Ongoing Sino-Indian logjam: The winter haul

by Editorial

The latest round of talks between SinoIndian militaries has ended predictably without a way forward. As winter sets in both sides hunker down to fight the elements more than each other. What is it that each can achieve in winter? What is the element of risk involved in contemplated actions? What can really happen? These are the questions that arise as China continues with its crab-like, untrustworthy moves. Further, indigenous opinions say that we negotiate with the Chinese on their offer. They need a lecture on “Aatma Samman Bharat”. 

The Chinese Gambits

 Wow! Finally! China has a stand. It stated, “China-India border LAC is very clear, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community including India is also clear about it.” However, no one is clear about it. The famous ‘Green Line’ of Chou Enlai varies with circumstances. We rejected it in 1959. No reason to accept it now. It appears that Chinese have pruned down their lofty aims with which they started this ambitious military expedition. It is a climb down. Make no mistakes. However, the ‘Chinese are Chinese’. They must be seen to be having an upper hand. Hence, they promptly stated that they do not recognise the UT of Ladakh. 

Chinese must also show that they have the initiative and pose strategic threats to India. Superpower after all! Hence a flurry of ‘String of Pearls’ activity. Yang Jiechi, the Political Bureau member of CCP, Central Committee, went to Myanmar to progress the CMEC. However, there seems to be wariness in Myanmar. Our COAS and Foreign Secretary went on 4-5 October 2020 to reassure Myanmar as a counter. Wang Jiechi also went to Sri Lanka to deepen their relationship in the post pandemic period. In plain words it means ‘expand the debt trap so that Sri Lanka is immersed in further debt’. Early days. Need to watch out. China continues to woo Bangladesh. In July, China announced tariff exemption for 97 per cent of Bangladeshi products. On 4 October, Xi Jinping said China is ready to align with Bangladesh leaders to and jointly promote the construction of the BRI projects. Meanwhile Nepalese people are pushing back with street protests outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu over constructing buildings on Nepalese territory. 

China is also trying to operationalise the ‘Debt Trap’ against the Maldives; which is under pressure to relinquish control over one of its islands against loans. While the Sino-Pak relationship is booming, the opposition has found its mojo. After a long time the public and Opposition are protesting the Army involvement in politics. Thanks to Papa John Bajwa and CPEC. Overall, China continues efforts to make inroads with all our neighbours, despite blips in Pakistan and Nepal — its two most important pawns in the Sino Indian Chess board. 

Internationally, China is bereft of any alliances. Its friends are few and unreliable. Its partners are pariah states — Pakistan and North Korea. Its internal problems related to diseases, ethnic issues, pollution, food problems, diplomatic isolation, military limitation and economic trimming persist. The Pew Research data of the negative views of 14 advanced countries about China gives a lot of room for introspection. The South China Sea and Taiwan situation remains tense. Lot of threats and hot air. The two-front situation has not changed. Things are not rosy.

 The Indian Response

 India has been quietly preparing for the winter. Wintering in Ladakh is a matter of experience besides wherewithal. Indian experience will come to the fore. The Atal Tunnel is inaugurated. It increases the road open time and will reduce our air effort considerably. The QUAD foreign ministers met recently in Tokyo. The statement of our External Affairs Minister was quite explicit and pointed to China. The sounds emanating from there were not exactly music to Chinese ears. India has conducted a slew of tests of various varieties of missiles in the recent past — Hypersonic, anti-tank, extended range supersonic cruise, subsonic cruise, a missile launched torpedo, a submarine launched missile, anti-radiation warheads, et al. All these are a potent message to China. If there is one thing China will take seriously, it is these missiles. The missile program is really successful in our country. Overall the situation is stable. Not too conducive to China. However, let us not forget that India wished Taiwan on its National Day with nice posters on Shantipath opposite the Chinese Embassy despite the Chinese ambassadors stupid diktat to our media.


 The winter is setting in with temperatures getting into the minus of zero zone in Ladakh. Soon Indus and Pangong Tso will solidify. The ground goes hard. Mobility will improve. There will be clear skies. The dense air will be excellent for flying and air operations. The winds will pick up in the plains. Past mid-November, snowfall in higher reaches and cloudy days will increase. Mid November onwards frigid conditions are the norm. A winter subtropical jet stream (rivers of wind) blows in the Himalayas from West to East as shown in the illustration above in this season. It overlaps the Ladakh area. Jet streams are cold tubes of air blowing at speeds varying from 30m/s to over 100m/s, with strong vertical wind shears, strong horizontal temperature gradients and areas of clear air turbulence. They are at heights of 6-14 km above msl and the tube diameter could be up to 50km. These dimensions and exact locations are highly variable and unpredictable. 

Local turbulences add to this phenomenon. Jet streams are used by long haul jets to aid flight. However, short haul, high manoeuvre operational flying is another kettle of fish in a jet stream. Light weight UAVS will be extremely difficult to handle. They could be blown away if caught in the jet stream. Long range Missiles and Rockets will become inconsistent and inaccurate since their control systems might be inadequate. If targets are located on steep gradients, hill tops, and narrow valleys; guided missiles could miss their targets altogether. All fancy operations are suspect in winter. Planning becomes iffy. Manned air operations will prevail. Overall large scale operations will be difficult but are not precluded. Logistics will be very difficult to sustain force ratios for offensive operations. Small scale operations will be the norm. The subtropical jet stream, incidentally, causes the North-East Monsoon. 

