public posturing to save face in India. India cannot ask China to pause till 2022 to get aggressive.

      And, no questions are ever asked from the Army and about failure of Army intelligence. Nothing is beyond questions and no one should be.

      Chinese Premier has understood Modi's habits of propoganda politics for domestic audience. They let Modi and his followers celebrate false victories without making any statement. But they slice out areas they want. Thus Doklam is gone now. Apart from a corner of Doklam plateau, whole Doklam is under Chinese occupation. Same may be the story in several parts of Ladakh. All Modi and his men can keep doing is blame Nehru for losing more land in 1962 (mind it, it is 1962; more than 50 years ago - a time when India did not have enough resources to even feed people).
      Planes, ammunitions should be bought on regular basis and not thought of when battle chances come knocking on the door.


  4. Sir,

    I recall a Salam Khan movie were he talk about कुते की पूँछ in बुरे वक़्त ... That is what India and our defence forces are reduced too.

    Chinese aim was to expose the weakness of India before the world. Our institutional weakness is exposed by running around for emergency purchases. China has won the Road part of Belt and Road more or less. You are correct that they need to secure north Ladakh to fully clinch the road part of Belt & Road.

    With what has happened and the way ModIndia has surrender they will pick a time to make move thru Pakistan in 12 -24 months to complete what they are after in North Sikkim

    The Belt part of Chinese strategy ie sea lens were still up for grabs till March 2020. Quad with India as possible Pivot was a reasonable deterrent. What China has achieved In the mountains is substantial erosion on India credibility and weakling Quad.

    Yes because of our geography we will still be part of Quad just like Pakistan remained a important Western allay for Middle East despite 1971 but our status is substantial lower now.

    The next move by iron brothers China & Pakistan in North Ladakh/ Karakoram / Siachen should be timed to totally humiliate India and thus delay / compromise Quad. This delay will help Chinese to bully the South China Sea country’s to accept their hegemony ie big move forward for Belt.

    I beg to differ with you about the ability of defence forces. Even if they are as good as you claim, on there own, I see a little significantly impact by out Forces on the Dragon’s game just because China has the ability to sustain war beyond 30days.

    As a country India needS to reestablish our Credibility, prove that as nations were Institutions that are robust and we have strategic depth. Running around as head less chickens for supplies has done India more harm than virtual surrender on 19th June, which could be sold as a tactical retreat to our friends.

  5. NSR says ---

    As I was writing numerous times, criminal and depraved china gifted the world with chinese wuhan corona virus pandemic and when the world is busy with tacking it, china started aggression and bullying to take more lands and sea areas...

    China did not occupy lands to give them back again...
    It only wanted time to move forward, and strengthen its positions with soldiers and armaments, fortifications, roads, logistics, etc...
    No, china will not withdraw the lands it captured...

    Time to take action is now or else winter will be arrive soon and china will develop logistics to support its occupation...

    Without action, India will face perpetual salami slicing and existential crisis as loss of strategic land mass, passes and heights will be dangerous to Indian strategic Dobruk/Demchok to DBO/DSO highway, and even Siachen ...

    Indian Army soldiers acquitted themselves exceptionally by fighting valiantly and killing 35 chinese soldiers according to USA intelligence...

    Indian political must immediately makea decision to evict / kick-out criminal chinese PLA troops and let IA handle it as best as it can...
    I have full confidence in IA...

    But Indian political class as usual are so timid that they keep reciting not an inch of Indian land is in the hands of china...
    They got hooked pretty well to the pomp and sumptous feasts at Bilaterals and Multi-laterals..;

    So I am afraid it may as well end up as DOKLAM II for India without political decision ....

  6. Like 26th Feb, again Modi will have to get them back from.enemy jails. Our military can't fight with Pakistan and you want it to fight china.your agenda is basically political. To get Modi to make mistakes

    1. Scylla & Charybdis18 July 2020 at 21:04

      Isn't undue credit being attributed to Modi as going by pragmatic advice ?

      The facts betray his inclinations
      Bajao Taali,
      Jalao Diya,
      Barsao Phool
      Claiming that the Chinese have not intruded across the LAC are significant examples of his " greatness"

  7. Political will is required.our militery can give befitting reply to chinese and if we let go them this time no-one will believe in Indian capabilities.

  8. Keep up your good work!

  9. Look forward to these incisive reports

  10. Scylla & Charybdis18 July 2020 at 03:46

    A fatally flawed political ideology which seeks to perpetuate itself by stoking dissent amongst the citizenry along lines of faith & beliefs has resulted in strategic & tactical lacunae.

  11. Scylla & Charybdis18 July 2020 at 04:14

    The earlier one child norm of the Chinese has generated an 'Achilles Heel' in the Chinese war making and war sustaining sociological & societal abilities.

  12. Very Informative article.But your comments induces distress rather than JOSH.When Italian Khangress was in power along with Pappu,that time u did not write this.Dont worry we are going to war and CHIN WILL BE TAUGT ALESSION.

  13. I find it two statements amusing. Primo, there is no Chinese on Indian soil AND Secondo, Indian army is the critical institution of India. Taking the first point. Lakhs of Chinese are living in Aksai Chin, a territory of some thousand square kilometres. Not China, but India says they are staying in Indian territory - for 70 years, not just 70 days. But Indian PM says - No Chink has entered our territory, or is there now! Is he saying that Aksai Chin is China. Or, should we never take this man seriously? That'll help greatly.
    Why squibble over LAC? It is the national territory that matters, or doesn't it? LAC is line of actual control. Where we are is our LAC, where they are is theirs.
    Secondo. Indian army is a critical institution. Which way? All it has ensured in 73 years, is that we haven't lost to Pakistan, a country 1/4th our size. For that, it consumes 9-10 % of the meagre national budget, much to the detriment of education, poverty reduction etc.
    A great credit? You decide.

    1. Defense budget was never 9% of GDP



  14. We'll have to do a Kargil Part-2 there, if China doesn't relent. There seems to be no other option.

  15. Take the nukes out of cold storage and test the Agni V missiles.
    Make it loud and clear that we will use the nukes no matter what anyone said , this will bring the Beijing to the negotiating table.
    What's the point of having nukes if you don't use it as a deterrent . Like Mr.Ajay Shukla jhad pointes it would Pakistan allowed this type of incursion against India

  16. India has more than 2 million men in uniform for its outward defenses and at least scores of ppl with complete information of what is happening on ground? Why are they not coming up with the real picture if what you are saying is true? Isn't it their responsibility to do so?

  17. @Vikram_prasad - While assessing the dent the Defence budget creates, it is best to see it in terms of % of overall budget, rather than of GDP. Budget amount is the purse available to the government to spend at will. GDP is the money with citizens of the country, not the government.

  18. Scylla & Charybdis20 July 2020 at 06:33

    "The good Lord gave us two ends to use,
    One to sit with ,the other to think with,
    Victory depends on which we use,
    Heads we win,
    Tails we lose"
    ( Apologies to Gen.Patton )

    If only Aunties had Brinjals....


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