On 18 December India and China resumed diplomatic talks to find a solution for the months-long crisis in eastern Ladakh. The Ministry of External Affairs said,Both sides agreed to maintain close consultations at the diplomatic and military level. They agreed that the next (9th) round of Senior Commanders meeting should be held at an early date so that both sides can work towards early and complete disengagement of troops along the LAC in accordance with the existing bilateral agreements and protocols, and fully restore peace and tranquility.

Recall how the Indian media on 11 November, five days after the eighth round of Senior Commandersmeeting, had reported that an agreement for disengagement along the Kailash Range and north of Pangong Tso was on the cards. I highlighted the pitfalls of such an agreement in my column dated 12 November — “If India loses grip on Kailash Range, PLA will make sure we never get it back.” 

The premature celebrations by our media to the extent of claiming victory had put the agreementin cold storage. It is my assessment that the next round of military talks will revive and refine this agreement before it gets the seal of both governments. Such an agreement enables China to achieve its political aim at Indias cost. On the contrary, a stalemate is a defeat for China. I analyse why.


Also read: Indian Army’s dash to Dhaka in 1971 was operational brilliance. It holds lessons for Ladakh


China’s strategic aims

Towards the end of April and early May, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) carried out a surprise operational level manoeuvre by intruding at multiple points in Ladakh, deploying two mechanised divisions to secure its 1959 Claim Line. It sullied Indias international, regional and military reputation, prevented any further development of border infrastructure and by virtue of its deployment, made large tracts of our territory militarily untenable to defend in the event of an escalation to limited war.

The question that has intrigued strategic analysts the most is, why did China, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and break five border agreements and 33 years of peace in vogue since the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu crisis that lasted one year? On 8 December, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, without giving Indias assessment, said that China has given five different explanations for amassing troops on the borders. 

Overtly, the confrontation is focussed on the 1959 Claim Line and areas of differing perceptions” — hardly a reason to break longstanding peace. More so, after the two one to onesummits between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which were hailed as a giant leap forward in India-China relations. Indeed, territory is the core of the Westphalian state system, but China had secured all the strategic territory that it needed to in the 1950s and had further safeguarded this asset by securing more in the 1962 war. 

Since then, an unsettled border is merely a tool for China to assert its hegemony, embarrass/humiliate India and undermine its regional, international, and military reputation. The degree to which it precipitates the situation is dependent on the perceived military differential and Indias response. In 1962, it led to a war, while in 1967 at Nathu La and 1986-87 at Sumdorong Chu, it ended in a stalemate.

China wants India to be a cooperative junior partner and not a political, economic and military competitor in the international/regional arena. So long as it perceives this situation, peace prevails on the borders. In terms of territory, China wants the 1959 Claim Line to prevail, which militarily ensures the security of the territory usurped by it. Any threat to this line, in the form of the development of border infrastructure, is considered crossing the red line.

That perception gradually changed from 2008 to 2020 for multiple reasons :

  • India’s alliance with the US.
  • India challenging China’s position in the South China Sea (SCS)and Indo-
  • India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in general, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in particular, since it passes through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan.
  • India’s aggressive strategy in Doklam.
  • Change in status of Jammu and Kashmir, and an aggressive statement by Union Home Minister Amit Shah that Aksai Chin and PoK/Gilgit-Baltistan are part of J&K/Ladakh.
  • PM Modi’s status as an international leader is seen as a challenge to President Xi Jinping.
  • But the immediate trigger was India’s rapidly developing border infrastructure in Depsang Plains, Galwan Valley, Gogra-Hot Springs-Kugrang River, north of Pangong Tso and Chumar, which poses a threat to Aksai Chin and other territories usurped by China.

And so, China set a strategic aim for itself to reassert its hegemony by precipitating a situation on the LAC to embarrass India and undermine India’s international and regional status as an emerging power, cut Modi down to size, and ensure the status of the borders on its terms.

