Heated debates are on about who won and who lost in Ladakh at the end of the current standoff. It is currently the ‘in thing’ to be strategically oriented, to be able to drop names of landmarks such as Depsang, Fingers 4 and 8, and Pangong Tso and provide expert opinion on the fate of the 10-month-long eyeball-to-eyeball engagement, which almost brought China and India to the brink of war.
Yet Sino-Indian relations are far too complex to be commented upon casually. They have a huge breadth of sub-complexities which are not easily comprehensible, starting from the fact that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China is neither delineated nor demarcated, while the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan exists as a proper separation line on maps and on the ground. That is the reason why it is good to empower yourself with rationale and arguments through continuous reading of nuanced analyses, which may not give you everything in definitive black and white and leave a lot to ambiguity; the latter is something which needs to be respected in this context.
Objectives vs Achievements
The first point to note is that you need not rush to pass any judgement on victory and defeat; all military engagements do not end in any such grand finale. There are stalemates too. However, remember in an evolving situation there can be no decisive result, not even a stalemate. Victory or defeat in limited military engagements, in particular, is never easy to determine and is almost always the subject of great debate. Disengagement in Ladakh is just the first step, that too at just two friction points, South and North Pangong Tso. A full follow-up of numerous events is awaited.
Debates on success and failure, if at all, must start with China’s aim. Against the aim, success and failure, and many times, victory and defeat are assessed. A few scenarios will be helpful. First, if the Chinese aimed to dissuade India from enhancing its border infrastructure in Ladakh, so as to maintain an element of asymmetry in capability, it actually ended up giving a fillip to the energy and commitment to upgrade everything and that too in record time. A full-scale transformation in the field of equipment, technology, doctrine and force structuring has been initiated by India—this gives China no advantage, rather the opposite in the longer run.
Second, China may have intended to coerce India, paint it into a corner, show it as a lesser power to potential partners and the region, and dissuade it from contemplation of integration of all territories of Jammu & Kashmir. It deployed strength as per its assessment for successful attainment of its aim. The same was effectively mirrored by India under far more difficult circumstances, thereby neutralizing any initial advantage.
Third, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) probably had visions of realigning the LAC further west, thus eating into areas held, patrolled or claimed by us. None of this happened. There is no fault in admitting that based upon growing trust, India was surprised by China’s actions in April-May 2020, right up to the Galwan incident in June 2020. The seriousness and the level of Chinese intent were difficult to gauge. However, India’s Kailash Range operation on 29/30 August 2020 was a surprise strategic operation of no mean proportion, having upset the applecart for the PLA. Occupation of features, till then left unoccupied due to the sensitivities of the locations, and on own side of the LAC, created a storm which eventually helped secure a major leverage for the vacation of the 8-kilometre transgression into the Fingers Complex. The fact that Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang will be discussed, commencing 48 hours after the completion of the first phase of disengagement, is not indicative of India having handed advantage in negotiations to China. These negotiations are likely to be long and tough.
The many positive takeaways
The visuals of the PLA’s rapid disengagement of heavy equipment in particular are creating worldwide perception of withdrawal, without the objectives being met. The PLA’s withdrawal without awaiting the end of winter is a prudent step to obviate unnecessary hardship to its inexperienced rank and file. It requires no rocket science to conclude that an Army hardened by tenures in Siachen glacier and many other high-altitude areas all along the borders will face up to the extremes of climate of the East Ladakh desert, despite there being insufficient time for construction of better habitat.
In the political-diplomatic sphere, if China had set out to create conditions whereby India would be forced to dilute its fast-growing strategic partnership with the US, it actually saw the opposite happen. The manner in which India’s leadership handled the political-diplomatic fallout led to greater Indo-US security chemistry. China may have visualized serious problems for the Quad by creating perceived threats for all the individual members. Yet, in fact, the Quad has received an impetus as never before. A dying idea has come alive with naval exercises and the foreign ministers’ summit meeting in Japan. India’s northern borders have got linked with the larger Indo-Pacific security. The Indo-US relationship is set to evolve from a much higher take-off point than ever before.
A huge plus for the Indian military has been the involvement of the military leadership in the negotiations with China. It has displayed a strategic handling capability; that confidence will come handy if China wishes to pursue negotiations for genuine peace and tranquility. The other major positive takeaway is the message to Pakistan. Through 10 months of the standoff, Pakistan has been unable to take any advantage in J&K by calibrating higher levels of internal violence. Although it is early to conclude, the emerging stability in J&K will assist the Indian Army in restructuring and reconfiguration of its forces for a more balanced deployment at the outset itself.
Finally, China as the aggressor has lost face and India as the supposed underdog has gained respect. However, as a mature nation, India must continue to follow the path of balance and dignity without attempting any rhetoric. It will continue to be respected for that as much as for its excellent military, political and diplomatic posturing over the last 10 months.
The writer is a former Commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and now the Chancellor of the Central University of Kashmir and Member, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Views are personal.