Intrusion in Ladakh: Who Will Blink First?

09 May, 2013    ·   3922

Chiranjib Halder reflects on the strategic necessity of resolving the impasse

Is India trying to redefine realpolitik and leave the task of sabre rattling to the media and strategic experts after three indecisive flag meetings with the Chinese? If New Delhi foresees airstrip designs in Chinese tents across the Reki Nala in eastern Ladakh, Beijing sees Indian advanced landing strips in forward areas of the sector as a threat and wants to press for their closure. China does not seem to care a hoot about the adverse media publicity and potholes it has created in the road to improving Sino-Indian relations. Indeed, Beijing has asserted in no uncertain terms that it will resolve the impasse at a time and place of its choosing.

Army Chief General Bikram Singh has briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security and the official line is that India has held meetings with local military commanders and through diplomatic channels to get China to vacate the area. However China has refused to budge yet and asserted that it has not intruded into Indian territory and instead put up banners.

The Chinese response to the standoff proves that Indian advanced landing strips may have ruffled feathers at the higher echelons of the military leadership. Also, one must bear in mind that the escalation and eyeball-to-eyeball positioning ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Japan visit may be a poser from China against warming up too much to Tokyo. Using a blend of threats and foreplay of military flare up to deter an adversary from taking actions contrary to its interests is a game-plan followed by many nations in such imbroglios.  Maybe the Chinese want to tilt harder on Indian positions facing the Karakoram range or maybe they are simply exasperated about India’s extensive build-up. Possibly, the Chinese incursions suggest the action may be a remonstration against the defensive fortifications India has put up in Phuktse to compensate for its vulnerable logistics chain.

As the Sino-Indian face-off continues in Ladakh, it is important for us to recapitulate the recorded history of the 1962 conflict. Chinese artillery pounded Indian posts perched to the east of Daulat Beg Oldi now in the news again. Faced with impossible odds, Indian troops tried to take on the advancing Chinese soldiers. Then the advancing Chinese forces backtracked. India’s official war history argues ‘China’s pattern of deployment inducted and forces do suggest they were satisfied with reaching their 1960 claim-line.  It seems doubtful they had the aim to capture Leh’. For the first time since that confrontation Chinese troops have trenched positions ahead of their own claim-line where they stopped in 1962. PLA men are now positioned in the middle of the strategically-significant Depsang Bulge.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid's and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's forthcoming reciprocal visits provide the best strategic bet for India to respect each other's territorial status quo. If the Chinese soldiers stay put and fortify their positions till then, India's wallowing observation that the intrusion in eastern Ladakh is a local affair would only increase the bellicosity of Beijing. And if this display of bravado was intended by the new Chinese leadership to expedite progress in talks on the border dispute it does not reflect sagacity. A brinkmanship game may never nudge India into lowering its guard no matter how many provocative banners the PLA soldiers display within India territory falsely proclaiming swathes to be theirs. Beijing may be well aware that Chinese interests in the Indian growth story overpower any geopolitical tactic to prove its overbearing presence or hold Indian border infrastructure to ransom.

From a military perspective, Daulat Beg Oldi and its airstrip are very important to India. Perched south of the Karakoram pass, Daulat Beg Oldi allows India to put in place a booby-trap to snap the Sino-Pak road link and guard the eastern flank to Siachen glacier.  Later this year, as the snow sets in across Ladakh and makes the terrain inhospitable, Chinese outposts will have to withdraw. The men in olive green will not be able to survive the cold in temporary tented shelters.

Beijing will by then have tested and introspected on the firmness of Indian resolve. Restoring status quo and extracting a peace dividend is in the long term economic and geopolitical interests for both neighbours. Indian mandarins in their interactions with the Chinese counterparts must signal seriousness of intent. It can probe more aggressively and intensify its presence without escalating tensions. In modern military parlance, an eyeball-to-eyeball presence is also a deterrent to escalation on either side as the game of one-upmanship won’t stress on ‘who blinks first’.