What made China intrude in Eastern Ladakh

Brigadier (Retd) LI Singh *

During end Feb 2020, while India was busy in preparation for hosting Donald Trump’s maiden visit, a lone Shaanxi Y-9 transport aircraft was taking off from Chengdu for Beijing. There was a lone passenger inside the military transport aircraft and it was none other than General Zhao Zongqi, who was summoned urgently by the Chairman Central Military Commission of China.

Zhao was pondering as towhy he has been summoned by Mr Xi Jinping and was asking himself as what mistakes has he done which necessitates an audience with the President. Since taking over Western Theater on 01 Feb 2016 he has done fairly well in operationalising the Command, post re-organising the seven military regions into five theater commands, as part of the People’s Republic of China military reform in 2015.

The Western Theater Command (WTC) is the most expansive of the new theaters with complex internal and external operational requirements. He was chosen to lead the prestigious command by none other than Xi himself, as he had vast experiences while as commander Jinan Military Region from 2012 to 2016. These experiences demonstrate extensive operational knowledge of mountain warfare, making Zhao a good choice as WTC commander.

The Western Theater, besides large span of control, has complex terrain including desert and high mountains, long borders, and challenging social conditions. Besides primary strategic direction towards India and the contested border regions, the theater missions include supporting the People’s Armed Police Force maintaining internal stability in the restive Tibet and Xinjiang regions. Disaster relief requiring liaison with civilian organizations is also an important theater mission.

Xi Jinping has been worried about India’s attitude in the last two years which was against the interest of China. First, India has refused to endorse his dream project of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) connecting all the Nations of the world with China to facilitate much needed import of energy and raw materials, and for exporting end products to various consumers, in particular CPEC and BCIM Economic Corridor which were part of OBOR.

Secondly India’s aspiration of becoming the third largest economy in the world by 2030 with GDP touching USD 10 trillion primarily by consumption and investment growth, thereby pose a threat to China’s hegemony in the Asian and African regions. This was followed by revoking of Article 370 and 35(A) in Jammu and Kashmir ( J and K) and curbing out Ladakh Region from the J and K.

The last nail in the coffin was when the Indian Home Minister, Mr Amit Shah, in Aug 2019 made a statement in the Indian Parliament that “Whenever I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and Aksai Chin comes under it and can die for it.”

For China both POK and Akshai Chin are strategically very important, any threat, even perceived, is going to hurt Beijing as Western Highway (10000 km long Highway 219 or G21) connecting Xinjiang to Guangxi via Tibetian Autonomous Region (TAR), runs through Aksai Chin. Similarly the 1300 km long Karakoram highway connecting Pakistani provinces of Punjab to Xinjiang through the Karakoram Mountain ranges near Khunjerab pass, passes through Gilgit-Baltistan Region of POK.

This is the alignment where China is currently constructing rail line, oil pipeline and extension of Karakoram highway as part of CPEC projects connecting Gwadar in Pakistan to Kashgar in Xinjiang region of China. The threat was manifested by enhanced infrastructure development by India in Eastern Ladakh areas opposite Aksai Chinand other areas, in particular Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) all weather road which will pose a direct threat to Western Highway running through Aksai Chin Region.

These cumulative threats, real or perceived, led to Xi deciding to teach India a lesson without actually waging a war and in turn economically hurt so as to block their dream of USD 10 Trillion Economy and simultaneously embarrass the ruling Government in India. As China was in the post recovery phase of Wuhan virus and India struggling to combat the pandemic, it was the right opportunity to unfold his master stroke.

Having reached Beijing the WTC Commander was ushered in the operational room of CMC where Mr Xi Jinping was waiting. Beside Xi, present in the Room was Gen Wei Fenghe, Chinese Minister of National Defence and Gen Li Zuocheng, Chief of the Joint Staff department of the CMC. The Chairman CMC started with the remarks that the restructuring of Chinese Army from seven Military Regions to five Theater Commands is almost four years old and the time has come to test the operational efficacy of Western Theater Command, which is India centric.

He directed General Zhao Zongqi to carry out limited intrusions all along the Indian perceived 3,488 km km long line of actual control with focus in Akshai Chin areas so as to consolidate Chinese positions. While doing so, he further directed the Western theater commander to abide by 1996 agreement, however he should be prepared for limited regional conflict, if India violates the agreement and becomes an aggressor.

Xi Jinping believes instability on the mountainous border will curb India’s efforts to assert itself elsewhere in the region and also weaken its active role against the interest of China along with US, Japan and Australia as part of Quad. The 65-year-old Gen Zhao Zongqi who has cultivated the reputation of being ruthless with vast experience of TAR as he had earlier served as deputy chief of staff and as chief of staff of the Tibet Military District for 20 years, was chosen by Xi as he was the military architect of 2017 Doklam face-off which lasted 73 days.

After the Doklam Standoff was called off, Gen Zhao Zongqi has successfully deployed PLA troops to occupy bulk of the Doklam Plateau, thereby making Jampheri Ridge within their easy reach, the most dominating ridge line in Bhutan which can effectively dominate Siliguri corridor (Chicken Neck). Even though theatre commanders of PLA retire at the age of 65, Gen Zhao, was given extension in April for this operations.

