The Chinese Challenge

With the crisis in Ladakh, the armed forces need to snap out of Pakistan-centric proxy war mindset and look at China.

The Chinese Challenge

Only if there are battles, there are opportunities. Do these startling words from a President Xi Jinping’s interview in summer 2000 when he was aged 47 and governor in the Fujian Province give the reader an authentic and unfiltered picture of the man who is now the undisputed Supreme Leader of China?

Do they indicate that China has learnt no lessons from the past? Do they indicate that China is involved in strategic overreach, this time with India as its objective? Do the words indicate that China’s Middle Kingdom phobia continues to be reflected in its brazen territorial aggrandisement and aggressive diplomacy?

“Only if there are battles, there are opportunities” -Xi Jinping-

More importantly, after seeing India unexpectedly and boldly stand up to its coercive forward push, do they indicate that a humiliated China is biding its time and spoiling for a fight? Another question demands an answer. Will a future Sino-Indian war be a machine Artificial Intelligence (AI) led instead of manpower led? These grim possibilities need exploration even as the two antagonists were locked in an alpine dance of death with global fallouts for the first time since Tulung La 45 years ago.

In 1979, the then Chinese vice premier, Deng Xiaoping, had complained to US President Jimmy Carter just before China’s ill-fated intrusion into Vietnam: “The little child is getting naughty; it is time he got spanked.” As it transpired, the battle-hardened Vietnamese imposed severe humiliation on the PLA besides exposing their glaring weaknesses in conducting mechanised warfare in hilly terrain… this, despite facing numerically weaker forces equipped with vintage warfighting equipment. The Vietnamese Border Guards routed the frontline PLA soldiery despite suffering heavy casualties themselves.

Deng Xiaoping, had complained to US President Jimmy Carter just before China’s ill-fated intrusion into Vietnam: “The little child is getting naughty; it is time he got spanked.”

Before we proceed further, a word of caution here... emerging expert opinion appears to suggest that the PLA is evolving rapidly and, within a few years—a decade at the outset—will emerge as an Artificial Intelligence (AI) led force where machines of varying AI capability will engage in effective combat fighting and correspondingly reduce PLA’s dependence on human resources.

While there is merit in this supposition because China is the AI world leader with even the United States struggling to catch up, current opinion maintains that transition from the man-machine interface to machine-man interface will take time. Therefore, what remains important is how effective is the PLA in its current configuration and whether it feels confident to take India on any which way and drive home its strategic intent, given its historic predilection of teaching its opponents lessons.

The PLA is investing heavily in its AI and Cyber capabilities; Representational Image

To examine if China is investing in a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in AI-led warfighting where machines will increasingly command/control battle space, let us briefly scan where China is 41 years after Vietnam taught China lessons in traditional warfighting.

Let us accept ab initio that China’s situation is starkly different today. Even as the quality of soldiery remains ambiguous, President Xi Jinping has recently assumed the supreme leader's role; this happened after Xi claimed success against Covid-19 in April 2020; after that proceeded to destroy any vestige of opposition against him. The 15 July 2020 issue of the Chinese Communist Party journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) validated his Supreme Leader position by demanding unstinting loyalty by all for life for him by name.

In his little-known summer 2000 interview titled ‘Xi Jinping: My road into politics’ to the Editor of the Chinese magazine Zhonghua Ernü, Yang Xiaohuai and published by the Danish newspaper Politiken and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Dutch and English on 28 October 2012 (translation by Sinologists Carsten Boyer Thøgersen and Susanne Posborg), readers get an open, unfiltered view of China’s supreme leader.

Twenty years back, Xi had emphasised persistence, patience; a strong self-belief, focus and steely resolve to achieve his long-term goal, which we now know is celebrating the 21stcentury as China’s century. He said: “If you want to become a General you must be able to win a battle... Only if there are battles, there are opportunities. One can say that only if a chance should arise, and, one makes use of it right away, one will succeed." Read bluntly; Xi implied decisive forward movement in all he has undertaken.

