30 November 2020 01:41 PM


Lt General PRAKASH KATOCH | 15 OCTOBER, 2020

Chinese Intentions Remain Ambiguous

“In Depth” talks remain inconclusive

Post the 7th Corps Commander-level India-China talks in Chushul on October 12, the joint statement issued by Beijing said, “The two sides had a sincere and in-depth exchange of views and enhanced understanding of each other’s positions on the disengagement of their front-line troops along the area of Line of Actual Control in the western sector of the India-China border".

Both sides are of the view that the meeting was positive and constructive, and agreed to earnestly implement the important understandings reached by the leaders of the two countries, notto turn differences into disputes, and jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas. Both India and China have agreed to maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels, and arrive at a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to disengagement as early as possible.

The language is similar to what followed previous meetings at ministerial, diplomatic and military level talks. China would want India to vacate the heights occupied south of Pangong Lake, an area of Chushul and Kailash Range dominating all areas up to the Spanggur Gap.

India has remained firm on its demand for an early and complete disengagement of troops by China from all the friction points in eastern Ladakh. Would China do so, especially in area of Y-Junction in Depsang where it has deployed some 12,000 PLA troops, and in area of Fingers north of Pangong Tso? This is most unlikely as PLA is consolidating its positions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping are expected to come face to face at the Virtual BRICS meet scheduled on November 17 and are also expected to meet during the annual G-20 meet to be held virtually on November 21-22. But whether the India-China will be discussed at all remains doubtful.

Xi can be expected to portray himself as the apostle of pace and that he is in forefront of saving the world from the China Virus. When Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 44 bridges in border areas recently, China again hit back with the statement saying Chinese government never acknowledged the “so-called” northeast Indian state which it claims to be part of South Tibet. This indicates that China continues to suffer from the ‘Doggy Tail Syndrome’ mentioned in these columns earlier.

The general view is that India is engaging China in talks in order to get more time to prepare for conflict in case that happens, and that China is doing the same. The question about who needs more time remains unaddressed.

China has now officially stated that “China does not recognize the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh illegally established by India, and opposes infrastructure construction in disputed border areas for military control purposes”. Since 2005, China has been claiming Arunachal Pradesh calling it “South Tibet”. In past years China’s state TV had shown Indian maps without Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

In the above backdrop, China may continue to engage us in diplomatic and military level talks to humour us while we keep hoping for disengagement. But China has made it explicitly clear that the onus for disengagement lies with India. China’s recent reference to their 1959 claim which anyway is not verifiable on ground was only to confuse the issue further.

India has rejected this in the past and ‘again’ rejected China affirming the 1959 claim line as the border in Ladakh, asking asked China to refrain from advancing an "untenable unilateral" interpretation of the de-facto border. Therefore, the present state of engagement between the opposing forces may continue as status quo for the time unless hostilities erupt.

India has deployed BrahMos, Akash and Nirbhay missiles along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) including in Ladakh in addition to tanks, artillery, air defence assets and air assets. Winter stocking including provision of winter habitat to cope with severity of winter is being done on war footing but would involve continuous effort considering the quantum of additional troops that have been moved up. As important is the provision of defence stores for hardening defences which can withstand artillery and air shelling that would precede tank battles if limited war is to happen. Armour in open on both sides too would be targeted through precision strikes and drones.

The general opinion is that Xi Jinping has bitten more than he wanted in Ladakh, he is now stuck, cannot afford to withdraw since that would portray weakness, and he has increasing dissent at home. Some also feel that there is no question of China launching a ground offensive. This may not be entirely the true picture.

Xi knows that with the type of timetable he has set for world domination, he cannot overtake America without fighting a war. Whether that would involve mainland of both countries remains questionable. But China has certainly been preparing for all around war as well as along the Himalayas. As part of this preparation China has also developed considerable drone capability in various configurations that includes area surveillance, attack, electronic warfare and swarm drones attack.

India tested a variety missiles recently including the Super BrahMos and an anti radiation missile. Also India is in the process of acquiring MQ-8B Sea Guardian UAVs from the US and upgrading existing holdings of Heron UAVs but acquisitions and upgrades would take time. China is much ahead in such capabilities.

In June 2017, China reported several drones delivering food, medicines and water to PLA soldiers – calling them ‘care packages’ for front-line soldiers delivered automatically. In recent exercises, PLA Airborne Corps used the new Aoshi XC-25 - attack UAV – an ‘electric’ UAV capable of flying continuously for two hours up to 75 kilometers without recharging batteries. In September 2020, year China’s unmanned helicopter AR-500C for plateau operations successfully carried out its maiden flight from Daocheng Yading Airport located at an altitude of 4,411 metres.

In May 2020, a unit of the PLA conducted a series of utilization training with a new ‘integrated drone swarm-armored vehicle combat system’. Chinese media citing a plan released by the US Department of Defence (DoD) in 2018, stated that US is aiming to use drone swarms to cover ground troops by engaging in reconnaissance, close-range aerial support and communications relay, adding that China has also been studying similar approaches, and had tested a swarm of 67 drones in 2016. Obviously it will be very difficult to intercept all drones in a swarm.

China is watching keenly that India has at last awakened to the need of building hard power capability but is battling the China Virus while Indian economy is further taxed with additional deployments along the entire length of the LAC which need to be maintained through the winter and beyond.

The IAF chief recently said that a ‘no war no peace’ status was holding along the LAC amid the ongoing standoff at several friction points in Eastern Ladakh. But this status is likely to continue for very long time given the attitude of Beijing.

There is no denying that China is at a disadvantage with the PLA facing Indian military that has tremendous battle experience compared to the PLA with zilch battle experience. The PLA has been rehearsed in exercises including a land-model of Ladakh since 2014 but their soldiers are under the ‘single child’ syndrome even though ideologically brainwashed.

A major question is if the capture of the DBO sector and Siachen area to eventually join hands with Pakistan has been on China’s agenda since long, what would be the right time to make the move? Would it be now or say one year later when India has built up its military capabilities more and got over major effects of the coronavirus as China already has?

Why has China consolidated in Depsang with some 12,000 troops when it could have done with much less? Why is China continuing to brand India the aggressor and Chinese state media goading China to toughen its stance more against ‘insincere’ India because India is provoking PLA which is on Chinese territory? Is it only hollow propaganda? What about the Chinese media lamenting that India is “trying to shape a new global industrial chain without China” and “wants to stand with the US against the rise of China”?

Obviously the bit about a new global chain without China is hurting Beijing bad. China has always been unpredictable, following a policy of deception, ambiguity and deceit. After releasing the China Virus, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have become a threat to humanity and the world but Xi appears least concerned or repentant. He may consider coming weeks the best time to launch an offensive whether in Ladakh, elsewhere or both.

Should China opt for limited war, which indeed is a big if, it would endeavour to ‘paralyze’ the opponents to the best of its capabilities including through algorithmic warfare in the opening round followed by intense bombardment to minimize the Indian response.

Xi ‘may’ also believe that the Indian response will still be graded fearing escalation that may be uncontrollable and to India’s disadvantage. Notwithstanding this, it is for certain that in the event of limited war, casualties on the PLA side will be huge; as much if not more on the Indian side.

But then Xi has been born and brought up in an environment of communist China where couple of thousands killed don’t matter and would mean that much reduced unemployment. Xi is a dangerous maverick who can be expected to attempt anything suicidal.

Lt General Prakash Katoch is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.

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