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China-India Conflict Escalates To Cyber-Space After Indian Fight-Back

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Shonali Khandelwal & Roopa Debroy, Delhi/ Likha Yapi, Itanagar

(Chinese cyberattacks on Indian institutions have multiplied, incursions in Arunachal reported but not confirmed)

Chinese hackers of the country’s covert cyber-army mounted huge attacks on Indian institutions from earlier this week after Indian troops launched a fierce counter-action against the Chinese PLA on Monday-Tuesday night in Ladakh. 

A high alert has been sounded by the Modi government for all defence and border guard forces including the Air Force and the Navy  , both on the China and Pakistan border, as India appeared to be finally experiencing the Chinese ‘thousand cuts’ offensive .

There were apprehensions of cyber attacks of a more critical nature  and a social media offensive mounted by thousands of Chinese ‘cyber warrior’ masking their IP addresses , so that the origin of the attacks appear to be from countries like Vietnam, Japan and Australia — all India’s close friends. The Chinese are surely upset with Modi’s decision to considering blocking China in the vast Indian market and reaching out to Indian allies like the US.

Top diplomatic sources say PM Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have ruled out any Trump mediation with China and extracted through “hot-and cold back-channel negotiations” some “very definite commitment under existing security treaties ” to bolster Indian military and intelligence effort  if the Chinese were to escalate further. 

The Indian military says the “days of PLA walk-ins on the disputed border was over and a huge cost would be henceforth imposed on the Chinese” .

The mood in India has turned very hostile towards China and demonstrations have been launched against Chinese diplomatic missions , including one in Calcutta where Chinese diplomats were seen pulling down and folding up the Chinese flag to avoid trouble.

The cyber-war though is clearly escalating. Easternlink’s website has suffered two such attacks , apparently originating from Vietnam and Japan but its firewall has successfully blocked it so far. This after huge exposes of China’s coronavirus related fiascos and concealed virus related deaths .

Easternlink’s technical director Rishabh Srivastava said they have been warned of possible Chinese counter-measures by Indian security agencies.  “The attack originating from Vietnam had tell-tale hallmark of a Chinese virus attack (not corona) with masked IP. Our site has carried very positive stories on Vietnam by our contributor Cat Hoang Anh, so no reason why our Vietnamese friends should attack us .

” This time, we have something in our firewall which will not only block the attack but send back a deadly worm to the origin computer and take down his or her system. This is an experimental offensive defence anti-virus done by us ,but I think it will work. Our boys run Silicon Valley , so we should not taken lightly by the Chinese.”

A large number of banks, think-tanks, government websites and those belonging to media outlets critical of  Chinese have been taken down in the last two days. Easternlink has learnt that the attacks were multiplying.

A Chinese internet security firm had recently alleged that Indian hackers have targeted local hospitals and medical research institutions amid the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak in the country.

The Chinese tech security company 360 Security Technology told the nationalistic tabloid Global Times that they have evidence that India-based hackers attacked medical organisations through a “phishing scheme” sent by email.

The company didn’t share the evidence or specific examples of the attack.

“Cases have shown that an Advance Persistent Threat (APT) from India is trying to attack Chinese medical organisations through a phishing scheme sent by email,” the company said.

But military analysts and China-watchers say the cyber raids in the last two days followed the angry exchanges between Indian and Chinese ‘net warriors’ who attacked each other over social media ,as their soldiers were involved in a savage hand-to-hand combat lasting for more than 3 hours.

On June 17, a UK-based news platform Epistle News published a report that claimed India has captured the Chinese side of Pangong Lake for the first time since 1962. The article is no longer accessible on the website. However, the tweet (archive link) posted by Epistle News Twitter account shows such an article was indeed published but the site was taken down in a suspected Chinese cyber attack. Fact-checkers say the news was false and could have been engineered by the website run by some enthusiastic overseas Indian ‘cyber warriors’. As was the Whatsapp circulated list of 30 names of Chinese soldiers who had died in Ladakh during the Monday-Tuesday hand-to-hand combat.

Prashant Patel Umrao similarly tweeted, “According to a report, Bharat has captured the Chinese side of Pangong Lake- a region that was taken under china’s control post the 1962 war.” His tweet has been retweeted over 5,000 times (archive link). Umrao has often been found sharing misinformation on social media.

Ashish Pandey, member of Uttar Pradesh chief minister social media hub tweeted an identical tweet as Umrao’s (archive link). Vibhor Anand posted a similar tweet. He wrote, “Big and Confirmed: #IndiaChinaFaceOff Indian Forces have captured the Chinese side of Pangong Lake codenamed Finger 8.” Anand’s tweet gained over 1,000 retweets (archive link).

More than 40 PLA soldiers died as Indian soldiers, hungry for revenge after the massacre of  nearly 35 of their stick-and-rod wielding comrades, stormed two Chinese encampments on lower reaches , slicing and slashing the inmates .  The attack came just after midnight in pitch dark and bad weather on orders of senior commanders who were keen not to take the Chinese ‘treachorous attack’ lying down. 