When it came to execution, China’s strategic military aims were to:

  • Neutralise the developing threat to Aksai Chin and other territories due to India’s development ofborder infrastructure.
  • Permanently secure territory up to1959 Claim Line in areas left out in 1962 or not occupied later.
  • Put the onus on India to escalate and in case it obliges, capture, through a limited war,Depsang Plains-DBO, area up to Galwan-Shyok river junction, all territory up to north bank of Pangong Tso, Kailash Range and Indus Valley up to the Ladakh Range.

Also read: If India loses grip on Kailash Range, PLA will make sure we never get it back


Did China achieve its aim?

The PLA achieved strategic surprise and pre-emptively secured all its military objectives without firing a shot. India was unable to pre-empt the PLA and relied on denial, obfuscation and appeasement to wish the problem away or at least hope that the PLA would agree to status quo ante as in the past. At this juncture, China seemed to have achieved its political and military aims. 

The shameful incident on the intervening night of 15-16 June, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in action, rudely woke India up to face the strategic reality. The Indian armed forces mobilised with nearly twice the force level that the PLA had used to prevent further loss of territory, and also positioned reserves for offensive action. The Modi government wisely decided not to escalate the situation, which would have given China casus belli to exploit the military differential to make strategic gains due to the positional advantage the PLA had secured through preemption. The government took a firm stand on restoration of status quo ante during diplomatic and military engagements. 

The Indian Armys counter manoeuvre to seize the Kailash Range on the night of 2930 August to a great extent neutralised the advantages gained by the PLA. At this juncture, the situation is that of a stalemate.


Also read: The dangerous cat-and-mouse game before 1962 War has lesson for counter-attack in 2020


Stalemate is defeat for China

There should be no doubt that China has not been able to achieve the end state it desired make India accept the 1959 Claim Line and stop further development of infrastructure. India has partially restored its international and military reputation. The onus is now on China to escalate the matter to a limited war and inflict a sharp defeat if it wants to impose its will in full. As a superior power, China does not want to be seen as an initiator of war and neither does India. 

Moreover, the fear of a stalemate or a setback inhibits China. Unfavourable military differential and fear of a setback, the probability of which is high, prevents India from having any ambitious military aims beyond the current stalemate. 

We should not be in a hurry to agree to disengage or deescalate. Any agreement, with or without buffer zones where no patrolling/deployment/infrastructure development will be carried out, should be allencompassing, covering the entire LAC from Karakoram to Chumar and must include its demarcation. 

The Sumdorong Chu standoff lasted over a year and the stalemate led to the 1993 border agreement. We have a similar opportunity now and we must persevere. With us sitting on the Kailash Range, even with limited loss of territory in the Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso, we have forced a stalemate on China. And a stalemate is a defeat for a superior power!

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. What a foolish article…………….When an invader has taken Indian land & India has not recovered the lost territory how can that be termed as stalemate???

  2. I see a major shift in India’s approach to handling China that should have been the motif post 1959 namely prepare for a war against the Dragon. Regardless of how the delusions of 1950s led occupation of Tibet and to the defeat in 1962 at the hands of China, the mandarins of Foreign Office were ill-trained to understand national interest and bureaucratic superiority. Indeed we never had a Foreign Minister able and wily to handle matters in the region. The Pokhran II nuclear test and the will to confront and standup to the world media damnations were the first sign of change in approach propelled and stymied by party in power. The occupation of the Kailash Range and bringing the NH to Lhasa under Indian guns is an act that India should relinquish until all the border is demarcated and Tibet has an autonomous government. Never again repeat the mistake of Pir Panjal.
    Be as it may, missing buses and trains, India has move no to lose flights. But it has time say upto 2030. China will not begin to move to arrest the world – the Covid pandemic was a test of case – to dominate it until 2050. All have the option to plan and attack China’s interests. Trump hugely did his job. Others have reluctantly joined. Australia is facing a crisis on the matter. New Zealand clearly wants to exhibit pro-China leanings. Indonesia and Philippines does not know yet what in their store having weak economies.

    • Badly analysed by Shri Chakruborthy. Nothing is settled. Nothing is achieved. nearly 7300 sq km of land is missing and being claimed as “our point of view” by China. In the meanwhile, post covid it is the only economy to achieve growth of 3.4% in FY 2020 . Its manufacturing grew stronger as they supplied most of the world with PPEsuits, test kits and masks as well as ventilators. Mr Trump is gone and so have most of the so-called strong men who created damage to their country. The dragon is quiet.Its breathing. Its just not breathing fire right now..

