There is something extremely curious about the latest " and by all accounts, serious " escalation in tensions over the ongoing standoff between India and China along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Certain incidents reportedly took place on and since the intervening night of 29 and 30 August to shatter the uneasy calm that followed the deadly 15 June clash at Galwan, bringing both sides again precariously close to a military conflict. The situation remains edgy and volatile.
From what we know so far, notwithstanding the ongoing military-diplomatic engagement and the consensus arrived at of gradual de-escalation and disengagement, the Chinese side under the cover of night on Saturday tried to execute another land grab to again shift the status quo. The site of the PLA's operation this time was some heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso. According to national security analyst Nitin Gokhale, Chinese troops were targeting the Chushul/Spanggur gap, south of Pangong Tso.
Chinese attempts at changing existing arrangements (status quo) around the Chushul/Spanggur gap, south of Pangong Tso thwarted by alert Indian troops. For the first time India has pro-actively preempted Chinese move. Currently no face off but situation dangerously tense
" Nitin A. Gokhale (@nitingokhale) August 31, 2020
According to a report in The Print, the Chinese were trying to dominate some heights that would have given them operational advantage. Worth noting that unlike the northern bank that remains contentious and hotly contested, there has been no dispute in the past over the southern bank of Pangong Tso over which India exercises strong sovereign control. The latest incident, therefore, is China's attempt to open yet another front against India and change facts on the ground in a new, previously uncontested sector.
China's land-grab tactics in violation of all mutual agreements and understandings is consistent with its deceptive policy of keeping up the pretence of talks and committing to dialogue mechanism only to buy time for its troops to launch more stealth operations and push the LAC further into India's territory. This time, however, the PLA's designs seem to have been foiled.
On Monday, a press statement released by the Indian army said China has escalated the border standoff with fresh provocations, forcing India to take appropriate countermeasures.
"On the Night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo. Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground," read the statement.
It underlined that "Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquility through dialogue, but is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity". We were informed that a brigade commander-level flag meeting to resolve the latest issue is under way at Chushul.
At this stage, the narrative seemed pretty straightforward. Alert Indian troops had noticed some activities on southern bank of Pangong Tso on Saturday night and took preemptive steps to strengthen its position and foil China's latest misadventure. On Monday afternoon, Beijing denied that PLA had crossed the LAC and claimed that Chinese troops "always strictly abide by the LAC. They never cross the line."
As ridiculous as the claim may sound, it indicates Beijing's devious strategy. If the 'line' itself can be shifted at will, there is no need to cross the line. The army statement refrained from releasing more details and the speculation remained restricted to the events of 29 August.
What make matters curious are the next set of leaks by the Indian establishment and China's reaction. Whereas an early briefing by China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did not release any details of the latest clash and merely claimed that Chinese troops "did not cross the LAC" to refute India's charge, by Monday evening, China came up with its own set of accusations. Chinese media quoted Zhang Shuili, spokesperson of PLA's Western Theatre Command, to claim that "Indian troops intruded in the China-controlled Galwan Valley on 31 August" and "broke the promises and consensus reached by two sides after rounds of dialogue."
Zhang accused India of doing exactly the same thing that India accused China of, except that the dates didn't match. According to the Indian Army's statement, Chinese "provocations" occurred on the intervening night of August 29 and 30, while PLA claimed that "Indian troops have broken their promises and again crossed the LAC in the Galwan Valley region and provocatively attacked Chinese soldiers" on 31 August. Also, for the first time since the current conflict broke out in April-May when the PLA unilaterally occupied Indian territory at several areas in the border regions of Ladakh, China sounded like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.
"Indian troops are responsible for the latest escalation," Zhang said in the statement, adding, "We demand India immediately withdraw troops that had illegally intruded the Chinese border, and urge the Indian side to stop all provocative actions and strictly control frontline troops to avoid further escalation¦ The Chinese army is taking all necessary measures to cope with the situation and it will firmly defend China's sovereignty and territory."
Something does not add up. The Indian Army did not mention anything about 31 August, whereas the Chinese troops remained silent about Saturday night and breathed fire over what happened the next day. To add to the mismatch in timeline, there were contrasting claims over what happened between 29 and 31 August.
Some reports in Indian media claimed there were no physical clashes. According to The Hindu, "around 25 PLA soldiers intruding across the LAC and were blocked by Indian troops. Around 100 PLA soldiers were also seen below Black Top hill just across the LAC. There was no physical clash."