International Opinion

 The situation on ground is unchanged since 29-30 August when India occupied key heights and turned tables on the Chinese. Since then it is dawning on international Chinese scholars, that China is losing it. In July, when the Chinese had the initiative, Yun Sun (a Chinese Scholar in Stimson Centre) said: ‘If a strategic friendship with India is untenable, it frees up room for tactical gains’. The same lady now says, ‘It should at least be debated whether China might have just won the battle and lost the war… China’s sheer loss is strategic, and tactical advances in an uninhabitable mountain region cannot offset that fact’. 180 degrees?

 Gordon Chang’s article headline in Newsweek screamed: ‘The Chinese Army flops in India. What will Xi do next?’ Slowly those who have an upper story functionally intact are coming round to my opinion that the Chinese are strategically myopic. They were too tactically focused without thinking through strategic ramifications or having a fall back option. Overall, with the occupation of the Kailash Range, the strategic and tactical advantage is with us. China has some territorial advantage. They will not let go of it without some additional leverage. 

Further Courses of Action

 At this stage there is bound to be a debate as to what are the options available to both India and China. Further courses of military action will be dependent on the Aim, Risk (of failure or success) and Escalation factors in each of the available options in the current winter weather and terrain conditions.

 Indian Aims and Options: In my opinion Indian aims and options are simple. Firstly. It will aim to blunt any Chinese offensive and mount a limited counter offensive to evict lodgements or get into better bargaining positions thereof. Secondly. If opportunity arises it must attempt to achieve territorial parity by a Quid Pro Quo action. Even a small piece of territory is ok. Thirdly. It can manoeuvre in mountains to get into an advantageous position to foreclose any Chinese offensive without heavy costs. Fourthly. It can commence insurgency in Tibet in an adverse situation. The risk factor is pretty low and escalation can be controlled. All these are well within Indian capability. Small team actions with the backing of big firepower will be the order of the day. Chinese Aims and Options: Chinese aims and options are complex. It will aim to achieve or declare victory. That demands a major rake up in violence levels. In the least it will aim for a face saving exit. However the time for small team Chinese actions is over.

 Barring Depsang plains, its chances of penetrating the Indian defence line is low. Even a penetration at Depsang might not lead to victory, since a riposte can come anywhere in the South. Moldo garrison, and Spangur are huge vulnerabilities. The Finger area is vulnerable attrition. Considering they have a clear weakness in well trained Infantry, the risk of failure for the Chinese is very high if they attempt a major offensive. Since China has to up the ante in any action, the escalation factors are high. Hence China runs the risk of not being able to control the narrative. I have grave doubts if the Chinese leadership is up to it in the overall context. I also grant that people will have grave doubts and will express incredulity at my opinions. However, please read all my ‘Sino-Indian’ writings on and you will see that so far I have not gone wrong — strategically, operationally or tactically.

 India’s Best Bet: India’s best bet is to play below par. Hold tight and do not give the Chinese a chance. Do not underestimate them. Do not let your guard down. Given a chance, grab some piece of territory or occupy a key terrain feature. It is time to shift gear into ambiguity on the ‘One China’ policy and Tibet. India must use asymmetric options which are aplenty. We must continue to force multiply military actions with economic, diplomatic and geopolitical actions. The message to China should be clear. The Indian door is shut.

 To Negotiate or Not 

After China dangled the carrot of the 1959 line, many have started advocating negotiations, on that line or another, citing pragmatism. All these positions are well inside the cartographic boundaries we have maintained for the past 70 years. The offer from China was rejected in 1959 and continued to be rejected for 60 years despite facing a humiliation in 1962. If in all these years we felt that the 1959 line or any of these intermediaries were ok we should have thrown in the towel long back. We should also be clear that we are preparing to negotiate with China on its proposal and its terms for a settlement. The same untrustworthy China which has not honoured any of its international commitments or treaties ever since we can remember. Please read Chris Patten’s article on why China’s leaders cannot be trusted. With due respect to these thinkers and elders, they are less than naïve. If an expansionist China can betray us in 1962, they will do so in future also.

 China is still negotiating from a position of territorial advantage. It is a good bargaining chip. That has to be neutralised. To still think that China has greater stamina due to its CNP is a gross misjudgement. Look at the Taliban vs USA example. We need to get China down a few notches more. In my opinion there are a plenty of hybrid and asymmetric options available to us. We need to think differently. That is all. Just hark back. My ‘father of the nation’ got us Independence from a great empire with far less resources at his disposal using the most asymmetric and unorthodox options. China is a far less adversary and India has far more arrows in its quiver yet. The Chinese and Pakistanis seem to have realised it. Some of us have not. We must negotiate on better terms. Let us not run out of patience. Give the undernourished armed forces a chance. They will deliver despite everything. They have put China in the international dock. If they cannot, we can always fall back to our over-endowed bureaucratic, diplomatic and political class. As I said earlier — the Chinese have come in at their behest. They should be allowed to go back at ours.

 Lastly, as long as the virus lasts China will continue to weaken. As long as the current situation on the LAC lasts, China will be seen to be ineffective. So what is the hurry?

 Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.

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