Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2020-06-24 10:21:13 Published on Jun 24, 2020
Two front war

The tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and Chinese occupied Tibet is unlikely to abate any time soon. Despite efforts to de-escalate the situation, only the most incorrigible optimist will bet on things not spiralling out of control. There are reports that the Indian forces have been given “freedom of action”, which includes using fire-arms to “respond to extra-ordinary situations.” This means that the border mechanisms that were in place to prevent any untoward incident that could blow apart the deceptive peace and tranquillity along the LAC, are now virtually redundant. After the Galwan clash, a hair-trigger situation obtains, with the Indians itching to exact their revenge.

To put it very bluntly, this crisis is far from over. In fact, it might just be starting to unfold. Because the way the military build-up is continuing, the rising stridency in competing claims, the contracting politico-military and diplomatic space for any kind of compromise, it appears that the two countries are inexorably stumbling, bumbling and blustering towards a conflict. The next clash could involve shots being fired in anger, and from there it is anyone’s guess how much things escalate. It is possible that a localised conflict burns itself out as quickly as it starts. But it is just as likely that it moves up the escalation ladder into a limited conflict which then snowballs into something bigger involving either one or more or even all the sectors along the LAC.

There has been some talk in India about a limited military action to deliver a strong message to the Chinese. The problem however is that one side cannot alone decide if the conflict will remain ‘limited’; the other side also gets a vote. To initiate a limited action on the assumption that the other side will also agree to not expand or escalate the scale of the conflict is not only dangerous but could eventually prove disastrous. The Pakistanis found this to their cost in 1965 when they initiated a limited operation in Jammu and Kashmir without  expecting that India will open the another front in Punjab. However, in 1999, the Pakistani calculation proved partly correct when India kept the conflict limited to Kargil. But even there the Pakistanis paid a very heavy price because they never factored in the fire and fury with which India reacted. Therefore, before any limited action is contemplated, it is critical to factor in and prepare for the eventuality of the conflict escalating into a wider war.

The one thing India must factor in any calculation about a possible conflict in the Eastern front is the eminent possibility of the Western front also becoming active. Given the strategic collusion between China and Pakistan, it is a virtual no-brainer that if a shooting match starts between India and China, the Chinese will direct the Pakistanis to jump into the fray. For their part, the Pakistanis who are already seething over the constitutional changes made in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, this will be seen as a golden opportunity to even the scores with India. The Pakistanis know that on their own there is no way they can launch a successful military operation to snatch Kashmir. Diplomatically and politically, their raving and ranting has got little traction. Their best hope is to catch India in a pincer – China on one side, they on the other – make some territorial gains in Kashmir. This means that India must be prepared for fighting on two fronts and not just one if things go downhill with the Chinese.

Some analysts believe that Pakistanis won’t be so foolish as to jump into this war. But the fact is that the Pakistanis have always been foolish enough to underestimate India, time and time again. Therefore to imagine they will not once again give into to their foolishness, and will resist the temptation to damage India is really expecting the moon. Even the fact that the Pakistan economy is broke and has foreign exchange reserves of only $10 billion (all of it borrowed money) will not dissuade it. Even during Kargil, the Pakistani economy was bankrupt and they had under a billion dollars in reserves and yet they indulged in military adventurism. Given the spate of meetings being held in Pakistan over the India-China stand-off, the noises being made by the Pakistan army high command and the escalation in exchange of firing across the LoC on the Western front, India should expect some action from the Pakistani side. It is possible that this could be just a feint at the moment. But if the situation on the LAC deteriorates, then India should brace for at least scaled up forays from the Pakistani side.

Indian military officials have for long maintained that the armed forces are prepared for a two-front contingency. That moment of truth might be just around the corner. Even if the immediate crisis with China gets resolved, it should now be very clear that both India and China are now closer to a hot war than they have been in nearly half a century. Whenever that war happens – most probably within the next couple of years – India will almost certainly be fighting on two fronts. To prepare for such an eventuality, apart from beefing up its offensive capabilities, India needs to change its war doctrines, including its nuclear doctrine, to deter the enemies.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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