The million dollar question: What will China do hereafter?
There is no inevitability of war but the standoff is unlikely to end soon. China has faced setbacks and that is unacceptable for a superpower in the making
Most strategic minds are currently in ‘analysis overkill’ and unable to assess much further on the Ladakh standoff. Clearly the answers lie in determining why China decided to trigger the standoff in the first place. Assessment of the future depends on the success or failure of its intent. China was certain that given the international situation in early 2020, the US could soon successfully shift focus from Afghanistan and West Asia to the Indo Pacific, an intent it desired for long but failed to realise.
The erstwhile strategies of Pivot to Asia and Rebalancing could actually bring the US in full force into the Indo Pacific after President Trump had succeeded in his plans for restructuring and stabilising West Asia. China wasn’t sure about Trump’s electoral prospects at the end of 2020; another Trump term would have become far too unpredictable and it needed to be met with a degree of disruption. It worked on the possibility of a second term for Trump in which the US would energetically put together strategic partnerships against China and work towards influencing many of the nations with which Beijing was working out its own partnerships through the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Indian landmass and the Indian Ocean form one flank of the Indo Pacific. It is a very important flank, where India’s strategic domination would work to US advantage if New Delhi was a strategic partner. An increasingly more confident India, buoyed by regional success in the South Asian security environment, could be influenced to join the US-led partnerships for active containment of China. To partially neutralise this flank and prevent India playing a proactively significant role in the US strategy towards containment of China, the latter may well have perceived the need for disruption in New Delhi’s security environment to dent its rising strategic confidence and embroil it in its own defence.
This confidence may have been seen to be growing out of proportion over the last five years or so, especially after the Indian government’s decisions on J&K taken on 5 August 2019 and the rhetoric that followed. China achieved strategic surprise against India in the middle of the pandemic. It came with the purpose of only generating friction, expecting a weak Indian response; it in turn got surprised by the ferocity of response and the quantum of resources India deployed. The risks that the PLA may have thought were low suddenly multiplied. Another encounter at a friction point could go against the PLA and harm the reputation of Xi Jinping, the man who heads both the CPC and the CMC.
A war-like situation may force out-of-proportion PLA deployment into this theatre with resultant overall imbalance. China would have noticed that India is suddenly talking of offensive operations into Tibet and has even employed Tibetan SFF troops. The field of conventional war would be even more unpredictable and in conjunction with Pakistan, the potential objectives would embroil the PLA into a hard grind, something that bears no potential of certain victory.
Operationally, a further problem has been created for China with Indian troops occupying the Kailash range heights that overlook the PLA’s Moldo garrison. India should and will demand disengagement at all friction points, which includes Depsang where the PLA has denied Indian troops access to the patrolling points on their side of the LAC. Now it is not a question of physical military victory as much as ‘moral ascendancy’ in the various actions that play out. China will perceive a mutual pull back to status quo ante and a Depsang withdrawal weighed against a Kailash range withdrawal by India as a loss in the moral domain.
China has also been unable to prevent unintended consequences that it wanted to avoid, such as India’s enhanced focus on military modernisation, strategic rebalancing, focus on maritime buildup, closer proximity to the US and its allies, and economic decoupling, all of which are taking shape. The PLA is not finding it easy to sustain 40,000 troops in subzero conditions. It could have moved troops across the length of India’s northern borders but that would have entailed out-of-proportion deployment to what it was attempting to achieve and caused major logistics issues.
It appears to confirm the strategy of limited coercion and attempted moral ascendancy. Where the Chinese went wrong is in the judgment on what would constitute sufficient coercion to force caution on India’s increasing strategic confidence. Military coercion was to be reinforced by information and psychological warfare, a cyber offensive and economic bullying under conditions of an economic downturn in India. No optimum efforts towards converting the summer campaign into an effective hybrid conflict have been noticed. This appears to point towards the potential of all this rolling out as the second part of the strategy at a subsequent stage, provided international conditions demand it.
Xi’s attempts to project intent of war through his warnings for readiness to the PLA, the setting of new objectives for the hundredth anniversary of the PLA in 2027 and criticism of Indian military capability are thus far unconvincing. However, China resorting to a short, sharp intimidation in an area of distinct tactical advantage cannot be ruled out anywhere along the northern border in the near future. Some maritime intimidation in the Indian Ocean could also be expected to widen the scope.
In light of all the above, there is no need for India to do more than what it is doing. It has been right in not overreacting to criticism about perceived loss of territory. There is no permanence in such situations that are only actions in progression. We need to accept the temporary deployment of additional troops and budget for it, besides seeking to enhance our overall conventional capability on fast track. There is no inevitability of war but the standoff is unlikely to draw down in a hurry because China has neither failed nor succeeded in its strategy. It has faced setbacks and that is unacceptable for a superpower in the making, forcing it to extend this standoff until it perceives some kind of victory, even a pyrrhic one.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir