With the world’s attention focused on Taiwan lately, Sunday’s talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders slipped beneath the radar of many newsreaders across the globe. The discussions were the latest in a series of corps and army-level talks aimed at defusing a standoff at the border which has gone on for over a year. Since the clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along their disputed border, both nations have claimed they desire a resolution to the standoff. Their actions, however, tell another story as the military presence on both sides of the border continues to increase.
Sunday’s talks failed to make progress and on the following day India and China pointed fingers at each other. The Indian Defense Ministry placed blame on “unilateral attempts by the Chinese side to alter the status quo.” Indian commanders put forward reasonable suggestions at the latest round of talks but China’s representatives were not in agreement and resisted them. A spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army placed responsibility for the lack of progress on India, claiming Indian demands are unreasonable and unrealistic.
Both nations have raised the number of troops stationed in the border region and are actively building up infrastructure intended to keep large forces stationed there during the dangerous winter seasons. Current Chinese troop levels are estimated at 50,000 near the border with tens of thousands more men, and their equipment, within a day’s travel. India has kept pace with the buildup, deploying tens of thousands of its own troops, and weaponry to the border.
Last week we discussed the new strategic realities India is contending with at the present time as China is replacing Pakistan as the nation’s primary adversary. The solidifying Chinese military footprint in areas near the Sino-Indian frontier was touched upon, as was the absence of a similar response by India. Whatever the hesitancies were that prevented New Delhi from formulating an effective countermove appear to have disappeared. The Indian military will be shifting 50,000 troops towards the border region in an effort to increase the number of options available to Indian commanders. The shifting of these forces to the north will reduce the number of troops allocated to the defense of India’s western border with Pakistan. This is a prime indication of the shift in strategic focus from Pakistan to China.
The timing of this move must be taken into account as well. India has just been ravaged by a recent wave of COVID-19 cases and the economy is contracting at a dangerously rapid pace. There will be less money available for defense in future budget cycles, meaning this shift of troops needs to take place now. However, even as this troop movement plays out and India continues to realign its strategic priorities, China continues to hold an advantage along the border.
This is an area that we will certainly explore a bit later in the week, along with today’s drone attack on an Indian Air Force installation in Kashmir. Tomorrow’s post will take a look at the dueling NATO and Russian naval exercises now kicking off in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Hope everyone has had a good weekend!
It has been just over a year since the bloody clash between Indian and Chinese troops at the Galwan Valley. Since then, despite the partial disengagement between Indian and Chinese forces in the Galwan area and other parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as well as complete disengagement at Pangong Lake, tensions remain high. The risk of conflict, inadvertent or otherwise, continues to persist. On some levels that danger is even more pronounced at the present time. China’s current troop deployments and dispositions in the LAC area has increased Indian uncertainty about Beijing’s commitment to make troop reductions in the region. At the Qatar Economic Forum today, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that despite promises made, China’s “close-up deployment still continues, especially in Ladakh.”
China is improving its military and civilian infrastructure in Tibet and Xingjian, two border provinces along its border with India. China is upgrading five airbases in that region and building three new ones as well. Logistical facilities for the Chinese military are also being expanded at a hurried pace. Simultaneously, new civilian infrastructure links which would be invaluable to the military in times of crisis and war are being constructed. Highways and rail links in particular.
The purpose behind these preparations is clear: In the event of a future Sino-Indian conflict China intends to bring overwhelming force to bear in a minimal amount of time. What remains is determining if the nature China’s moves here are defensive-minded or offensive.
For India, the writing on the wall was made clear after the Galwan clash. China, not Pakistan is now the main enemy. This realization has caused India to increase its partnership in the Quad, an informal anti-China alliance of sorts that also includes the United States, Japan and Australia. Further, China’s new assertiveness has also turned Indian foreign policy and defense priorities upside down. Beijing is not going to ease the pressure and it will probably expand farther into the economic realm in coming months.
This is where India is facing its real predicament. Excluding Chinese companies from doing business in India is nearly impossible. A large part of this is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increasing demand for pharmaceutical ingredients and India’s present dependence on China for antibiotics and painkillers means New Delhi will not be able to adopt stringent anti-China policies in the foreseeable future. This economic dependence runs the risk of becoming India’s Achilles’ heel in its growing competition with the People’s Republic of China.
India and China have begun moving forward-deployed troops and equipment away from some of the disputed areas of the border area. These are the areas where Chinese and Indian troops have been involved in a months-long standoff. The first movement of troops started on Wednesday near Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region. Both Beijing and New Delhi have spoke quite positively of the disengagement. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament that the withdrawals will be completed in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner.”
The hope among some observers and experts is that this disengagement leads to a broader disengagement and eventual resolution of Sino-Indian border issues in the north. However, not everyone shares this viewpoint. In the eyes of an influential number of former Indian government officials and outside experts, this withdrawal indicates the current Indian government’s acceptance of Beijing’s position regarding the contested border territory. A handful of regional military commentators have also chimed in with their own theories, the most interesting being that the mutual withdrawal from Pangong is a smokescreen intended to mask the fact that China’s true military objective in East Ladakh is Depsang.
Regardless, the disputed Sino-Indian border has had a penchant for straining relations between the two countries in the past. In this most recent crisis the stakes have been higher given the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s ascendancy and India’s increasingly close relations with the United States. It remains to be seen if these mutual withdrawals will be permanent. These forward deployed forces are likely not being removed from the gameboard altogether. A redeployment to another area of the border, or reoccupying the former positions around Pangong would not take very long if ordered.
There has been a considerable amount of maneuvering by the People’s Republic of China, and India over the weekend on the South Asia/Western Pacific gameboard. Each nation-state’s moves are calculated to widen and expand contemporary avenues aimed at mid to long term strategic national goals.
For China, their latest move appears designed to give off the impression of de-escalation in the Ladakh region. The People’s Liberation Army has moved 10,000 of its troops out of rear areas in in the area of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Sources have confirmed the movement from training areas traditionally used by PLA forces in eastern Ladakh, located roughly 100 miles beyond the Indian area of the LAC. The troops had been there since April, a short time before tensions in that area started to rise. It is worth mentioning that although the Chinese troops are departing, their heavy equipment will remain in place.This raises the possibility that the purpose of the move is logistics. Maintaining a large force in a region with such extreme winter weather is difficult, to say the least. Another caveat to the troop movement is that China is not pulling troops off of the frontline positions. The balance of forces along the LAC will remain unchanged.
Author’s Note: Apologies. Half way through writing this I became slightly ill and have decided to cut the entry short. I will put up a second part on Tuesday. Again, very sorry. Seems like the chemo side effects aren’t entirely out of my system yet.