Ahead of G20, India should be wary of putting itself in a position where it desires to achieve a breakthrough on the northern border with its back to a time wall.
Interconnectedness of events and diplomatic exchanges often provide clues to the state of power play that shapes relations between countries. Two recent events in the landscape of India-China relations seem to indicate that the outlook may not be encouraging. The first was the 19th round of military commander-level talks held on 13 and 14 August. Second — the 15th BRICS meeting at Johannesburg on 22 and 23 August.
The talks do not indicate any breakthrough in the ongoing military confrontation in Ladakh. The talks over two days resulted in an anodyne statement – “They agreed to resolve the remaining issues in an expeditious manner and maintain the momentum of dialogue and negotiations through military and diplomatic channels. In the interim, the two sides agreed to maintain the peace and tranquility on the ground in the border areas”. Though not officially acknowledged, media reports indicated that the Lieutenant General-level talks were followed by two separate but simultaneous meetings between Major Generals who are commanding forces deployed in Depsang and Charding Ninglung Nallah (CNN) Junction, which are the two other intrusion issues that have not been addressed so far. Both these areas are legacy issues that tend to get intensified and weaken over time.
Challenges in Depsang
Depsang plains are of strategic importance to India because they are located in the vicinity of the tri-junction of the India-China-Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Theoretically, it provides China an approach to cut off India’s sole land route to the Siachen Glacier. Practically, China would have to launch a massive offensive across glaciated terrain and the Karakoram Mountain Range and even if it does succeed, it would face challenges of logistically supporting its forces due to the glaciated terrain and it would entail the capture of a large chunk of the high-altitude mountains through which the Saser La Pass lies. The launch of such offensives can at best form part of a threat imagination that survives in the abstract, bereft of linkages with China’s probable political objectives and its infantry capabilities. It fails the smell test of military reality unless one believes that large scale wars between nuclear powers are not passe.
For India, the challenges in Depsang are twofold.
First, it has a vulnerable road connectivity despite the construction of the 220-km-long Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road (DSDBO) that connects Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in Depsang through Darbuk and Shyok. The road runs close to the LAC and is therefore vulnerable to being cut off at certain points, especially at Galwan. Though the airfield in Depsang has been developed for heavy transport aircraft like the C130, its utility during active operations is circumscribed because it runs too close to the LAC.
Second, China’s ability to mass forces is much greater than India’s due to better connectivity to depth areas.
What doesn’t work for India
One of the operational impacts of the 2020 Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh has been that PLA’s deployments now cast a darker shadow on the vulnerability of the DSDBO Road. It is a ‘threat in being’ that would albeit require a fairly large scale offensive by the ground forces. In fact, the threat posed all along the northern border is a psychological component of the likely politico-military moves in the context of Chinese geopolitical competition with the US.
In contrast, the second intrusion at CNN track junction, which again in origin is a legacy issue does not have the tactical importance of Depsang. It has implications for patrolling and freedom of movement of graziers. Relatively, it is considered easier to resolve. But being a legacy issue that has seen increase in semi-permanent presence through pitching of tents, it remains a point that China had earlier even refused to acknowledge.
One of the outcomes of the negotiations conducted between military leaders has been the creation of buffer zones. The logic for buffer zones is based on disengagement that entails increasing the distance between deployed forces and preventing face-offs of patrols. But it seems that in most places where buffer zones are created like Gogra, Hot Springs and Northern Bank of the Pangong Tso, China has benefited, as for them, it means that after taking two steps forward they have had to take only one step backwards. For India, it could be loss of access to areas that it patrolled before. This tantamount to loss of control over territory while the ‘threat in being’ endures. De-escalation through moving back substantive military forces to their home bases is unlikely as the real game of China is about posing the threat but not in carrying it through.
The Chinese game all along the Sino-Indian border is about increasing pressure points that facilitate grabbing small chunks of un-held and disputed territory through a process that has been described as salami slicing. This is backed up by China’s infrastructure build up and increased deployment of military troops and material wherewithal. Since the 2020 confrontation, the quantum jump in infrastructure building in terms of airfields, military garrisons, ammunition dumps, roads and technological support indicates that China’s military forces are there for the long haul. This also includes the massive buildup on the Doklam Plateau that poses a threat to the Siliguri corridor. The increase of pressure points and sporadic salami slicing appears to be the instrumental part of China’s tactical moves. It is the connection of these moves with its political and strategic purposes that requires identification.
China’s aggressive moves on the northern borders must be seen in the context of the ongoing global and regional geopolitical confrontation. China’s use of its military instrument is not about settling the disputed border by force. It is part of a larger strategy directed at containing India within the sub-continent and reducing its ability to play an effective role in China’s ongoing confrontation with the US and its allies. Weakening India’s military power is the aim. Such weakening attempts have been underway for long through use of Pakistan as a proxy. Now, that vector has been supplemented by drawing India’s limited resources to defend its northern borders and thereby slow down its growth as a maritime power that requires substantial financial, technological and infrastructural resources.
This strategic imagination is sustained by the endowment of the Peninsular India jutting out like a sword into the Indian Ocean through which China’s trade involving energy, raw materials, minerals and finished goods traverses. China’s access to the Indian Ocean is constricted by the narrow passage lanes like the Malacca straits. India’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical conception and its common quest with the Western powers for an open and free Indo-Pacific poses for China a substantive maritime ‘threat in being’ that casts yet another shadow over India-China relations.
Presumably, China would have realised that the strategic impact of its military moves has led to India’s tilt towards the US-led West and reflected in India diving into the waters of the QUAD and a flurry of other cooperative endeavors to strengthen its military capability as well as its economic and technological base. Modi’s US visit in June 2023 and the agreements signed then and earlier are perhaps the political and strategic high points of the growing proximity between the countries. Such a growth would adversely impact China in the global geopolitical competition/confrontation that is underway.
Prolonged negotiations have always been the hallmark of China’s negotiating style and India’s political and strategic leadership should know it. Therefore, India should be wary of putting itself in a position where it desires to achieve a breakthrough on the northern border with its back to a time wall. The recent BRICS meeting and whatever interaction took place between Modi and Xi are indicative of China’s overall stance towards India. The G20 event in September 2023 should not be allowed to define India’s politico-military negotiation posture. Instead, G20 being a multilateral forum must be treated separately and it would serve India’s interests better if the border issue is distanced from it.
There should be no doubt that the contemporary India-China border tensions are connected to the larger global geopolitical tensions between the West and China. China’s strategic concern is primarily about India’s role in this ongoing geopolitical turbulence. This is because of India’s growing heft in economic, military and diplomatic power. Paradoxically, India’s growth in economic power is tied to China and is reflected in the fact that in the middle of a military confrontation, the economic trade has boomed. On the other hand, India’s strategic proximity to the US and its allies has deepened and can be expected to be on that path.
India has so far followed its quest for strategic autonomy by adopting amorphous postures at times. Its foreign policy should be based on keeping away from blocs but staying in the same tent with carefully identified nations depending on the context.
Since the fundamental global geopolitical tensions are about changing the world order that has been described as being “Between Orders”, India’s conception of a multipolar structure is different from those of the West and China. So, while coalition and bloc building has been the ongoing phase on the world stage, India’s path to growth and power has to be a tight rope walk that is only getting increasingly difficult to negotiate as the logic of geoeconomics is trumped by the pressures of geopolitics. And the tensions of bloc politics strain India’s attempt to maintain strategic autonomy.
In the China-India context, short term territorial compromises that are viewed as beneficial for an electoral season or domestic political expediency ought to be shunned.