After the eighth round of senior military commanders India-China talks held on November 6 at Chushul, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced on November 19 that “India and China will soon hold another round of talks aimed at achieving complete disengagement and full restoration of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control”.

Post the last round of talks, media reports had appeared of a three-step disengagement having been arrived at by both sides. These were:
-disengagement between Fingers 4 and 8 north of Pangong Lake;
-withdrawing tanks and artillery to depth areas and
-subsequently holding talks for Indian troops to withdraw from the Kailash Range and heights around Chushul that were occupied on August 29-30 though both are in Indian Territory.

The MEA did not offer any comments on these media reports.

Concurrently, there are reports that China is fortifying its present positions in Ladakh, continues to build border infrastructure, habitat and is laying fibre cables, indicating it has no intention to withdraw. This is not all; China is consolidating its positions with additional troops and military infrastructure all along the LAC opposite Uttrakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

According to one report, China has deployed space jammers opposite Arunachal Pradesh to deny satellites picking up troop movements. Aside from expansion of airbases, setting up new heliports and logistic bases, China has deployed light tanks, drones and surface to air missiles along the LAC. All these indicate that China is consolidating with the intention of future provocative actions, even limited war.

Recent satellite imagery and photographs on social media indicate that China has built a village two kilometers inside Bhutanese territory, which is about nine kilometers from the India-China standoff site on Doklam Plateau in 2017.

Bhutan has said there is no Chinese village on Bhutanese soil but does Bhutan have another option? Who wants to annoy the dragon? Hasn’t Nepal denied nine new Chinese buildings constructed in Nepalese territory in Humla? And. what about India who deny any PLA intrusions during the current Chinese aggression?

Incidentally, satellite imagery of January 17, 2018 had showed PLA had already occupied part of the Doklam Plateau It is a matter of time before China encroaches more on Bhutan’s territory. China has recently made illegal claims to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary of Bhutan to which it may be planning to build a road after salami-slicing part of Arunachal Pradesh.

The current Chinese aggression in Ladakh is not some off the cuff adventurism by China’s Western Theatre Command. It is a well thought offensive with deliberately planned intrusions for which China inducted two motorized divisions in eastern Ladakh.

It may be recalled that under President Xi Jinping, PLA made a 19-km deep intrusion in Depsang during 2013, which was acknowledged by the then Union Home Minister in Parliament. That intrusion stayed for three weeks before withdrawing after India acceded to the Chinese demand for dismantling surveillance equipment at Chumar which was 400 km south of the intrusion area. That perhaps was a rehearsal for PLA which has now intruded into the very same area in large numbers and are fully firmed in.

An Australian scholar recently revealed satellite imagery of a full-sized land model of Ladakh built in interior China on which the PLA was being exercised in year 2014. This further confirms that the current intrusions were well planned and approved at the highest level - Xi Jinping. The only place Xi faulted was not going for occupation of Kailash Range and heights around Chushul before India inducted additional troops and beat PLA to the race to get there.

India appears caught in its own web by denying any intrusions. Obfuscation is easy with India ranked 142 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index just three ranks above Pakistan. But in todays age spinning yarns work only up to particular level.

The question being asked is if we have not lost even an inch of land then what disengagement are we discussing when we too are fully mobilized? Are we continuing talks to deter further aggressive actions by China? We appear to have come down from our earlier demand that PLA reverts to pre-April 2020 locations or is this being used by China to demand that we vacate Kailash Range and heights around Chushul which are within our own territory and should be unacceptable?

Under the circumstances, the only way China ‘may’ agree to complete disengagement is if we agree to create buffer zones in our own territory, which perhaps was being signaled through media speculation that that PLA dismantles structures between Finger 4 and Finger 8 north of Pangong Lake but Indian troops cannot patrol beyond Finger 4. Such disengagement may save the Prime Minister from admitting territory loss and telling Parliament ‘not a blade of grass grows in Depsang’ like Nehru’s admission on losing of Aksai Chin.

But the stark reality is China has effectively shifted the LAC in Ladakh. Its main target being Daulet Beg Oldi and beyond. If the so called “complete disengagement” does work out, it would be temporary arrangement as far as China is concerned.

Prudence lies in accepting the ground realities and prepare for conflict refining own offensive actions. China bothers little about criticism over the China Virus. As someone wrote on social media, when Xi Jinping has spent billions of dollars to bomb the world with virus, why would he dither from his dream of world domination in quick time?

China will be making billions out of the vaccine it has developed despite being the source of the pandemic. China has witnessed all Indian governments including the present one giving peripheral thought to defence and military modernization.

Why would Xi not take advantage of the capability gap? The drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan is offering the region on a platter to China. Would the US bother if China sliced off more Indian territory along the Himalayas?

China would be amused that despite cries for an inquiry into the China Virus, both Australia and Japan have joined the RCEP. A recent media report says India is considering allowing up to 26 percent FDI from countries it shares land borders with, including China.

It would be naïve for China to withdraw from territory it has managed to grab in Ladakh. If at all it agrees to disengage, it will exclude Depsang and be on the lines discussed above. Otherwise China will simply not step back.

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