Galwan was a game changer in the context of Sino-Indian relations. On 15/16 June 2020, an attempted physical verification through verbal engagement with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), of the decision to disengage at different parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), led to a fracas with fatal casualties on both sides. That commenced a year of intense activity that transcended the tactical, operational and strategic domains of not only Sino-Indian relations but also influenced the international geopolitical environment.
Overturning and disregarding an ongoing campaign of bonhomie at the highest leadership level, China had chosen in April-May 2020 to reverse the trend by triggering coercion at the height of the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave in India. It deployed part of a complement from a force under training to the existing LAC and occupied certain tactical ground to intimidate the Indian Army by denying patrolling of traditional areas and known patrol points at the LAC. The PLA force level was insufficient for any major conventional campaign-style operations and therefore gave rise to much speculation on its real intent over reversing the ongoing buildup of bonhomie. The first of the high-level military-to-military deliberations on 6 June 2020 led to a decision to disengage. It’s the process of disengagement at the Galwan Valley that was under verification when Colonel Babu and his men were virtually waylaid and brutally killed by improvised weapons unseen in the modern battlefield since long. It was an attempt to bring crudity to convey an indirect message about the PLA’s readiness in every sphere. This bizarre attack led to mobilisation of additional forces by both sides and an elongated period of standoff, which has included 11 meetings of the operational-level military hierarchy of both sides. In the midst of this, a quid pro quo operation by the Indian Army in the Chushul-Moldo area led to the occupation of some unheld features on the Indian side of the LAC on 29-30 August 2020 with domination over important PLA positions. It helped in subsequent negotiations to vacate the infamous Fingers occupied by the PLA. Currently, an uneasy situation prevails in a ‘No War No Peace’ environment. The pandemic has overshadowed information flow about this standoff, which has by no means ended. It is important to analyse a few relevant aspects.
We have moved no closer to establishing why exactly China chose to do what it did in May 2020 and onwards. For that matter, we are still at a loss to ascertain why exactly it acted as it did in 1962. Triggering a border war, capturing prime claimed territory and then vacating it isn’t very rational military behaviour. It appears rational to assume that in April 2020, China had a strategic reason in triggering the standoff and reversing the ongoing bonhomie. Its own intelligence and strategic analysis led it to believe that a Trump victory in America, quieting of Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the American intent of facilitating a strong anti-China front in the Indo Pacific could soon be reality. India could be a real and effective partner of America. Its growing strategic confidence and nationalist fervour could result in it seeking to do acts that may not be favourable to the Chinese; there were probably no definitive markers to illustrate what that may be. The prime danger China probably perceived was in the maritime zone; the American naval presence in the Pacific was a given but the Indian Ocean was still a vast expanse of water where space existed and the Indian strategic partnership with the US would be counterproductive for China. Did it seriously believe that by coercion at the land borders India would be deterred from getting closer to the US camp? Quite the opposite was also possible. For that it may be argued that an obfuscated set of Chinese actions could send confusing signals and a realistic assessment by India to determine the future course of action in respect of its strategic partnership with the US would be difficult. It did not work out that way and India was early in its assessment and determined in its response. China, however, has followed the principles of multiplicity and flexibility playing the standoff game at the northern borders. Diplomatic engagement with our neighbours has been followed with the full knowledge that it has more to contribute to them materially, especially with the current dilution of India’s economy.
With negotiation to disengage, we may have temporarily staved off further military standoff but with the trust deficit having considerably enhanced, the disengagement process, unless comprehensive, must not be considered as any achievement. Denial of patrolling and the creation of buffer zones at various hotspots aren’t exactly a means of conflict resolution. It has also led to the deployment of almost 60,000 troops along the LAC, with the consequent uncertainty and the potential of many triggers in waiting, along with enhanced expenditure. It is clear China is in a wait-and-watch mode, fully mindful that a global reset is in the making. Such resets do not take place overnight. In this posture, it really has nothing to lose but certainly a lot to gain if we are cowed down. However, India has clearly not been cowed down but in terms of capability, we need to do much more to exude realistic confidence. Our logistics effort last year and through winter was superb but let us not think it is sufficient. Eastern Ladakh may not yet be ready for deliberate operations. The PLA is not going to use human wave tactics from Mao’s time but rather smother our defences with fire assaults; and for that, we need survivability with the help of modern defensive infrastructure and much rotary and road mobility. Last year we only spoke of habitat, roads and means of storage because that was the priority. In the face of continuously reported PLA upgradation in Tibet, we now need to prepare deliberate defences in depth and have the means to also carry out offensive operations and guarantee survivability on the ground we capture.
What India needs to be mindful of is the fact that it can hardly trust a nation that seems to be finding much malicious pleasure in our pandemic discomfort and is attempting to paint us black in every which way. I will have more on the diplomatic aspects in the next column.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir