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by Maj Gen Harsh Kakar (Retd) Rajnath Singh, while addressing the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce stated, ‘The unprovoked aggression on our Himalayan frontiers is a reminder of how the world is changing, how existing agreements are being challenged, how power is being asserted not just in the Himalayas but across the Indo-Pacific…and how uncertain the future of the region and world could be in this backdrop.’ Earlier, addressing the same meet, the External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, stated, ‘Events of this year have been very disturbing. They have raised some very basic concerns. They have happened because the other party has not abided by agreements that we have had with them about respecting and observing Line of Actual Control and not bringing forces to the area. So, in a sense, I would say in your world, you will be dealing with somebody who has violated the terms of the contract.’ Indian leaders, who till recently avoided mentioning China directly, have begun doing so. For this, the government faced flak from the opposition and strategic elite of the country. This was possibly being done on the premise that ongoing talks between the army corps commanders and the WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination) would determine a solution. India avoided crossing Chinese red lines. The change signals that Indo-China relations are moving nowhere except possibly downhill. There is unlikely to be any early resolution to the current ongoing crisis. The major reason is breaking down of trust between the two. The last Corps Commanders meeting was held on 06 Nov, post which India rejected Chinese proposals. Since then, there has been no further proposal from the Chinese side. Post the Indian quid pro quo action in end Aug, China has been demanding the withdrawal of India from these heights, which India refuses. India is aware that if it vacates these heights prior to Chinese withdrawal, it could lead to China grabbing them while refusing to adhere to its own agreements. The latest WMCC meeting, held over the weekend, only mentioned continuing to work towards ensuring complete disengagement in all friction points along the LAC. The lack of trust was aggravated by the Galwan incident. The incident also stalled any further Chinese advance. It realised that Indian forces would act with vengeance if it attempted anything beyond where it is currently deployed. Currently, both sides have dug in for the winters. Realistically, there were limited choices. In Doklam, the Chinese agreeing to pull back from the standoff is being claimed as surrendering to Indian determination. The fact that China continues to maintain additional forces in Doklam is an indicator that the situation may change at any stage. In Ladakh, China could not pull back as doing so would have impacted its reputation and global standing. It had no choice, other than pushing India to act first, which India refuses. Alternatively, it could expand the conflict which would be no guarantee of success. Initially, when China deployed in Ladakh for the winters, its global mouthpiece, The Global Times, unleashed propaganda warfare claiming high altitude accommodation for its soldiers, hot food delivered by drones etc. It soon realised that these gimmicks are far from reality and its medical casualties are mounting daily. This self-launched propaganda warfare has vanished as China faces reality. Inputs from China indicate that their Chinese Western Theatre Commander, General Zhao Zongqi, has been removed from command and replaced by Zhang Xudong. He was the instigator of Doklam and Ladakh. Zhao was a hardliner and had always wanted to teach India a lesson. It is also rumoured that Zhao, who crossed the age limit of 65 in Apr this year, launched the Ladakh action, seeking a promotion within the CMC. Zhang, on the other hand, has never served in the Western Theatre Command (WTC). Unlike his predecessor, he is neither a member of the Central Committee or the National People's Congress. Moving an outsider into the WTC, especially when the standoff is ongoing, cannot be without a reason. It does appear that Xi and the CMC seek to take direct control of the standoff and may in the coming months display a more flexible approach. As Claude Arpi states, ‘It probably means that Chengdu, the WTC seat, will be side lined and orders will come directly from the CMC and the PLA Army (Ground Force) in Beijing. Chairman Xi wanted probably to remove a hardliner who had already created trouble for the Emperor during the Doklam confrontation. It is one possibility.’ China, facing a multitude of global pressures, may not contemplate a strong military action to fulfil its objective of achieving its claimed lines. Failure to achieve desired objectives could spell the death knell for Xi Jinping. On the contrary, China could enhance hybrid warfare seeking to impact the Indian economy, its global standing and alliances. India is already facing a series of cyber-attacks which could be Chinese coordinated. The cost of maintaining additional forces in Ladakh would be an added expenditure to the Indian exchequer at a time when the economy is yet to recover from the pandemic. Support to insurgent groups in the North East while pushing Pak to up the militancy in the valley and re-ignite the Khalistan cause is well established. It would continue attempting to push India for talks on its terms, not for territory alone but more for face saving. 2021 is the centenary year for the Chinese communist party. This is the occasion when Xi Jinping would have sought to gift the Chinese public with regions which they have claimed but never annexed. These include territories it claims from India and reunification of Taiwan. Neither of the two would be a pushover unless China plans to launch hard operations. Simultaneously, in its centenary year, China can never project a defeat. It would signal the end for the CCP. Hence, unlikely for China to attempt any further action, unless success is assured. The Indian Ocean region, where the Indian navy is in a dominating position may not be within the Chinese game plan in the near future. Even the Chinese have accepted this fact. The Global Times stated in an article of 17 th Dec, ‘India has also taken the lead in planning small-scale multilateral cooperation mechanisms in the Indian Ocean.’ It would come into the picture in a couple of years as the Chinese navy expands. This long-term threat must get the desired attention as Indian defence industry is slow in production and is known for slippages. The Chinese can never be permitted to dominate the Indian Ocean. The Indian government and the armed forces need to look ahead, beyond the winters, as to what could be the Chinese game plan. Historically some standoffs have continued for years before being resolved, Sumdorong Chu being an example. So could be the case of Ladakh. Simultaneously, China could expand its area of confrontation to include other sectors, including Uttarakhand and Arunachal. The army remains prepared and deployed as also has identified its own objectives in the region as a quid pro quo to any Chinese misadventure. Finally, the change in command at the WTC could be a signal for the Chinese adopting a more flexible approach and seeking a face saver. The next round of military talks could provide the key to Chinese intentions.
2021 would be the year to watch. India must keep its guard up
and ensure that it is prepared to hold onto its gains.
(First published in CENJOWS. The views of the author may not
correspond to the views of this organization)