The NDTV report notes that "Chinese troops came in 'sufficient numbers'. But the Indian army was aware of the Chinese move and established themselves in a move to block the Chinese advance. No physical clashes took place and there is no face-off situation at present"
However, a report in British daily The Telegraph claims that Indian troops fought off an attempt by the PLA to occupy more Indian territory on Saturday night and then captured Chinese camps in a retaliatory procedure. And there were violent clashes. According to the report, "on Saturday evening, around 500 Chinese troops had tried to cross into Spanggur, a narrow valley near the village of Chushul and three hours of hand-to-hand combat ensued." The report quoted "a senior Indian police source" to claim that "the attack had been repulsed and a retaliatory special operations battalion seized a Chinese camp in the surrounding hills of Pangong Tso Lake in the early hours of this morning."
This "special operations battalion" of the Indian Army mentioned in this report seems to be commandoes from the Special Frontier Force (SFF). Ajai Shukla writes in Business Standard that the Indian counter-operation, launched on Sunday night by 'Vikas battalion', a part of the secretive SFF detachment that consists of soldiers recruited from the Tibetan refugee community in India, "clashed with Chinese troops and inflicted significant casualties on them. One Tibetan SFF officer was reportedly killed and at least two injured in the operation."
Tweets also seem to confirm such a development.
" VatsRohit (@KesariDhwaj) August 31, 2020
Special Frontier Force (SFF) special force created on 14 Nov 62. Main role originally- Conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines in event of another Sino-Indian War. Vikas part of SFF, manned by sons of soil, Tibetans with offrs from Army.
" Lt Gen K J Singh (@kayjay34350) August 31, 2020
Reqin, one of the areas identified by the Chinese as being under Indian Army control is a valley. By dominating the feature along its side and traversing the ridge, Indian Army soldiers could dominate the Chinese posts in Spanggur. We would be nearly 4 kms inside.
" Vishnu Som (@VishnuNDTV) August 31, 2020
On details about the military post that India seems to have captured in a "measure to strengthen its position", ANI reports that "height occupied by Indian army troops including a special operations battalion is south of Southern bank of Pangong Tso near Thakung. Height was lying dormant and can give strategic advantage to the side which holds it for controlling the southern bank of the lake and areas around it."
Thakung referred to in the report is the Indian Army's company operating base (COB). Amid the fog of war and despite the differing accounts of what may have transpired, it seems reasonably clear that for the first time in the current standoff, Indian army has taken a proactive stance and created a fait accompli of its own, leaving the Chinese terribly upset and threatening military action. Having got a taste of its own medicine, China is feigning outrage and issuing incoherent threats.
China's Global Times says India's "reckless intention is a very dangerous miscalculation" and warned that "Indian side has not fully realised the gap of military capabilities between two countries, and how severe the consequences would be if India continues instigating border conflicts." Quoting "analysts", the Global Times report says "India should have a clear understanding that China is much stronger militarily than India. If New Delhi continues such provocative rhetoric, or launches large-scale attacks at the border region, it would face severe consequences."
Indian troops again pulled a stunt at border. They always think China will make concessions to provocative actions in consideration of overall situation. Don't misjudge the situation anymore. If there is a conflict in Pangong Lake, it will only end in new defeat of Indian army. pic.twitter.com/u3RyV7Slh8
" Hu Xijin è¡é"¡è¿ (@HuXijin_GT) August 31, 2020
China's verbal virulence is not new. We saw it during the Doka La standoff when such threats were issued on a daily basis. In contrast, China had been preaching "peace and tranquility" during the current standoff as its troops remained in occupation of Indian territory, threatening India's territorial and sovereign integrity. It indicates that as long as China perceives to be enjoying the territorial advantage over India, it wants to lock in that gain and create a new normal. The 'new normal' consists of not only India accepting the loss of territory, but also normalising the possibility that China will conduct such operations from time to time.
India, of course, does not accept Chinese hierarchy in Asia, nor can Beijing expect India to normalise loss of territorial integrity. What we are seeing in the latest instance is a shift in India's strategy. Instead of relying exclusively on talks and dialogue mechanism that seems to be going nowhere except presenting Beijing with more time to launch further offensives, India has evidently decided to create facts on the ground of its own, wrecking China's smugness.
What remains to be seen is whether China restricts itself to rhetorical flapping of wings, or escalates military conflict. India should be ready.