“If you want to become a General you must be able to win a battle... Only if there are battles, there are opportunities. One can say that only if a chance should arise, and, one makes use of it right away, one will succeed." -Xi Jimping-

In the case of India, analysts surmise that Xi saw his ‘battle’ chance when the black swan of Covid-19 hit the world (the jury is still out whether it is Wuhan created or human error), Xi saw an opportunity and acted swiftly in his aggressive Taiwan posturing; Hong Kong; the South China Sea claims and certainly in Bhutan and India.

With India distracted in coping with Covid-19 and its defence forces perhaps momentarily off-balance in coping with strange new challenges that were emerging beyond its Pakistan/LC obsession, the Chinese President—also C-in-C military forces—ordered creeping forward by the PLA to the 1959 LAC positions under the deceptive ploy of conducting scheduled military exercises in Tibetan highlands till a startled India reacted and brought that PLA territorial aggrandisement to a halt.

Commencing May 2020, intense Indian reactions at Pangong Tso, in North Sikkim and then at Galwan on night 15/16 June 2020 gave the PLA a bloody nose. Primitive spiked-club assaults were responded in kind with value-added and reported worldwide as a pronounced Chinese loss of face. Later, on 29-30 August 2020, two unprecedented tactical actions by Indian troops numbed the aggro-led, bullying and overconfident, mindset-ridden PLA.

The Indians, using refined alpine mountain skills occupied the lofty Pangong Range heights of Fingers 3 and 4 on the north bank of Pangong Tso—thereby overlooking all Chinese north bank deployments till Finger 8. This bold move neutralised the Chinese advantage gained in April-May 2020 over which Indian media/think-tanks had expressed much angst.

Combine this unexpected Indian move with the out-of-the-box coup by India’s intrepid Vikas troops (SFF) comprising primarily Tibetan refugee soldiers under the ministry of home affairs (MHA) who equally suddenly and within the same time-slot, occupied critical heights on the Pangong south bank and you realise that the PLA was sufficiently rattled to remove Gen. Zhao Zongqi, commander Western Theatre Command (WTC) responsible for the Sino-Indian border since 2016 (some reports suggest superannuation).

This occupation of dominant hill features of the end part of the Karakoram Ranges (wrongly termed Kailas Ranges in much of media/think-tank reportage) has ensured that the IA has secured the operationally significant Spanggur Gap; given depth to Chushul ALG and provided domination of key Chinese logistics/communication hub in Moldo/Spanggur Tso area.

Hence, the Chinese have been bested in these areas, with most of their ‘creeping forward’ undone by India that has done a ‘Vietnam’ to the PLA, putting it on a backfoot. Our Depsang stance, of course, remains an unaddressed eyesore.

S.F.F. emblem; File Photo

Analysts would be quick to note that the confrontation has so far been lowkey and is largely man-machine driven, not the other way around. We need to scan the past, examine the current impasse and make rational projections on what may happen on a pragmatic timeline.

Most importantly, we need to figure out whether battle-hardened men will continue to be very important; soldiers who are sufficiently savvy to put machines to practical use in a hostile alpine environment. The obverse needs examination for China; whether the stage has come for the PLA to increasingly get machines to fight their wars with their men receding into the battlespace hinterland. Let us start without ado.

"Analysts would be quick to note that the confrontation has so far been low-key and is largely man-machine driven, not the other way around."

Background and Current Situation

China and India have three sectors along the LAC: the Eastern (90,000sqkm in Arunachal), the Middle (near Nepal), and the Western (33,000sqkm in Aksai Chin/Ladakh) with the dispute commencing from the time since the countries became independent. Tawang in the Eastern Sector is the 6th Dalai Lama’s birthplace, and China feels that accepting Indian sovereignty over it will impact its Tibet control adversely.

The Middle Sector has China-influenced Nepal proximal to it increasingly. The G219 National Highway links restive Xinjiang to Tibet, and hence Aksai Chin has critical importance besides allowing for Pak-Chinese collusion including trade and commerce through Pakistan. Whereas the Eastern Sector has always had troops handling defences on both sides, this was not the case in the Western Sector due to inhospitable terrain conditions; this is one reason why the current standoff is mainly restricted to the Ladakh region.

