All Is Not Quiet on the Eastern Front

"The Chinese leadership must have planned what they wanted to achieve in political, economic and military terms, before they had launched their forces in the area. This would include their appreciation about the risks of armed conflicts of some type that may ensue."

All Is Not Quiet on the Eastern Front

The International strategic order appears to be changing especially in recent months and has China as a central figure. Besides the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and economic recession caused due to it, China’s flexing its muscles all around its periphery, nearly simultaneously, is intriguing, both in terms of timing and extent of belligerency.

Besides trade wars, China’s actions have tended to change perceptions of many countries towards it. Such perceptions are coalescing into multi-dimensional international alignments.

China has now confirmed that it is indeed an expansionist power. It had commenced its expansionist activities soon after Chairman Mao Zedong had led the communist takeover of China by driving the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek from the Mainland to Taiwan. It then secured its peripheral states like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang; and Tibet; including by employing military force.

China has unilaterally taken control of a large number of Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by many nations of South East Asia. It has also threatened countries by overt show of force, like in the case of Taiwan and Japan; and by transgressions across undefined borders, like across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) against India.

China has made its biggest intrusion on our northern borders, as part of a deliberate offensive plan opening many fronts around its borders, including the entire Western Pacific Seaboard, from the Russian eastern coast to the South China Sea and further south to the littoral states of South East Asia, as well as India.

This offensive policy of opening many fronts is likely to be a disaster in the long run, when the present preoccupation of powerful nations of the world with COVID 19 ends or reduces.

China has also used its economic clout to usurp sovereignty of small nations. Well known examples are Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Port Piraeus in Greece. Giving loans to many other countries of Africa and Southern Pacific at exorbitant rates for projects is another ploy it has used for control, where only Chinese workers were employed and acute cost-escalation has been the order of the day.

China’s much touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which are pet projects of Xi Jinping are in trouble. Pakistan is seeking debt write offs/ delayed debt re-payments/ conversion to equity on both projects. Others are also seeking such arrangements. Overall most of these projects, which are in high risk countries, are not progressing. There is also criticism in some African nations due to Chinese racism.

The other methods used by China are pressure tactics, like in the case of amalgamating Hong Kong; transfer of military arms, including knowhow for nuclear weapons as in the case of Pakistan and missiles to North Korea; and many more.

Keeping the above as a backgrounder, let us now focus only on the transgressions China has created against India in Eastern Ladakh.

Importance of Aksai Chin

"Aksai Chin is strategically important for China, as it is the area that links Tibet with Xingjian. China constructed the Western Highway (G-219) through Indian-claimed Aksai Chin and completed it in 1957."
Indian troops deployed in Ladakh; File Photo

When India became independent in 1947, it inherited an un-demarcated northern border with Tibet. In the first maps issued after Independence by the Government of India, the border was shown along the Kuen Lun Range that placed Aksai Chin in India. China however claimed that Aksai Chin was part of Tibet and hence of China.

In 1956, China produced its first map, which showed Aksai Chin as China’s territory, with the boundary running along the Karakoram Range, much west of India’s depiction of the boundary. However, areas in the news today like the Depsang Plain; valleys of the Chip Chap, Qara Qash and Galwan rivers; Hot Spring area; most of Pangong Tso; and a part of Spanggur Tso were shown as part of India. This was changed by China later.

Aksai Chin is strategically important for China, as it is the area that links Tibet with Xingjian. China constructed the Western Highway (G-219) through Indian-claimed Aksai Chin and completed it in 1957. In the meantime, infrastructural improvements in Aksai Chin are continuing apace. As an example, the closest township on G219 to Pangong Tso is less than 100 kms, where the Chinese State Grid Corp has finished constructing a 9AN40 steel pylon on the 5,342-meter-high Kong Tang Lamu Mountain, making it the highest pylon in the world.

A pylon on Kong Tang Lamu Mountain Photo: VCG

One of the major reasons for the current incursion by China is its perceived threat to the Highway on account of public statements by Indian political leaders that India is committed to take back Aksai Chin and publication of another map showing Aksai Chin as part of India. While this may only be an excuse, it appears that China felt that it was now time to physically show that Aksai Chin and areas further to the west belonged to China.

Although earlier incursions by Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh had come up to the Depsang Plains and in area Chumar further south, the numbers of troops were small. Commencing in April this year, China has transgressed with a much larger force. In addition, statements made by Chinese leaders and its ambassador in Delhi were extremely hawkish and condescending. These were somewhat mellowed down later, especially when the Indian Military reacted forcefully, first after the incident in the Galwan Valley in June and later when the Indian Army occupied tactically important heights on the Kailash Range.

