In the backdrop of the military stalemate in Eastern Ladakh, examination of reasons for the same and how this is placed in the larger context of strategic competition between India and China in regional and global affairs.
Two years after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the garb of training exercises occupied patrolling points and other dominating heights on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, a military stalemate has developed.
Resolution of stalemate will necessitate political intervention at the highest level of national leadership which does not appear to be forthcoming in the near future given that an opportunity for face to face meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unlikely.
Thus, there is no forcing event, where both leaders are compelled to engage despite a long history of leader to leader engagement, including the “informal summits,” held by Mr Modi and Mr Xi in 2018 Wuhan and 2019 in Chennai.
One factor for the long interval between the two leaders remains COVID 19, yet whether a one on one can lead to a breakthrough of disengaging between the two armies is unclear for now.
With the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit to be held in China in June this year being conducted digitally, Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President will not have an opportunity for a bilateral on the sideline which can achieve a breakthrough on the contested requirement of a pre-April 2020 status quo on the LAC as demanded by the India.
Meanwhile, the Indian Army and the PLA do not seem to have the military potential to change the status quo given the posture of balanced dispositions adopted over a period and sustained for two winters. This obviates surprise – an essential feature in Chinese success in April 2020.
Some of the causes of the military stalemate are outlined as below-
Indian Army Regrouping & Resolve
Indian Army has undertaken regrouping of forces to balance the deficit on the India China border.
As per open-source reports 17 divisions are presently deployed on the Indian China border
along with one RR Force equivalent to a division while 20 divisions are on the India Pakistan front with one division in reserve.
With dual tasking of one corps sized formation, two-strike or offensive corps are presently allocated to the China and Pakistan fronts.
Demonstration of resolve of the Indian Army in stoutly defending territorial sovereignty was very much evident to the PLA as well as would have trickled down to the Central Military Commission in Beijing headed by Chairman Xi Jinping.
PLA Force Availability
In terms of force availability for the PLA, there is parity of forces opposite Eastern Ladakh but there is likely to be a deficit opposite Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, which would be one of the reasons why there is dormancy in these theatres.
Given this reality, a breakthrough by the two sides is unlikely but the present stasis in Eastern Ladakh is expected to continue which could be denoted as a military stalemate.
Confidence Building Measures
After the 15th Indian and Chinese Senior Commanders meeting there has been no further development from the point of view of disengagement and de-escalation at the theatre level.
However recently Commander of India’s Northern Command Lt Gen Upendra Dwivedi indicated communications at the battalion and brigade level are established to prevent misunderstanding or breaching the current stalemate.
Physical contact between patrols on both sides which was a frequent occurrence in the past have also been avoided as per Lt Gen Dwivedi.
Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pande made his first visit to Ladakh to take over, indicating the priority that continues to be given to this theatre.
QED – Military Factors
The inference from the above remains that occupation of Aksai Chin including some 1000 square km that has been a “strategic grab,” by China in April – May 2020 is now a fait accompli. While this is not likely to be accepted at any forum by officials in India, realignment of strategic posture reveals the ability to ensure avoiding such a predicament in the near future.
While the maritime dimension has been discussed from time to time, given the present force structure, India’s geographic centrality in the Indian Ocean and Laws of the Sea, direct naval confrontation cannot be anticipated.
India China Strategic Contestation
Against the backdrop of a military stalemate, strategic contestation between India and China is expected to continue and may even gather pace in the months ahead.
Some of the major vectors indicating the contestations are (1) Basic differentiation of ideology democracy and communism (2) India’s alignment with the United States with a larger role now envisaged being part of QUAD and President Biden’s Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS) (3) China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) making inroads in India’s neighbourhood (4) China Pakistan Economic Corridor as a manifestation of the “iron brother,” relationship or near alliance between India’s geographically proximate adversaries posing a Two Front Threat – perceived or real. (5) China’s global contain India policy.
India China Cohabitation
Despite the differences – strategic and military India and China will continue to cohabit in multilateral forums such as BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Russia India China (RIC) forum and other wider ones in the Indo Asia Pacific.
This cohabitation essentially conforms to multilateral commitments rather than any bilateral move for a concord.
Transactional economic and trade relations are expected to continue for mutual benefit. Thus not surprisingly India China trade has reportedly increased in the last two years even as troops on both sides have been facing off at multiple points.
Business and Commerce
Business and commercial relations may remain contested with India recently raising a number of challenges with reference to action by the Indian government on some of the large companies present in India such as Xiaomi. India’s Enforcement Directorate seized ₹5551.27 crore of Xiaomi Technology India Pvt Ltd on charges of violating the Foreign Exchange Management Act for transfer of monies outside the country to the parent entity in China. However, the Company believes that this was for royalty payments.
People to People Relations
COVID 19 has resulted in a rupture in people to people relations which has been attenuated due to contestations on the Indian border. One of the live issues is that of Indian students returning to China post slowdown in the virus though China continues to face a significant surge. India has suspended tourist visas issued to Chinese nationals; global airlines body IATA told its member carriers on April 20 which officially is due to the spike in COVID 19 in that country, but some analysts have linked the same to the plight of approximately 22,000 Indian students enrolled in Chinese universities who have not been allowed to return to China for physical classes. There is no clarity on how far the people to people relations will remain unaffected.
With the World in flux since March 2020 exacerbated post the war in Ukraine, India and China are unlikely to increase bilateral tensions for the time being another factor that will ensure that the situation may be in stasis. How to exploit this lull to increase engagement at the political, diplomatic, economic and trade relations between Asia’s two leading political powers remains to be seen? While this is an ideal goal due to factors listed above of strategic competition seems to be the more likely outcome.