The LAC crisis has been a wake-up call in how we deal with China, says former Northern Command chief

India must continue to insist on restoring the status quo ante, while dealing with what has been a clear change in China’s behaviour since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, says Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda (retd.)

May 08, 2022 10:37 pm | Updated May 09, 2022 04:27 pm IST - Hong Kong

Lt. Gen. (retd.) D.S. Hooda. File

Lt. Gen. (retd.) D.S. Hooda. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

China’s mobilisations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in May 2020 that sparked a crisis that, two years on, still remains unresolved, could not have likely happened without the top leadership’s consent, according to Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda (retd.), former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Army Command.

“It’s impossible that such a large-scale and coordinated action…was done locally,” Gen. Hooda told The Hindu, adding that the change in the Chinese military’s behaviour pre-dated the 2020 crisis with a gradual dilution in the confidence-building measures (CBMs) going as far back as 2013, when President Xi Jinping took over.

Two years into the crisis, Gen. Hooda said there was a need to revisit those CBMs that had helped keep the peace for decades. The 2020 crisis served as a “wake-up call” and there was “greater focus” on dealing with the threat along the northern borders, he said. India “must continue to insist” on restoring the status quo ante.

In 2014, another border crisis in Chumar coincided with Mr. Xi’s first visit to India. “A lot of people said then, why would he deliberately do this at a time when he was visiting India? The fact is, it wasn’t a small incursion… We had a small post, not more than 40, 50 people. But what came across….. was around 3,000. It wasn’t something that a local commander did or that was not known to the PLA hierarchy or political leadership,” he said. “I was there, and definitely saw a change in 2013. There is no doubt about it.”

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India, China and the Line of Actual Control

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How do you see the situation on the LAC, as it stands now, two years into the crisis?

I would describe the situation as an uneasy stalemate. Two years have now passed, and as you know, we still haven’t achieved what we wanted to in terms of disengagement and de-escalation. There has been some progress in the areas of Hot Springs, and in the north and south bank of Pangong Tso.

But then, despite 15 rounds of Corps Commander-level meetings, numerous WMCC [Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs] meetings that have taken place, high-level political contacts at the level of Foreign Ministers, Defence Ministers, National Security Advisers, there hasn’t been a significant breakthrough. What I’m describing as a significant breakthrough is the fact that complete disengagement and de-escalation takes place.

Let me also add here that even if there is some further limited disengagement – they are talking about PP15, there could be some disengagement from that area – I don’t think we are going back to the time of what we called peace and tranquillity along the LAC. This is because, frankly, trust has been broken. All the Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) that were in place were completely ignored when the Chinese came in, in May 2020.

I think tensions are going to remain, and you’re going to see a stronger deployment of soldiers along the LAC. There are going to be changes in border management protocols and how we looked at LAC management. I think too much water has flowed under the bridge for us to contemplate that even if we do arrive at some kind of agreement, that we can go back to the pre-2020 situation of LAC management. I don’t think we are going to get to that.

The number of Chinese troops along the LAC has gone up from 8,000 before the crisis to more than 60,000 now. With permanent infrastructure being built in forwards areas, is a permanent de-escalation now unlikely?

Absolutely. These additional soldiers, of 50,000 to 60,000 on either side, will remain firstly until both countries arrive at a comprehensive agreement on disengagement and then de-escalation. But as I said, even after that, you could see a part of these additional soldiers on the Chinese side remaining in Tibet, and on the Indian side remaining in eastern Ladakh. During the first year, a lot of people said the weather conditions and winter will cause additional troops to pull back from that area. What we saw is that this has not happened. In fact, both sides have built up habitat and logistics infrastructure to support additional troops and additional operational deployments in the area. The idea that there was a pressure that we can’t support such high numbers in high-altitude areas, that pressure has decreased so I do see additional soldiers remaining in the area, even after any kind of agreement is reached.

Is the status quo ante that India is asking for, but which the Chinese haven’t mentioned, still possible? And should that be a bottom line for India?

Firstly, how do we define status quo ante? Are we saying, exactly the situation as it existed prior to 2020? That situation is not going to happen because we’ve already agreed on certain areas of disengagement. We’ve agreed that there will be no-patrolling zones in those areas. This is obviously a different condition from what existed earlier. However, if we define status quo ante as that the PLA must pull back its soldiers from areas where they had come in, in 2020, across our perception of the LAC, that is the more sort of practical understanding of what status quo ante is.

My view is we have to stand firm on this. We must insist on this. Not only the areas that we are currently discussing, but also areas like Depsang and Demchok. Depsang particularly is of vital tactical importance to us. The reason why I say we must continue to insist is if you’re looking for a long-term resolution of this problem, unless there is a withdrawal by the PLA of their soldiers who had come across, you’re going to see tensions persist. Troops will remain on both sides. I don’t see a pullback happening on the Indian side if the PLA insists it is going to remain in those areas where it had come across. Why we need to insist on the status quo ante is because, for me, that is the only way you will get peace and calm back on the LAC. Otherwise, we’re not going to get it.

And that would include access to all the patrolling points that India hasn’t been able to reach for some time now?

Access to patrolling points should also be an area that we must insist on. How else do you establish control over what you consider your territory, if you’re not going to be able to patrol it? Merely by saying that, this is our area, and this is what we claim, the fact is that we were doing this physically by patrolling. Protocols were that people would go, and they would leave some food wrappers, etc. just to show this is our area, we’ve been here. Restoring patrolling points must be one of the key elements of our negotiations.

Do you see the buffer zones that have been in place, and helped maintain the peace, as a temporary measure?

I know there is some criticism about buffer zones because we say we are not able to access our areas. But the same thing is true for the Chinese side and the PLA also. For example, if you take a buffer zone between Finger 4 and Finger 8 [on the north bank of Pangong Tso], we cannot access Finger 8. But similarly the Chinese can’t access Finger 4, which is the area that they claim. So I think it’s a good arrangement. It also helps define each other’s territorial claims and limits by saying, the buffer zone extends from here to here. So it doesn’t really sort of weaken our own claims over what we say is our perception of the LAC. It’s a good concept that separates out the soldiers, it makes sure there are no clashes happening, which can then lead to something else. Whether it is temporary or permanent is something that can be decided in further discussions and further talks. The idea is, frankly, as long as you can avoid any sort of physical contact between soldiers, that in itself is something that will lead to peace and calm along the LAC.

Are the past CBMs that India and China have had, going back to 1993 and even earlier, no longer relevant in this new situation along the LAC?

There is one view that we have had these CBMs which have held the peace for so many years, so why is there a need to revisit these CBMs, let’s go back to them, and there is no need to look at new things. My own personal experience, having served in these areas and seen what has happened over the past six, seven years, is that slowly these CBMs had already been diluted. For example, you saw in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, troops were coming across the LAC and putting themselves up permanently. You also saw increasing physical scuffles that were taking place. During Doklam in 2017, we saw at Pangong Tso a video of heavy stone throwing that was being done. Some of these CBMs were already being diluted.

I think there is a need to look at some fresh areas, at what is it that is causing friction now. For example, let’s consider three areas. For patrolling behaviour and patrolling patterns, the CBMs state that when patrols come face to face, they should go back after unfurling their banner. That is not happening. So how should patrolling behaviour be regulated? Second, we need to identify disputed areas. While the LAC is not marked out on maps or on the ground, it isn’t as if you are having problems in all the areas. There are certain disputed pockets along the LAC. Some have traditionally been called accepted disputed areas in the past. Now we are seeing new areas that have come up. So if we can at least identify disputed areas, and then talk about how do we regulate patrolling, whether we need to establish in some areas no-patrolling zones to keep troops away? The identification of disputed areas is important. The third area is connected with infrastructure development. This, on some occasions, causes tension on both sides. In areas like Demchok where there are civil populations very close to the LAC, there is some constant tension over what you are building, on both sides of the LAC. These are some areas that need a fresh look, so that we can look at those concerns which cause tension among the two sides. In the Foreign Ministers meeting in September, one of the points they brought out is that there is a need to have fresh and new CBMs. I’m not saying throw out all the old CBMs out of the window. Take whatever is good, but also look at some new aspects, which cause some problems between the two sides.

Do you see a connection between the growing tensions since 2013 and the change in the PLA’s behaviour with Xi Jinping coming to power that year?

I was there, and definitely saw a change in 2013. There is no doubt about it. In 2014, when President Xi was in India, we had this fairly large incursion into the Chumar area. A lot of people said, why would he deliberately do this at a time when he was visiting India? The fact is, it wasn’t a small incursion. It wasn’t done by local troops. Just across Chumar, we had a small post, not more than 40, 50 people. But what came across, the total strength that came into the area, was around 3,000. So it wasn’t something that a local commander did or that was not known to the PLA hierarchy or political leadership. I don’t buy that. Certainly, the behaviour has changed 2013-14 onwards.

With the current crisis too, do you see it as unlikely that such mobilisations by the PLA would have been possible without the green light from the top leadership?

It’s impossible. It’s impossible that such a large-scale and coordinated action – remember it happened all across the front in eastern Ladakh, starting from the north, and going right down the south till Demchok – this is not something that was done locally. There were some exercises that were going on, and from an exercise to come across the LAC, behave in such an aggressive fashion.... Even before Galwan happened, there was use of force to push people into these areas like Pangong Tso, we saw physical activities taking place. Clearly there were orders given, that you will do this and you will reach whatever they considered as their sort of claimed area. I just don’t buy this argument that this was some kind of a local incident.

The focus has been on the Western Sector. How do you assess the challenge in the east?

The Eastern Sector, at least militarily, is a larger challenge for India. One, because the infrastructure development in most of the areas, particularly in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, or what we call RALP [Rest of Arunachal Pradesh], is not as good as it should be. In many places, road heads are 20-30 km away from the LAC. So our ability to move and react in those areas is somewhat difficult. On the other hand, the Chinese infrastructure on that side is much better. So that is a challenge, and I am sure they have considered it as there is talk of better surveillance and observation capabilities put in place. But if the Chinese were to do a similar thing in the Eastern Sector, it would be a major challenge for us.

Looking to the future, what should be the priority for India’s military preparedness in dealing with China?

Our military preparedness, our ability to manage the border, has certainly improved. We’ve got additional troops in. There is a great push for infrastructure development that is taking place along the northern borders. You are also seeing plans to realign major forces from the western front to the northern front. One whole strike corps plus a few other divisions have been told that the primary task is not the western border, but the northern border. In terms of military capability, this is not something that can happen in a jiffy, but plans are in place and I’m sure as time passes by, capability along the northern borders is going to improve.

But there is a larger issue here as to how both countries – particularly China – need to look at managing our ties. Clearly, there are differences. There is a strategic competition that is happening in Asia between two rising powers. We have issues in the Indian Ocean. We have an unsettled border. There are differing views on how the Indo-Pacific is framed. So these differences are there. The question is how can these differences be managed peacefully. That is the larger issue.

India’s view traditionally has been, that as long as the LAC is calm and peaceful, we can move ahead in other areas. That is something China needs to look at, because they tend to play down the border issue and say, let’s keep the border dispute aside, and let’s move ahead in other areas. India does not have the same view. So China needs to place the border dispute in the correct context and needs to see how it’s impacting bilateral relations. If these larger things can be addressed, that is one way that we can move ahead. Even when the Chinese Foreign Minister came [in March], he kept saying the same thing, that let’s keep the border issue aside and let’s go ahead in other areas. Clearly, India has made it absolutely crystal clear this is not going to happen and we can’t have business as usual.

We need to understand we’re dealing with a powerful country, large economy, very good military capability, they are modernising at a good pace. It has to be dealt with holistically - politically, diplomatically ,economically. At the end of the day, China is striving for hegemony in Asia. That is what they want, they want to be the most powerful country in Asia. In that, they are going to be challenged to a certain extent by India. So some competition is always going to exist, and to address it we have to take a whole of government approach.

Has this crisis, in one sense, reduced this asymmetry by focusing attention on the northern borders?

It has, in some ways, woken us up to the reality of the Chinese military threat. Earlier, the feeling always was that the border is likely to remain peaceful, we have the CBMs, so we should be able to deal with China politically and diplomatically, that it will not come to China using military force. Now that it has actually happened, the way we look at China as a threat, that realisation has come. There is greater focus on infrastructure development, greater focus on realigning our military capability. We had larger forces aligned on the western border than on the northern border. That in itself is shifting. It has been a wake-up call that was necessary.

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