The recent tensions between China and India, along our northern borders, have been unprecedented as per our military strategists and those who have served in the border areas. While Indian and Chinese troops have clashed with each other many times over the past 60 years, this particular level or state has never been reached. What was earlier known and countered were routine skirmishes amongst the local troops operating in the area. Strangely, there have been occasions when one of the parties has encroached while the other was “not looking”, spent some time in the neglected area and returned, leaving tell-tale signs of their incursion, but these have been considered routine and “part of the game”.
So, the present escalation of the situation on the border, with tensions rising to levels not seen in half a century, merits a second thought and definitely, action.
China’s moves and the worry lines
The stand-off differs from those in the past in many ways. Prominent to the layman and the civilian population is the simultaneous infringement over a vast expanse of the border, unlike the earlier cases which were geographically localised and affected just that part of the India-China border. During these instances of Chinese incursion attempts, other areas of the possible contest were never disturbed and the finalisation of the solution remained isolated from the rest of the border.
To the military man and the strategist, the present sneaking but rather bold presence conveys a deeper meaning and have ominous portents. Those who have indulged in analyses and assessments of military manoeuvres or ‘appreciations’ as they are known, will immediately notice the strategic impact of the present stand-off and its possible direction or intention.
To the military man and the strategist, the present sneaking but rather bold presence conveys a deeper meaning and have ominous portents.
The timing of the occurrence lends its antecedents to factors that are an interplay between geo-strategy, geopolitics and lastly, local politics and dissension which is seen to be creating some ripples within the polity of China. There is a lot of pressure on China on various fronts and they have appeared simultaneously, to compound the effect. The trigger or the focal issue emanated from the spread of the Corona virus which originated in Wuhan, located in the Hubei province of China. The demonic spread of this pandemic has brought the world to its knees, crippling the economies and destabilising medical support structures.
Furious at the fact that China, where the virus originated, seems to have recovered adequately after containing the spread, to continue its progress and put its economy back on the rails, many countries have vowed revenge, threatening to discontinue trade and business ties with the largest market provider in the world.
The USA has taken great umbrage and has threatened China, with a possible military intervention of some kind. Consequently, US pressure in the South China Sea has picked up prominence and the promise of increasing support to Taiwan has upped the ante and exacerbated the situation in the region.
The pandemic has also vastly curtailed the flow of business, commerce and trade which was contributing handsomely to China’s flourishing growth rate and which now, in reverse, threatens to deplete its resources and affect its industries and their output capacity. The growing Indo-US strategic friendship and the creation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology is seen as a threat to China’s domination in the region. The possibility of the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) morphing into something more, say an alliance, in the future, will not only change the geopolitics of the area but the impact on the geo-strategy of the region and the resultant power play.
But perhaps the cause or necessity for worry is the internal dynamics of the PRC which seems to be feeling some ripples of discontent. While the ability of the Chinese to hide their problems from the public eye are well known, there are strong rumours about some sort of turbulence in the local political firmament. Internal problems are always a cause for concern for any country but more so in the case of dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. While the culminating device will be to crush the dissent (if there be one) by the harshest actions, the system will initially try and divert the attention of the population through other means.
The Indian pressure
One of these avenues was provided by India and the government of Prime Minister Modi, to be precise. The abrogation of Article 370 and the resultant creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh disturbed the status quo in the northern regions of India, especially for Pakistan and China. India, maintaining the pressure, once again categorically stated that Gilgit-Baltistan and Mirpur-Muzaffarabad, which are in illegal occupation of Pakistan and the Aksai Chin, which is in illegal occupation of China are integral parts of India. While this was simply stating the obvious, it has not been taken kindly by China, who has felt the need to emphasise its territorial imperiousness over Aksai Chin and, in fact, all along the border / LAC with India.
The rhetoric and clamour among the public that it is time India reclaimed its right over these territories has apparently touched a strategic raw nerve, because China’s BRI project, along with its tentacle, the CPEC, is of immense strategic value to China. The security of this major logistic conjugate or interconnect becomes vital in their greater economic construct. A resurgent and powerful India in the vicinity is not desirable to China.
The combination of the trials and tribulations faced by China and especially the internal political issues have led them to vent their frustration and deflect attention from their problems by publicly flaunting a military escalation and show of force against India. This was not only to put pressure on India at a time when the country and its economy are reeling under the Corona virus pandemic, but it was intended to also send a strong message to the Indian govt against its designs on reclaiming Aksai Chin.
