While addressing soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces in Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a message to our northern neighbour: “The age of expansionism is over”. In a surprise visit to Ladakh, he sought to raise the morale of the troops, and take firsthand briefing from commanders in the region. His actions display India’s resolve to maintain the sanctity of its borders. But why was this necessary? And why have these disputes arisen as a Chinese origin global pandemic unfolds around the world?
The Chinese Calculus
The answer lies in understanding China, and how it views its position in the world. For every territorial claim, China uses historical facts to its convenience. Whether it is historical presence or territorial occupation, the Chinese rely on these examples to justify their claim. With the rise of Xi Jinping as the supreme leader, China has further hardened its views. In 2018, the President proclaimed that “China cannot lose an inch of the territory left behind by our predecessors”. Xi’s words strongly resonate with China’s current actions. China is transforming from an assertive power to an ‘aggressive power’.
For instance, in reclaiming large areas in the maritime domains, Beijing continues to ignore international law and postures aggressively against other stakeholders such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan and Taiwan to serve its strategic, economic, and political interests. Most strikingly, China’s aggressive actions, backed by build-up of its forces, against India in Eastern Ladakh have confirmed China’s such intentions. In all these instances, China’s strategy has been predominantly aimed at capturing its territory by ‘coercion and intimidation’, but without ‘firing a round’. India must see through this and change its strategy.
Disregarding the ‘Wuhan Spirit’, in May 2020, the People’s Liberation Army transgressed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on multiple points over a wide front in Eastern Ladakh. Defying the disengagement process against the higher-level military commanders talks at Moldo on June 6, the PLA forces deceitful action led to the fatal casualty of 20 Indian soldiers. The Chinese too faced severe injuries and fatal casualties in hand to hand combat. Curiously, China has yet not acknowledged its own casualties, given the fear of loss of face internationally for an aspiring superpower, and reprisal from its own population.
What explains China’s intention behind the movement of such a large force in Eastern Ladakh? There are two plausible reasons. One, China’s actions of occupying select heights are strategically motivated to dominate India’s newly built strategic road that runs through Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) in Eastern Ladakh. China’s insecurity also rises as Eastern Ladakh acts as a sharp wedge between Gilgit – Baltistan (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and Aksai Chin, and proximity of sensitive areas and strategic highways to the north of Karakoram Pass.
Change in Strategy
Undoubtedly, Beijing is also under tremendous pressure-both within and outside of China. COVID-19 has pushed the Chinese anxiety, as on one end is the mounting global pressure for an independent investigation into the source of the zoonotic virus given the origin in ‘Wuhan’. On the other end, the Chinese government’s domestic challenges emanate from – sharp decline in China’s economic growth trajectory, rise in rate of unemployment, unrest in Hong Kong against the introduction of National Security Law , and an uncompromising, USA backed Taiwan. Hence, the rationale behind China’s actions is both symbolic and significant; intended to send a message to the global community that it is not deterred by multiple challenges it faces today.
Relations between India and China have been impacted by border disputes, resulting in periodic border standoffs. Despite a number of agreements between the two countries, it is evident that China is not keen to settle the disputed boundary issue, as it suits it the most to keep India embroiled in boundary disputes with Pakistan and China. Thus, prevent India from focussing on the battleground of the coming decades: the Indian Ocean. India needs to overhaul its diplomatic, military, and economic approach towards China.
Accordingly, India must also invest in deterrence by displaying ‘capability’ and the ‘resolve’. In the long-term, India must remain fully focussed to develop its comprehensive national power (CNP); its economic growth; strengthen its technology enabled military capabilities and infrastructure on the borders and Indian Ocean Region (IOR); and develop strategic partnerships with select countries to maintain peace in the region.
Information Warfare (IW)
As an immediate pivot in policy along the LAC and LoC, given that Indian troops are battle hardened and highly proficient in mountain warfare, any military actions against India must be responded to by the most appropriate military action immediately. If China does not restore the status quo ante, India should be prepared to maintain a strong posture for a prolonged period, and, when required, create a criticality (s) across land and sea for the Chinese to also react. This would help in negotiations at the opportune moment.
Separately, just as China had launched an information warfare campaign by all available means to demonstrate its build up and combat strength, along with false narratives, India too must formulate a media strategy to counter such initiatives of our adversaries For instance, an often quoted statistic is that Indian military is no match for China’s as China’s GDP is five times that of India. A deeper research into history, even China’s history, will suggest that outcomes of military conflicts are not particularly dependent on GDP differentials, so long as a country stands militarily strong, which India is. India must forge ahead with the motto, ‘National Outlook for National Security.’
(The author is presently the Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. This article was first published on 'Mail Today' and has been repoduced with due permission from the author. View expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial Policy of 'Mission Victory India')
More about the Author
(With over 40 decades of distinguished service in the Indian Army, the author retired as the Army Commander, Central Command in 2012. Thereafter, he served as a Member, Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), Jaipur – Jodhpur Benches, for four years. Amongst the highest decorated generals, he commanded an Infantry Brigade on the LoC in Uri Sector (2001-02), Mountain Division in Kargil (2005-06) and Corps in Leh - Ladakh Sector (2008-09).
He was the first Indian Brigadier to attend the National Defence Course (NDC), at Dhaka (Bangladesh) in 2003. A keen army helicopter pilot, he is also a pioneer of Bofors gun, as he was the first batch of officers to be trained in Sweden and raised the first subunit of the Indian Army.
While commanding the formation in Kargil, his Division was awarded the BNHS National Green Governance Award 2005 by the Prime Minister of India on 10 Nov 2005, for conceiving and implementing the unique strategic concept, ‘Operation Green Kargil’. As the Director General Military Training (DGMT), he made positive contribution by introducing new concepts of military training and raising the educational standards of the soldiers.
He completed his Doctorate on ‘Naxalism, Internal Security and Conflict Resolution’, and has authored a book, “Red Revolution 2020 and Beyond, Strategic Challenges to Resolve Naxalism,“ and co-edited cum co-authored the most recent books, “Surprise, Strategy and Vijay: 20 Years of Kargil and Beyond”, and “COVID-19 & its Challenges: Is India Future Ready?”.)