Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2020-05-28 10:00:43 Published on May 28, 2020
Sino-Indian Stand Off: A Case of Russian Roulette

While our complete attention has been taken up in tackling the COVID 19 pandemic, we find ourselves hit by another virus again involving China, in the form of deliberate attempts by the People’s Liberation Army to destroy what came to be known as the “Wuhan Spirit”. It’s intrusions in Ladakh, including four in the Galwan River Valley, an area that it has till now not disputed as falling within our sovereign territory, and another at Pangong Tso, suggests that we are in for an interesting, albeit long and tense campaigning season this year, unless off course we decide to take the easy way out and agree they are in within their own territory. Ironically, without even a by your leave, they have taken a leaf out of our Pakistan playbook, and have attempted to use our “Cold Start” doctrine against us. Clearly, we were caught flat footed initially, but the Army has now responded with robust measures to contain these ingresses, though that cannot be the end of the matter.

For the uninitiated, this doctrine articulates the manner in which “Integrated Battle Groups” (IBG) would proactively launch surprise shallow offensive operations across the Indo-Pakistan International Border, in the event of Pakistan organized or supported any action inimical to our interests. These IBG’s would look to occupying just sufficient territory that, while sending a clear message across to the Pakistani leadership and the international community, would preclude either escalation of the clash or any intervention by the international community.

One may recall that Pandit Nehru’s tryst with destiny ended rather abruptly as Chairman Mao took umbrage to his “Forward Policy”, a half- hearted attempt to occupy and hold disputed territory claimed by us North of the McMahon Line. It is indeed ironical that 58 years later Prime Minister Modi, a diehard critic of Nehru and the Congress, now finds himself in very similar circumstances, looking to come up with a policy that will allow us to regain territory which has now been occupied illegally by the PLA, without jeopardizing his “Acche Din” initiative or hurting his international standing.

While we can speculate about Chinese motives and what they hope to gain, the really important question which we should be asking the Modi Government is what are we going to do about it? One can gauge the seriousness of the issue from the fact that even General Rawat, the nominal Chief of Defence Staff, who habitually never misses an opportunity to come in front of a microphone, has been uncharacteristically quiet, reinforcing the MEA’s deafening silence on the issue.

We must be careful, though, not to be carried away into believing that ongoing geopolitical or socio-economic initiatives on our part may be the reasons for Chinese aggressive actions in Ladakh and earlier in North Sikkim. While they may well be the trigger, the Chinese not only tend to think long term, but also act with impeccable precision, attempting to achieve their goals subtly and with finesse. For example, while our support for the Dalai Lama and the execution of the Forward Policy may have been the trigger for the 1962 Conflict, the fact is that the Chinese also saw that there was great dissonance within our Armed Forces which provided them an opportunity to degrade its capability, bring down Nehru’s international stature a notch or two, all the while allowing them to occupy and act from a position of strength.

As Dr. S N Prasad, Chief Editor, The Official History of the Sino Indian Conflict of 1962, surmised in his introduction, it was Nehru’s inherent distrust and unconscionable fear of the military that was chiefly responsible for our defeat. He noted that Nehru saw the military as “a close- knit professional body, deliberately isolated from the citizenry, capable of acting like the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire…. Perhaps he wanted to model it after the People’s Liberation Army of China, more egalitarian, flexible, closer to the people………Such basic changes required a committed, or at least a pliant, band of army officers in key positions. So mediocre Thapar was selected instead of the doughty Thorat as Army Chief, and Bijji Kaul was made CGS……. To carry out this transformation of the national defence set up, a decade of peace was absolutely essential. For establishing indigenous weapons manufacture, money had to be found by cutting arms imports. The armed forces would be short of equipment and stores for several years till the new arms factories started producing. The officer cadre was a house divided within itself, till the new breed fully took over. A period of transition was inevitable, during which the fighting machine would not be fully efficient and would be vulnerable.. Therein seems to lie the basic cause of the debacle of 1962. India failed to avoid a war during the transition period. Lulled by faulty political assessment and wrong intelligence forecasts, the country got caught in a war when it was least prepared…”

Surprisingly, whatever may be the differences in outlook and approach between Mr. Modi and Pandit Nehru, clearly he is equally distrustful of the Military. It is no coincidence then that much like in the Nehruvian era, the defence budget has been drastically pruned and brought to levels, as percentage of GDP, to what was prevalent then. The military also faces endemic shortages of men and material, as it did then and there has been a renewed focus on a “Make in India” initiative that will take decades to fructify, adversely impacting the military which already has a preponderance of obsolete weapons and equipment. Moreover, a number of measures have also been undertaken that have led t ogradual erosion in the stature of the military, damaged its internal cohesion, upended established traditions and changed promotion rules to bring in committed, pliant officers who will fit into this government’s ideological moorings and do its bidding. Is then there a possibility that the Chinese understand the difficulties facing our military and sense an opportunity to continue their past psychological domination by damaging our military’s credibility using strong arm tactics in the knowledge that we will publicly back down to their bullying?

