The sub-text is crystal clear…India and its armed forces; its warfighting support system and strategic infrastructure must be ready for the worst even as we insist on status quo pre May 2020 as non-negotiable . This is because agreeing to “adjustment/acceptance” of current Chinese positions on ground “as is where it” will hand over critical strategic and geo-political space to China.
It will make Sino-Pak collusion in Eastern Ladakh a nightmarish reality; make Leh, Siachen/Saltoro/DBO/Chushul and our communications/command and control set up fraught with risk of sudden attack and loss. Gen Raj Mehta examines the issue and takes a macro view above the cacophony of satellite driven nit-picking about weapons, bunkers, tents, vehicles and such wearisome detailing.
The India Today issue datelined June 08, 2020, carries more than a delicious oxymoron: what was considered Nuclear armed China-India (Chindia) Rising falling down to “clashing with clubs and stones” across portions of the 3488 km long LAC that separates the two countries; thus darkly echoing a quote often attributed to physicist Albert Einstein about how a future war would be fought. That the two nations which did $ 90 USD billion of bilateral trade of course added a key strand to the irony.
So did the expected outcome of the General Officer level border talks between the two warring nations at the Chushul/Moldo Border meeting point on June o6, 2020 whereby among chants of both sides “seeking a peaceful way out” the MEA indicated that both countries were in for a long haul before a tenuous peace can be restored across the alpine Himalayan wastes.
This, even as Lt Gen SL Narsimhan (retired), a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) remarked that “reading into the happenings of the past few days, there is a possible solution”.
Readers will of course wonder how Chindia; the clever marketing buzzword of 2008 vintage has come down to street-fighter like slugfests and stone throwing with both sides soldiers carrying weapons sheathed and with barrels pointing downward; having last fired weapons in anger 45 years ago at Tulung La in October 1975.
Both sides are reflecting a refrain which amounts to neither breakthrough or breakdown…Just “stasis in glacial progress” as it has been since November 1962 as veteran defence analyst C Uday Bhasker put it succinctly in an article datelined 08 June 2020.
A Navy veteran, Uday who heads a respected think tank, Society for Policy Studies opines that there is a need to look beyond the LAC where a grueling, grinding confrontation will stay for longer than the Doklam faceoff perhaps and take constructive action about our historical “sea blindness”. He suggests that China’s ambitions about becoming the leading super power by 2049 needs secure sea lines of communication for its vast trade and energy imports.
A Pacific Ocean power, it is at sea in the Indian Ocean which should have been an Indian Navy strength but isn’t. It is hurtful that while China has allotted 30% of its $ 180 billion defence budget ($ 54 billion), India has allotted only 14% of its $ 46 million USD to the Navy ($ 7 billion USD). By current projections, the Chinese Navy by 2030 will have 550 ships compared to an optimistic 175 ships for the Indian Navy.
Uday suggests that managing China has to be a multi-pronged approach in which development of trans-border capabilities should include all three services including the Security and Growth for all in the IOR (SAGAR) a 2015 PM Modi initiative which will have to be Navy driven and will need heavy investment in capital assets like ships/submarines/marine aircraft.
A word about Chindia is necessary here to add an uber dimension to the largely linear and jingoism led territorial dispute on both sides that has been aired on several public and social media platforms. The book Chindia Rising by Professor Jagdish Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing Goizueta Business School, Emery University, USA says that in Thomas Friedman’s words, nations that are both part of the same major global supply chain are extremely unlikely to go to war with each other.
Micheal Dell, Sheth avers, says much the same in his “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” by defining it thus: “These countries (Chindia for instance) understand the risk premium that they have and they are pretty careful to protect the risk equity they’ve built up”. For emerging China he says after many visits there he says the average Chinese has tasted economic independence, a better lifestyle and a better life for family and they don’t want to give it up.
Strategic thought leader Francis Fukuyama says that economic interdependence has largely rendered conflict counterproductive and China and India are aware of this reality.
This view may be far too liberal because China is waging war in some far from Asia Pacific to South Asia and the ongoing competition between China and India has made both nations bellicose; China leading the stakes by a length in that space as has now happened.
That said, the book concludes that with people in Chindia pre-COVID 19 finding new jobs, improving their lot in life and both rising to economic and political parity with the developed world, such progress rather than military conflict is more likely to be the new normal.
This economic pragmatism and enlightened self interest is probably what Chindia is more likely to embrace and leave the territorial and political dispute recessed for later times and opportunities, so far as China is concerned.
If we carefully read the tea leaves post the 06 June 2020 border meeting of apex Generals on either side, the careful MEA/Chinese statements as also NSAB member Gen Narsimhan’s cautious but perceptive prediction of a solution sooner rather than later, Professor Sheth’s conclusion match perfectly. There is far more space for peace rather than there is for concerted military action above unarmed combat of the jousting kind as has been on current display.
In pursuit of their national interests, nations pursue both perceptions for internal and external perception as also perception management and calibrated conflict from which disengagement is rarely lost sight of.
This is one accepted method of conveying messages/signals without losing political and operational equilibrium. Why it was important to inform readers of this fact is the reality that, post Doklam 2017, India has pleasantly surprised all its clientele within and outside India across the globe that its self image has changed irrevocably for the better.
The current border crisis despite COVID 19 limitations reinforces that cheerful impression. Besides, this remarkable turnaround has made startled, bullying China pause and rethink what it must do about its historical bellicosity against all nations posturing to compete against the Middle Kingdom’s self image of being the centre of the world. It no longer is and the COVID 19 damages have made things infinitely worse for the Dragon Kingdom.
Outside India, its grip over Hongkong; suzerainty demands over Taiwan and ability to threaten Vietnam with consequences are being openly challenged and the USA and allies, Japan and Australia are executing bold new bonds of friendship in China’s backyard that are challenging its historical and economic claims and initiatives such as modern “trade” revival of the ancient land and sea silk routes, besides being India-centric…China more than India is worried and apprehensive and that perhaps has manifested in its new adventurism across the Asia Pacific-South Asia swathe of land and sea mass.
Emerging and more self assured India clearly no longer subscribes to being overwhelmed by China post the 1967 Nathu La skirmish followed by the more successful 1987 Wangdung standoff. It has started giving as good as it gets, yet retaining the wisdom to keep all channels open for de-escalation or damage limitation and thus balance nuanced aggression with pragmatism.
A Breaking News example of this new and well-founded spirit is the statements given by two senior Ministers of the Union cabinet, both members of the Cabinet Committee on Security Members (CCS) datelined 09 June 2020 while addressing a virtual party rally.
While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated that India would not succumb to Chinese muscle flexing in the Ladakh Sector, combative Home Minister Amit Shah stated that India will make no concessions to any one at the cost of its national interest and national pride. He added that, like the USA and Israel, India too has the capability to conduct pre-emptive strikes and has demonstrated this capability against Pakistan severally.
This remark was probably provoked by the Chinese state-sponsored Global Times which released a video on June 06, 2020 showing a Chinese Airborne Brigade taking just hours to deploy from the Chinese hinterland to the ‘northwestern region (Eastern Ladakh) amid border tension’.
In a separate public statement as Defence Minister, Rajnath stated that India wanted an early resolution to the long pending border dispute with China. He added that “we never try to hurt anyone’s honour and can’t tolerate any hit to our own.” Similarly blowing hot and cold, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on 09 June 2020 described the LAC situation as “stable and controllable”.
Yet, the unspoken and practical subtext for India may well be to contemplate whether the stalled across LAC offensive Strike Corps it was raising needs revival from cold storage and its arming, fielding and readiness for employment if at all warranted. The worry that a spike in defence budget allotment to 3% of GDP from the measly 1.46% must also now be a compelling concern even in COVID 19 affected India.
We know that we are still far away from being in control when push comes to shove and, worse, if the security threat becomes double-headed and the conflict spectrum also includes Pakistan; a Chinese proxy for putting India off balance since 1963, when Pakistan illegally seceded Shaksgam Valley and its 5000 square km for petty gains. It lies across the Siachen Glacier and close to the Indian Army’s Saltoro Ridge occupation of commanding passes and heights which control access to Siachen.
Loss of this critical area hedged in by Saltoro-Siachen-DBO with the base of this strategic territory being the Galwan Valley to China or through Sino-Pak collusion will make Leh vulnerable to the extreme and practically indefensible.
It is majorly for this strategically worrying reason that this current imbroglio in Eastern Ladakh in the main (Naku La in North Sikkim, 1600 km South is just a distraction) has India discomfited.
It is the very setting where a dual front threat to India will manifest and this is worrisome as much as it is a strategic and geo-political possibility for which India has to do rather more in terms of military, political and infrastructure development to deflect/deny that eventuality, and ensure strong, well armed and supplied military forces international diplomatic and political support to cope with the fallouts of such Sino-Pak collusion.
The LAC Imbroglio
Gen Rajiv Narayanan, who heads Research in India’s No 1 Think Tank headed by Gen BK Sharma, has, in a recent peer-reviewed article, examined the LAC imbroglio at length.
He says that unlike the LC with Pakistan which is “well defined, delineated, but not demarcated (defined means point-to-point details are written, delineated means these points and the line joining them are clearly marked on large scale maps – large scale is needed to avoid ambiguity). Demarcated means this delineation is marked on the ground by surveyed and numbered boundary pillars.
He adds that, unlike the LC, the LAC, however, has different connotations across the Western (Eastern Ladakh), Central (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and Eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal) Sectors. In the Western Sector, the Indian claim line is based on the 1865 Johnson Line, claiming the whole of Aksai Chin, while the Chinese had generally accepted the 1899 Macartney-McDonald Line along the Laktsang range till East of Karakoram Pass (overlooking the area where the Chinese built the Sinkiang-Lhasa road). Post 1962, the Chinese have come further ahead.
