By Brigadier Arun Sahgal, PhD (Retd)
In 2009, media was abuzz with a revelation that China had replicated the whole of Aksai Chin and a large part of disputed Indo-China border in a large sized sand model over area equivalent to the size of six cricket fields thousands of kilometres away in Huanyangton village near Yinchuan in Ningxia autonomous region (Northern China).
The fundamental question then and today is the motivation for China to spend money and resources to replicate whole mountains, valleys and water bodies of aa disputed area? This in a sense puts a question mark on China’s peaceful intentions towards India? The satellite images show that the China has replicated around 1, 57,500 Km area on a map scale of 900×700 meters. This is about 500:1 ratio.
What is more intriguing is the attachment of a military unit and an artillery firing range in the proximity of the terrain model. The satellite images obtained from free Google Earth suggests this to be a major training facility to train PLA troops for high altitude operations in the Ladakh Sector. Large scale model appears to indicate that it is not only for operational planning but to also familiarizes both combat and combat support arms like artillery, combat engineers and communication experts with terrain conditions. The associated firing range appears to indicate live firing facility, to for target engagement with various weapons systems in these high altitude conditions.
The training is not at a platoon or company level, but appears to be at regiment (brigade) level. In modern days the training could be given on computer simulation, but what provoked China to replicate such a vast area remains a question mark. Probably China wants its troops to have perception about the world’s most tough terrain so that in case of conflict situation with India, its troops can understand terrain constraints and plan in realistic manner.
It needs to be noted that in recent times China has enhanced the number of exercises in Tibet. Some of these exercises have been conducted at altitudes ranging from 4,500 – 5000 meters. One such exercise conducted in 2011 included joint troop drills by the air and ground troops under information-based conditions in frigid area with a high altitude. Troops involved included the Chinese Air Force, ground troops, mechanized units and a range of support entities.
Providing rare details while describing the exercise, PLA daily report stated, “At the very beginning… the new type warplanes of the PLA Air Force conducted accurate strikes at the targets… Shortly after seizing the commanding point, the long-range guns launched full-scale shooting at the command post and the artillery position of the enemy.” This was followed by the armoured vehicle group and infantry combat vehicles branching out into columns and launching a “sudden and violent attack on the mountain passes occupied by the enemy. The special operation detachment outflanked the enemy and raided the enemy’s command post”. The report also stated that army aviation troops and anti-aircraft missiles provided cover.1
In the backdrop of Chinese moves in Ladakh in the Depsang- Dualat Beg Oldi area indicates that China has been making preparations for a contingency based incursion into Indian Territory, as part of its “local wars under informationization model”.
The Chinese perspective of raising tensions in Ladakh is not shaped by any altruistic motives of improving its positions on the border or lay claims to new areas. It is a well planned strategic response aimed at coercion to prevent India from improving its overall strategic posture in the region.
The Chinese are aware of infrastructural developments being undertaken by India in Ladakh; upgrading of airfields, development of communications and upgrading of defences etc. These developments are backed by planned Indian capabilities in terms of troops (mountain strike corps), deployment of missiles and upgradation of intelligence and surveillance capabilities.
The Chinese are conscious that were India to mount an audacious offensive in Aksai Chin it easily could roll down to the Tibetan Plateau and cut off the famous western Highway; main artery linking Tibet Autonomous region with Xinjiang the route for induction of forces from Lanzhou Military Area Command. Such a scenario is depicted in an excellent fictional account in the book titled “Assassins Mace” written by Brigadier Bob Butalia, (Retd), wherein Special Forces backed by credible air power are depicted as cutting off the Western Highway.
The logic behind Chinese intransigence and intrusion in the Sector are two fold; one to get India to dismantle the infrastructure it has developed in the SE Ladakh, particularly in Chumar area, and to an extent in DBO sector as well; second coerce India to sign “Defence Cooperation Agreement” which among other things includes mutual pull back from the LAC and creation of demilitarized zones, dismantling the military infrastructure and to prevent patrol clashes, sharing of patrolling programmes. Clearly above is not acceptable to India particularly when even after 15 rounds of political negotiations India and china have not reached a stage to exchange maps of Western and Central Sector.
Nonetheless Chinese military leadership is aware that tipping point in border negotiations is coming with Indian military modernization and developments of strategic infrastructure particularly the ‘Rohtang Tunnel’ linking plains of Punjab with Ladakh in J&K, together with plans to keep Srinagar – Leh highway open the year round, not to mention opening of rail link to Kashmir valley. These developments when operational will provide India with enhanced strategic build up capability both in J&K and Ladakh sector.
The Chinese are sanguine that they cannot indefinitely use the ruse of “allowing future generations” to solve the dispute. Sooner or later it will need to exchange maps of both the Western and the Eastern Sectors. Seen in the above context this could be attempted to firm up their positions to ensure operational advantage in this critical area.
Seen in the above context, the Chinese are playing a game of brinkmanship by reinforcing its claim lines, forcing Indian political leadership to halt build up of defensive capability in Ladakh. Indian enhancement of its operational profile in Ladakh carries a price tag for china in terms of forcing it to upgrade its defensive posture in the region where it is militarily not that well poised. As per the recent White Paper on Defence, only four of its 18 combined corps are deployed in areas opposite India. In any offensive option china will need to redeploy large forces from hinterland into Tibet Autonomous Region, this will require time and preparation which will surely be picked up by India with its enhanced space and aerial surveillance capabilities. It is in this context the collusive support between Pakistan and China to keep the Indian armed forces engaged poses serious problem and a major strategic concern for India.
Lastly it needs to be appreciated that this is not a localized incident. Chinese troops would not have taken such a step without full-fledged, assessment of possible implications and a consensus at the level of central military commission or the politbureau. Surely the consequences of Indian reaction would have been analysed and factored. By intruding deep into Indian Territory and effectively challenged by India has created a scenario of stalemate. Big question now for the Chinese is how does it deal with the situation without serious loss of face? It is the answer to this question that both China and India would need to find through diplomacy. The forthcoming visit of Chinese premier to India can help in breaking the deadlock but if that fails the ugly standoff is will be there for a long haul.
In so far India is concerned its options are straight forward, maintain status quo without provoking the Chinese, prepare for overhaul and take all steps necessary to deal with escalation if it is thrust on India.
1. Liu Xing’an, Guo Fengkuan and Liu Yinghua, “PLA holds first air and ground forces joint drill on plateau,” Statement by the Chinese Ministry of National Defence cited in, PLA Daily, October 26, 2011.