With a meeting of the EAM Jaishankar with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Eastern Ladakh has come in focus again. Most information and analysis of the events in Eastern Ladakh of 2020 and the first half of 2021 have been analysed in fine detail, and hence requires no repetition. There are three issues that of late have been at the fore and need examination – infrastructural push by China in Tibet, the state of disengagement and infringements, if any, in Eastern Ladakh and the prospects of the next military talks following the meeting of the two Foreign Ministers.

By Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma

First are the intensive, changes in strategic geography and infrastructural development being undertaken with breath-taking speed in Tibet and Xinjiang. The five superhighways to Tibet, the railways, the logistical infrastructure, the demographic changes with fast increasing Xiaokang border defence villages, are all so evident. There is also focussed attempt to change the advantages that Indian Air Force had in undertaking air operations in Tibet/ Xinjiang. Airfields of Kashgar, Hotan, Ngari-Gunsa, Tingri, Damxung, Nyingchi, Tashkorgan and Lhasa have new support and maintenance areas, several hangars for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), underground tunnels, hardened aircraft shelters and blast pens, munitions storage facilities and runways being refurbished and possibly extended. There is evidence of S400 AD systems deployed in Tibet and Xinjiang, in addition to air defence integrated within various airbases. As this creates a different level of competition and typology of air operations, newer war gaming and plans will have to be undertaken.

In the same context, it is essential to reflect as to why significant numbers of defence works have not been constructed across the Line of Actual Control for occupation by the PLA Army. The answer to the question is not difficult to contemplate, and mandates clearer conceptualisation of ground operations and newer domains of future warfare. Indian armed forces have also correspondingly stepped up multi-faceted infrastructural development – roads, tunnels, habitat, underground storage and defence works.

Second is the issue of the state of disengagement and its infringements by PLA in Eastern Ladakh. Often, relying on unsubstantiated, unconfirmed ‘sources’, some truths, many half truths and lots of falsehoods and conjectures get cumulated together to create a phoney picture. Conversely, it is a truism that the official establishment displays marked hesitancy and remains economical in information dissemination.

Case in point is the ‘sourced’ information that made two critical points. One that a patrol clash happened at Galwan River on 02 May 2021, a lower-scale repeat of 15 June 2020 incident. Two, is the reoccupation of Black Top and Helmet features South of Pangong Tso that will make it extremely difficult for Indian Army to reoccupy dominating heights on the Ladakh Range (should be implying Kailash Range, as Ladakh Range is on Indian side of LAC and duly defended by Indian Army). This information has been formally trashed by the Indian Army, consequently, in a written communication.

Suffice it to say that the above information cuts to smithereens, the disengagement and verification process that took place as part of agreement between the two military commanders in February 2021. It also challenges the honour and credibility of the Indian Army, which is yet one of the most respected institutions in India. The Indian Army is understandably reticent about information; reticence which may be to allow space for the negotiators to plod-on to find negotiated solution. However, to claim that the Indian Army would state deliberate untruths, even with external goading, in such matters of national security and constant international gaze, is utterly unimaginable to the honour of the organisation. To belabour the issue, relying on ‘sources’, even consequent to Indian Army’s categorical assertion, is unfathomable.

It is apparent that at the Bottleneck at Raki Nalla, Galwan, Gogra, Pangong Tso North and South Bank and Rezangla-Rechinla Complex, disengagement zones or buffer zones and verification regime, which includes drones from both sides, are firmly in action. It is also an assurance by the Army that Black Top and Helmet are unoccupied by the PLA, that no clash took place at Galwan on 02 May 2021, or any such date. Casualties can occur in that most difficult terrain due to multitude of reasons, outside a clash with PLA. The force levels on both sides of the LAC would be comparable, and in fact, Indian Army now has an additional division – the Uniform Force, deployed South of Pangong Tso. To put the issue at rest, having faith in the Army, these pieces of information have been obvious falsehoods, which in a tense situation MUST be verified and confirmed officially, before hitting the keyboard!

There are other issues like, massive build-up across the LAC of the PLA, the brigade size force in Sirijap and strengthening in Rutog (Rutog is about 90km from Sirijap/ Moldo). These could be possible, but conversely these could well be PLA’s response to location and perceived threat of Indian Army reserves. Half-information can well be misconstrued!

There is also an inference drawn about a complementary thrust between Pakistan Army and PLA that would cut off India’s northern tip including Karakoram Pass, DBO and Siachen Glacier. Concisely stated, such operations are feasible on a Million Map (scale 1:10,00,000); the terrain with glaciers, snow clad ridges, the raging rivers and the axis along deep gorges have to combated, even before the Indian Armed Forces full potential comes to play. In any case, such attrition warfare which assures very large number of casualties and does not envision any victory or success, is 20th Century warfare. There are newer domains of warfare that an asymmetrically and technologically advanced nation can resort to.

Third, consequent to the meeting between the Foreign Ministers of India and China at Dushanbe on the sidelines of SCO, Mr Wang Yi pointed out “… that the rights and wrongs of what happened in the China-India border area last year are very clear and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side. The principles of China-India relations should still be mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference… China is ready to find a solution acceptable to both sides on the issue that needs emergency response through negotiation and consultation. The principles of China-India relations should still be mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and mutual respect for each other’s core interests.”

It is apparent that China has firmly rested responsibility for the events of 2021 on India, and its multiple-point transgressions and mobilisation of reserve divisions are not material to discussion. China has intimated readiness to seek a “mutually acceptable solution” to the issues that require “urgent treatment” through negotiation and consultation. As the issues of Eastern Ladakh are contemplated in the light of exchange of maps of 2002 and events thereafter, China’s mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity clearly distinguishes Aksai Chin as its own territory. Hence there is then little scope for discussion in the military talks at Chushul/ Moldo at the level of Maj. Gen. from Indian Army and Senior Colonel from PLA. Therefore, presently, stalemate on the LAC can only be visualised, which dictates a very long term planning for deployment by the Indian Army.

Even at the sake of repetition, it must be stated that this in the information era, with social media explosion that often creates an information void, a kind of gaping hole, which is easily exploitable! There are also multiple channels of reportage and flow of information even from Eastern Ladakh. With hindsight of 2020, the Armed Forces must establish their own exclusive media centre with constant briefings and interaction with accredited defence correspondents. And even consider embedding journalists with formations and units that will foreclose loose, unverified commentaries!

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.