Commencing 5 May 2020, physical altercations resulted in the Parking area, followed by a North Sikkim standoff and talks to manage the conflict at Chushul/ Moldo and after that the Galway standoff on night 15/16 June involving 16 Bihar with severe casualties on both sides.

As explained above, the hardening of the Indian stand both on the ground as well as politically and diplomatically has resulted in start-stop talks as well as the unexpected Indian tactical initiative, in the end, August 2020 which largely negated the Chinese ‘first mover’ advantages and resulted in massive force escalation on both sides.

The occupation of Gurung Hill, Black Rock, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La, Rechin La heights (Black Rock, Mukhpari and Rechin La were ironically left unoccupied in October 1962) on the southern bank by the Vikas and other troops, coupled with the Indians scaling the dominating north bank heights has taught China lessons of the kind that Wangdung produced in 1987; made them shell-shocked.

The psychological shock of seeing Indian tanks confronting lighter armed Chinese tanks in the Spanggur Gap area dominated by these heights amounted to severe psychological dislocation in a tempo hitherto never displayed by India in past confrontations.

Talks have followed in the period after that with no hope of results even when 50,000 troops on each side have deployed to last out the winter. The opposing forces are currently in stasis in freezing alpine conditions during which serious warfighting is considered a remote possibility.

It is more likely that the casualties that now occur will be attributable to logistics and human inability to withstand temperatures ranging from near sub-zero to -40 degrees C more than to skirmishes. Human attrition could rise to 15-20 per cent because of deployments in super high altitude by a large proportion of troops for whom the comfort of heated huts, barracks is not available.

For India, the standard need for daily maintenance of troops in the Ladakh area has gone up over 50 per cent from 2,000 tons less ammunition to well over 3,000 tons. The air bridge is now supported by the road connectivity along the tenuous Manali-Atal Tunnel-Leh route, but the challenges are enormous.

Storage of supplies including fuel and ammunition underground, repair and maintenance often in open spaces, medicare and availability of beds, medical staff and life-saving equipment, will all pose problems and communications and maintenance. Casualty evacuation from forwarding areas and psychological issues with troops in such desolate, remote area deployment; their rest, relief and turnaround all pose huge problems which are now being ironed out.

Chinese Calculations Behind the Standoff

While no black-and-white answers are available, the Chinese find India unimpressed by recent Chinese rhetoric and duplicity and more than willing to call its bluff. India has got closer to USA co-terminus with severe deterioration of Sino-US relations. China feels that India has exploited its Covid-19 vulnerability by hastening its LAC hinged infrastructure in areas China considers disputed.

China feels India is unreliable; this being a 1950’s hangover when Chou En-Lai offered an exchange solution for the border issue which Nehru summarily rejected. Under it, India would have got eastern sovereignty for giving up its Aksai Chin claims.

China sees the conversion of Ladakh into a UT as another indication of an Indian agenda to negate Chinese claims. Therefore, it is keen to creep forward to its 1959 LAC alignment even as it claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh since 2006. China hopes these moves will drive India to take a conciliatory position and negotiate on Chinese terms. For the present, it seems clear to China that the LAC cannot be negotiated as the opposing views cannot be reconciled. The ambiguity suits China as it puts India under colossal pressure.

Holding ground; Artist's Rendition

Meanwhile, it will prevent Indian LAC infrastructure from coming up to the extent it can while seriously examining the possibility of orchestrating a battle on its chosen timeline and ground to teach India another lesson after 1962. The new Commander WTC, Gen. Zhang Xudong, a mechanised warfare expert and Vietnam War veteran was handpicked on 18 December 2020 by Chairman Central Military Commission (CWC), Xi Jinping.

Here it is worth noting what Xi said about selecting commanders in his 2000 interview: ‘When you are to choose a person you must also see it in connection with the time, place, other colleagues and the situation in general.’ As Theatre Commander, Zhang will report directly to CWC. With assured three-to-four-year tenure, he can be expected to get thoroughly familiarised in this winter period and boldly execute Jinping's LAC strategy.

