India tested, found wanting

A Chinese military move seriously to test India’s resolve has been on the cards for a long time now. But, this is only a gambit by Beijing to see what level of provocation will get the Indian government to act, and a means to establish a baseline for future actions. Alas, the Chinese planners misjudged how much soft tissue there is in India’s China policy, and foreign and defence policies generally, where spine should be.

From the first, the China Study Group (CSG) headed by the National Security Adviser and old China-hand, Shivshankar Menon, which fuels the Ministry of External Affairs’ thinking on the subject and dictates the government’s response whenever China heaves into view, decreed that the brazen armed intrusion be soft-pedalled. Thus, the depth of penetration in the Depsang Valley in Ladakh by People’s Liberation Army troops was initially stated as 8 km, before this figure was revised to 10 km and later 19 km. Now, 19 km is not a distance that small military units “stray across” as much as it is ground covered in a directed mission and yet, the junior minister in the Home Ministry managing the Chinese border with some miserable paramilitary maintained it was a mere “incursion”, not armed “intrusion”. By such hair-splitting is the Manmohan Singh government determined to do nothing?

China, in the meantime, adopted its standard stance when disrupting peace on undemarcated land and sea borders. It refused to acknowledge there was any such intrusion. When the PLA presence at Raki Nullah could no longer be denied, it stood the incident on its head by accusing the Indian Army of “aggressive patrolling”, and followed up by offering a fantastical trade-off: India ceases construction of necessary border military infrastructure and mothballs the advanced landing fields in the area in return for the status quo ante.

All the while, Beijing took its cues from excuses the MEA offered for the Chinese outrage, saying it arose from “differing perceptions” of where the LAC lay. The MEA minister, Salman Khurshid, revealing his cosmetological skills, then referred to the Chinese ingress as acne that can be cured with “ointment”.

With the offensively-disposed Chinese military units inside Indian territory, it was again the CSG-MEA that offered Beijing a reason to stay put, saying the Chinese should be provided a “face-saving” way out of the mess they created by repairing to the negotiating table, whereupon the Chinese government promptly called for talks to restore peace. It is little wonder China sees India as a punching bag, an easy target to bully and badger.

The conclusion cannot any longer be avoided that either the China Study Group constitutes a Chinese fifth column at the heart of the Indian government, or is staffed by idiot savants. The classic illustration of an idiot savant is a mentally challenged person who can memorise the numbers on the wagons in a freight train rattling past his house, but does not know how to tie his shoelaces or, in this case, can read Confucius’ Analects in the original but is unable to see a straight forward land-grab for what it is — loss of national territory. The mostly Mandarin-speaking diplomats and experts in CSG seem so overawed by China they cannot resist acting as Beijing’s B Team.

At heart, the problem is that the 1962 war so institutionally rattled the MEA they still act groggy from that blow fifty years after the event and cannot recall just how military success was gained against the Chinese PLA, most recently in the 1986 Somdurong Chu incident. Having espied a PLA unit on the Indian side of LAC, General K. Sundarji airlifted troops, surrounded the Chinese encampment, placed artillery on the nearby heights ready to reduce the Chinese position to rubble, and tented a unit just 10 metres from the Chinese camp (not 500 metres as is bandied about in the present case in official circles).

It was an initiative, incidentally, the then army chief took disregarding procedure and not consulting the MEA or anyone else in government, whence its success. It unnerved the Chinese who sued for peace.

In contrast, the present army chief, General Bikram Singh who, by repeatedly parroting the government assertion over the past year that China poses no threat and all’s well on that front, in fact, pre-empted any action that Headquarters Northern Army or Leh-based 14 Corps could have instantly taken to vacate the presence of the Chinese troops, and imposed costs on PLA for this little adventure. But subordinate commanders taking their cue from the chief did nothing. The Prime Minister then compounded the trouble by reiterating the MEA-CSG line that this is but a “localised” incident.

Nineteen days into this affair, General Bikram reportedly briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security about prospective actions, such as severing supply links, etc. Except, has he planned on what he’ll do when PLA helicopters or logistics truck convoys turn up to replenish the food and water stocks? Shoot down the ’çopters and destroy the trucks. Fine. Then, is the army prepared for a bigger fight? 14 Corps can mount a divisional-level action easily, but will require immediate airlifting of another division as reserve. Moreover, half a brigade’s worth of army units should forthwith descend on the PLA-occupied site, raze their camp, and physically push the PLA soldiers back on to their side, and no nonsense about it. If this is not done, a permanent realignment of LAC is on the cards in this strategically important tri-junction area.

