The ongoing disengagement is a setback to India’s strategic interests
The verdict on the disengagement worked out between India and China on June 30 is that India has lost territory. It is a setback to India’s long-standing claims in the Ladakh sector. India’s strategic community of military and intelligence professionals are coming around to the view that China has the clear upper hand now.
For starters, India has to move back considerably from the perceived Line of Actual Control (LAC), which had been the de facto border ever since China captured large swathes of territory in the 1962 war. Worryingly, as multiple Indian army and intelligence sources have pointed out, the LAC is now all set to become a hot border like the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan in the Jammu & Kashmir sector.
Not only has India lost territory, it now has to spend millions manning a large military formation to ensure the LAC is not pushed back even further.
Such a possibility, a senior military official said, would be “unthinkable” had this been the LoC with Pakistan. Unfortunately, the voices heard advocating a harder line vis a vis Pakistan have quietened down while the disengagement deal by Lt. Gen. Harinder Singh, the XIV Corps Commander, and his Chinese counterpart, Maj Gen Liu Lin, head of China’s South Xinjiang Military Region, is underway.
Ground lost in Galwan Valley
What has surprised many military commanders is that the Indian leadership agreed to China’s terms. A key loss is Patrolling Point 14 (PP 14), where a major clash took place on June 15 that claimed the lives of one Indian Army officer and 19 soldiers. An indeterminate number of Chinese soldiers are believed to have been killed in the clash, but no proof of that has emerged so far. This means the Indian Army and ITBP will move considerably back in the Galwan Valley sector. A similar position has been taken at PP 17A and on the mountain ridges known as Finger 2 to 8: India will no longer be allowed to move ahead either.
Effectively, China has managed to push back India’s LAC further back and taken ground that was earlier in India’s possession.
In other areas such as Hot Springs and Pangong Tso lake, the confrontation continues with Indian soldiers in eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Chinese. Till a few months ago these were considered settled areas. Bilateral agreements from 1993, 1996 and 2013 protected them from any forcible change by either side. This has now happened, and India has agreed to push back its perception of the LAC without getting an opportunity to resort to the earlier bilateral agreements.
An indication of things to come was evident when both countries released their official statements between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s Special Representative and foreign minister Wang Yi on July 6. “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” the Chinese statement said. India’s official statement was completely silent on the Galwan Valley and only mentioned that “peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas was essential”.
India also stated that both countries “should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas.” But on June 19, the China’s foreign ministry official spokesperson Zhao Lijian had explicitly stated that since May 6, India had made “an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo of control and management.” This, Zhao Lijian said, resulted in the clash on June 15 when 20 Indian Army personnel were killed.
Clearly, the Chinese now claim that Galwan Valley, which saw bitter fighting in 1962, is now claimed and virtually held by China. Indian troops will be at least 2 km away from this area and will not even send patrols up to PP 14. This is in keeping with the Chinese position which it has explicitly stated several times publicly and on record.
A new kind of war
India has also been deploying all its surveillance capabilities throughout the crisis. A fleet of drones based out of Srinagar has been flying over the area when the weather permits.
The Indian government is now sourcing satellite images from private players in addition to a host of Indian satellites developed and manufactured by ISRO that are keeping close watch on the Chinese withdrawal.
While India has retaliated by banning 59 apps made by Chinese companies, there has been a significant rise in cyberattacks on Indian critical information infrastructure. The kind of malware Indian cybersecurity experts are gathering indicates a major step up in Chinese cyber operations.
Meanwhile, Indian security officials also agree that “salami slicing,” a known Chinese tactic to slowly expand its territory in disputed areas, is working. The latest crisis in the Ladakh sector and the agreed upon principles of disengagement have given the Chinese more territory in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and the ridgelines leading to the Pangong Tso lake. A similar confrontation in the Depsang Plains also continues. There is now a legitimate concern in the Indian security establishment that China has outplayed India on several fronts.
Senior Indian government officials have clarified that Indian satellites have been performing optimally and there has been no problem with coverage.