By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch,
One year after the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh in May-June 2020, the ground situation is hardly encouraging. India lost its strategic advantage by vacating the Kailash Range. In the North Bank of Pangong Lake, PLA has moved from atop the India post at Finger 4 to the area of Finger 8. India has moved from Finger 4 to between Fingers 2 and 3 (Dhan Singh Thapa Post). A 10-km no-patrol zone now exists with a metal road on the Chinese side leading up to Finger 4.
It is said China reneged from disengaging from other friction areas but there is no evidence China promised so or these areas were discussed at all. If China backtracked, what stopped us from re-occupying Kailash Range and occupy Karakoram Pass, both in our territory? Or has China’s psychological warfare taken the wind out of our sails?
At Gogra and Hot Springs, the PLA is on our side of the LAC and the largest no-patrol zone is in Depsang Plains where our patrols cannot even approach patrol points that were established ‘short’ of the LAC, as recommended by the China Study Group and approved by the CCS. In Demchok too, the PLA has come across the LAC.
India never accepted China’s 1959 claim line, which PLA has now even crossed at places. Despite these encroachments plus hundreds of sq km of forced no-patrol zones, when the defence minister tells Parliament not lost even one inch of territory, the military can hardly contradict him.
Over the past year, PLA has constructed permanent structures in locations they occupied last year in Eastern Ladakh, rotated troops, ramped up logistics and deployed new weaponry; armoured assault vehicles, HQ-17A field air defence missile system, new PHL-11 122mm caliber self-propelled long-range multiple rocket launcher system (MLRS) and new self-propelled rapid-fire mortars. A new UAV capable of plateau operations was flown by the PLA for patrolling and search in the Kailash mountain region on May 25.
Satellite imagery of November 1, 2020 showed a newly constructed Chinese village with over 110 dwellings some 4.5 km inside Indian Territory in Arunachal Pradesh on the banks of Tsari Chu in Upper Subansiri District. The area had no construction in satellite coverage as of August 1999. Apparently, construction was also on during the Ladakh standoff. China has similarly constructed new villages inside Bhutan and occupied most of the Doklam Plateau after the India-China standoff was called off in 2017. Now there are unconfirmed reports of Chinese presence in Sakteng in Eastern Bhutan, China having claimed the wildlife sanctuary for the first time in 2020.
The 2020 Chinese aggression was concurrent to the first wave of Wuhan Virus. As India battles the second pandemic wave, China could do more mischief that maybe in Ladakh, elsewhere or both as also in Bhutan. Such actions by China should be taken as certain when the third pandemic wave hits India, which may be even more vicious going by the extra virulent strain discovered in Vietnam. China is a fast learner and high on technology. In the next conflict it will exploit the power of drones as seen in the Azerbaijan-Armenia War, and AI as Israel recently used against Hamas. We must be prepared for such conflict.
Pakistan is in turmoil but its military power remains intact fully supported by China and growing military alliance with Turkey, which is advanced in technological developments including military drones. Christine Schraner Burgener, UN special envoy for Myanmar has warned of possible civil war in Myanmar. The Military junta in Myanmar is fully backed by China while making noises about return to democracy knowing many democracies are actually autocracies.
The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor with the Kyaukpyu Port to mirror Gwadar in Pakistan will bring the PLA into Myanmar on one pretext or another. Noteworthy is the renewed Russian interest in Myanmar. Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar in January 2021 to hold talks with Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. This was followed by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin visiting Myanmar in March 2021 to hold discussions with Min Aung Hlaing, making it the first high-profile foreign visit to Myanmar after the military takeover. Now Russia has signed a contract to supply an unspecified number of Orlan-10E surveillance UAVs to Myanmar as part of a deal that includes Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems and radar equipment. In 2018, Myanmar military had signed a deal to buy six Su-30 fighter aircraft from Russia.
Hopefully, our policy makers are cognizant of what is building on India’s periphery. Myanmar and Bangladesh are the second and third highest recipients of Chinese defence exports after Pakistan in South Asia and Nepal has been drawn well into Beijing’s strategic sphere.
(The author is a veteran Lieutenant General. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.).