The truth is that that despite all our weaknesses, including shoddy border infrastructure, the PLA is fully cognizant of the fact that the opposition it will confront is very different from what it faced in 1962. Any military action is likely to be more akin to what they encountered during the Nathu La stand- off in 1967, which resulted in disproportionate casualties with nothing to show for them. Moreover, the terrain that they will traverse on our side of the LAC favours defensive operations, and because our forward air bases are located in the plains, we have a tremendous combat edge over the PLAAF which not only have to contend with the vagaries of operating from high altitude bases but also the fact that aircraft being launched from the mainland will have limited loiter time available over the Tibetan Plateau. Add to this the vulnerability of their long lines of communication, the internal security situation and the adverse impact of high altitude terrain on troops, weapons and equipment.

One of the effects of the 1962 debacle was that it made our political leadership extremely cautious and tentative in their dealings with the Chinese, an attitude that has undergone some change under Modi. The military also took a long time to get over the psychological burden of defeat, only gaining back its confidence after its superb performances during the Wars with Pakistan in 1971 and 1999. This confidence and positive attitude was reflected in the performance of the military during the Doklam confrontation, thanks to the actions of the commanders on the ground, undoubtedly aided by Chinese miscalculations. The subsequent informal summit at Wuhan was however nothing more than a craven attempt to get in the good books of President Xi. It was abundantly clear by this time that the Chinese had not taken kindly to being publicly humiliated and would respond aggressively. An action our Prime Minister was keen to delay by any means possible, even kowtowing to President Xi, as it could unfavorably impact his electoral chances. This was borne out by our refusal to take cognizance of Chinese activity, as they resumed their road construction in the Doklam Plateau right till the base of the Zampheri Ridgeline, albeit along a more circuitous alignment.

Having retained power in the last General Elections with an even greater majority in Parliament, after his Faustian deal, Prime Minister Modi immediately put in motion measures to fulfill what was closest to the RSS heart, the removal Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir without giving any thought to its ramifications, especially in the context of China. He also immersed himself in further improving our relations with the international community, especially the United States, by cozying up to President Trump. His global outreach during this pandemic has provided him with an opportunity to strengthen India’s credentials among the international community at the cost of China. This is something that has certainly not gone down well with their leadership, which is also probably facing intense internal pressure due to a stumbling economy. Apart from their actions in Ladakh, and the distinct possibility of another ingress in Arunachal Pradesh in the coming months, along with the ongoing tussle with Nepal may well be another move to further ratchet up the pressure.

Thus, both leaders have much to lose domestically and are therefore not in a position to make any real compromise at the present time. Both economies are also reeling under the impact of COVID 19, though given its comparatively larger economy,  China sees itself in a more dominant position. Not surprisingly, it therefore has more to lose in a shooting war, if India were to escalate and use force to regain its own territory. Given the existing geopolitical climate and its own aggressive stance elsewhere, China is likely to face a very hostile international community, more intent than ever at getting to the bottom of its COVID 19 conspiracy.

It would be fair to conclude that China seems to have miscalculated, as it did at Doklam, and while a shooting war is unlikely to start any time soon, it will be under intense pressure to vacate these positions as the end to the campaigning season approaches in end September- early October. This is because it has to face the very real possibility that if no diplomatic solution is forthcoming by then, Prime Minister Modi has the option of using force timed to coincide with the closing of passes, which will not permit China to respond till the passes open again next May. That raises the question would President Xi be able to last out till then or would the CCP see him as a liability?  Moreover, would he be keen to wait and find out? All of this is off course incumbent on the premise that Mr. Modi will bite the bullet and take on Xi the bully. With our military in the shape it is, especially given that we have a de facto police officer in charge of the military that may well be a tall order. One way or the other we will know where we stand by the end of the year and Mr. Modi’s legacy will depend on that.

This commentary originally appeared in Indian Defence Review.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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