Historically, the failure to leverage military gains has been the bane of India’s diplomatic and foreign policy exertions, with the 1971 War and return of prisoners of war, a prime example. In the extant situation, India must not confuse between military and strategic advantage. The former is about the advantage over military forces, and the latter is about using the advantage to advance goals of its foreign policy.
In the present situation, the primary goal of foreign policy has to be about disabusing China of the notion that India can be coerced through the use of military force. While the objectives for China’s attempts at coercion will remain speculative, strategic logic indicates that the primary reason is frame worked in the ongoing struggle for supremacy between China and the USA. China has in all probability, weaponized the Sino-Indian border situation in the process of establishing itself as the Asian hegemon.
Sino-Indian relations like all political relations are ultimately shaped by political power, which in international relations is an outcome of a psychological relationship between those who employ it and those over whom it is employed. Post-Doklam, India acquiesced to China’s military occupation of the plateau, less the face-off site and passed it off as a matter of no real concern and of little military value. With a pliant media, then it was able to sell a narrative of Doklam, as a victory. But in the arena of the Sino-Indian psychological relations where it mattered most, China understood that India can be pressured and its strategic behaviour manipulated as long as it did not cause domestic political embarrassment.
It is possible that China’s calculations for Ladakh were based on its experience in Doklam. India, they reckoned, would underplay and seek reconciliation. Modi seemed to have attempted to follow the Chinese script, when he told the all-party meeting on 25 June that ‘no one has intruded into our territory’. However, the earlier loss of lives in Galwan on 25 June had already changed the national mood and such a mirage could not be sustained and the domestic political discourse turned hostile to the government.
What followed was the upping of the ante against China that was primarily aimed at the domestic polity. Banning of Chinese Apps and other economic and security-related measures to portray animosity against China quickly followed. A much-needed change in the stance towards strengthening the QUAD also followed.
Militarily, the pre-emptive occupation of a segment of the Kailash range on the night of 29/30 August and a higher perch at Finger Four on the North bank of the Pangong Tso indicated a bold and proactive shift in politico-military stance. India’s tactical bargaining power improved and the talks aimed at de-escalation and disengagement continue. In all probability, both the forces will have to brave the severe high altitude winter.
Militarily, the border situation may become stalemated and physically frozen. Politically, this can be a psychological advantage for India, if it conveys through deeds and actions that China’s military power will be contested. So far, India has done that and therefore the Chinese would be seeking a face-saving de-escalation and disengagement. However, India should now dig in its heels and not view the issue as purely a matter of military dynamics. Instead, the bottom line should be that de-escalation must be preceded by China adhering to its agreements and signifying its willingness to fulfilling its commitment on finalization of the LAC alignment.
Prolonged deployment of additional Indian forces has military and financial implications. It is also going to be difficult for the Chinese as their sources of logistic sustainment are at much greater distances, though they have the required financial and infrastructure capacity. The hardiness of Indian troops would to some extent mitigate the hardships of weather and high altitude. Chinese troops are relatively less experienced and their first high altitude winter could test their resilience.
India should not be in any hurry to merely solve the issue militarily and seek only the restoration of the status quo ante which would provide short term relief. But it should keep the field open for another Chinese military move next summer and the attempt to vindicate its action as one that is defensive and meant to counter India’s aggressive designs.
The fallacy underlying the masking of China’s political intentions and its attempt to pass off the matter as a problem created by both the militaries must be brought out. In the Wuhan Joint Statement, China seemed to have succeeded in getting India to agree to blaming the militaries and thereby accepting to provide guidance to the military. There should be no doubt about the hand of Xi, as the one point source of power in China in the creation of the present crisis.
India’s military has through speedy mobilisation and proactive deployment stopped China in its tracks for the time being. The military situation is better kept frozen and only then can India politically take advantage to convey its political resolve to China and change the contours of the psychological ascendancy achieved by the Chinese, post-Doklam.
India can no longer afford to base its strategic path on short term domestic political gains. The process of the global geopolitical churn cannot be met by strategic myopia. Pursuing the long term national interests is an imperative. The Ladakh military situation must be politically leveraged to advance the goals of policy. Making China realize the limitations of its military instrument is a good starting point.
Source: This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald