Today is 15 May 2022. Two years after the deadly clashes in Galwan Valley, with the Chinese PLA, which claimed the lives of 20 brave Indian soldiers and at least 35 Chinese soldiers (unconfirmed), the stalemate in the Himalayas continues, notwithstanding 15 rounds of commander-level talks between the two sides. Both sides are unwilling to cede ground, actual or ideological till today.
In August 1967 a similar flare-up had occurred at Nathula at the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim. It was five years after the disastrous reverses suffered by the Indian Army against the PLA in 1962. Nathula witnessed the death of a large number of combatants but the majority were PLA soldiers. The Indian Army’s refusal to buckle had broken some of the shackles of psychological defensiveness and perception about the invincibility of the PLA soldiers in mountain warfare.
Down the line 53 years later when Galwan happened on 15 June 2020, the aggression, energy, and passion on display by Indian soldiers were praiseworthy and reminiscent of the Nathula episode. While 20 Indian soldiers (including Colonel Santosh Babu, MVC, CO 16 Bihar) lost their lives, they inflicted an undisclosed number of fatal and other casualties on the PLA. The details of this incident are well known to all of us. Today, we at C3S remember and pay our homage to those brave souls who made supreme sacrifice for our nation.
Various analyses have indicated that PLA strategized the entire Eastern Ladakh episode of Apr-May 2020 for the purpose of curtailing India’s rising strategic confidence and reducing its options to remaining only defensive in outlook. Probably Galwan was a deliberate act planned to achieve an impact. Pressure points were selected and provocations were deliberately set up once China observed that India was suffering from the spread of the Wuhan virus pandemic. A legitimate training exercise, with due warning to India as per agreed procedure, was being conducted in the depth areas of Western Tibet. China sensing opportunity decided to convert the exercise into posturing at pressure points along the LAC. The past practice had shown that China usually kept low key manning of the LAC. This was something that could be used again to gain strategic surprise because India too considered such PLA deployment as no major threat.
However, events, post initial clashes at Galwan valley, had more significance. The Indian Army was smart with two actions, post-Galwan. First was the gaining of strategic balance by first inducting limited additional troops who reinforced some important areas and also provided the relevant reserves. The second was the exploiting of an opportunity that arose out of India’s reputed and well-known approach of low-key offensive proactive action, taking the option of capturing the Kailash Heights. These peaks were unoccupied but lay on our side of the LAC. With enough backup in the Chushul Bowl, offensive maneuvers were conducted to occupy the heights which gave us the decided advantage of threatening the Moldo garrison, where the headquarters of the PLA in Eastern Ladakh is located. This was followed by the rapid induction of more troops, backed by sufficient logistics to last the full winter deployment which had become inevitable in 2020. The Kailash Range operation had the PLA seething but led to the mutual pullback. In February 2021 the PLA vacated the Fingers complex and India withdrew from the Kailash Range positions. Many believe that we gave away too much for the vacation of Fingers which did not bear as big a threat to our depth deployment as the Kailash Range deployment did to the Moldo garrison. There was also a perception that we should have linked the Depsang Plains transgression also to the actions involving vacation and redeployment in the Fingers complex and the Kailash Range. However, the stand has been that Depsang was a legacy issue while the Fingers and the Kailash Range were both linked to recent actions.
Let’s look at the situation update since then:
PLA and the Indian Army have disengaged in Pangong Tso, Galwan, and Gogra-Hot Springs area; However, PLA has not turned back from KongKa La. At least four Patrol Points in Depsang continue to be denied by the PLA as per reports.
Despite 15 rounds of talks at the corps level with diplomatic representation also available, both sides continue to maintain a mirror deployment of approximately 50,000 troops each.
PLA is reported to have pulled some troops back during winter for logistical convenience but the Indian Army continues to maintain a moral dominance with its 365 days presence. Even as disengagement in selected areas has been achieved there is no indication of any desire for de-escalation which is an indicator of the trust deficit.
The PLA is just completing the construction of a bridge on one of the narrowest parts of the Pangong Tso near Khurnak Fort, on the water body stretching towards Tibet. Thus far the PLA had the hubris to keep its areas in the South Pangong Tso relatively lightly held with contingency to shift troops from North to South through a road that stretched almost up to Demchok before accessing the South. Stung by the audacious operation of Indian Army operations of the occupation of the Kailash range, the PLA is completing this bridge to cut down on response time for reinforcement. That in itself is a major change in the attitude and approach of the PLA. It is now much more respectful towards Indian capability and intent and perceives a transformed Indian Army which could pose an offensive threat towards the strategic ‘Highway 219’.
This perception will probably also apply to the Depsang plains. The Indian deployment is no longer perceived as just defensive.
Geopolitically much has changed internationally and the effect of that on the Sino-Indian equation needs close observation & analysis. With the ongoing Russia -Ukraine conflict, China has become much closer to Russia. The coming of greater Sino-Russian affinity, will/may put pressure on China to refrain from doing anything that will force choices upon Russia, which as it is, is stuck at a crucial crossroad regarding the future of its Ukraine adventure, at least in the immediate future.
Lastly, this anniversary is about heroism and patriotism. As a nation together, we could do with much more authentic public information showing confidence and praising the action of our various units of our Army, Navy & IAF with diplomats who came together to project their resolve, fortitude, and commitment. The PLA must be sufficiently sensitized to the fact that it is dealing with professionals at risk of the tables being completely overturned.
In a world with a rapidly changing order, Galwan clashes may have been a tactical action near a border outpost but its strategic outcome will probably carry far, just like that of Nathula in 1967.
(Commodore Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM is Executive Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)