Ahead of today’s meet over Ladakh standoff, India signals a realistic approach

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Jun 06, 2020 07:14 AM IST

Officials indicate that Saturday’s border talks between Indian and Chinese military officials, led by lieutenant generals from both armies, may not lead to a breakthrough

Indian military officials will walk into a meeting on Saturday with their Chinese counterparts to attempt to resolve the month-long row over the Line of Actual Control with the knowledge that it may not be possible to achieve an immediate breakthrough to the Ladakh standoff, people familiar with the development told Hindustan Times.

Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question, NSA Ajit Doval and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, held the 22nd round of talks in December 2019(ANI)
Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question, NSA Ajit Doval and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, held the 22nd round of talks in December 2019(ANI)

Saturday’s meeting is the first high-level meeting between Lt General Harinder Singh, the general officer commanding of Leh-based 14 Corps, and his Chinese counterpart who heads the People’s Liberation Army’s Group Army since the May 5 scuffle between soldiers near Pangong lake and subsequent stand-off at Galwan riverulet.

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The last round of talks between delegations led by two major general-rank officers of the two armies on June 2 had been inconclusive.

Officials, however, underline that it was a positive sign that both sides were talking to each other through established military and diplomatic channels. But the dialogue does not mean an immediate resolution. “This is the eventuality that we are prepared for,” one of them said.

India has already made it clear it wants the Chinese troops to move back and restore status quo ante on the four positions.

“We are not in a hurry… and I believe, neither is the Chinese side,” a government functionary told Hindustan Times signalling that the government had adopted a “realistic approach” to the standoff and the dialogue process .

An official said given the high stakes involved, he expected the Ladakh standoff to continue for longer than the 73-day Doklam standoff.

“Both sides have brought in elements that may continue for some months”.

Also Read: India China standoff explained: Bridge over troubled waters

The May 5 scuffle at Pangong triggered by an aggressive group of Chinese soldiers was the starting point of Beijing scaling up its presence along the eastern Ladakh border.

Over the next few days, China amassed two Combined Arms Brigades of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso patrolling points along the 3,488-kilometre-long Line of Actual Control (LAC). This comes to around 8,000 soldiers plus support elements like artillery

Indian officials say the standoff at Pangong Tso appears to be aimed at dominating the Srijap mountain that overlooks the lake. But the game in Galwan valley - where the Chinese military has parked itself around three patrolling points - is a lot more complex.

“Broadly, our understanding is that the PLA’s focus on the Galwan valley is prompted by multiple objectives that are mostly linked to stalling the upgrade of border infrastructure that has picked up pace in the past two years,” a person familiar with the government’s position on the standoff said.

For one, China wants to stall the construction of the winding 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road that would give the Indian army easy access to the last military post south of the dominating Karakoram Pass.

The Indian side is, however, determined to complete construction of the entire stretch by this summer including the 60-metre bridge across the Galwan rivulet or nallah near the point of its confluence with Shyok river. “We have to complete the concrete bridge this month, and the road well before the onset of winter,” one official said.

Also Read: As the LAC heats up, reading China’s playbook, writes Shyam Saran

Once this road is completed, the military capacity and capability would go up manifold in the region and enable the army to put counter pressure on the PLA at the Karakoram Pass, Chip Chap river area, Trig Heights, Hot Springs, Galwan and Depsang Plains.

“India will then have the capacity to counter retaliate to Chinese pressure,” an official said. This is an eventuality that the Chinese, which had been upgrading its border infrastructure for decades, is trying to avoid.

In the long term, Indian strategists told Hindustan Times, the Chinese effort appears to make the Indian positions in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector untenable. On its part, China has been pushing to open a route through this sector for a better linkage to Pakistan.

Currently, China and its all weather ally Pakistan are linked by the Karakoram highway via the Khunjerab Pass.

But China is looking to link Tibet with occupied Gilgit Baltistan through a better all-weather road.

The idea is to have a better all weather road to Pakistan so that China Pakistan Economic Corridor is serviced throughout the year.

Also Read: India is sensitive to China but won’t allow change in any border sector

China has already built a road through Gilgit’s Shaksgam valley that lies north-west of Siachen glacier. Pakistan had ceded around 5,163 sq km of the Shaksgam valley to China in a controversial 1963 boundary agreement.

If the Chinese are able to cut us off at Daulat Beg Oldie, they can put pressure through axis Murgo-Saser La-Sansoma , a major logistical supply point on Shyok River for Indian soldiers deployed to dominate Siachen Glacier.

That would help Beijing’s ally Pakistan.

“In a way,” an army officer said, “you could say that what General Pervez Musharaff could not achieve through the Kargil war, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, chairman of its Central Military Commission, expects to achieve before he demits office”.

Also Read: Ladakh sector’s Galwan Valley and its history in Sino-India relations

The officer said the Chinese side could also try to stall the extension of an airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldie that would allow heavy-weight transport aircrafts also to land.

While South Block has been tight-lipped about the motivation of the Chinese aggression along the LAC, it is quite evident that the pinpricks was also aimed to message Beijing’s unhappiness over certain economic measures taken by India after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chinese government had taken offence to India’s new rule notified in early April that blocked Chinese companies from acquiring Indian firms without government approval. The decision to tilt the balance in favour of Indian companies hasn’t gone down too well with Beijing. As part of this exercise, the government decided that all procurement orders of Rs 200 crore or less could not go to foreign companies. The government’s hard push to the Make in India campaign hasn’t gone down well with Beijing also over concerns that it could discourage cheap exports from China.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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