From the very active western front in J&K with high-intensity anti-terrorist operations in the hinterland and the Line of Control (LoC), the security focus of the nation has shifted to Ladakh and the China-related front. We have been pursuing a policy of stabilising our relationship with China over the last many years with reasonable results. The economic benefits to both nations appeared a rational way forward although the trade relationship has been largely skewed in favour of China.
Doklam 2017 put a halt to the process of stabilisation temporarily but the same was revived through the informal summits at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram in 2018-19. Military stand-offs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have also been rife for some years, and the hot and cold in the relationship with China had come to be accepted as something both nations could yet live with. In May 2020, all this seems to have changed with a serious military stand-off at the LAC in Ladakh, leading to a higher level of military readiness all along the northern and eastern borders.
The recent incident in the Galwan Valley involving a major fracas between Indian and PLA troops led to bloodshed on both sides for the first time in 45 years. As tempers cool and heavy deployments continue, it is increasingly evident that besides just the Chinese connection to the Ladakh face-off, there is a serious Pakistan connect too. An understanding of this will assist in further appreciation of the situation in Ladakh.
There is no region better suited for Sino-Pak military collusion than Ladakh. Coordinated military operations from both can converge and this can seriously threaten India’s security in this area. On the political front, India’s declaration of intent to secure the areas of J&K under the occupation of Pakistan appears to have caused major concern in Islamabad.
The latter has been able to convince China of the potential Indian threat to their mutual interests in PoK and Gilgit Baltistan (GB), which are primarily about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a reasonably fragile communication artery leading from Xinjiang in China to the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar in Pakistan, along with connected projects. India’s greater political confidence in dealing with the J&K issue, as demonstrated by the decision to abrogate Article 370 in August 2019, is also leading to this consternation in the Sino-Pakistan sphere. Left at that, it is probably jointly appreciated by both that it will help boost Indian strategic confidence.
The strengthening Indo-US strategic partnership is also considered as a phenomenon that aids a scaled-up Indian confidence. Given the altered international strategic environment with the onset of the current pandemic, China views this as an opportunity to aggressively set the narrative for its domination in the post-pandemic world order. Intimidation and coercion of India are aimed at denting its strategic confidence, cautioning it in relation to its emerging partnerships with the US and its allies, and curtailing its ambitions that impinge on China’s interests. The latter primarily relates to the GB region.
Pakistan’s potential role in trying to militarily intimidate India in Ladakh can be better understood from the military geography. Three fronts exist here: Kargil (with Pakistan), East Ladakh (with China) and the central Karakoram-Siachen-Shyok (KSS) area with Pakistan ranged against Siachen and China against the Karakoram. Some interest seems to have been generated in Pakistani strategic circles about the details of the military geography of the KSS area.
A deep study would suggest collusive interest in the Shyok Valley north of the Ladakh range to achieve three strategic gains. First is the intent to wrest control of Siachen, a perennial source of fresh water for the water-starved nation. Second is the broadening of the border with China with better terrain to facilitate communication. Third is the potential of opening another artery akin to the CPEC but in more stable terrain conditions, substantially adding to China’s dependence on Pakistan.
All the above remain dreams for projection and intimidation to counter India’s strategic confidence. Both China and Pakistan have one quality in common in their war-fighting doctrines: the consistent employment of information warfare. This is what India should expect in considerable load in the near future. I consider the ongoing attempt at ‘salami slicing’ by China in Ladakh as an experiment to assess how far India will go in its response strategy. It is imperative that this attempted bullying must be met squarely, even though ramping up deployment all along the northern and eastern borders is a highly expensive exercise, especially in Covid-19 times.
As a precursor to any intimate collusion in Ladakh, Pakistan may well have offered China the facilitation of a dual front; enhanced activities at the LoC and hinterland Kashmir would form part of this. India appears to have handled this well with successful operations paying good dividends. However symbolic, it is good to see rapid decision-making in the domain of military acquisition in the purchase of additional combat aircraft for the IAF. The same alacrity must be displayed in further ramping up of our capability and infrastructure. The Navy too must receive a higher budget as it is anticipated that stand-offs in the future would extend to the maritime domain. Indian diplomacy too must shut no doors.
We must continue to engage with China even as we attempt to hurt it economically to the extent we can. The Indian approach must adopt a position of strength with a clear projection that in localised border conflicts, it will be advantage India. A cooperative approach with the US and its allies must continue even as we retain strategic autonomy. The clear message which must emanate from New Delhi is that India is no pushover and it will go to any extent to secure its interests.
Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir