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Indo-China Standoff in Ladakh: ‘Revolutionary Development With Far Reaching Consequences’

“In the realms of international power projection, nations must always live within the limits of their potential”

India built a road several hundred kilometers long connecting to a high-altitude forward air base which it reactivated in 2008 (BBC).

TARIQ KHAN — India and China are once again engaged in a military confrontation. To some, it may seem a spontaneous event triggered by some sudden happening. Indians would like the world to believe that it is on account of a Chinese intrusion. Others may want to find the cause of the conflict in steps taken by the Indians such as building roads and developing military infrastructure. However, the cause to this conflict goes much deeper with far greater consequences than a simple border spat. So if we were to analyze the event in its entirety, we should start with understanding the environment against the backdrop of geography.

  1. The Environment.
    Ladakh is part of Kashmir and as such is a disputed territory in accordance with the UN Resolutions on the matter, which remain valid to date making the Kashmir matter the longest unresolved UN issue in history. There are many UN Resolutions on the matter beginning numbers 47 to numbers 122 of which, the most important ones, speak of plebiscite and setting up an international observer group UNMOG (United Nations Military Observer Group) to monitor the Line of Control between two parts of Kashmir. The matter is further validated by the Simla Agreement, in which, whatever the substance of the Agreement, it is clearly stated that resolution to the Kashmir conflict, when resolved, will not be prejudicial to the existing UN Resolutions. Further more, Ladakh falls into still another dispute, i.e. between China and India. China has so far neither recognized the Macmohan Line, nor accepts Tibet as a legitimate sovereign State authorized to draw up independent agreements with other States, which resulted in the Macmohan Line. The dispute led to the 1962 Indo-China War, in which India was humiliated and lost a lot of territory, leaving Aksai Chin in the Chinese hands. Thus, the region was living a defacto status quo existence pending a political settlement, sometimes in the future. However, India, continually attempted to unilaterally set aside the UN Resolution on the matter of Kashmir and kept taking steps to strengthen its own position vis-a-vis other stakeholders. Things came to a head on when the Indians abrogated Article 370 and 35A in August 2019, announcing Kashmir to be a Union Territory. This was in violation of the UN Resolution and an illegal step. Pakistan was disturbed by this move, the resultant lockdown of the Srinagar Valley, militarization of the area and the deliberate attempt at changing the demographic order of the State. The matter was taken up at the United Nations and Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke about it to the Security Council in September 2019. Meanwhile, India, in a bid to militarize the area, also took some steps in relevance to securing Ladakh. These were:

a. New developments in a small town called Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). India had a military base there since decades. The critical factor about this base is that it is only 8 miles from the Karakorum Pass.
b. In the last one year or so, India raised the base to brigade level and connected it to their internal road network. This was a crucial development.
c. The Indians constructed a road called Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Road in October last year –with the sole purpose of supplying the Brigade. This again was critical.
d. It was a significant change in the status quo with a military posture that indicated intent as well as a will to permanently annex Ladakh. China considered Ladakh to be disputed territory and the building of road a violation of the status quo.
e. Resultantly, China landed 5000 troops in the Galwan Valley on the Western Ridges, dominating the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Road, the only Lines of Communication to the DB Brigade. This brigade is now totally in an unsustainable position and operationally untenable.

  1. Deeper Causes
    The above are the immediate causes of Chinese intrusion, however, some deeper causes that need to be considered are:

    a. Indian belligerent claims on GB to take over GB and Azad Kashmir as announced on 03 May 2020.

    b. Indians continual attempt at trying to stop the Basha Dam construction claiming this to be Indian territory. This is a CPEC Project.

    c.  India’s claims that the CPEC route passes through disputed territory.

    d. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Indian irrelevance in this region; the US losing influence and needing to assert itself by looking for India to challenge the Chinese.

    e. The Malacca Strait being dominated by the Indo-US nexus is likely to be circumvented by the CPEC, thus diverting over $5 trillion trade through Gawadar to Khunjrab in China.

    f. The connectivity of the East and the West by the BRI, making China central to international economic synergy and slipping into a Global leadership role.
  1. Keeping this in mind, the superficial ground movements by the Indians are simply a cover for the real casus belli, which is actually to scuttle the CPEC thus denying China a strategic advantage and at the same time benefiting the United States by forcing the Malacca Straits to remain relevant. The rewards for India appear tempting, i.e. regional dominance, containing Chinese super power status, getting international recognition as a world class player leading to a permanent seat to the Security Council with US support.
  2. In my reckoning, the Indians have made a serious miscalculation and a strategic blunder. First they have forfeited the offices of the UN and the Security Council by their own unilateral actions of abrogating Article 370 and their continual violations of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir. Will the Indians now address it as an internal matter? It is now a bilateral issue as the Indians love to address Indo-Pak disputes; maybe even a trilateral one now.
    Secondly, the Indians have lost a high moral ground and the Chinese appear to be responding to an Indian initiative of constantly creeping ahead with their activity and disregarding UN Resolutions.
    Thirdly, if the Indians try to respond to the Chinese intrusion, they are likely to be thoroughly exposed to be what they are – an antiquated force with grand visions.
    Fourth, this will give a fillip to the internal resistance in Kashmir and finally it will strengthen Pakistan’s position on CPEC and Kashmir.
  3. What is likely to happen is that India will try to find a narrative where they can diffuse the situation but the ground situation will not change. The Chinese will not return territory. That would mean that the Karakoram Pass would always be under threat and a link up with Pakistani troops and the Chinese at Kargil would be a real possibility for all times to come. This ground reality, as it exists now, allows for the only place where a Chinese and Pakistani military collusion is possible. If such a collision ever comes to pass, it will open the Srinagar Valley to Pakistan and totally cut off Siachen from India. This probability will remain a huge Indian vulnerability, forcing them to address it thus consuming resource and manpower. India would have to back down and negotiate a more permanent and lasting three-way solution to Kashmir or else address the matter militarily. The latter is not likely. So the situation is likely to diffuse and lead to a negotiated settlement. A lot of facesaving narratives will be forthcoming, new diplomatic initiatives by the Indians and the smiling Buddha radiating peace may be the line that will be taken by the Indians but not war. There maybe some saber-rattling, troop build-up and concentration of force with some brinkmanship, but probably nothing more. Nevertheless, in the event political rhetoric and aggressive posturing do force Indian Armed Forces into a reluctant military adventure, India would be terribly exposed. India, trying to live beyond its potential with illusions of grandeur, trying to see itself as a legitimate challenge to China as a regional power would be a theory permanently put to rest after any such physical conflict.
  4. This is a revolutionary development with far reaching consequences. In the realms of international power projection, nations must always live within the limits of their potential. If they try and go beyond their own capacity, the world will clip their wings to size. This is a natural phenomenon. India has been suffering from grandeur illusions based upon a self-inflicted exaggerated opinion of itself. It has even managed to sell this image through song and dance and sell it well. However, such falsities are easily exposed in time and the fall is usually not only terrible but it has unintended consequences.

I think for India that time has arrived. A third world country stricken by poverty, with a miserable populace, yet having illusions of grandeur is an unsustainable position to be in.

Additionally, when you have people who are now divided, a society which is caste-ridden, and politics and narratives driven by hatred and yet expected to rise to the occasion is a far-fetched hope.

The writer is a former Lt. General in the Pakistan Army