  3. Marc, viedd, and Basharat Malik and seems to be Pakistani stooges. NatureTruth seems to be a Chinese stooge. Can you fools exit this website and go back to your pakistani or chinese news sites? We don’t need people like you on Indian new sites.

  4. India has got into a battle of attrition with a far more powerful and wealthy adversary de facto sanctioning “Salami Slicing” instead of pushing back on day one and daring China to escalate. India loses.

  5. It’s a very good article which summarizes all the events that led to LAC stand-off and also offers a very good comparable view over past skirmishes. It’s true, the way India responded to China’s unilateral action of changing the status quo has diminished China’s status. So a stalemate forced by India on China can definitely be considered a win, although a limited win. Now China’s actions have been limited to a big extent.
    However India must not forget these truths:
    As stated in this article too, China had secured all the strategic territory that it needed to in the 1950s and had further safeguarded this asset by securing more in the 1962 war. India became aware of this only after China had already captured the territory. China still has much better infrastructure mostly because the relatively plain areas on its side favors it. India has to manage the heights to develop infrastructure and only after 2010-11 the infrastructure development picked up speed. The Modi govt. initially reduced this budget, but after Doklam stand-off Modi got a rude shock and increased this budget again.
    1. So India has to keep on developing the required infrastructure.
    2. India has a greater advantage as it still commands the heights.
    3. India’s population is much nearer to LAC compared to China’s. So any tourism activities promoted by Indian military will be a great advantage for India. China has to spend five times more to match up to India on this part.
    4. India can easily shift people, material easily and at a faster rate than China. China has to pay a bigger cost in maintaining the area. So any prolonged stalemate forced by India on China is much worse for China in the long run.

  6. Claiming stalemate with China a victory for India is in fact accepting defeat. It clearly shows that India is unable to get back its over 1000 Sq KM area from Chinese forces captured during the recent stand off. The general is well advised to avoid misleading his factually incorrect assessment of the situation

  7. Fully agree with the General. It was self-destructive to even partially vacate any of the heights.

    Never trust CPC’s China ??!

  8. Applying the same criterion further to the west; would the esteemed General agree that Pakistan has won & India defeated with the stalemated LOC. With very little imagination & wordplay one can say, “With Pakistan sitting on the Gilgit-Baltistan Range, even with limited loss of territory in the Vale of Kashmir, Pakistan military has forced a stalemate on India. And a stalemate is a defeat for the superior power ,i.e. India!

    • Your analogy does not work as, post Independence, India could have recovered the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. As you yourself admit, India was and is the stronger power. For whatever reason, a series of Indian governments chose not to do so. The stalemate that exists today started later when both nations became nuclear.

    • Dear Marc. Our country has been countering two nuclear power countries at the same time( China and Pak), and has stalemated their alliance in this region. So in that sense this stalemate at both the fronts is a defeat for both Pak and China.

  9. Stalemate is a win for India. Sustain it not just to strike a better bargain but as a token reminder to the PLA for underestimating the new India. That said, PLA – being a superior and well funded force will initiate other actions to seize the advantage. Hopefully the Indian Army brass strategized for that eventuality and has devised an appropriate response.

  10. As HS Panag pointed out, India had did all these reckless unilateral moves to severely threaten China security including alliance with USM, yet he called China reactive counter measures as hegemony. How weird and hypocrite. Every rationale nation will have taken such India hostile acts as war declaration.

    If China will to do all these similar aggression acts to threaten India security, all Indians will be beating chests shrieking for war.

    Now Panag even think a stalemate is a win for India, when the Highland bitter winter will kill more Indians than any confrontation. Many jawans will fall in coming few mths of bitter winter esp when fuel supply run out. All heavy weapons like tanks will be degraded without proper shelter.

    The reason China is in no hurry to de-escalate because it has all the logistic supply well prepared to sustain for perpetual standoff.

