Developments on the border with China are taking a turn for the worst. The Indian government and army seem surprised by the vehemence of the intruding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers when asked by patrolling Indian army jawans to keep to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). That they have in the last two weeks, time and again, resorted to violence suggests this is not an outcome of local imbalance of forces, or a tense situation going akilter, as many retired Indian generals believe is the case. Alone among the major armed forces of the world, the PLA is comprehensively top-driven, with the lower field and unit commanders enjoying little discretionary power. There’s simply too much at stake for Beijing to leave it to local commanders to blunder about in what is plainly a hazardous policy terrain.
At the local level then the PLA troops are scrupulously following orders. There is little doubt their aggressive stance is prompted by the highest military authority in China — the Central Military Commission (CMC) — chaired by President Xi Jinping; this new found bellicosity as evident in eastern Ladakh as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. While exploiting the disjunctions in a COVID-19 ravaged world to advance its geopolitical goals, Beijing doesn’t want to tip the situation over into where everybody gangs up even more against it.
It is a risky exercise but Xi believes he can punish India – China’s putative rival in Asia, take it down a notch or two in the subcontinent, and show it up as a political light weight to its smaller neighbours (Pakistan, Nepal) so they can take liberties with it. For this purpose the forward-deployed PLA units are instructed to physically belabour Indian troops and otherwise raise the tension and the temperature without having these encounters spill over into uncontrollable military hostilities. Beijing is convinced it can do this at no great cost and so far it has been proved right. The Modi government seems unable to muster other than timid and confused statements in response even as Indian jawans and officers are assaulted with barbaric weapons – steel spikes-embedded batons, cantina wire wrapped rods, etc. redolent of the medieval age.
China’s belligerent reaction to the matching Indian border infrastructure build-up – far less dense than on the Chinese side, especially in eastern Ladakh, is hardly surprising and ought to have been anticipated by the Indian intelligence services and the army. It is curious the entire process of the PLA building up its encampments in the Galwan River Valley went unnoticed by any Indian agency. This doesn’t sound true because the Delhi-based Defence Image Processing and Analysis centre (DIPAC) that interprets Indian satellite-derived imagery data regularly onpasses its assessments to RAW, IB, PMO, Military Intelligence in Army HQrs, etc..
Moreover, given the sub-metre resolution cameras on Indian satellites the Chinese construction activity would have been picked up very early, perhaps, as far back as 8-10 months ago. So, how come the Indian army and Modi government were clueless?
That the PLA is sitting pretty on the Galwan and in the area between the hill features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake is in no small part because the Indian army is not proactive and did nothing as the Chinese constructed their facilities in both these locations. By controlling the foothills and the approaches to the Galwan River fronting on the newly constructed Karakorum Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang road, complete with a superbly engineered bridge over the Shyok River, for instance, the PLA now commands the heights and is in a position to interdict Indian military traffic at will.
Considering this road supplies the army’s Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier and affords the Indian army easy access to the Karakorum Pass, the first thing the army should have done after the Border Roads Organization laid down the alignment for this road some ten years back was to protect this asset by pre-emptively securing the foothills and, hence, the heights on the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers. It would have closed out PLA’s options on the Indian highway. The army blundered by not implementing so basic a precautionary military measure.
Why it didn’t do so, is one of those issues where there will be a lot of finger pointing and no accountability. But this reflects a laidback attitude of the army that conforms to the Indian government’s equally lackadaisical, historically complacent, outlook when dealing with China. This combination has allowed the PLA, post-1962 War, to affect incremental grabs of Indian territory resulting in a loss of over 60 sq kms in the Galwan Valley alone and some 1,300 sq kms in all on the LAC fin de siecle onwards. This is the Chinese policy of creeping annexation that will surreptitiously realize for Beijing its territorial claims to the fullest extent.
Based on land grabs here, feints there, the PLA periodically presents the Indian army and government with new territorial faits accomplis that go unchallenged, whence there are ever newer alignments of the LAC and reality. This has happened on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso. It suits the Xi dispensation to keep the border undefined and to string Delhi along with promises of dispute resolution in the Special Representatives forum. The perennially hopeful Indian government always falls for it and may do so again.
The brutal killings of Indian infantrymen, including a Lieutenant Colonel of the 16 Bihar Regiment on the Galwan slopes has, however, radically transformed the crisis, increased its political gravity. The Indian people will simply not be satisfied with Narendra Modi’s usual bluster – though he was quiet until last (June 17) evening when he voiced a wishy-washy commitment about responding in kind. In his televised statement the Prime Minister said India ‘will respond if it is provoked’. Not sure what he meant by ‘if it is provoked’ when the Chinese troops are already deep inside Indian territory on the LAC, have entrenched themselves there, and Beijing has declared the Galwan Valley and the area covered by Fingers 4 & 8 in the Pangong Tso region as parts of China. Is this insufficient provocation? If so, then, perhaps, the government is setting the scene for India’s acceptance of this redefined LAC with the Galwan and Pangong Tso areas that PLA has newly occupied as Chinese territory.
That said, several steps need to be taken urgently. The Indian mountain infantrymen deployed on the LAC, other than normal weapons, have to be equipped with nail-studded heavy wooded baseball bat-type weapons with standing instructions for first use against PLA troops at close quarters.
The larger, more meaningful, action that’s imperative and will have to follow is a conspicuous military operation – not some Balakot-type of secret strike with a dubious outcome.
If in 1998 the Indian army forcibly vacated the Kargil ridge overlooking the road supplying Leh of Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry troops, then why would it and the BJP government tolerate PLA’s control of the Galwan frontage imperilling the lifeline to the Siachen Glacier, Daulat Beg Oldi, and the Karakorum Pass?
To those who argue that maintaining all-year outposts on the remote Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers would be prohibitively expensive and beyond India’s capacity, they need to be reminded that the army has for 40 years sustained its presence on the Siachen glacier, which is remoter and at a much higher altitude. Manpower wise, larger numbers of army units, on rotational duty, will need to be processed through the ongoing high-altitude acclamatization programme.
Whatever its financial, political and diplomatic cost, Modi can motivate the people to bear it, because his government cannot avoid ordering such a military operation to evict the Chinese. Nothing less will do, not if the PM means to retain even a semblance of his “nationalist” credentials.
It will mean embarking on a localised limited war, and some sections of the army, albeit in a minority support this option. Should the government approve such a mission, it will have to publicly define these parameters before it gets underway just so, like Pakistan in Kargil, China is aware from the start of the Indian military’s focus and severely limited goal. By way of strategic cover for this action and to deter China from escalating this fight into something bigger – even though there’s zero possibility of this happening, India should publicize the forward deployment of Agni missiles, and alert the Arihant SSBN on patrol for possible attacks on China’s economic heart – the Shanghai coast and its immediate hinterland.
The recovery of the Galwan in particular can be preceded by a set of punitive economic measures to show India means business. One, Huawei should be banished from the telecommunications sector for security reasons. Two, extraordinary tariffs ought to be imposed on all Chinese goods without exception, justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies all exporting companies ex-China benefit from, and three, Beijing must be informed that this closing of China’s access to the Indian market can be reversed in stages depending on verifiable withdrawal of PLA from all the points where it has ingressed. The financial steps announced to-date by the government against certain Chinese companies are small time and don’t move the needle much.
It is doubtful if Delhi has the balls to do any of this. Especially because there’s no indication of Modi junking the Indian government’s historic appeasement mindset and relying on a military solution to restore the status quo ante, national self-respect and equilibrium in the relations with China.