Fear and Loathing Along the Line of Actual Control

Twenty-one years after Kargil, South Asia once again finds itself at the brink of war. The India-China standoff has entered its 100th day, and the armed forces of the two countries stand prepared for escalating conflict in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The standoff bears a likeness to the India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil along the Line of Control (LOC) in 1999, this time with differing actors, geopolitics, and strategies for managing kinetic tensions and preserving the peace.

Anvesh Jain
August 18, 2020

“...for the man on the Frontier sees but his own square on the chess-board, and can know but little of the whole game in which he is a pawn.” Col. Algernon Durand, “The Making of a Frontier”

On July 26th, 2020, India mutedly commemorated under the shroud of pandemic the anniversary of Kargil Vijay Diwas - the “Day of Victory at Kargil”. Prime Minister Modi devoted time during his monthly Mann ki Baat (“Thoughts on the Mind”) segment on All-India Radio to pay homage to “the valour of the armed forces and strength of India which was visible to the entire world”. 

Modi described the tense summer of 1999, during which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee coordinated a fitting military and diplomatic response to Pakistani transgression in the world’s highest battlefield. Twenty-one years after conflict shook the earth’s ceiling, South Asia is once again readying for war in the region. In preparation, Vajpayee’s same-party successor will look to invoke the spirit of Kargil to resist another foreign attempt at unilaterally rewriting international order in the Himalayan mountain range.

From Kargil to Galwan:

These tremors come in the context of a year of great global shocks. Between the COVID-19 virus, widespread economic meltdown, and mass protests, the world order is reeling. Amongst this turmoil, the Chinese state apparatus has lashed out across the Asia-Pacific, pursuing a series of premeditated aggressive and expansionist moves along multiple fronts, including the disputed Indian border. Earlier this summer, on the porous northern frontier between India and China, a bloody brawl broke out between dozens of opposing troops on patrol in the Galwan Valley. Though skirmishes have been frequent and common, Galwan saw the first set of fatalities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in nearly 45 years. 

While the structural and grand strategic tensions have changed little in the region since Kargil, the current operational and diplomatic realities of Galwan have brought the energies of the Asian giants into direct contestation. This summer’s pugilism stems particularly from concerning evidence that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been building physical infrastructure and shifting units from Tibet into disputed zones near Indian Ladakh, therefore encroaching on the established status quo and violating long-time norms and understandings. 

Meanwhile Pakistan, “all-weather” ally and partner of China, has been noticeably silent regarding recent developments. This has sparked Indian fears of backdoor collusion, and the possibility of a surprise escalation across two-fronts. After all, the strategic actors involved in the trijunction are now operating under different and unsure assumptions, often clouded by mixed signals and a lack of on-the-ground information. Combined with the abdication of American leadership on the world stage, the Himalayan environment is primed for conflict unless conscious measures are taken to immediately diffuse the situation. For now, the pristine mountain climes of the soaring Himalayas edge closer by the day towards the precipice of war. 

How could it come to this point? And where might the major players go from here? 

Actors and Narratives:

The seismic events of 2020 have brought a number of existing domestic, regional, and continental stresses and fractures in the Indo-Pacific to the point of near-eruption. COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses across governing systems, and the pandemic is far from contained in South Asia. China has, of course, faced extreme reprimand from much of the world for its censorship and poor early handling of the Wuhan-originated coronavirus. Governments across the region are looking for a way to change the script, and change the narrative on the efficient containment of the disease (now in its second-wave) and the management of the related economic fallout. To this end, pursuing adventurism abroad is an age-old remedy to distract from critiques at home.

In Asia, and elsewhere, the fight against COVID-19 has been likened to an “all-of-society” struggle, necessitating the pooling of collective productive capacity across all sectors of the national economic and civil body. In the case of the ruling party in China, oversensitivity to criticism has only amplified existing neuroses and paranoias. As a result, Chinese diplomats seem to have bought into the so-called “Wolf-Warrior” mindset of zealously defending China’s reputation abroad through bluster and intimidation where deemed necessary. 