A simple but necessary method is for bureaucrats and politicians to attend select Think Tank seminars and pay due regard to strategy issues, for these decision-makers to enlarge their vision and concern for the security of the nation.
The whole exercise is intimidation, in the classic sense. China’s hegemonistic schemes and the urge to become a major world power, eclipsing the USA and Russia, have a far-sighted blueprint and do not necessarily follow a stated timeline. Such far-sightedness does not cater to an individual or even a govt in power. Rather, it is ingrained in their psyche and historical vision for global dominance, which could stretch for a century or more. To my mind, this escalation on India’s borders is part of a larger canvas, one that will not be lost sight of, even if a de-escalation of some form is reached.
The desperate move of Indian Army troops to the northern borders is indicative of a sense of urgency to curb or control a situation, which could become a crisis. These urgency states are not reached if there is adequate information and intelligence to indicate that enemy troop build-up is taking place which has disturbed the existing status quo and a suitable buffer must be available to offset the situation.
Also, reports that the incursion by the Chinese has had some disturbing facets like grossly overstepping the LAC and patrolling zones without any signs of rolling back and the evidently larger than the usual number of troops accompanied by armoured vehicles, indicate there has definitely been an intelligence failure of a major dimension.
The bigger picture
While this will be investigated and the failure appropriately addressed, there is a need to look at the bigger picture. Chinese troops, backed by more than normal support systems and infrastructure, have transgressed in the ‘Fingers’ region north of Pangong Tso and have not only entered the Galwan valley but have occupied the high ground around the Galwan river and its confluence with the Shyok river.
This is indeed a matter of concern as in the immediate proximity lies the all-important Darbuk-Shyok bridge and thereafter runs the road connecting Shyok village to the IAF airfield at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), a motorable road painstakingly built over 200 kms, to allow logistics supplies to reach DBO by truck transport and cut down the surface travel time for the Indian soldiers which used to take more than 20 days by foot. The road holds immense strategic importance for India, as does DBO which, located within 10 miles of the LAC, poses a potential threat to China’s Karakoram highway and its connection to the CPEC.
We have promised ourselves that 1962 will never be repeated. We must acquit ourselves accordingly, face the possibilities and equip and train for any eventuality that may have telling consequences.
There is little doubt that China will instigate and support Pakistan in increasing its proxy war and escalating the insurgency in Kashmir to keep the Indian Army preoccupied. They will, in all likelihood, also get Pakistan to enhance their military presence in POK in a posture of military threat against India. A combination of terrorist insurgency backed by Pakistan military eating away at India like cancer and Chinese domination at Aksai Chin with a possibility of disabling DBO for Indian forces, the jewel in India’s crown, or the Kohinoor, which is Kashmir, is evidently being targeted for decapitation.
This will not happen now or in the near future, but China’s long-term intentions must be deeply analysed. While one may dispel such possibilities as fiction, addressing this concern may be worthwhile in the long-term strategic perspective. We have promised ourselves that 1962 will never be repeated. We must acquit ourselves accordingly, face the possibilities and equip and train for any eventuality that may have telling consequences. We must seriously ask ourselves, “Is the Kohinoor at Risk?” in the (not too) distant future?
For too long we have neglected our infrastructure development and build up along our northern borders. While we speak and write about a National Security Strategy, the lack of such a document will invariably offer a myopic view and dispel the bigger picture, precipitating knee-jerk reactions. Budgetary allotment and direction for national security must go hand in hand and must form an intrinsic part of any perspective planning.
A simple but necessary method is for bureaucrats and politicians to attend select Think Tank seminars and pay due regard to strategy issues, for these decision-makers to enlarge their vision and concern for the security of the nation. The govt may control the purse-strings but at the same time, the govt is responsible to the state for the inadequacies that may confront those who secure the borders.
The Indian armed forces are a well-trained and motivated defence for the nation but remain shackled in a political mindset of ‘peace will prevail’. This has long been the attitude with consequences that have not escaped notice. This stance invariably allows for detractors to act with impunity and take liberal chances.
Territorial sovereignty cannot be compromised in the light of such dogma. ‘Offensive Defence’ is a term-long established; the present conflagration offers the ideal situation to put it into effect. Here is an opportunity to put in weapons that ‘mean business’, have the IAF patrol the area, execute extensive surveillance with the prolific use of UAVs and possibly bring in the Navy Marcos in the large Pangong Tso, with suitable watercraft.
Denial has to be absolute.