The Chinese, who had suffered only a few wounded but no death casualties injuries in the first round of the combat that began with PLA attacks on Indian ‘verification patrols’ of 16th Bihar regiment, had expected the badly-mauled regiment to lick their wounds for a while and not anticipated such a swift counter-attack.

As the two Chinese encampments suffered nearly 100 percent casualties, at least 29 (according to Indian sources), a vicious landslide buried a Chinese foothill camp with about 20-25 armed soldiers in it. 

The Chinese blamed this on Indian border roads engineers setting off explosives at the top of the hill that send huge boulders rushing down . 

The Indians say landslides are common in the Ladakh and other Himalayan terrain specially where deforestation is rampant and attribute the Chinese casualties in the landslide to the ‘Hand of God’ .   

The Chinese anger at such a merciless and swift response was reflected next day in the scheduled Major General talks ( that had been fixed to review the pullbacks on the basis of the June 6th agreement). 

The Chinese delegation promptly laid claim to  the whole of the Galwan valley for the first time in that meeting , compelling the Indians to rubbish the claim.

“The Galwan post was the first to be overrun in the 1962 war, if this territory is theirs , why did they withdraw,” said a senior Indian officer in Delhi. 

The Chinese anger also showed in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s interaction with his Indian counterpart S Jaishanker when he especially called for ‘a probe into the conduct of Indian troops for crossing the LAC and to severely punish those responsible.’ Wang was clearly bitching over the fierce counter-attack, which put an end to a month of defensive Indian military posturing due to constant pressure from Delhi to not escalate the issue.

“This is a strange contradiction which has weakened the Indian response and which has been caused by lack of coordination between the political, military and diplomatic leadership . If a minister provokes the Chinese by threatening a take-back operation against Aksai Chin, the army should then not be held back by fears of escalation but should be allowed to undertake tough area and psychological domination to keep the angry Chinese at bay. I urge an end to this jumlabazi by responsible minister , we cannot afford this with China,” said Gaganjit Singh,former Mountain Division commander and retired deputy chief of India’s Defense Intelligence Agency.  

Other senior former commanders like Lt Gen H S Panag ad Lt Gen John Ranjan Mukherjee have echoed similar views.

“In my long experience with the Chinese, I know for a fact that the Chinese stir up the border when they are politically unhappy. More often, the orders come from the top rather than some local commander reacting harshly.” said Mukherjee, a former chief of staff of India’s Eastern Army who had also commanded the 15th Corps in Kashmir.

The Galwan sector has been least contested as the two claim-lines here had matched until Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s threat to reconquer Pakistan Kashmir and Aksai Chin (” We are prepared to give our lives for bringing these areas back to India as they are inseparable part of Kashmir”) provoked multiple Chinese intrusions once the snow melted this summer. 

Galwan is seen by the Chinese as both a staging post if the Indians start an offensive operation against Aksai Chin , through which strategic Xinjiang-Tibet highway connecting two of China’s most restive provinces pass, and also the key to an offensive the Indians might launch on the CPEC highway on Karakorum pass connecting Xinjiang to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

“We are expanding our defence infrastructure in Ladakh to make our positions more defensible but after chest-thumping speeches, they may feel we are developing these to take back Aksai Chin , the usual snake-and-man problem where the reptile attacks because it feels threatened and man does that as well,” said Gaganjit Singh.

Meanwhile, the BJP MP from Arunachal East, Tapir Gao, has claimed that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been regularly patrolling inside Arunachal Pradesh, posing a great threat to India.

Gao said it is time for action on the border to uphold integrity and security of the country. “The Chinese are still active along the international border and the government of India should be ready for any kind of eventualities not only in Arunachal Pradesh but even in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand,” Gao told local media in Arunachal capital Itanagar.

The MP said he had been raising the issue of PLA patrols in Arunachal Pradesh in Parliament too. “They have been patrolling inside Arunachal Pradesh daily. Last year, the Chinese army had intruded into Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district too. This is a cause of concern for the security of the country,” he said.

“In 2017, China constructed a road inside the Indian territory in the Upper Siang district. It was later blocked by the Indian Army. Over a period of time since 1962, China has been following its policy of expanding its territory and has occupied a number of areas and even today they continue to patrol in several others,” Gao claimed.

In September last year too, Gao had raised issues related to Chinese intrusions, claiming that the PLA entered Arunachal Pradesh’s remote Anjaw district and constructed a bridge over a stream.

Local villagers in Longju, Asaphila and Beesa say the Chinese have occupied Indian posts on the claim line without any visible effort by the Indian army to take them back or at least raise a stink.

“I know for the fact we have had this problem of Chinese periodic intrusion into Asaphila but why we cede ground if the villagers are saying the truth. Like in Ladakh, someone was sleeping here in AP as well,” said Gaganjit Singh. 

(Rewritten by Easternlink Editorial Director Subir Bhaumik)

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