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LAC standoff: Indian options are 'bad, to worse to downright ugly'


India’s options to vacate the occupation of large portions of its territory by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, vary from ‘bad, to worse to downright ugly”, claim two US strategic affairs experts.

According to a paper recently authored for the MIT Centre for International Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts jointly by assistant professors Vipin Narang of MIT and Christopher Clary of Albany University in New York state, this ominous triumvirate of choices India faces to reverse the territorial fait accompli presented by China, are ‘difficult to achieve in practice’.

Their paper cautions that “the best time to resist a (territorial) fait accompli is before it is fully completed’. To support their thesis, they quote Dan Altman of the US’s Georgia State University who focuses on issues of international security and territorial conquest, that if such a fait accompli like China has presented India in Ladakh is not quickly reversed or resisted, it becomes more difficult to do so over time.

This is primarily because the aggressor consolidates and fortifies its position, establishing a ‘new normal’, which is exactly what the ground situation in Ladakh is turning out to be, with China ‘using talks to schedule further talks’. And, in the interim it is gaining time to consolidate its defences at tactically important spots, making it even more difficult to be removed or pushed back, argues the analysis entitled ‘India’s Pangong pickle: New Delhi’s options after its clash with China’.

Of the 59 land grabs around the world where the aggressor held territory at the end of a militarised international dispute, for instance, the MIT paper states that Altman finds 47 where the attacker or antagonist has continued to hold that territory for the next decade. “Those are enviable odds for China’s ability to retain its new real estate in the Himalayas,” the report portentously declares, in what could be a prescient new reality for India.

The first alternative

Meanwhile, the first ‘bad’ alternative open to India, according to the MIT analysis is to try and expel the PLA directly from the territory it occupies. But this would mean amassing additional troops and materiel, that has inbuilt tactical and strategic drawbacks. After all, the paper says, time is on China’s side and the PLA is concomitantly consolidating its new positions presently. This, in turn, would make it more difficult for India to ‘undertake limited co-ordinated offensives at any one point, let alone all of them’, notwithstanding the boasting and braggadocio of some of its military commanders.

Furthermore, Ladakh’s vertiginous terrain benefits the defender. According to Indian Army estimates offensives in the plains impose a 1:3 ratio of three attackers to one defender. In the mountains, this ratio more than triples to 1:10 and, in some instances at higher altitudes, can even go higher, a grim feature the Indian Army horribly experienced in the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan at forbidding Himalayan heights.

The second ‘worse’ possibility for India, according to the report, would be to generate external leverage by seizing Chinese territory elsewhere and using it as a trade-off to enforce an eventual PLA pullback in Ladakh. And though the Special Frontier Force (SFF) had seized dominating heights on the southern banks of Pangong Tso or lake in late August, senior Indian Army officers believe it was on its own territory and would not be enough to ‘persuade’ the PLA to disengage and withdraw and restore the military status quo ante that prevailed along the LAC in April.

In the maritime domain, however, though the Indian Navy matches the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the Indian Ocean Region, its punitive options in areas like the South China Sea and the Western Pacific are’ extremely limited’, the MIT report cautioned. Besides, ‘the track record of naval pressure achieving results on land is not inspiring” it declared.

Economically, too the bilateral trade balance favours China, especially in the critical pharmaceuticals and electronic microchips sector, both of which are not easily replaceable. And though India may attempt to reduce economic activity with China in the long term, its ability to do so in a time frame that compels withdrawal from Ladakh is limited, if non-existent the report states. And while diplomatically, India may also seek to strengthen its alignments with the Quad-Australia, Japan and the US-such an alliance would not adequately ‘incentivise China into relinquishing valuable territory it now holds’.

The ‘ugliest’ option

The third, ‘ugliest’ option according to the report, may leave India with no choice but to accept China’s fait accompli (of seized ground) and anaesthetise the domestic (political) fallout by exploiting the ambiguity around the definition and non-delineation of the LAC, claiming that it is not Indian territory. But the report warns that such a path may “further embolden China to be more aggressive towards India, or seize additional territory”.

It goes on to add that ‘faced with few military, diplomatic or economic options to reverse Beijing’s fait accompli, Delhi may have no choice but to quietly accept them’. However, to prevent future land grabs by China, India will need to mobilise a much larger military force along the border, rendering it, like many Indian analysts too have presaged, akin to the Line of Control with Pakistan in Kashmir. Besides, attempting such deterrence would be challenging during good times, and virtually impossible in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant ruinous economic crisis it has triggered.

The report also points out that at some point, India will have to “determine how it could have allowed China to surprise it and execute faits accomplis in multiple places and what the strategic and operational warning signs were that it missed or failed to act upon”. But for now, India’s immediate task is to ‘stop the bleeding’ which, in its execution, has the inbuilt potential for a long and escalatory standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

In international politics, possession (of territory) is not just nine-tenths of the law; it is the law, the MIT report concludes.

Even though this study presents three possible options that India can pursue to deal with the menacing China threat in the north – and now increasingly in the northeast – the first two choices, the bad and the worse, are somewhat a non sequitur. But above all, Indian military planners and security czars need to wake up and realise that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; conversely, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.