The recent Sino-India skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh marked an end to a long-standing and very significant bilateral arrangement between the two Asian powers.
As a fallout of the bloody scuffles between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China on the night of June 15, at what in military parlance is known as Patrol Point 14 (PP14) in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, in which 20 Indian soldiers and reportedly an even larger number of Chinese troops were killed, New Delhi unilaterally altered the ‘Rules of Engagement’ along the LAC.
This marks a massive shift in policy that is likely to have a long-standing impact on the way the two nuclear-armed neighbours conduct their troop management at one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world.
Though no details were provided about the exact nature of this change in ‘Rules of Engagement’, defence analysts believe that “tactical decisions” could involve a whole gamut of activities, ranging from movement of Indian Army patrols in key areas along the LAC to the use of firearms if the situation so demands
The ‘Rules of Engagement’ followed by China and India thus far were in keeping with a bilateral agreement made in 1996, whereby, the two sides had agreed to desist from the use of firearms at each other along the entire stretch of the 3,448km LAC. ‘Tactical decisions’
Free hand to army
However, in view of the recent loss of lives at Galwan Valley, the Indian administration accorded a “free hand” to its armed forces to take tactical decisions in accordance with the situation on the ground.
Though no details were provided about the exact nature of this change in ‘Rules of Engagement’, defence analysts believe that “tactical decisions” could involve a whole gamut of activities, ranging from movement of Indian Army patrols in key areas along the LAC to the use of firearms if the situation so demands.
Though Beijing is yet to react to New Delhi’s unilateral decision to modify the ‘Rules of Engagement’, it is common sense that should India resort to the use of firepower to react to any emerging exigency at the border, the PLA will not be averse to matching it, thereby marking a quantum shift in defence dynamics between the two countries.
This change in the ‘Rules of Engagement’ leaves a lot of room for potential flashpoints such as PP14 to take on a more serious confrontationist hue in the future.
This is all the more important since there are more than a dozen points in the Ladakh region alone where the interests of the Indian and Chinese sides and their claims and counter-claims of territorial sovereignty overlap.
More artillery-based response
So, there is always a possibility that in the future, more points such as PP14 along the LAC will see soldiers on either side resorting to a more artlillery-based response to any attempted incursions from the other side.
And that could be bad news for both countries, given the tenuous nature of bilateral ties and military buildup on either side of the LAC.
The question that really needs to be looked into is that why did such a fatal conflict take place between the two armies on June 15 at PP14, despite the fact that corps commander-level talks were already under way since early June?
One might argue that there can be nothing called an “element of trust” when it comes to chalking out diplomacy or military strategy. That every nation has a right to do what best suits its own interests. Agreed.
But if that is the contention, then why have ‘Rules of Engagement’ in the first place? If precious lives can be lost on either side of the border, even when there’s an agreement in force not to resort to the use of firearms, then that only goes to reveal a policy paralysis and catastrophic disregard for ground-zero actuarials.
Lack of transparency
Secondly, while the Indian Army was quite transparent about the number of casualties on its side from the June 15 clashes, the PLA has maintained a conspicuous silence on the issue.
Though there are unconfirmed reports of injuries/casualties on the Chinese side to be around 43, till date, there has been no statement from Beijing either confirming or denying these figures, leaving a lot of scope for speculation, with even some Chinese nationals raising the issue on social media and demanding clarity from PLA. According to reports in a section of the Indian media, Chinese authorities have lately admitted that the number of casualties in the PLA were "less than 20", but there has been no specific figure made available till date from Beijing.
If withholding information and commitment to opacity are part and parcel of waging a psychological war then it must be remembered that in an age of proliferation of social media and the ever-expanding reach of the world wide web, such ploy can also be construed as a cloak-and-dagger game being passed off as a matrix of one-upmanship at best and diplomatic skulduggery at worst.
In a mode of denial
Likewise, there are questions galore about the way India sought to handle this crisis. Right from the get go, since news started trickling in about reported Chinese presence in Ladakh and there were satellite images corroborating reports of a massive buildup of personnel and equipment along the LAC, New Delhi was in a mode of denial.
Moreover, the Indian prime minister’s statement on June 19 that there had neither been any incursion into Indian territory nor had any Indian border post been overrun, sharply contradicted a Press note issued by Government of India on June 17 that clearly stated: ‘[The] Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC [Line of Actual Control].’
The claims and counter-claims notwithstanding, the contours of Sino-India relations will likely see a sea change in the days ahead and at stake are the futures of not just a combined population of 2.74 billion, but the geopolitics of Asia and beyond.
It may seem to be India-vs-China for now, but the global ramifications of a conflict between two economies and two military powers of this size could mean a lot more than just a fight for regional supremacy.