Map-Eastern Ladakh; Archives

Line of Actual Control (LAC)

"LAC is a misnomer, coined by China in 1960, despite India’s objections."
Line of Actual Control (LAC); Representative Image

LAC is a misnomer, coined by China in 1960, despite India’s objections. It became common usage, including in the media, within a few years. Along the northern borders, there have always been two lines, one showing areas under India’s control and the other by China indicating the extent of area claimed by China. Obviously, the lines extend into each other’s areas. Hence, the extent of areas to be patrolled as also instructions for avoiding clashes are laid down. The latter was taken to absurd lengths by both governments in recent years, laying down SOP’s to further avoid shoot-outs/clashes between patrols. Hence, the sight of pushing and shoving soldiers of both sides when the stand-off in Doklam was seen on our TV screens in 2017.

China took it to extremes when its soldiers came armed with clubs and iron rods studded with iron spikes during the early stages of the transgression by China in eastern Ladakh. Hopefully, the powers that be in India will not constrain our soldiers from using their weapons henceforth, as they are trained to do.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai while affirming their version of the boundary in 1959 in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru used the term LAC for the first time. In the 1960 Officials’ Dialogue, the Chinese delegation presented a new version of the boundary that shifted the earlier line substantially westwards. This line claimed much of Depsang, the Qara Qash and Galwan River valleys and all of Spanggur Lake. At Pangong Lake, the boundary ran through Sirijap (near today’s Finger 8).

India’s Reactions

Intelligence Failure

"One reason for the intelligence failure is the wrong selection of border guarding force and dual command and control."
ITBP troopers patrolling their AOR; File Photo

It is surprising that China’s transgression in Eastern Ladakh went un-noticed and unreported till the first clashes commenced with our border guarding force – ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) in May. One reason for intelligence failure is wrong selection of border guarding force and dual command and control. While the ITBP is deployed on a border guarding role, so is the army responsible for it.

The ITBP has not been placed under command of the army despite repeated requests, although when an incursion/incident occurs, it is the army that is asked for details, while the ITBP slinks away. This is due to our political leadership not wanting to ruffle the feathers of the police, as they depend on them so heavily for a host of activities!

Unlike the army, ITBP sub-units carry out tasks of border management in a lackadaisical manner. In addition, unit headquarters of ITBP do not deploy with the troops they command but are located in more congenial rear areas, thus effective leadership is lacking at the border. Like all central armed police forces, ITBP sub units first send reports through their channels, instead of sharing it with army units and formations. This results in loss of vital time for the army to take quick action.

Besides the ITBP, our intelligence agencies were once again involved in other activities as in the past! They became active only after the event. Yet, one has not heard of even one case of anyone being held responsible/accountable in the last nearly six months for such a major incursion!

Crisis Management

When China’s major incursion in Ladakh came to light, the Indian Military reacted with force and with alacrity. However, the various core groups dealing with security strategies could not properly advise the policy makers at the apex level. Besides structural and legacy reasons, such inaction is probably also due to the highly personalised and centralised control that our Prime Minister exercises.

In addition, loyalists instead of professionals hold important appointments! Resultantly, we again opted for the policy of ‘appeasement’, as we have done in the past. This can hardly be called strategy.

To make up for their inability to take a decision, military level talks continue to be scheduled to show forward movement, although the situation requires vigorous political and diplomatic action. Military commanders are constrained by laid down parameters and have no lee-way to change them.

China’s incursion in Ladakh, though apparently military, is deep-rooted and concerns many non-military aspects too. Since the drama started, however, it is apparent that our government, led by the diplomat-bureaucrat-intelligence combine seems to be sold on continuing the policy of ignoring the intrusion by China’s PLA, like all earlier governments.

Details of our past blunders are well known and need no repetition, except to state that the timid approach adopted by us has ballooned into one of the biggest strategic problems for India. The Indian Military had many times advised that legalistic and spineless approaches against China will not work, as China only understands power.

On account of our diplomatic-driven policy, we have neglected our military and continuously lowered its capabilities, by starving it of funds. Even in other fields, like economy, we have allowed China to have an upper hand. Resultantly, China has weaned away our immediate neighbours and in some cases our long-standing friends too, by both our internal and external policies. The overall result is that we are unable to influence events on our borders, as well as in the political; economic; energy; social; law and order; and other fields.

Major reasons for this state of affairs are lack of a well drafted strategic planning policy document that is long overdue; linear structures and thinking of our successive governments that remains unchanged from colonial days; weakening our long-established institutions for short term, mainly electoral gains; egos and turfs; a slow and ponderous bureaucracy devoid of any vision; and under the present dispensation highly individualistic and centralised control.

When the policy makers at Delhi have no plan of action, they resort to jingoism. Our TRP-oriented electronic media that believes only in sensational and breaking news steps in with a bang and soon highlights it to feverish pitch, which is hardly conducive to rational decision-making. Sadly, many veterans are coaxed to join trite panel discussions, and foolishly divulge information of value to the enemy, at the behest of the anchors. The overall result is irrelevant noise; lack of clarity; unnecessary speculations; and high expectations.

