by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Everyone’s favourite subject these days is the Ladakh standoff and the current status of the agreement to disengage and de-escalate. The reading public is getting a surfeit of fairly good strategic literature to remain well informed. Most issues revolve around the trust deficit with China, the possibility that Beijing will pause and recommence a standoff at some other point of the long border with India, and the need for our nation to develop its infrastructure and its armed forces to match that of its northern neighbour in the eventuality of serious exchanges across the border. The one issue very few are looking at is the host of lessons that China would have drawn from this standoff and will no doubt analyse very deeply for the future.
It must start with the word being bandied around the most—‘trust’. By agreeing to a special engagement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping to guide their militaries after Doklam in 2017, and then deliberately undertaking a mission to create border tension, China lost not only India’s trust but that of much of the world. There is a difference between military and political trust. For the military, deception is something to always expect as part of the profession, but international norms dictate something else when it comes to political trust.
Leaders of nations as big and important as China and India, both members of some exclusive international groupings such as BRICS and SCO, cannot depart from understandings and agreements or use these to create military deception. Indian analysts must emphasise this to the world and place moral pressure on China, which will need to find better ways of dealing with nations that it clearly cannot bully on the basis of some presumptions. Will China attempt to create trust and reliability through greater predictability in the future? The nature of its relationship with India and its geostrategic perceptions of India’s potential threats to Chinese interests may force it to look for alternate ways of conflict initiation while retaining international credibility. China could attempt to take some measures to show how sensitive it is to ensuring implementation of agreements. The rapid disengagement in Ladakh appears to project this as visible proof of it. Yet we should also expect that attempts to embroil India and paint it as the villain will probably gain more ground in the future.
It should be reasonably clear to China that its ability to use coercion to dictate terms to India and caution it against joining anti-China strategic equations is quite limited. In messaging the world and India on China’s apparent superior military capability, it would realise that it needs to do much more and perhaps run the risk of going over the top in situations in which it may have little control. With India mirroring China’s deployment in Eastern Ladakh, the latter did not resort to opening other fronts, indicating a deep caution against over-commitment. This is what also happened at Nathu La (1967), Sumdorong Chu (1986) and Doklam (2017)—China preferred to keep the standoffs localised. Will it do anything different the next time? It has an untested set of armed forces that was bested by Vietnam the last time it fought conventionally. Demonstration of its optimum ability in an all-out war is fraught with unacceptable risk; the PLA will need to find innovative means of conflict initiation on multiple fronts without resorting to full war and hope to achieve its aims.
If China’s aim was to dent India’s strategic confidence, it would have realised that it will take much more than just a standoff and border friction. In 1969, it had border friction with the then Soviet Union. The Soviets, renowned for their use of massed artillery, fired one of history’s biggest crunches of multi-barrel rocket artillery on the PLA; it was at Damansky Island in the Ussuri River, a salvo so big that the flow of the Ussuri changed after the explosions. It was China that learnt its lessons from it and went on to create artillery with one of the largest missiles and rocket forces. It would recall that never again after 1969 did the PLA engage with the Soviets or later just the Russians. Would it attempt to use these tactics against India in a future standoff: striking with rockets and missiles to cause extensive casualties on Indian soldiers and warfighting wherewithal without crossing the LAC? It is food for thought because our ability to respond and neutralise remains relatively weak.
China would have observed the growing strength of information operations and influence warfare in current-day standoffs. It is almost 30 years since it adopted ‘war under informationised conditions’. The rising tide of alternatives to conventional war will no doubt tempt the Chinese to experiment in areas where deniability is high; that includes facets of hybrid war. In the current situation, I did expect it to use various shades of grey zone warfare, resort to enhanced cultivation of separatist trends in the Northeast and use its media to brand India the villain. It did not. That could be a lesson for its future strategy: that it is easier to employ indirect threats and resort to direct confrontation only when the stage is set for enhanced hybridity.
Two significant issues remain: first Pakistan and second the maritime zone. Very briefly, China will realise that initiating the Ladakh standoff without directly involving Pakistan has led to the creation of the following perception in Indian military circles—that India’s focus must go to the northern borders with China, with Pakistan the second priority. Will China wish to create a greater dilemma for the Indian leadership by getting Pakistan to use its calibration capability to ratchet up the threats in J&K and the western borders? We may need to brace for that even though Pakistan has very little capability to do China’s bidding. On the maritime front, much has been written and spoken about the Quad and how it received a new lease due to the Ladakh standoff. China will try to find the strategic diplomatic leverage to prevent the actualisation of the Quad, which is clearly not in the interests of Beijing’s bid to contest the Indo Pacific. Seeking to appease Australia and raising Russian doubts about India’s strategic partnership with the US are two domains that it can use effectively.
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir