In the early hours of Thursday, September 10, residents of Leh woke up to the sounds of IAF fighter jets taking off for air patrols in the skies over Ladakh. Fighter jet sorties had increased in frequency since the stand-off between India and China began in May this year, but they were not as frequent at night. The alert, as it emerged, was not disconnected to a very significant meeting that was to unfold in Moscow later that day between India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The Indian security establishment was anticipating a countermove from the PLA to a massive forward deployment of army special forces in the Chushul sub-sector which seized heights on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in late August.
The army says it pre-empted the PLA from moving into the sector. Ever since then, not a single day has been uneventful along the LAC. Both sides have been on hair-trigger alert, especially after an incident on September 7, when the PLA fired the first shots on the LAC in 45 years to threaten Indian troops entrenched on the heights. “China is unlikely to take this (the Indian advance into Chushul) lying down,” says a senior army official. It is not a question of if, but when they will move. Given the heavy deployments on both sides and the total lack of trust, the military options on the ground are fraught with the risk of sparking off a border conflict. A look at five ways the PLA could strike back:
A PLA offensive to seize territory in Chushul
If the PLA chooses to move into this sub-sector, it will need more than just the two divisions–around 30,000 soldiers backed by tanks and artillery–it has currently deployed along the LAC. This is because mountain warfare favours the defenders. Military offensives on the plains need a ratio of 1:3, that is three attackers to one defender. In the mountains, the ratio goes up to 1:10. The Indian Army has dug in and is fully prepared for a PLA riposte, especially in this sector where it has troops, tanks and infantry combat vehicles in numbers to ‘mirror’ the PLA’s deployments. This has the prospect of triggering off a localised border conflict.
PLA incursions in another sector
The PLA could move into other sectors in Ladakh such as the Depsang plains south of Daulat Beg Oldie. The Chinese have already deployed tanks and infantry combat vehicles here to cut off the Indian military post at DBO. This again has the prospect of starting off a conflict, or at the very least heightening the precarious ground situation because Indian forces are heavily deployed in these areas.
Incursions in other sectors
On September 3, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria visited IAF bases in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh to assess their state of operational preparedness. It was also to signal to the PLA that the IAF remained on high alert, not only in Ladakh but also in the Sikkim-Arunachal Pradesh sectors. These states are thousands of kilometres from Ladakh, but being along the LAC, cannot be de-linked from Chinese moves in the western sector. The PLA, Indian military planners worry, could move in and occupy other disputed areas like Asaphila, Longju and Fish Tail in Arunachal Pradesh where it enjoys a tactical advantage. This could further stretch the resources of the Indian Army, already in a high state of readiness in these areas.
Get Pakistan to open another front
The established wisdom among Indian military planners is that China is unlikely to join in an India-Pakistan war. Beijing has so far stayed out of all three wars, in 1965, 1971 and 1999. Indian planners, however, anticipate the prospect of the Pakistan army joining in a potential India-China conflict. This would be a realisation of India’s nightmarish scenario of a ‘two-front war’ where it has to simultaneously activate or fight along both the 740-km Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and the 4,000-km LAC with China. This prospect was alluded to by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat, most recently in July this year. The PLA could get its ally, the Pakistan army, to stage an incident along the LoC to divert the Indian Army’s attention and resources away from the LAC. It remains to be seen how Pakistan, with its mounting debt crisis and current internal and external instabilities, responds to any such call from China.
Reactivate Northeast insurgency
The Indian Army threat perceptions also point at a ‘two-and-a-half front’ war–the half front is externally aided militant organisations carrying out attacks in the Indian hinterland. The PLA could embark on a war of attrition by tying down Indian security forces in the Northeast by stepping up its overt and covert support for myriad militant groups operating in the seven states in the region.
Beijing has armed and trained the Nagas since the 1950s. While the biggest, most well-organised Naga group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) or the NSCN(I-M) signed an agreement with the Indian government in 2015, talks with Indian interlocutors have not made headway since then. Intelligence officials say since 2015 they have seen renewed attempts by China to restart at least one insurgency, by backing the Assamese group ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam). The PLA and Chinese intelligence agencies have been backing the ULFA’s armed wing headed by Paresh Baruah, which is currently based in Yunnan. Chinese intelligence agencies are also behind the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), a grouping of nine NE rebel groups floated in 2015 and headed by the NSCN(K), the Khaplang faction. The UNLFW attacked an Indian Army convoy on June 4, 2015, leading to the deaths of 18 soldiers. The attack led to retaliatory cross-border strikes by the Indian Army on NSCN(K) camps inside Myanmar.