In the euphoria over the potential economic and diplomatic gains from the visit of the Chinese president, the nagging problem at Demchok and Chumar remained inexplicable to most casual observers. The games being played from Depsang (2013) to Demchok and Chumar have long gone on and “tolerance for ambiguity” has its limits.
Military professionalism usually does not demand this kind of tolerance at tactical levels. I would be at a loss to give any orders to my subordinates in such a situation, and in the army we are used to giving crisp and clear orders; to introduce diplomacy at the tactical level is a folly because it complicates the situation. One needs to climb down from the lofty pedestal of strategy to the sub-tactical level to get a measure of how things play out on the frontlines and why diplomacy cannot be conducted from the end point of bayonets.
Everyone knows there is a non-existent border between Ladakh and Tibet. India has claim lines that extend into China’s perceptions of its territory and vice-versa. The two armies and border forces stay away from these but proceed to patrol areas to the limit of their perceived claim lines, thus leading to transgressions and “intrusions”.
The problem — unlike the LoC with Pakistan, which is a temporary line where ground positions rest — is that there is no line temporarily accepted by India and China along their border. Progressive border protocols have recognised this, but no agreed procedure to first settle such a temporary line without prejudice to subsequent agreements has ever been arrived at.
The protocols, however, have recognised the need for immediate disengagement should there be an impending clash based on individual perceptions. In recent years, this too has been largely ineffective in the face of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) attempts to heckle, extract advantage or send messages to not only India but the world that China will not accept any compromise on its territorial claims.
China seems to believe it can follow a dual-track policy of benefiting from economic and diplomatic engagement while continuing to remind the other nation that it has territorial issues to settle. With Vietnam, the policy led to a dangerous standoff involving the PLA’s navy.
China’s approach to Vietnam has been tentative due to the psychological effects of the setback it suffered on the battlefield during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war; with India, the clear victory in the border war of 1962 emboldens Beijing. That is why the media, if no one else, needs to remind China about the 1967 standoff at Nathu La and how it was triggered by such similar intransigence to China’s disadvantage.
At Nathu La, the PLA attempted to intimidate the Indian army unit with continuous propaganda aired through loudspeakers; in Chumar and Demchok, as also in other places, it is banner warfare. Infantry units of the Indian army that face such situations, thrive on their honour and achievements — the standoffs mentioned above can sometimes lead to situations where that honour is perceived to be compromised.
In the heat of such repeated events, a larger conflagration could likely be triggered, with resultant strategic effects at the political level. If there is nothing as clear as war, there is nothing as hazy and difficult to comprehend as “no war no peace”. That is why the army has included “tolerance for ambiguity” as one of the important qualities to be assessed in its officer cadre.
Not many understand the finer nuances of this quality but no better situation exemplifies it than that which exists along the LAC. Clearly, the predicament at the tactical and sub-tactical levels needs to be kept in mind while the entire gamut of relations with China is played out; there is much to be gained from being within the loop of detail in such situations and it is good to see the army chief having a direct line to the prime minister.
There is no shortage of explanations for Chinese actions, ranging from the PLA’s rogue attitude towards the political leadership in Beijing to the reminders to India and other nations about its policy of securing its economic interests without compromising on its territorial disputes.
From a study of the Chinese media as well as interactions with officials during a recent visit to China, I could sense that Beijing will continue to woo potential partners for economic cooperation. However, it is apprehensive about Japan and Vietnam, with whom it has similar festering disputes in the maritime arena.
Talks on economic cooperation with India without effective reminders about outstanding boundary disputes may have sent contrary signals to these two countries. It was important, therefore, to adopt a similar posture for all its potential economic partners. The possibility of an emerging US-India-Japan axis — the portents of which appeared after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan and may materialise after his imminent visit to the US — is definitely a factor unnerving China.
Military posturing in such a situation sends a signal of being in control. That such military posturing can go awry in the face of a trigger does not appear to have been taken into account by China. In fact, Beijing would do well to realistically analyse India’s military potential, which may appear weak but, in effect, is sufficient to dent China’s image should there be a localised showdown.
Keeping India away from US-Japan linkages is a legitimate strategy for China, but not at the cost of risking a military conflagration. PM Modi’s plainspeaking may have sent an appropriate message that India will not cow down before military posturing. But President Xi Jinping’s strange strategy of seeking enhanced friendship in the backdrop of a border standoff is unlikely to be drawn back.
As for handling the sub-tactical to the strategic, India’s various agencies must adopt a holistic consultative approach with loads of “tolerance for ambiguity”.
The writer is a former General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based
15 Corps and served extensively in Eastern Ladakh. He is a Fellow of the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group