Depsang: India's Achilles Heel

Though `Art of War’, a renowned treatise by famous Chinese General and Strategist Sun Tzu dates back to the 5th Century BC

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  8 March 2021 3:43 AM GMT
Depsang: Indias Achilles Heel

"Every neighboring state is an Enemy and the Enemy's Enemy is a Friend" reveals the secret of Foreign Policy: Vishnugupta (Kautilya) – Born 371 BC.

Though `Art of War', a renowned treatise by famous Chinese General and Strategist Sun Tzu dates back to the 5th Century BC, yet the principles and teachings contained in the monograph still seem to influence the attitude, character and disposition of the modern era Chinese leaders and People Liberation Army (PLA). Verses 18 and 19 in Chapter 1 of the treatise read:

"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."

Further, "If you know the enemy & know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle"

While they led us to believe that they were inactive and far away, they were quite active and near in Depsang and territories to its south that include Hot Spring, Gogra, Galwan, Pangong Tso, etc.

Have we been caught by surprise? The answer is yes. It is not very difficult to achieve surprise in those areas. Is the government or the military to blame? The answer is NO. We trusted our neighbor to stick to norms, understandings & agreements and received an unexpected blow. Has Dragon again nibbled our territory? Territories not held earlier must remain vacant else their continued occupation signifies loss of territory.

When adversarial equations between two nations thaw, the ensuing process of communication and dialogue gradually result in a new standpoint on all aspects of the relationship. For the troops facing each other at the hazardous borders, new rules of engagement emerge through written and/or unwritten practices, routines, agreements, and policy /directions from higher-ups. Since the 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict, a lot of water has flown down the Shyok & Galwan Rivers.

Besides bilateral economic cooperation, both countries are aligned through BRICS - the association of five emerging economies. Isn't it ironic that in spite of the recent standoff in the Ladakh Region and the COVID-19 animosity, China has now remerged as India's top trading partner? PM Modi has visited China about five times since assuming office and in the same period Chinese President Xi Jinping has made three trips to India. Such positive shifts at political and diplomatic levels create tremendous trust at all levels of the national hierarchy. The vague, unwritten or unspecified practices and rules get tweaked and, even in absence of a concrete treaty, get upgraded to an honor code that both sides trust each other to observe.

Yet China decided to invoke Sun Tzu.

They deceived they won some, we trusted we lost some. What did they win? They nibbled. What did they lose? Reputation and trust, not only ours but International Community as well.

Thanks to the superlative courage, resolve, and bravery of our soldiers complemented by a concurrent commendable diplomatic and military effort at dialogue, the initial territorial ingress made in the region has been satisfactorily vacated except for Depsang Plains.

That brings us to the importance of Depsang plains to either side and likelihood of vacation of the ingress made by Chinese there.

Those like me who have physically seen and spent time in these difficult & inhospitable terrains, know that these rugged, glaciated and harsh high altitude mountainous regions are not and cannot be clearly demarcated due to shifty, snowy, and inhabitable conditions. There are areas that actually belong to no one. In other words, either side can stake claim over territory contiguous to its nearest border posts or road arteries as no cartographic demarcation exist.

Depsang Plains is a rugged gravel plateau that lies about 20-25kms South East of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), our outpost and airstrip at the base of Karokaram Pass (KP). There is a road artery running south from DBO that runs to Leh. This is the lifeline to sustain DBO and areas around.

Of all the territories where China made ingress in Ladakh, Depsang Plains is the most significant. It is closest to KP, which is the gateway of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Depsang's proximity to DBO and DBO-Leh road and the presence of an unreliable adversary there creates significant criticality for our military operations and logistics.

At such altitudes, it takes a tremendous amount of planning, logistics, time, and monetary investment to stage forward troops and resources. Such a scale of infrastructure cannot be established without the concurrence of top political leadership. It would be safe to assume such approval would have been granted 6-8 years ago or even more.

Does that mean that when Xi Jinping was warming up to our PM on that swing on the Sabarmati riverfront in Sep 2014? it was not just trading that he was eyeing to expand but some clandestine territorial grab in the Ladakh Region as well. It reminds us of a famous proverb "Muh Mein Ram, Ram, Bagal Mein Chhuri" (meaning 'two-faced'). Gandhi Ji wouldn't have liked this, Xi. Please note we haven't even mentioned Nepal yet.

What have been China's tactics so far and what will be the future course of action? 4 Ds - Deny, Delay, Deflect, and Dispute. It began initially by denying the fact that the territories it ingressed belonged to India or were in the areas that actually belonged to no one. Indian and international pressure forced China to accept to withdraw troops from some areas. Thereafter, the delay was achieved through scheduling numerous rounds of talks and we always thought "Tarikh pe Tarikh" was just a Bollywood movie 'jumla'. The deflection will take the form of a stance that this is purely a bilateral issue that can be resolved by the two countries.

COVID-19 and Hong Kong debacle did attract a lot of negative international reaction though those events, coupled with the recently released economic growth figures, seem to have enhanced Zinping's standing in the Communist Party of China. The nose-diving trade with India had to be contained too. Making some concessions in order to appear cooperative in a de-escalation of border problems with India was one face-saving option. However, China must have weighed how much it could concede. Millions of Yuans would have gone into building infrastructure and stage-forwarding troops in Ladakh. How could it capitalize on that investment and yet avert a major political and trade boycott? One good option would be to promise withdrawal but make it as snail-paced as possible, announce and make visible signs of withdrawals in some areas but retain the most strategic and critical of all the places.

That place, both sides know, is Depsang. Apply the fourth D - Dispute. Assert that these territories have always belonged to China. Start with Pangong Tso so that focus doesn't immediately shift to Depsang plains.

Solving Depsang Imbroglio would be an acid test of Indian Political Leadership & Diplomacy.

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