Writing to US Secretary of State Cordel Hull in 1943, Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, stated that “if the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has the right to penetrate its immediate neighbors, the penetration of the next immediate neighbors at some point makes just as much sense. The logic of expansionism delineated by Harriman becomes acute when applied to the Himalayan border, characterized by a peculiar historical geography which forces a power seated in the north to always seek to exert influence in the south in what Mao called the five fingers of Tibet, that is Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Conversely, the power seated in the south must also seek to exert an influence in the north, which creates a base of tension, tempered only by a balance of military capacities. The perceived opportunities are difficult to give up.
For China, the power seated in the north, an India besieged by waves of Covid seems to be at this “certain time” to execute a strategy of moving forward in five fingers. While China has already shown its hand in Ladakh and is surveying the entire Himalayan range, it is the PLA’s activities along the McMahon Line that should concern New Delhi the most. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh is likely to be the next finger on Beijing’s list, especially if India experiences a problematic third wave.
At present, however, Indian media attention appears to be more focused on the PLA Land Force (PLAGF) exercises in the Gobi Desert, as the Chinese have essentially reneged on “the written agreement. Which had been concluded in early February to disengage from the hot zone. The Springs-Gogra region, and even less the Depsang plains. In addition to continuing to prevent Indian patrols from reaching traditional patrol points (PPs) in these areas, PLAGF also appears to be involved in major construction activity, as can be seen from commercially available satellite images. New Delhi should be particularly concerned about Chinese activities in and around the PLA outpost at Tianwendian in the Depsang Plains. An analysis of the images of the sector reveals that the Chinese are building a new border side which, when extended, has the potential to divide the points between PP-4 and PP-5.
The PLA also continues to put pressure on the Indian side through a general expansion of its subsistence bases in western Tibet and the Tarim basin, as well as through increased drone activity. Regardless of these trends, the Chinese seem to have already spread as much as they wanted in eastern Ladakh. Their operational tempo in the region is designed to keep the preoccupied Indian side there, while the PLA surveys other sections of the LAC.
Indeed, contrary to expectations that they would keep it localized, the Chinese have also been rather active near the stretches claimed by them across the Himachal Pradesh and even Uttarakhand watershed. However, Chinese claims across the watershed in these states are relatively modest and aim to attach some Indian formations to a static defense. Likewise, Chinese activity in the passes north of Sikkim is unlikely to turn into a forward movement, with India having credible retaliatory options in this neighborhood. Moreover, for what it’s worth, the Chinese premier publicly declared in 2005 that Sikkim was “no longer a problem between India and China.”
This contrasts sharply with the periodic reiteration of their main claim to Indian territory – Arunachal Pradesh. Never having accepted the McMahon line, China has openly declared its claim in various forms since 2006, including the arbitrary “renaming” of places in the Indian state. Beyond the cartographic aggression, the PLAGF sent long-distance reconnaissance patrols in areas where Indian infrastructure is still rudimentary, in addition to apprehending Indian nationals who, according to them, have strayed on the ” Chinese territory ”.
Worse still, it was revealed earlier this year that the Chinese had enlarged a former border post into a “village” of 101 houses on the banks of the Tsari Chu, about 4.5 km south of the district watershed. Upper Subansiri of Arunachal Pradesh. China may wish to argue that this development of Tsari Chu and the creation of other “model” border villages are in line with its 2021 White Paper on Tibet, which calls for improving conditions for border populations. However, it doesn’t take a lot of the imagination to see that such villages might just be thinly disguised gathering places.
As such, PLAGF certainly appears to be preparing for an escalation. While the summer exercises in Xinjiang and Western Tibet were much discussed, what was less talked about was a major exercise in Shannan Prefecture across from Arunachal Pradesh that involved not only units from the Military District of Tibet, but also the 76th Army Group increased forces well. This exercise, which continued until the end of June, saw several new pieces of equipment, such as the PCL-171 mounted 122mm gun system, being tested.
It also coincided with an exercise by the PLA’s Joint Logistics Support Force that aimed to augment resources at Nyngchi, Shannan’s main military center. Nyngchi is now home to a significantly expanded air base, protected by a PLAAF S-400 surface-to-air missile unit, and was recently linked to a high-speed rail link to Lhasa. Simply put, the increase in Nyngchi means that the PLA is now much better placed in the region for long standoffs than it was at the time of the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986-87.
Such a stalemate could well ensue during a third wave of Covid in India, which is expected to peak in October, which incidentally also marks the start of the “campaign season” along the McMahon line. The PLA would be especially tempted if it led to a diversion of Indian military resources, quarantines and a decline in the production of defense industries as was seen in the second wave.
Indeed, the evacuation by the Indian army of a strategic peak in the Kailash chain which had been retained as surety to negotiate a new disengagement in eastern Ladakh in the middle of the second wave would do nothing to discourage the Chinese. Beijing would also believe that a Covid wave arises when cross-domain threats such as cyber warfare or pharmaceutical supply chain disruptions would be effective in deterring Indian counterattacks to encroachment.
China may be considering presenting India with a moth-eaten Arunachal Pradesh, and it is up to India to stand firm no matter how difficult the circumstances. For starters, New Delhi must allow more substantial human intelligence operations in places of interest along the eastern Himalayas.