Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 11, 2022 Updated 9 Days ago
The lack of accountability and consensus on key foreign policy and national security matters has set India on a back foot in its conduct of the Sino-India border issue
China is yet to restore status quo ante on the India-China border

A year after India and China’s decision for a mutually agreed withdrawal from the Kailash Range, which India occupied in late August, 2020 and China’s occupation of the ‘fingers’ area on Pangong Tso signalled a shift in de-escalating a crisis that began in May 2020, with China’s seizure of Indian-claimed territory in Eastern Ladakh. Later in early August 2021, India and China completed disengagement from Gogra. The fingers area and Gogra are the only two areas amongst the five pieces of territory that China occupied in May 2020, where disengagement has occurred. China is still in possession of Depsang, Demchok, and Hot Springs. Some prominent analysis has focused on the failure of the Modi government’s China policy, because of its incapacity to get the Chinese to vacate the remaining areas under their control. This is generally accurate and fair. Having secured a Chinese withdrawal from the Pang Tso and Gogra, it has had no success in getting the Chinese to withdraw from the remaining areas. China has since built up considerable military strength and infrastructure opposite Depsang and Demchok. Dislodging those positions by force is a near impossibility now.

However, one of the glaring lapses from the Modi government is its inability or refusal to take any responsibility for the Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) seizure of Indian-claimed territory. Having completely rejected that the Chinese are in occupation of Indian-claimed territory, the government has washed itself and the Indian Army (IA) of any accountability. At the time of the intrusions and subsequent occupation of key areas along the Line of Actual Control (LaC), the Corps Commander and his Deputy of the “Fire and Fury” 14 Corps, which has operational authority in Ladakh, Kargil, and Siachen, should have been eased out of their positions or relieved of command. No top civilian officials within the Cabinet have lost their positions either. Indeed, Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement that India will take back Aksai Chin, which is under Chinese control partly explains the current denouement facing India. Beyond the single instance when New Delhi decided to tactically escalate against Chinese by seizing the heights on the Kailash Range, the government has primarily approached the crisis diplomatically, forsaking tactical offensives and pursuing defensive military preparations against Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) massive military and infrastructure build-up along the Sino-Indian frontier.

An additional challenge facing the India’s foreign policy and defence strategy is consensus over the role of force.

On the other hand, an additional challenge facing the India’s foreign policy and defence strategy is consensus over the role of force. Although the Modi government has much to answer regarding its handling of India’s China policy, the critics of the Modi government has accused it of undermining consensus on the use of force. Take for instance, the IA’s seizure of Rezang La and Rechin La on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso, allowing the IA a tactical advantage. The Tibetan Special Frontier Force (SFF) was used in the operation. Critics upbraided the government for using the SFF for the execution of the mission for domestic political gain. Regardless of the extent to which the Modi government derived mileage out of the use of the SFF, it is unclear why critics only chose to emphasise and critique this dimension of the Modi governments’ conduct, when these same critics recommended resorting to tactical escalation where India held advantages against the PRC in the event the Chinese attacked and occupied Indian-claimed territory along the LaC in a quest to secure a quid pro quo. Quid pro quo is what Modi government secured last February.

Indeed, this is precisely where the critics of the Modi government tend to falter. Criticism of the government’s tactical escalation along the LaC is not new, it was also evident following the Modi dispensation’s decision to retaliate with airpower against the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist camp at Balakot in Pakistan following a suicide attack by one of its terrorists on the vehicle transporting Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at Pulwama, Kashmir in February 2019. The use of airpower too was prescribed by generally the same experts, several of whom were members of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and recommended its use in response to a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack when the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power.

In a nutshell, neither the Modi government has met the test of accountability nor have the critics of the government acquitted themselves whether in the opposition or critics especially within the wider foreign policy community for consensus on key foreign policy and national security matters involving the use of force. The Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent criticism that the Modi government has made the two-front challenge in the form of a collusive threat from China and Pakistan more pronounced may have some validity, especially given China’s control of Depsang rendering India’s hold over the Siachen glacier tenuous if Pakistan enters the fray in a Sino-Indian war. However, it is also true that the opposition leader’s refusal to back the government in key foreign policy crises that involved military action whether over Balakot or the Kailash Range, too, has undermined consensus and the criticism directed at the government are equally about domestic political gain. In a democratic country like India, accountability and consensus, especially in the area of foreign policy and national security, are vitally important and the political opposition has just as much role in upholding them as the government. Thus, irrespective of the Modi government’s sub-optimal handling of China and Pakistan, their domestic foreign policy critics have done no better.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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