What are the lessons to be learnt from the Ladakh escalation

When talks are in progress, it is presumed that disengagement between the armies will be carried out in a controlled manner.

 |  5-minute read |   17-06-2020
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While India-China high-level talks to de-escalate tensions are at play between military commanders in Eastern Ladakh and that of Galwan Valley and Hot Spring, the violent scuffle resulting into three casualties on the Indian side (a Commanding Officer and two soldiers) is most unfortunate. While the LAC has remained peaceful over four decades, such a severity highlights the changing status quo at the border.

When talks are in progress, it is presumed that disengagement between the armies will be carried out in a controlled manner. However, the absence of authorised details of the incident is resulting in speculation. The gravity of the situation demands the need for clear authorised communication to avert misleading reports. It is important to note, against the Indian casualties, Global Times admitted that: "Chinese side [has] also suffered casualties in the Galwan Valley physical clash". Since no specific numbers are put forward, China's claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, what remains worrying is the fact of 'fatal casualties suffered by troops', caused by physical violence. This highlights that the tools used in the scuffle were such that can inflict grave injuries, and prove to be fatal to the Indian troops.

Such acts of violence should be responded with the most appropriate and proportional response to send a clear message to China that we will not tolerate such actions against our troops.

Spanner in the wheels

Until now both India and China boasted of 'no firing' across the LAC since the Nathu La incident in 1967. But unlike firing, such form of physical violence and killings make the situation far more serious. At this point of the ongoing tension, the pertinent questions that demand attention are three-fold: First, have the commanders in talks not communicated with each other and exercised their influence to control the situation at the very first instance? Second, with passions presumably high among troops, what actions have been taken to prevent further escalation?

main_ladakh_reuters_061720103527.jpgActs of violence should be responded with the most appropriate and proportional response to send a clear message to China that we will not tolerate such actions against our troops. (Photo: Reuters)

Third, has the disengagement and de-escalation process not acquired the deserved seriousness? These queries highlight the need for greater transparency.

Ground realities

In this situation, it becomes imperative to understand the Chinese reading of the issue. Playing by the old 'blame India' tactic, Global Times and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused Indian troops of violating the terms of disengagement by crossing the LAC. On the contrary, China seems to overlook that the impetus to the ongoing tension was set by Chinese intrusions starting early May compounded with building up of heavy vehicles, artillery, tented camps and logistics. Shiv Shankar Menon calls such behaviour two steps forward and one step backwards. It suggests that China may agree to restore the status quo ante in two or three areas, but not in all of them. This is what India needs to take note of without a fail. India's stand both at a diplomatic and military level has remained unequivocally firm on five important issues: First, India will not compromise its territorial integrity; second, Chinese troops must restore the status quo at the LAC (as existed at the end of April 2020), albeit with de-escalation talks. Third, additional troops and weapon systems must be withdrawn by both sides. Fourth, either side should not raise any objection to infrastructure development on its side of the LAC; and fifth, both armies should prevent the escalation from spreading into any other sector.

China's actions emerge from its apprehensions over the threat to Aksai Chin, and more importantly, the 179-km part of Western Express Highway that connects Xinjiang with Lhasa. Also, China wants to dominate the strategic road Darbuk-Shyok-DBO, opened last year, and its feeder roads to the LAC. Here, China needs to understand that India will continue to develop infrastructure on its side of the LAC, including feeder roads, like China, and continue to build its own capability to avert a contingency. It suits China to remain ambiguous since it maintains pressure on the LAC in the East, and Pakistan engages India on the LoC in the West thus keeping India embroiled with border tensions and internal security issues.

Road from Galwan

While engagement and dialogues must continue at diplomatic and military levels to de-escalate the situation, there is a need to understand actions which must be taken at the grassroots level. What should be India's immediate and long term response mechanism? First, for disengagement at the ground, troops must disengage at the point of contact, by moving to their previous positions or as discussed during the talks. This must be a deliberate and controlled activity, with clear directions by commanders. De-escalation means a reduction in the intensity of a conflict situation. Here, it can happen only when the first steps lead to de-induction of additional troops and restoration of the status quo ante.

Second, China had launched an information campaign to demonstrate its build-up and combat strength, along with false narratives. Both sides, China, in particular, should take corrective measures to prevent such misinformation campaigns, as these escalate the situation on the ground.

Third, to prevent and deter any further transgressions and violence, the areas where there is a difference in the perception along the LAC, our posture should be demonstrated and be balanced. Our response should be appropriate and proportional to maintain the sanctity of our borders. This must be fully backed by building long-term capabilities, and an effective intelligence gathering and surveillance system to remain operationally prepared.

It is time both China and India build relations to bring peace and stability, rather than cyclical military standoffs.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How India can combat Chinese guile in Ladakh


Lt General VK Ahluwalia Lt General VK Ahluwalia @vk_gen

The writer is Director, CLAWS and former Corps Commander, Ladakh and Army Commander, Central Command.

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