Gen Zhao Zongqi in coordination with Lt Gen HaijiangWang, Commander, Tibet Military District and Lt Gen Liu Wanglong, Commander, Xinjiang Military District decided to execute the operations in April 2020, under the garb of annual collective exercise. Simultaneous efforts were planned for occupying important areas at multiple locations along the Sino-Indian border, with limited transgressions in Eastern Ladakh and Sikkim. Accordingly in end April / first week May 2020 the operations were carried out with clockwork precision by intruding across LAC at Pangong Tso, Hot Springs, Galwan Valley, Kungrang Nala and Depsang in Ladakh; and in Naku La in Sikkim as well.

Zongqi executed his master’s voice directions without firing a single bullet, however he never expected the ferocity of retaliations by the Indian troops on June 15 which led to large number of Chinese casualties despite his troops having the initiative with improvised weapons and other instruments. This was followed by placing a battalion size force in Lipu Lekh Pass and making claim to Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan so as to exert more pressure on India.

He directed his subordinates to hold the intruded areas for a long haul, thereafter consolidate the areas into permanency, expecting the Indians to initiate skirmish and in turn declared them as aggressors as per the tunes of his master Xi Zinping. Reasons behind this operations. Mr. Xi Zinping expected multiple gains by intrusions in disputed areas so as to weaken India economically and politically.

(a) Timing of the intrusions were planned when India was busy fighting Coronavirus pandemic (Virus produced in Wuhan for which anti-dote already made ?) during which Xi himself complimented India for having tackled well the fight against COVID-19 during the midst of operations by Western Theater Command against India.

(b) Wage a war (unrestricted - economic) without firing a bullet and be prepared for massive counter retaliations (offensive defence in Chinese parlance), should India initiate the skirmish.

(c) Ensure economic drain as India will be resorting to panic buying while making up depleted war machinery and munitions; and while indulging in permanent occupations of additional forces opposite disputed areas.

(d) Test the will of the Indo-US relationship which he (Xi Zinping) is not very comfortable.

(e) Keep India economically embroiled because of counter actions against the intrusions and simultaneously in combating novel Coronavirus, and in the process ensure economic recession to India leading to negative growth.

(f) Cause embarrassment to the ruling Government and ensure change by a weak coalition Government.

(g) Minimise threat to Western Highway in Aksai Chin areas from Eastern Ladakh region by consolidating the intruded areas. Xi is more than sure that India cannot make any physical move to capture Aksai Chin in the foreseeable future.

(h) Test the operational efficacy of Western Theater Command, which was raised in Feb 2016 after merging Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions, in coordination with Tibet Military Command and Xinjiang Military Region. This was one of the key Military Reforms as part of modernisation efforts originally planned to be completed by 2049, however, following the 19th CCP National Congress in 2017, CCP General Secretary and General Secretary and CMC Chairman Xi Zinping announced modernisation to be completed by 2035.

7. Analysis and Recommendations:

(a) There has definitely been intelligence failure at all levels ie. strategic, operational and tactical as build up followed by intrusion in Eastern Ladakh was only detected after consolidations by China in May 2020. Why did we miss China moving troops nearly two division size force into the area to occupy in disputed areas in Eastern Ladakh. A passionate analysis need to be carried out and not swept under the carpet as was done in 1962 and Kargil.

(b) One of the pit falls in India’s existing border management during no war no peace is not placing ITBP under the operational control of the Army when the Force is guarding almost 800 km of LAC as a first line defence in Eastern Ladakh. This need to be streamlined for timely rapid flow of information to the Army responsible for defence of 3,488 km long LAC. Combined with this is the lack of surveillance measures including satellite cover and drones. One of the instruments for gaining information at strategic and operational level is by surveillance through satellites and drones. The existing shortfall need to be addressed immediately.

(c) Xi Zinping never anticipated the major economic retaliation by India in terms of banning 59 Chinese Apps and cancellation of various projects which were to be undertaken by Chinese firms, besides boycotting Chinese manufactured goods. These actions really hurt the Chinese and India must continue to put pressure on them.

(d) The knee jerk actions of resorting to panic buying of war machinery and instruments by India need to be curbed. There is a requirement of having a long term perspective plan for modernistaion of Indian Armed Forces, reviewed periodically, with adequate yearly allocation of defence budgets. In fact military modernization need to be in sync, directly proportional to overall economic growth, like what China did in 1977 by Deng Xiaoping as part of reformation and modernization.

(e) Modernization of the Armed Forces cannot be in isolation without improving infrastructure along the border areas. A time bound long term plan is required to give fillip to line of communications, both lateral and vertical, and other dual usage infrastructure along the Indo-China border. This will facilitate rapid movement of troops when required, instead of committing troops permanently in holding role.

(f) India must have a mix of manufacture as well as consumer based economy, with higher percentage towards manufacture so as to hurt the Chinese. A separate Ministry monitored by the PMO may be created to streamline the policy for the time being. This will woo foreign based companies from China to India.

(g) India must not commit additional troops in holding role to counter the Chinese along the border. By doing so we will be falling into the trap and design planned by the Chinese. Additional troops in holding role may be resorted to as a temporary measure. Instead we need to place acclimatized troops as reserve, sector wise, for rapid application as per requirements. For this good line of communication along the Indo-China border for timely move of troops along with foolproof surveillance for assured advance warning is a necessity.

(h) India is unlikely to resort to any physical action against China, but if conflict starts in SCS, China may resort to more physical action against India to ease pressure. For such a scenario India must be prepared and be ready for massive retaliation or pre-emptive strike as part of offensive defence.

The writer, YSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 36 years. He commanded Watershed Brigade responsible for Doklam Plateau and was Col General Staff of a Mountain Division responsible for West Kameng district.
Views are personal.

* Brigadier (Retd) LI Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on October 03 2020.

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