In May and June 2020, China intruded into areas not held by either army, but within the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as perceived by India. The approximate timelines and locations of these intrusions are as under:
1st-2nd Week, May 2020
In this period China made the first incursions into the Galwan Valley and dominated the heights overlooking the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road. This eventually led to a bloody clash on the night of 15/16 June, in which 20 Indian soldiers, including the Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar, Col B Santosh Babu, laid down their lives for the country.
The Chinese casualties have not been revealed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, but as per press reports are believed to be in excess of 43 soldiers. In North Sikkim, the Chinese intruded two kms across a settled international border, at Naku La. Situation remains tense in that area. Near Kongka La, in the Chang Chenmo Valley, the Chinese intruded three kms across the LAC, and occupied positions opposite own posts at Hot Springs-Gogra.
15-18 May 2020
At Pangong Tso, the Chinese intruded across the LAC and have firmed in at Finger 4, where they have constructed concretised bunkers. Chinese defensive positions are now across Fingers 4 to 8. In violent clashes, some 70 Indian soldiers have been injured. A little South, they have built up across the Chushul-Fukche-Demchok area.
15-17 June 2020
China intruded 15 kms into the Depsang area and is occupying the area of Y Junction.
The Chinese game plan
The Chinese have also built up forces along the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. Even as the situation remains tense, statecraft demands a calibrated, cogent and coherent response from India. The immediate response of containment and build-up must be seen as only a necessity before an Indian response is unambiguously delivered. This necessitates an analysis of what China wants. Geographically, Eastern Ladakh is extremely important to Chinese geo-strategic desires for a number of reasons.
First, the region offers access to the waters of the Indus, the glacial waters of the Shakshgam Tract (ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963) and the waters of the Indus and its tributaries: the Shyok, Galwan and Chang Chenmo rivers. This water is required for its massive semi-conductor industries. A typical semiconductor manufacturing facility uses 2-4 million gallons of ultra-pure water per day. In 2015, Intel used 9 billion gallons of water. An American embargo on the export of computational chips has only made this requirement more urgent. Besides, Chinese-occupied Tibet needs drinking water, the local water sources having been contaminated by the nuclear tests at the Lop Nor site in SE Xinjiang.
Second, Eastern Ladakh provides an opportunity to shorten the loop of the BRI-CPEC sustaining Western Karakoram Highway via Kashgar and to connect a fresh alignment through the Karakoram Pass. This would save an approximately 1800 km loop through very difficult terrain.
Third, excising Siachen from India, much to the delight of Pakistan, would allow China to take over the entire North and Eastern areas of Ladakh.
Fourth, even if China’s hegemonist and neo-imperialist offensive motives are to be discounted, giving depth to the Western Highway remains a centrality.
In the new colonialism, the physical capture of territory is the last resort. Trade and other mercantile devices are preferred. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one such device, but this has been resisted by India. However, when mercantile devices are rejected, the use of force manifests, as seen in the extant case, salami slice by salami slice.
It is vital to face the reality of a Chinese lebensraum arrogated on the principles of turning China’s century of humiliation into one that underscores its revisionist assertion of sovereignty over India’s territory. China acts on its thus perceived national interest at times of international distraction; in 1962, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis and now it is the COVID-19 pandemic. In all such efforts, China follows a pre-determined plan with multi-year phases, in which phase end-states support phases that follow. An example is the assertion of sovereignty over the Galwan Valley and the occupation of Y Junction in Sub Sector North (SSN).
The Galwan Valley provides a strangle-hold over the strategic DSDBO Road, and a lifeline into SSN. Y Junction simply bottles the movement of troops eastwards and dominates the road into the Depsang area. Never does China pursue all-out war, given the threats of international opprobrium and internal dissent when the body bags are returned to parents. Thus, a nuanced less-than-open-war, a very Sun Tzu-esque “winning without fighting” option, is pursued; this is coercive diplomacy at its best.
When the fog does lift from these incidents, we are likely to find that we were gamed by the Chinese to forswear weapons, especially when within the ambit of the same agreements, troops moved with weapons albeit with ammunition pouched. China’s salami-slicing thus sets stage for a subsequent phase of lebensraum, a war won without fighting, that may occur after 6 months or several years, or whenever China perceives the world distracted and India weak.
What China wants is India’s territory. Everything else is peripheral, including India’s increasing proximity to the US, engagement with the Quad, and China-baiting over the Wuhan Virus. Forget the Indian political postulations on regaining Aksai Chin and other territory or Article 370, even though the Home Minister’s assertion of the former may well have precipitated the current imbroglio. These issues are deflective and any concessions therein will not elicit the desired status quo ante. The boycott of Chinese Apps and goods is similarly ineffective. Such actions should not be the primary response. It is not about what India has done or said; it is about what China wants.
The International view
The US sees China through the prism of its economy and its relationship with Taiwan. In support of Taiwan, Japan and the larger ASEAN grouping, the US has deployed three carrier groups in the Pacific and in the seas off Japan with a view that the Chinese should know about it. Possibly 6-8 attack submarines have also been deployed. This is conceivably the most potent anti-China force ever deployed by the US, and China’s commentary has been one of alarm.
Yet, it is a deployment only; whether the Chinese call the US’s bluff remains to be seen. If that happens, one may find the US wanting. Should India ally itself with a more formalised Quad, or a Quad that resembles NATO, the risk of having to acquiesce to US meddling in Kashmir and vis-à-vis Pakistan has to be taken on board.
At any rate, visualisation of foreign troops on Indian soil, allies or not, is anathema and politically unviable. The Japanese, Australian and ASEAN response to China is in the realm of opposition in international bodies and trade. They do not share land borders with China. However, China has salami-sliced the atolls of the South China Sea, converting them into above-water islands, and imposed their EEZ and Territorial Waters hegemony over them.
Russia, the supplier of the bulk of our military hardware and friend of old, may not have a favourable Krushchevian view of the current situation. In 1962, the Soviets, supported India despite their commitment in the Cuban-Turkish Missile Crisis, much to the anger of China. In the current dynamic, a Russia-China-Iran-Iraq axis is emerging in the Middle East, sponsored by Russia and predicated on Chinese investment in Iraq in exchange for oil. Consequently, while Russian weaponry for hard cash may certainly be available, the support may only come in form of diplomatic platitudes.
The domestic scene
Domestically, the political situation is egregious to say the least. Political proselytising and ham-handed anti-China efforts have burdened the Indian response so far. A united domestic India is a precursor to any coherent response and cannot be over-emphasised.
India needs to formulate its international and domestic response within this paradigm. India must contain, seal and subsequently threaten the lines of communication to these intrusions and build-ups, unconstrained by perceptions of the LAC and use of weapons. It is a military given and must be the initial Indian response.
General Krishnaswami Sundarji expounded border deterrence well. He identified holding forces as defensive and offensive forces as dissuasive. General Sundarji never tiptoed around the Chinese, as demonstrated by Sumdorong Chu and Operation Chequerboard. In Eastern Ladakh, it is time to bring in deterrent forces that would have the PLA worried about its depth areas instead of only the points of contact at the front. Simply bringing a significant quantum of mechanised forces into the theatre will have a major dissuasive impact.
The Government of India must choose the appropriate time, place and method to deliver a calibrated, cogent and coherent Indian response that encompasses the military, diplomatic and politico-economic spheres. Such a response must exploit Chinese weaknesses across these domains.
As a government without legitimacy, China is paranoid about its own continuance and survival. China cracked down on the Falun Gong when its membership exceeded that of the Communist Party and the movement started to wield power within the system. The formation, albeit briefly, of the East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang, has never been forgotten; even now, the ethnic change and re-education of Uyghur’s continues.
The Tiananmen Square episode is well-known, as are the recent umbrella protests in Hong Kong. The One China policy, which denies legitimacy to Taiwan, should be seen in this light. China is always very sensitive to Tibet’s autonomy; even a piece of original Tibetan Territory occupied and captured with the Tibetan National Flag would be a major embarrassment to Xi Jinping. This lack of legitimacy and fear of dissent are exploitable in the larger political-cyber response.
The Peoples Liberation Army of the Communist Party of the Peoples Republic of China is strictly an organ of the party and not the nation.
Deng Xiaoping’s reforms moved China into the super-economy league, which offered Chinese citizens a kind of social contract: enjoy the best of consumerism and prosperity, but in return, continue to surrender personal freedoms. This contract works only if the economy grows at a certain pace. Should this pace drop to a critical threshold, the grumbling would start, with Xi Jinping personally at the receiving end. Should the grumbles become rumbles, the Communist Party would see an existentialist threat. Donald Trump’s trade fulminations, attack exactly this sensitivity in China, which is why Trump’s terms are accommodated. The Chinese know that hungry people rising en masse initiate revolutions.
The Peoples Liberation Army of the Communist Party of the Peoples Republic of China is strictly an organ of the party and not the nation. Until 1962, it was manned by battle-hardened veterans of Mao’s Long March. Today’s PLA is a conscript army. Conscript armies are characterised by efficacy in set-piece plans. However, the minute the situation becomes fluid and the odds begin to mount, the efficacy reduces drastically.
Today’s conscripts are from lower middle class and rural backgrounds without access to a university education. Brought up as “little princes” in China’s one-child era, their return in funerary urns or body bags has a deleterious impact on the population. Casualties at Galwan have already caused voices to be raised and questions asked.
Militarily, the Chinese army is actually rather ordinary. Indian experiences in Cho La and Sumdorong Chu attest to this judgement. Their army is unproven in manoeuvre warfare and would possibly fare poorly, given its conscript base and inability to trust subordinates (reference embedded political commissars). China set out to teach Vietnam a lesson in 1979 and came back with a bloody nose. Only a few Chinese officers emerged from that campaign with credit. One who did, General Zhao Zongqi, now heads the Western Theatre Command against India and is very close to Xi Jinping. A ‘bloody nose’ in Ladakh would be a personal blow to Xi Jinping, and he has no dearth of detractors within his system.
Militarily, the Chinese army is actually rather ordinary. Indian experiences in Cho La and Sumdorong Chu attest to this judgement. Their army is unproven in manoeuvre warfare and would possibly fare poorly, given its conscript base and inability to trust subordinates.
A calibrated, cogent and coherent response would need to be multifaceted and long-lasting. A vital component is a military offensive fought below the all-out war threshold, with the objective of causing casualties and gaining critical territory. Such an offensive would deliver great and focused violence at the business end with a view to evict the PLA in the present and deter China in the future. Mechanised forces would be game-changers.
Economic responses would have to be deliberated upon; reducing the almost USD 60 billion trade surplus substantially without beggaring India in the process is a substantial challenge. The moot point is that India-China trade stands at approximately USD 90 billion (2019 figures), with a trade deficit of USD 53.5 billion USD.
Yet the entire sum of trade is barely 2% of China’s total trade and unlikely to have a salutary impact on its economy, even as the loss of USD 16.7 billion will seriously affect India’s exports. Besides, a number of start-ups have Chinese venture capital (Paytm, Ola and Oyo to name a few) and the impact on them would be disruptive if not adverse. Furthermore, such international dealing may well invite WTO censure with a concomitant impact on pharma (Indian pharma is entirely dependent for APIs on China), textile and other exports.
A calibrated, cogent and coherent response would need to be multifaceted and long-lasting. A vital component is a military offensive fought below the all-out war threshold, with the objective of causing casualties and gaining critical territory.
A possible way out would be to attract massive Chinese investments into India. Besides providing a handle to punish misadventures should the need arise, this approach would make the Chinese invest in India’s growth, stability and economy. FDI remains the key to economic growth at par with China.
The Government of India would need to move the investment dynamic from its current overhang of crony capitalism and small-minded policies to one that ushers in the next wave of economic reforms including improved infrastructure availability, favourable monetary terms and ending the hidden costs of doing business. Hong Kong is going under, and attracting the resulting flight of capital should be the first goal. In terms of time and political will, this is a long-term strategy that requires great finesse and dexterity. It is feasible as the military response would be less than an all-out war, while diplomatic and trade ties would continue.
In the diplomatic and cyber space, the Bamboo curtain needs to be breached and the common people of China addressed. The role of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile must be enhanced. Evocative images of Tiananmen Square, the Umbrella Revolution, and the flag of the East Turkestan Republic are tailor-made to whip up sentiment in those internal constituencies. This could be through non-state actors.
Ultimately, India must go it alone. Bullies should always be confronted with strength. India may coordinate with any multi-national formulation, but will only gain respect and success when we stand up for ourselves. China plays Go, an ancient game on a board of 64×64 squares, with the aim to occupy intersections and form a chain of coloured stones to capture maximum territory on the board. An opponent can “cut” the stones of his adversary by leaving him no place to move (a lesson to be learnt).
The West, with its Clausewitzian thought, plays chess. But in India, we play Rummy: we make little sequences of 3 cards and hope that we pull out the “pupploo” to solve our problems. It is time we stopped waiting for the pupploo and stood up for ourselves. Atma-nirbhar Bharat! That time has come.