    Its also not keen to purge India army from all their occupied peaks, except one strategic peak it had already taken back, because these peaks are simply too harsh for securing esp in winter. Its better let IA suffered huge casualties in the bitter winter there, not able to withdraw less losing face, nor sustain logistic supply for long term troop stationed.

    Ladakh standoff is only the beginning of punishment for India opportunistic security threat to China. There will be more standoffs along entire 4000km border lines as China build up infrastructures for logistic supply.

    India will bleed all its little resources in maintaining a huge army at long border, with endless costly arm race India small fragile economy can ill afford, esp during its uncontrollable COVID outbreak and plunging economy.

    Yet Panak is deluded that India has scored a win and advocate prolong the standoff instead of minimize damage by backing off from Modi gov misadventure brinkmanship, which Nehru also made that lead to India 1962 disastrous defeat.

    With such hubris mentality exist in IA top brass like Panag and CDS Rawats, its not surprise IA is so broken and reckless.

    Modi RSS gov is self digging grave for India to fight formidable China it can never match in every aspect.

    Another worst 1962 punishment of multi front wars is foreseeable in near future with such India expansionism and opportunistic behavior.

    • One often reads comments under the monicker ”NatureTruth” under the articles posted by chinese Global Times and they’re often as irrelevant as the one posted here.

      The saving grace in all of this is that the chinese appear to be believing their own propaganda. This leaves them with multiple blind holes in their strategy (1967 skirmish and 2020 August 29-30 comes to mind). Not to mention hubris.

  11. Imagine Shri Panag Saab what will happen if prime minister chair was occupied by Shri RG and his astute advisors were Shri Yehchury, Shri Karat and Shri D Raja.

  12. India must not settle with China without China restoring the positions held by both countries prior to April. This should be India”S line . India must keep the pressure up on the Chinese occupying force until they do so. India should Beverly compromise on this no matter what the cost.

  13. Learned General is right. The victory or defeat in a war is determined by the objective sought to be achieved by the Aggressor, in this case, China. China has not achieved its objective yet, nor withdrawn. Technically, it is a defeat for china, though a stalemate. China tries to use the threat of war, rather than war itself as a tool for gobbling up Indian territory. Patience is the most important in dealing with Chinese. India should not be in a hurry to pose before the world as a peacenik.

  14. Lot of things that the author mentioned that could have unsettled China, had happened post 2014. Prior to 2014, our leadership would be happy to plead with China to vacate the occupied territory and claim a great diplomatic victory. Our pacifist attitude did not allow us to develop infrastructure in our own territory, lest PLA felt annoyed and took over what is ours. I do not want to see an aggressive India attacking others but we must defend what is ours we everything we have got. The author did not talk about loss of Chinese soldiers. He may claim since China has not declared the casualty figure, it may not be right. By that account world needn’t talk about genocide in Bangladesh, killing and ethnic cleansing in Balochistan, occupation of Tibet or Uighur’s in concentration camp. Neither China nor PKistan ever acknowledged their misdeeds. Finally, why does critics assume all people sitting at decision making table are a bunch of fools devoid of any ground level reality? Honorable general sahab was Lso sitting as a decision maker in not so distant past. And we know our past vis a vis China was not so glorious.

    • We are not living in 2020 AD but 7 AC(After Congress). 2014 is year 0 and everything prior to that shall be referred to as BM(Before Modi).

      2030 will be 17AC
      2010 will be 4BM

  15. It is too early for India to declare victory or claim defeat for China. This stalemate has cost India’a entire military modernization budget for the year. If it continues into the next year, it will cost the entire modernization budget for the next year. Any honest assessment would take into account what shape the Indian Army will be in after this. Getting locked into a stalemate in which you consume equal amounts of money to a country that is 6-times richer than you are is not a recipe for victory.

  16. i am stunned! is everything ok today panag sir? aaj breakfast mein ky khaya tha? sir 2-3 din ka break le lo….after that return with renewed vigor and attack these hindutwawadi bjp rss people.

    • China is in good shape and on its way to becoming a rich country. India’s economy is stalled and the number of ethnic conflicts are rising. Khalistan, Muslim-Hindu, and Northeast groups. Losing a war to China may begin the process of India going the way of the USSR.

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