India-China disengagement in Ladakh and its implications for Pakistan
In 2020 as the world struggled to grapple with the political and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, trouble was brewing within the heights of the Himalayas as Indian and Chinese troops clashed with each other at several locations along the so-called “line of actual control” (LAC), the de-facto border between India and China in the Ladakh region – previously a part of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and now a separate union territory. These clashes developed into a major security escalation between the two sides as Chinese troops managed to infiltrate across the LAC on Indian claimed territory triggering what will be remembered as the Ladakh Crisis of 2020.
The peak of this stand-off came when in a brawl rather typical of medieval times the two sides fought each other with clubs resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops. In August, India did manage to capture some dominating heights on the southern side of the Pangong Tso along the Kailash Range giving it a tactical edge at least in the southern sector of the contested lake. Afterwards a new status quo prevailed with hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides deployed eyeball to eyeball.
This saga in Eastern Ladakh ended only in February of 2021 when both India and China decided to initiate a phased disengagement of their respective troops from the northern and southern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake, the epicentre of this crisis. Interestingly, this new disengagement agreement between India and China is silent regarding the state of affairs on other sectors along Eastern Ladakh where Chinese troops have ingressed over Indian territory. Noteworthy in this regard have been the Depsang Plains in the Sub-Sector North and the Gogra/Hot Springs sector. The Chinese managed to wrest control of more than 1,000 square kilometres of Indian claimed territory in the aftermath of the Ladakh Crisis and almost 900 square kilometres of this territory is of the Depsang Plains.
The lack of significant political backlash on this development clearly suggests that within India there remains little enthusiasm for a long-stretched conflict with China.
The failure of both sides to reach a similar agreement of disengagement and troop withdrawal in these sectors is intriguing and has strategic implications for the security environment in northern and eastern Ladakh. The current Chinese troop presence puts them in a strategically advantageous position vis-à-vis the Indian installations at Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO). As an Indian military veteran has argued, no matter how many troops India stations in this sector, it remains vulnerable to a Chinese attack and losing DBO will essentially mean the Indian route to the Karakoram Pass being cut off, threatening Indian presence also in the Siachen Glacier. In short, such a move can spell doom for the whole sub-sector North of Ladakh.
The developments in Ladakh have consequences for the politics of South Asia but also for the defense outlook of not only India but Pakistan as well-- the third stakeholder in this geopolitical contest. Thanks to the Modi government’s revocation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019 and subsequent bellicose rhetoric to take back Aksai Chin from China, the Chinese moved in to change facts on the ground within Ladakh to ensure the defence of Aksai Chin. This episode effectively brought China back into the “strategic triad” vis-à-vis Kashmir. After 1962, it is the first time that the Indian military has been compelled to seriously evaluate the strategic nightmare of a two front war involving both of its nuclear neighbours. Militarily this has spurred a re-think in Indian’s defence outlook with two strike corps being re-aligned to cater for the threat posed by Chinese military presence in the Northern and Eastern theatres.
On the political front however, it was rather clear that Indian decision makers wanted to wind up this turbulence with China and understood that they didn’t have the requisite military or economic muscle to change facts on ground. This in part has influenced the final Indian decision to disengage and tone down the stand-off with China in Ladakh on terms that have allowed Chinese to take LAC back to its claim line of 1959.
The lack of significant political backlash on this development clearly suggests that within India there remains little enthusiasm for a long-stretched conflict with China. The relatively weaker and muted response of Indian Prime Minister and his party cadres on this Chinese adventurism compared with the blistering rhetoric and actions against Pakistan after the Pulwama attack shows that Pakistan still figures highly on the threat perception of the current ruling political elites of India. Yet, with this Chinese reassertion within the strategic environment of Greater Kashmir, a direct Indian attack within the Pakistani side of Kashmir valley or Gilgit Baltistan region remains unlikely. India will however further push forward with its hybrid operations against Pakistan using its various militant proxies in order to destabilize law and order in the country with CPEC projects and Chinese citizens as major targets.
*Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89