To quell protests and questioning over the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) handling of the coronavirus, the party has intensified and accelerated its designs in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. In doing so, they may have unwisely bitten off more than they can chew. One explanation for China’s push towards the Himalayan frontier is the desire to protect a critical highway artery (G219), that connects remote Xinjiang and Tibet, a part of which runs through the disputed region of Aksai Chin. Furthermore, China sees a need to punish India for the revocation of Article 370 that occurred in August 2019, a move which changed the constitutional status of Ladakh to a separate Union Territory, bringing it under direct governance from the Indian Center. 

From the Indian perspective, the revocation of Article 370 has freed up the government’s ability to rectify the capability gap in the Himalayas, and to play catch-up with the balance of power. China has felt particularly aggrieved by the completion of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road that India has built along Ladakh Sub-Sector North, cutting a journey that once took days from regional capital Leh down to a mere 24 hours. In light of recent tensions, India has taken extraordinary steps to shore up its defenses after being caught off guard by simultaneous Chinese incursions at Depsang, Galwan, Hot Spring, and Pangong Tso. The coordinated and purposeful nature of these incursions suggests instruction from the upper echelons of Chinese strategic circles.

In response, India has accelerated the process of defense procurement, seeking faster Russian delivery of S-400 air defence systems, and expediting the shipment of five Rafale fighter jets from France this week. Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has alerted the armed forces to stand ready at a moment’s notice, and the Indian military has since deployed missile-firing T-90 battle tanks along the DSDBO Road. The Army has authorised field commanders to use firearms in case of “extraordinary” circumstances, and emergency funding has been made available for purchasing ammunition and arms. These moves, seen as critical by New Delhi, have the potential to “leapfrog” Beijing’s current force-posture and contribute to a further spiraling security dilemma in an already volatile area. 

This leaves Pakistan and the United States as the remaining considerations in the major actor equation of the Himalayas. The former has been struggling with rising COVID-19 case counts, poor economic performance one year out from the IMF bailout, and renewed insurgency in Balochistan that has targeted Chinese investments in the region. The latter has been exposed by its politicization of the virus, along with protests against racial injustice that have rocked global confidence in the foundations of American democracy. At the moment, the current U.S administration seems too preoccupied with domestic challenges to exert any measured influence overseas, at least until the November elections might bring with them some return to regular executive function. 

Lastly, the needs and involvement of other minor players in the region must also be accounted for in developing a big-picture idea of the agents involved. India and Nepal have recently contested disputed border maps, and China has claimed territory in Bhutan on the eastern border near Arunachal Pradesh. India must support its partners, and be wary of attempts at distraction on that distant front, particularly at pressure points such as Doklam and Nathu La. In the case of conflict, India will have to effectively manage the diplomatic fulcrums of the subcontinent, including the relationship with the Tibetan government-in-exile. Countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are far removed from the Himalayan heights, and will likely remain uninvolved should tensions rapidly escalate (so long as a general war does not break out or spread to the seas, and hostilities are kept localized like in 1999).

None of the actors involved stand to truly benefit from all-out war. Yet, for some, recent events have made the possibility of conflict both likely and seemingly necessary. How would such a conflict unfold? And what might the ameliorating factors be against unnecessary escalation?

The Inevitable War?:

It is tempting to fall into the Thucydides Trap and assume that war between India and China is inevitable and imminent. It is tempting to see such a war as a harbinger of the global conflict between the United States and China. While American war hawks might be eager to “get the show on the road”, this may not necessarily be the case. China has not spent a decade utilizing “salami-slice” tactics in its neighbourhood just to gamble all gains away in a war of annihilation in Asia. 

If there is to be war in the Himalayas, it will almost certainly be a limited, not total war, and in any case will be over by November. Not because of the prowess or determination of the PLA or Indian Armed Forces, not because of the individual brilliance or strategic nous of pioneering generals from either side — but because of the imposed limitations of environmental geography and diplomatic timing. The presence of a nuclear deterrent will prevent any sweeping territorial acquisitions or the wholesale rewriting of the regional map. 

The Balakot aerial exchanges of last year between India and Pakistan proved that conventional warfare is still possible under the deterrence threshold of nuclear states. In what is known as the stability-instability paradox, nuclear weapons have produced profound stability, even stagnation, at the level of total conflict (a nuclear state is unlikely to ever be wiped off the map, or even marched on by an opposing army), while simultaneously producing instability and facilitating lower levels of conflict in areas like the Himalayan trijunction. 

