On June 15 2020, Ladakh’s Galwan Valley witnessed a violent clash between the Armies of India and China.
The clash, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, was one of the worst in 45 years, and led to a military standoff with China and at least 11 rounds of military talks for the disengagement process.
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) witnessed its first deaths after 1975 when 20 Indian soldiers and at least four soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) died in a violent clash in Galwan in Ladakh.
Although both countries have given gallantry awards to the fallen soldiers, details about the violent incident have not been officially made public so far.
Current Military situation along the borders:
- The current situation is not militarily precarious in Ladakh. With a continued deployment of 50,000-60,000 soldiers, the Indian Army has been able to hold the line to prevent any further ingress by the PLA.
- The Chinese presence on the Indian side of the LAC in Gogra, Hot Springs and Demchok gives the PLA some tactical advantage but the area which majorly jolts Indian military plans is the Chinese control of Depsang Plains.
- With “official sources” trying to palm it off as a legacy issue, despite evidence to the contrary from many retired military officers, the Indian Army has only weakened its negotiating position during the talks with the PLA.
- In any case, there has been no progress in talks after the disengagement at Pangong lake and Kailash range in February.
- Outside of Ladakh, the Indian Army remains in an alert mode all along the LAC to prevent any Chinese misadventure but the bigger change has been its reorientation of certain forces from Pakistan border towards the China border.
- The basis of this shift was articulated by the Chief of Defence Staff General when he recently said that China is a bigger security threat for India than Pakistan.
- The Ladakh crisis has also exposed India’s military weakness to tackle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan: to avoid such an eventuality, the Government opened backchannel talks with Pakistan which led to the reiteration of the ceasefire on the Line of Control.
- To deal with the threat of combined China and Pakistan, the Government opened backchannel talks with Pakistan which led to the reiteration of the ceasefire on the Line of Control.
- The Ladakh crisis has also led the Government to relook external partnerships, particularly with the United States.
- The U.S. military officials have earlier spoken of the intelligence and logistics support provided to the Indian forces in Ladakh.
- That China is “a larger neighbour, which has got a better force, better technology”, was acknowledged by General Rawat recently, to argue that India will “obviously prepare for a larger neighbour”.
- The military importance of the Quad remains moot, with India reportedly refusing to do joint naval patrolling with the U.S. in the South China Sea; the two treaty allies of the U.S., Japan and Australia, also refused.
- Moreover, India’s focus on its land borders and its limited resources for military modernisation in a period of economic decline impinge on its maritime ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Political accountability and setback for government:
- The Government’s political strategy for dealing with the Ladakh border crisis has been based on dodging, denial and digression.
- An honest appraisal of the situation in Ladakh would be politically costly for a government led by a “strong” Prime Minister, as PLA soldiers remain in control of what was hitherto in Indian control.
- The crisis in Ladakh erupted months after Mr. Modi had held his second informal summit with the Chinese President at Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu and weeks after he hosted the then United States President Donald Trump for a political event in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
- For someone attributing his foreign policy prowess to the power of his persona and his personal chemistry with other world leaders, there could be no worse rebuttal of his claims than the timing of the Chinese incursions.
- In a government identified solely with the Prime Minister and dominated by his office there is no record of the Cabinet Committee on Security being convened to discuss the Ladakh border situation Modi is being held responsible in the public imagination for the setback.
Beefing up Surveillance:
- It’s not just the troops on the ground but a change in tactics and enhanced surveillance to maintain a vigil of Chinese activities.
- This includes new boats to be deployed in the Pangong lake that became a volatile friction point in the year-long tussle.
- The Indian Army has begun to get delivery of new boats suited for deployment in Pangong lake for ferrying troops and surveillance.
- These boats can carry around 20 troops along with their equipment and can be used for quick mobilisation.
- In the pipeline are also the advanced version of the Isreali Heron drones to be deployed at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
- As the stalemate continues, China has also been enhancing its surveillance capabilities.
- Recently, China tested its new plateau type UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) in Kailash Range, south of Pangong lake where India vacated mountain tops as part of the disengagement.
- The UAV intended to be used for surveillance on Indian positions close to the Kailash Range has been developed in Shaanxi and completed its first flying and control task at Gar Gunsa in Tibet Autonomous Region.
The continued focus on Galwan, while the still unresolved tensions in Depsang, Demchok, Gogra and Hot Springs, remain almost entirely ignored in the coverage, is one key element of the broader messaging effort.
As acknowledging multiple stand-offs, as well as the fact that it is India and not China that is demanding a return to status quo in the slow-moving negotiations, would undermine the Chinese military’s central claim of not being the aggressor.
The events of the past one year have significantly altered India’s thinking towards China. The relationship is at the crossroads now.
The choices made in New Delhi will have a significant impact on the future of global geopolitics.