Besides lack of a strategic policy; core groups tasked to advice the political leadership give coloured advice, which they feel the political leaders want to hear. As an example, the China Study Group (CSG) that was set up to harmonise different views and present specific options/plans keeps scheduling military-level talks, which serve little purpose.

The CSG itself has over the years become yet another ponderous committee that has failed to come up with concrete proposals. Since I have been a part of the CSG from its inception and was also its co-chairman when I was the Vice Chief of the Army, along with the Foreign Secretary, I note with dismay its ballooning with a dozen very senior additional members, resulting in further reducing, if not eliminating its usefulness to provide cogent advice.

Like a wag had mentioned, our various committees are in a state of 'paralysis by analysis'.


"Besides lack of a strategic policy; core groups tasked to advice the political leadership give coloured advice, which they feel the political leaders want to hear."
Indian Army personnel at the Karakoram pass; File Photo

The Chinese leadership must have planned what they wanted to achieve in political, economic and military terms, before they had launched their forces in the area. This would include their appreciation about the risks of armed conflicts of some type that may ensue. Besides counting costs and benefits by the incursion in Ladakh, flare-up in other areas of the border would have been catered for, which also need troops. Their opening of many fronts around their periphery have already been highlighted.

On the face of it, opening multi fronts, like in South China Sea; and against Taiwan; Japan; and South Korea, on the one hand and against USA, India and to an extent Australia, appears fairly irrational and thoughtless. Great powers and even super powers do not behave like this, unless they have a death wish!

In an important statement following the Quad Meeting of Foreign Ministers only two days back, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticised Beijing for its “Bad Behaviour”. The US National Security Advisor went a step further and stated “The time has come to accept that dialogue and agreements will not persuade or compel the People’s Republic of China to change. There is nothing to be gained from looking the other way or turning the other cheek. We’ve been doing that for far too long”.

Many reports have indicated that the major Chinese military incursion in Eastern Ladakh was also on account of two important domestic reasons. Firstly, Xi’s assumption of full powers in all aspects of decision-making, although endorsed by the powerful CCP (Chinese Communist Party), was carried out by purging many senior and influential members of the hierarchy, who are now disgruntled. Hence, there is an undercurrent of mistrust in Xi.

Secondly, despite propaganda and not revealing statistics about the Virus in Wuhan and surrounding areas accurately; widespread unemployment due to slowing down of the economy; and hiding the number of casualties suffered in Ladakh; there is widespread resentment against the establishment.

The best time for military action at the local level was soon after the incident of 15 June, when enemy troops were still moving in. We had the capability; the ‘causes- belli’; highly motivated troops and sufficient force to launch a local attack to take on the motley force China was still assembling. Such a foray would have given great dividends and would have made the enemy pause and re-think. However, this fleeting opportunity was lost on account of our slow decision-making.

As China has achieved the bulk of its objectives, a full-fledged war is unlikely. The fast approaching winter also precludes such an action. Should however a shooting war starts, our troops are likely to maul the enemy badly. The main reasons are that structurally our troops are better organised and equipped for high altitude warfare; have much better trained and led troops than the puny Chinese conscript soldiers; have already shown their prowess in June and August; and know that the nation is fully supportive.

Since both sides have massed huge forces facing each other, a flare-up can take place, which both sides would like to localise. However, we would be forced to keep the large number of troops and equipment that the military has pumped in and the logistics to sustain them, in the area.

Unless some modus vivendi is worked out at Delhi, our troops will have to stay put, despite the approaching winter, which will make the situation worse. This applies to Chinese troops too, but they have much better infrastructure already existing on their side. The important point is that delays in resolving the issue increase our difficulties and affect our image in military, economic, social, and political arenas.

While concluding, I suggest that we re-explore the erstwhile package deal with China by giving up Aksai Chin in the west for China’s giving up its claim in Arunachal Pradesh, with some modifications. It will require biting the bullet, deft diplomacy, strengthening our military and close political oversight and would take a number of meetings at many levels over a few years, but it can be achieved, provided political/electoral considerations are set aside by our political leaders of all hues and colours.

Simultaneously, we must increase our capabilities, both militarily and economically, as well as by strengthening relations with our neighbours and friends further afield, like the Quad, Taiwan and the littoral nations of South East Asia. This must be done on a war footing. Unless we are strong in all these fields, we would be unable to do well for the nation.

Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd) is a Former Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) and is a prolific writer and defence analyst. He is currently President, of the War Wounded Foundation, Delhi. This article was first published in 'The Citizen' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author, in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India'

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"Tongue-in-cheek statements like at the Quad meet in Tokyo will only embolden Beijing. China will continue in the same vein riding on its economic clout and military muscle even though latter has yet to catch up with the US."


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