For states like India, plagued by cross-border terrorism originating elsewhere, this has validated the use of the “hard” military option in the maintenance of “soft” peaces. The great tension of geopolitics is that it is both eternal, and somehow temporally limited. The timing of decisions matter. By November, for example, Democratic nominee and former VP Joe Biden might become President-Elect of the American Republic, and the United States might become a more active mediator in the case of fatal conflict between the Asian powers. 

Geopolitics is a game of actors and interests, to be played again and again, so long as the hands of the player hold the strength to once more move the pieces. Its effects, however, are profoundly human, informing the essential narratives of nation and civilization. Indians remember the sacrifices of the brave jawans (“soldiers”) who raised the tricolour over the peaks of Kargil. Few could tell you what Kargil district looks like, or point to it on a map of Kashmir. The civilizational realities and weltanschauungs (“worldviews”) of India, Pakistan, and China, come to a clash at the sacred trijunction of the Himalayas. All of India, through armchair sets and the nightly news, comes to roost at Kargil, and Galwan, at Siachen and all the rest. The Union has staked its honour and reputation on glacial ice, at the side of mountain passes, upon valleys inhabited only by goats and ghosts. So too has the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic.

At the Precipice: 

Galwan does not have to be another Kargil. The same miasmatic uncertainties that have led to this moment on the precipice, will be the same uncertainties that ultimately dissuade the combatants from making the fateful leap into the abyss of war. In two to three months, the winter snows will return and blanket the Himalayas, dampening the inflamed passions of misplaced geopolitical ambitions. Each of the major actors involved has too much to lose, and the declaration of full-scale warfare would be unwise and unlikely. Continued conflict is to be expected so long as the overarching structural tensions of the region remain in place. Though disengagement is currently scheduled, China could use the delay of negotiations and confidence-building talks in order to fortify stolen positions and pressure Indian negotiators into concessions. 

The Indian Navy has readied its Andaman and Nicobar Command, deploying its fleet into a favourable position to snap the “String-of-Pearls” and dominate the Strait of Malacca. Should the contagion of war spread to the seas, China’s energy security will be uniquely vulnerable to an overdependence on oil passing through the straits. After all - oil is the lifeblood of any warfighting machine. None of the great powers will benefit from the expansion of a limited and remote mountain war between a few thousand troops to a damaging major conflict in the high-density population centers and commercial routes of the Indo-Pacific mainland.

Should fighting break out in the upcoming weeks or months, it will be high-altitude, low-scale, and low-to-medium intensity. India must rapidly continue to fortify its border, prepare for the spectre of a two-front attack, and develop modes of outreach with major players in the region such as the United States, Russia, Japan, and Australia. Diplomatic connections with other global powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Germany, will help isolate China in the halls of high office, giving India the operational freedom to pursue a low-intensity response in the contested zone. China has done itself no favours in that regard, getting into recent diplomatic spats with both the United States and Russia over consular espionage charges. 

Should matters reach this point, the situation will likely devolve into a brutish dog-fight between the involved militaries, until the winter snows arrive and entrench whatever positions have been gained or lost. The aforementioned global powers will likely force a ceasefire if hostilities expand beyond the Himalayan theatre, or if conflict seems set to rage long past the convening of the United Nations General Assembly in September. 

It is also well to remember the unique exigencies of the Himalayan front. Great power warfare in such high-elevations is rare, difficult, logistically challenging, and exceedingly grim. Accounts of conflict over the Siachen glacier from the 1980s detail men “(wasting) away… incapable of eating”, “(lumbering) uphill with agonizing slowness”, “vomiting from the altitude”, “(fumbling) with guns that froze in the cold and (using) bayonets instead”. Eastern Ladakh and Aksai Chin are high-altitude cold deserts. Even the grass does not grow there. 

At these levels, the elements, let alone the enemy, contribute to vast casualties. Warfare in these climates requires reinforced supply chains, sophisticated equipment, and the need for troops to acclimate and become battle-hardened over the course of years before achieving full fighting fitness in the world’s heights. Escalation on this front is by no means a desirable avenue of resolving great power disputes, particularly when accounting for the human impacts involved. 

