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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Chinese checkers in Ladakh: Toss out a brick to get a jade

Stratagems hold the key to understanding China. Only the naïve would stand up to the Dragon without imbibing the lessons its own classics have taught the world. The wisdom of Lao Tzu’s classic guide to leadership, influence and excellence, Tao Te Ching, and Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, The Art of War, continue to astound and amaze even the wisest for the sheer complexity, subtlety, and depth of human understanding.

Then there is the lesser known “Secret Art Of War: The 36 Stratagems of Master Tan” which find mention in the chronicles of Nan Qi Shu, the Southern Qi dynasty (AD 479-502). Tan Jingze, a renowned general of the era, successfully employed its secrets to keep his enemies at bay. The three classics constitute the crust of sinology.

Much like the timeless Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180), the Stratagems were rediscovered during the medieval age (Ming/Ching era). They disappeared again before being found again at roadside stall in Szechuan in 1941. The CCP swears by them, especially after being administered a bloody nose by lowly Vietnam in 1979. Hanoi used two of the 36 tactical maneuvers — Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao and Lure the tiger away from its mountain lair — to beat back the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the invasion to help Cambodia’s infamous Khymer Rouge, an ally.

Probing the inner recesses of the checkered Chinese mind is a challenging task in the best of times. Especially when confronted with the actions and inactions of the malevolent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the PLA.

Every move of the Dragon needs to be carefully weighed and sifted in the light of its history, both recent as well as the hoary past, to understand its intent and calculations. On this alone depends the dicey durability of the February 10 “synchronized and organized” de-escalation and disengagement of Bhartiya and Chinese troops amassed on the north and south banks of Pangong Tso (Lake) after a nerve wracking nine-month standoff. The thaw came after nine rounds of talks between the corp commanders of both sides.

The first PLA incursions along the undisputed areas of eastern Ladakh date back to May 5-15 last year in which clashes had been reported at Galwan, Depsang, Pangong Tso, Sikkim along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These culminated in the night of long knives (15-16 June) in which 20 Bhartiya brave hearts were done to death at the Galwan Valley, with the Chinese suffering many more casualties (45) going by reports emanating from the Russian news agency TASS.

The defense minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha that China will pull its troops on the north bank towards the east of Finger 8, and Bharat will also position its forces at its permanent base at the Dhan Singh Thapa post near Finger 3 looks good on paper.

That both sides have also agreed that the territory between Finger 3-8 will temporarily become a no-patrolling zone till both sides reach an agreement through military and diplomatic discussions to restore patrolling also seems fine. So does the decision to remove the constructions done on the north and south banks of the lake since the incursions began.

Now comes the core of the disengagement gambit in which the PLA may well have put Stratagem No. 17 of the Secrets at work: Toss out the brick to get a jade.

The agreement hammered out between Fingers 4-8 is secondary compared to the rather innocuously worded tail (almost a nota bene) of the Raksha Mantri’s statement: “…Similar action will be taken by both the parties in the south bank area as well.” Which translates into vacating the strategic heights of the Kailash Range over which Bharatiya forces had positioned themselves late August. Peaks, hitherto unoccupied, like Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Gurung Hill, Rezang La, and Rechin La,
suddenly came under Bharat’s sway.

The vantage points allowed Bharat to preside over the Spangur Gap, a two-km wide valley which afforded a panoramic view of China’s Moldo garrison. The logistical advantage could have proved deadly when launching an offensive. This became visibly palpable after Bhartiya troops were repositioned to overlook Chinese deployment along the Fingers on the north bank.

China’s insistence that Bharat first pull its troops back from the south bank of Pangong Tso and the Chushul sub-sector has been the principal stumbling block in negotiations since September. The PLA was all along disinclined to concede Bharat’s demand that the disengagement formalities include the entire region, ie., a return to the status quo ante prevailing on 1 April 2020.

A bird in hand, as the saying goes, is worth two in a bush. Given the strategic importance of the Kailash heights, it is stupefying how and why the army fell for the Chinese trap of confining the “organized disengagement” to Pangong Tso without a written assurance on retreat from other friction points like Gogra Post at Patrolling Point 17A (PP17A), Hot Springs near PP15, Galwan Valley in PP14, and above all the Depsang Plains.

Nine rounds of talks spread over six months resulted in a Pangong-only deal centered on creating a buffer, and that too on the Bhartiya side of the LAC. Amazing that the appeasers within the defense ministry again got their way.

Vacating the Kailash range ought to have been made strictly conditional on restoration of patrolling facilities till PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13 on the Depsang Plains. Their proximity to the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) base near the Karakoram Pass in the north makes patrolling imperative. Each PP is on Bharat’s side of the LAC. China has been regularly patrolling till the bottleneck better known as the Y-Junction, access to which was blocked to Bhartiya troops. The bottleneck is situated about 18 kms west of the LAC and barely 30 km southeast of DBO.

Retired army commanders H S Panag and D S Hooda, both of whom have an intimate knowledge of the terrain, felt a crucial strategic advantage may have been squandered unless there is a package deal in the offing, one which  includes acceptance of the McMohan Line in the Northeast. Anything less would be tantamount to conceding China’s 1959 claim on the LAC. That for all practical purposes is where PLA troops parked themselves after last year’s intrusions.

The 1959 Claim Line, Lt. Gen. Panag told the IANS, is a cartographic wonder aimed at protecting Aksai Chin and other areas seized by China in the 1950s. “If we attempt to get back those areas, the Chinese can by the configuration of the 1959 claim line, close certain areas and usurp more of our territory. For example, north of Pangong Tso from where all our routes go to Hot Springs and Gogra, the distance from the northern edge of the Pangong Tso to the Konkala Pass (Hot Springs and Gogra area) is 100 kms.”

China, he explained, has taken up the area up to Finger 4. “If they come another 30 to 40 kms forward and choke us, then this 100 kms will also go. Similarly, the way they are poised in the DBO sector, no matter how many troops you put, that area is like a piece of cake. It will fall within 48 hours. The DBO airfield is within 10 kms of the 1959 Claim line which is also the LAC in the northern part of the DBO sector.”

There is an impression in certain quarters that China opted to disengage after realization dawned that it cannot match the Bharatiya army in mountain warfare, especially in winter. More convincing is the view that since the PLA has not fought a war in more than 40 years, lack of military experience would prove to be its Waterloo.

Both are comforting facts. Now consider this: with winter on its way out, there is no reason why Chinese tanks and troops need to have gotten into retreat mode. Again, the PLA has never been known for its pluck and fighting ability. Confounding the enemy with overwhelming superiority in numbers and weaponry is where it scores. That is how it got the better of the U.S.-U.N. forces in the Korean war in 1950-53 and managed to humiliate Bharat in 1962.

Why then did China agree to disengage? There is one, and only one, reason: to get the Bhartiya army to vacate the heights of Kailash. That brings us back to the wisdom of Master Tan’s Stratagem 17: Toss out a brick to get a jade. Lose something of lower value for something of higher value. Lose a little control over the Fingers but gain much more by getting the enemy to clamber down the strategic peaks ranged on the south bank of Pangong Tso.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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