China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has requested a flag meeting to resolve the border confrontation at Chumar, in southern Ladakh. The contest, which has been running for a week, now has over a thousand armed troops facing off at three separate spots, with neither side willing to allow the other to move deeper into territory that each claims as its own.
Top army generals say they are in no hurry to accede to the Chinese request. They say they are “evaluating the agenda” and will respond in due course.
Chumar has emerged as a hotly disputed segment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. Here, both sides perceive the LAC differently, with a difference of 3-4 km between the two claims. India has a road almost up to its claim line while, until this year, Chinese troops had to walk several kilometres to reach the LAC. That allowed Indian patrols to dominate the LAC, while the Chinese patrolled less frequently and aggressively.
Over the last two years, however, China too has connected up a new road to the LAC, leading to more vigorous patrolling. A face-off like the current one, say local Indian commanders, was inevitable.
Chumar is one of 14 identified hot spots, where India and China perceive the LAC differently. The other locations that have seen trouble in the past include the Thagla Ridge/Namka Chu Valley (where the 1962 war began), the Thangdrong Ridgeline (which saw a major Chinese incursion in 1986), and Daulet Beg Oldi, where the Chinese set up camp last April.
Indian commanders in the Leh-headquartered 14 Corps, however, are sanguine that this confrontation, like every other in the last four decades, will be resolved through discussions. “The Chinese are making the point that this area remains disputed,” says one general. “They absolutely don’t want a shooting war.” Yet, Indian analysts have made much of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s exhortation to PLA commanders, at a meeting in Beijing on September 22, to be ready “to win a regional war in the age of information technology”. Commentators have interpreted Xi’s mention of “a regional war” as a direct threat to India.
In fact, Xi is articulating a two-decade-old PLA strategic doctrine that, at the end of the Cold War, jettisoned the threat of the “early, major and nuclear war”, that Mao had foreseen. In 1985, China’s Central Military Commission (then led by Deng Xiao-ping and today by Xi Jinping) declared that the PLA’s most likely threat was “local, limited war”. This allowed Deng to dramatically downsize the bloated, four-million-strong PLA.
In January 1993, after the globally televised US military wizardry of the First Gulf War, Jiang Zemin issued a new set of “Military Strategic Guidelines” in January 1993, which shifted focus to fighting “local wars under modern high-technology conditions”.
The “local war” that Jiang explicitly defined was to “prevent Taiwan from fomenting any great ‘Taiwan independence’ incidents.” This came to be known as the PLA’s “main strategic direction”.
A decade ago, in the early 2000s, a technologically evolving PLA modified its strategy further to “local war under conditions of informationalization.” Here again, Taiwan remained the likely objective, with India barely mentioned in PLA literature.
Xi also urged the PLA to show “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China… (to) make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented,” says the official website of China’s Ministry of National Defence.
This may have been a mere affirmation of the Communist Party of China’s bedrock principle of tight control over the military. In Yan’an in 1938, Mao had written, “The party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” Every top Chinese leader since Mao has reaffirmed this principle periodically; Xi might have been doing the same.
However, the Chumar face-off at a politically sensitive time might also reflect the PLA’s growing autonomy and clout in Xinjiang and Tibet, which includes the management of the LAC. China watchers are closely observing the relationship for signs that Xi’s iron grip over China might not include the security establishment in its roiling western provinces.