The Central Sector, the boundary lies along the watershed with limited claims by China, while the Eastern Sector has the famous Macmahon line dividing Tibet and British India, drawn on a very small-scale map, with no clear definition, except that it follows the watershed, based on the 1914 Shimla Agreement between British India, Tibet, and China.
Post annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, it refused to accept the treaty the Qing dynasty had signed with the British India in 1914. That said, the LAC has neither been correctly defined, delineated nor demarcated, even during British India. Thus it suffers from a weakness of differing perceptions of the LAC by both India and China, leading to patrol face-offs and stand-offs like the ongoing one in Eastern Ladakh.
He states that because India has better infrastructure than China in Eastern Ladakh and operates on interior lines of operational logistics support and China has the obverse; exterior lines of communication over long distances.
India thus has the operational advantage.
COVID 19; its huge impact as a global pandemic and negative impact on China as the probable source of this misery has taken the sheen off its Belt and Road and linked multi-layered economic, social, cultural and hegemony-related initiatives, rendering them comatose and unattractive.
Another galling point is the gathering closeness between India and USA; the current sole super power and India’s increasing self confidence and operational assertiveness in re-defining J&K and aggression against Pakistan for sponsoring terror. The mix of these factors as already brought out has made the LAC a ‘Go To’ rallying place for China.
Out of 3448 km long LAC, 857 km are covered in Ladakh of which 368 km is the International Border (IB) and the remaining 489 km is the LAC. This was the line reached by China in 1962. The Himalayas/Karakorams (also called Pangong Range) extend from 14-18000 ft and are largely unoccupied.
The main defences are therefore located on the Ladakh Range, Pangong Range, along Shyok River and in the Depsang plains manned by the Army with LAC deployment by ITBP which is not continuous due to terrain constraints.
What has Happened in Eastern Ladakh/Naku La, North Sikkim
In a deeply researched article by ex DGMO and later VCOAS Gen Vijay Oberoi states that, moving from north to south, the important areas are firstly the disputed Karakoram Pass, India’s ALG at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), the 260 km long Shyok-DBO road by BRO and the Chip Chap Valley, coveted by China for various reasons.
He adds that some areas North of Pangong Tso including some areas of Galwan and Chang-Chenmo are under control of China. Thirdly the area from Lukung to Chushul covers the approaches to Leh. In the extreme south are the areas of Chumar and Demchok.
Chumar is strategically important due to its proximity to the Manali-Upshi-Leh axis and Demchok is the traditional route from Tibet to Ladakh. Not the least, the area of Naku La in North Sikkim erupted in a clash in Jan 2020 uncharacteristically erupted in physical, not weapon fired clashes.
In May 2020, these clashes started taking place and seemed coordinated and overseen by higher Chinese military control. India has responded robustly, giving a smuch a site has got. That said, the situation has nowhere got out of control. This writer will not test the patience of the readers by going into irrelevant tactical detail of each small incident often boisterously commented upon on TV and in other mass/ social media platforms but rather more soberly in print media.
Suffice it to say that the following important points emerge:
a. The Chinese presence at Galwan road construction site, south of DBO poses immense danger to not just DBO ALG but also our operational logistics and must be contested. Galwan, if held, is like a knife held at the throat of our DBO connectivity and cannot be accepted.
b. The “finger” clashes between Finger 4 and 8 on the Northern Pangong Tso banks are “no man’s land” and must revert to that status. In this connection, it is not worth spending inordinate time figuring who is in physical possession of these fingers. It is more important that the status quo be restored in April 2020.
c. The Naku La clash is a distraction and needs no further discussion.
d. We must continue our infrastructure development as planned and negate PLA efforts to deny us this right in what is clearly our territory.
China is an avowed enemy nation and is to be watched with care, perspicuity and confidence, military strength and professional skills and alertness at all levels. The possibility of collusion between China and Pakistan was the sub text of this intrusion and must dictate our responses at all levels of Governance and military responses. The country and its armed forces have conducted themselves with admirable firmness and restraint and must continue in the same vein.
At the end of October 2018, orders were issued to create Defence Cyber and Space Agencies and a Special Operations Division. The heads of these three Tri-Service organisations were posted in May 2019 and the raisings are to be completed by September 2022. This must be ensured for strategic utilization.
The need to be better prepared in terms of military strength demands immediate release of money and national will to spend it prudently and wisely. In that context, funding for suppressed military formations must be made available as also funding for stronger Services. This implies a healthy increase in defence budgeting to around 3% of GDP.
Lastly, while options for warfighting exist, it would be sensible to keep the powder dry and rely on military strength and economic astuteness to carry Chindia forward to prosperity, not mutually assured losses of an unacceptable kind delivered with fairness, respect, eternal watchfulness and territorial integrity.
(This article first appeared in 'Geopolitics Magazine' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author who is a pioneering member of MVI. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')