Besides, results in this theatre are unpredictable and savage on even the best of days. While both western and Indian observers have gravitated towards the study of India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Chinese strategists understand that the story of military engagement in these regions is far more complicated, and has a much wider history. Border clashes from later that same decade at Nathu La and Cho La along the edges of the then-Kingdom of Sikkim are referred to in Chinese circles as the Second Sino-India War of 1967. India achieved a “decisive tactical victory”, destroying PLA fortifications and driving back Chinese forces from the zone of contestation. Whether a third war in 2020 will go the way of the first or the second is anyone’s best guess. While figures on military spending and technical statistics may appear conclusive on paper, the realities of battle in the Himalayas are far less transparent in practice.

The Asian Giants:

For China, continued territorial mammonism will only further undo its precarious world standing, and reinforce the international case for active economic and political balancing against Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific. The risks of escalation are plenty, and the benefits dubious. As an example, India could manage to sever Highway G219 or the Karakoram Highway that forms part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit-Baltistan; which itself further connects to the unstable Balochistan region and allows Chinese investments to flow to the Arabian Sea. If so, a major component of the PRC’s Belt & Road Initiative will have been sacrificed for strategic naught. Casual overuse of the military option only serves to bring a negative global spotlight to China’s hegemonic concept. 

Rather, today’s CCP would do well to follow the sage guidance of erstwhile leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern rise: he who advised to “hide your light, bide your time”. Chinese militarism jeopardizes the economic foundations of its national strength. In the search for hard security to consolidate economic interconnectivity, China in 2020 might find itself with neither, should it continue to play its cards too early. 

In the meanwhile, then, India must continue to engage with neighbours China and Pakistan, and to maintain lines of communications and avenues of principled disagreement. These must be backed by credible force projection. Concurrently, the Indian government must look to close gaps in defense procurement, facilitate the euphoric arrival and deployment of the Rafale fighter jets, build infrastructure capacity along the Line of Actual Control, exert economic pressure over China in the Malacca Strait, and counter Chinese aggression through bold and stunning diplomacy. The idea of flanking the PRC in Tibet and Taiwan is gaining traction. Even now, Indian satellites have been monitoring Tibet, Pakistan, and China’s only foreign military base in Djibouti, for further movement and activity.

Despite both countries improving their defense and surveillance capabilities since the turn of the millennium, these days the Asian giants find themselves in a unique place. China has now joined the UN Arms Trade Treaty, and as of 2018 India enjoys full membership at all four multilateral export control groups for military armaments. As they seek to raise their profile on the world stage, casting themselves as responsible rising powers, India and China find themselves with an active responsibility in the regulation of the international arms trade. This obligation to upkeep their own non-proliferation credentials will further play into the perception-calculus of diplomatic brass as both countries determine next moves along the Line of Actual Control.

In short: India must plug the gaps, defend, and fortify. New Delhi must remain firm in resolve, and flexible in response. Shows of will have stopped Beijing in its advances before, and with the backing of the international community, can work again now. With the right demonstration of coordination and tact, the CCP can be made to realize that “all under heaven” is indeed not Chinese.

Playing Chaturaṅga:

The Himalayan mountains are a mythical and mystic space, home to a variety of subcultures and ethno-religious groups who make their quotidian lives in its unforgiving terrains. For centuries, it was a porous and sparsely inhabited zone inclined towards free trade and cultural exchange. The “Siachenization” of the bilateral Line of Actual Control will only further escalate the likelihood of future conflict, so long as China continues to purposefully delay talks to finalize the border issue. 

Closing off this space through force, and waging uncertain war in the mountain passes in the midst of a pandemic is not in the best interests of any of the major actors involved. The logic of international relations dictates that Indian jets will likely not be flying over the elevated plateaus of Tibet any day soon. Logically, PLA battalions will not be streaming through the Valley in hordes and droves. Yet in the mist of early mornings over the sky-clad Himalayas (the “snow-abode”, in old Sanskrit), logic may not always be the factor that strictly prevails. 

At the Kargils and Galwans of the Himalayas, where firmament and fortitude meet, the major actors of the region do not play chess, but rather, its ancient Indian equivalent — Chaturaṅga. Whether these actors are simply individual pawns on the squares of kismat (“fate”), or masterful strategic purveyors of the board at-large, may only yet be determined after another few iterations of the eternal geopolitical game.

Anvesh Jain is a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. His work has been published by the Mackenzie Institute, the Southern California International Review, and the Literary Review of Canada. He is an avid follower and player of Cricket. Visit his website for more information: https://anveshjain.com/.