The Indian Outlook Thus Far

Starting late during which period some Chinese ‘territorial creep’ went uncontested, India caught up rapidly and as on date, has given as got as it got; perhaps rather more as has been amply described. It has also involved in psychological dislocation of the PLA and done it as a planned tactical and operational level activity.

Here it is worth pointing out that Lt Gen. PGK Menon, the new 14 Corps GOC responsible for the Ladakh area is a hands-on, brilliant field soldier whom this writer had assessed in war command in J&K as a CO. His army commander Lt Gen. Y Joshi was the war decorated CO under whom two PVCs were awarded during the Kargil War. We need to be quietly proud.

In all fairness, we must accept that its intelligence collection, collation and deductions about enemy aim at local, operational and strategic levels needs to be taken to the next level at the unit, formation, inter-Service and centralised Intelligence agencies/MoD/ISRO/DIPAC levels. The Chinese are expert in deception and disinformation; hence we must negate their efforts and improve ourselves. The recent news that China has gifted 50 Loong II armed drones to Pakistan can be seen in that light.

There is an overall need to ensure that the armed forces snap out of Pakistan-centric proxy war mindsets and look at collusion and China far more than Pakistan. Lastly, we have severe operational deficiencies, including reserve stocking and these need prioritised attention.

"There is an overall need to ensure that the armed forces snap out of Pakistan-centric proxy war mindsets and look at collusion and China far more than Pakistan."

Multi-Domain War: Will China Exercise This Option?

The Chinese ascendency in AI and its planned modernisation over the last decade has given rise to the belief that, should war break out on the Tibetan Highlands, China will likely choose a timeline, say a few years hence when machines using the Internet of Things (IoT) will lead the war with PLA soldiers doing their remote handling.

Editor FORCE, Pravin Sawhney has researched this possibility at length and makes a case for taking this possibility seriously. The Indian armed forces he feels still have the soldier in the lead in recent modernisation plans. In contrast, China is shifting focus from exclusive physical battlefields (where the Indians are superior) to looking beyond land, sea and air battlespaces and including the virtual battlefields of Cyber, Space and the Electro-Magnetic.

In this context, they have created a Strategic Special Force and a Rocket Force both reporting to CWC and both with non-contact modes. He suggests a 2023 timeline when China fields an AI version where the machine-man interface allows machines to take situation driven decisions and alter plans with the human enabled to call off the mission.

Pravin and an increasing band of defence analysts suggest a mid-course correction for India to give a fillip to its efforts in this field and streamline their coming on line, command, control and induction into service so that we are prepared for fighting and winning such a war.

However, this writer thinks that the man-machine (as opposed to the machine man) interface will be dominant for the next few years. We need to further develop our skills in this genre, even as our virtual capabilities are streamlined and made available to us.

(Maj Gen. Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM is a highly distinguished flag officer and a renowned defence and strategic affairs columnist with the ‘FORCE’ and ‘Geopolitics’ magazine. He retired in June 2006 as the raising Chief of Staff of a Corps and has commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in the Valley, an Armoured Brigade in the desert, an Infantry Division on the Line of Control in Kashmir and served as COS 15 Corps following which he served as COS 9 Corps. He has also served in the Army Headquarters in the Military Operations Directorate and has also been Instructor at the NDA and DSSC. Post retirement, he has taken up writing and teaching the young as a serious preoccupation.

He has, since 2006, edited three multi-volume books on Nuclear Non-proliferation, Ballistic Missile Defence Non-Proliferation and on Terrorism Laws. In January 2010, his book on the Sri Lanka War, Lost Victory came out. Gen Mehta is also a 'museum maker' heading 'Sarthi Museum Consultants' a company credited with the creation of the Punjab War Museum in Amritsar and the Madras Regiment Museum. This article was first published in Force magazine and has been reproduced with due permission of the author in the larger interest of the Armed Forces Fraternity.)

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