Much worse, instead of showing self-respect and brio, and making the new Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s proposed Delhi visit in end-May conditional on immediate PLA pullback, Khurshid is planning to fly to Beijing to ensure Li keeps his date in Delhi and to ask the Chinese to withdraw, pretty please! It is as if China is the aggrieved party and needs placation.

Appeasement never pays; it only emboldens belligerent states to become more demanding. China has proved this time and again, but it is doubtful the CSG-MEA and the Indian government even know what the national interest is, or where it lies.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ May 3, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian para-military forces, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to India tested, found wanting

  1. RK Anuj says:

    There you go again, that old habit of introducing half truths and absolute false hoods to support your views appears to be incorrigible. Somdurong Chu incursion was espied in Jun 86, military moves begun in Sep 86, nearly three months after the first diplomatic protests were lodged. Unlikely, the then COAS consulted none in the GOI prior to the mobilisation. Fallacy 1.

    The deployment of troops was enough to raze the Chinese camp to rubble who thus sued for peace. On the contrary the PLA responded with its own massive build- up in Tibet, far out- weighing the Indian divisions, which only escalated to a point that a negotiating mechanism was set up to deal with such incidents, a big move forward but far from what you try to aver to as success implying an unconditional withdrawal from SC. Fallacy 2. Fact, till at least 20 years later, Chinese and Indian posts existed just 1 km apart in the SC!!!!

    The same mechanisms are being activated now prior to any military escalation. Military solutions begin where diplomacy fails. Don’t put the cart ahead of the horse. Too early to judge any outcomes of the ongoing efforts. So spare us the gibberish of half a brigade worth of Indian troops evicting the Chinese.

    Thank heavens for sanity of the CSG which does not fall for the chest- thumping jingoism of arm chair strategists.

    • Re: Somdurong chu incident: Shyam Saran in early Sept 2012 in a lecture at IIC expounded on that episode and said Sundarji had moved troops and guns in the Hatungla ridge looking down on the river, and into a contesting position WITHOUT consulting anyone in govt or FOLLOWING procedure. Care to peruse my blog of Sept 7, 2012 — “China respects hard power”? Unless, of course, you know better. The point about some action on the Depsang site is that the Chinese have to know India will contest their occupation.

      • RK Anuj says:

        Never in that lecture did Shyam Saran espouse that General Sunderji moved troops “WITHOUT consulting anyone in govt or FOLLOWING procedure”. He, having been in Beijing at the time merely surmised that political leaders in India may have also been taken by surprise. In that era of compartmentalised govt functioning, it was not uncommon for the MEA to be unaware of the doings of the MOD. Never has Shyam Saran made that categoric claim, but you very clearly are trying to put words in his mouth. On the same issue, General Hari haran, the then Corps Commander, has written that “New Delhi was kept informed through army channels”, which I presume terminate at the MOD, which is very much a part of the GOI! Or am I mistaken? The rest of the movements of divisions in ’87 were obviously with the sanction of the highest authorities

        Shyam Saran very clearly appeals for an approach that is not provocative but China must know that there will be counter measures. SC, was the first such posturing post ’62, the message was clearly delivered. Now, 36 years later, China knows better than to consider India a walk over and in the event of there being in place a diplomatic mechanism, posturing can only be provocative, if it precedes other measures. So, while you take recourse to quoting Shyam Saran, you misconstrue his message.

      • You wouldn’t say that had you been at that lecture. Indeed, that was the point of takeoff for my question to Saran, as related in my Sept 7, ’12 piece. In any case, the effect of a little show of force 26 years ago isn’t likely to stay with the Chinese. This sort of action has to be continually repeated as any reasonable view, not appeasement, would suggest.

  2. Shaurya says:

    Bharat Ji: Something what I wrote, when it all started.

    China knows our game. India will not do anything to escalate, by ourselves but will defend. Sumdurong Chu is what they have gamed for. The only way, to “win” this game of brinkmanship is to escalate.

    My recommendation is to cut off supply routes to the encroached PLA troops. Then it is upon PRC to escalate. Knowing fully well that any escalation by PRC would be matched and they just do not have the strength or the will to fight and conclusively win against us in our backyard the the inverse risk/reward ratios, they will back down.

  3. Shaurya says:

    The article here will also confirm, Bharat ji’s view. There was communication through “army channels” but no consultations.

  4. Bhavanajagat says:

    I had the pleasure of serving under the command of General Sundarji at the First Armoured Division. I personally know that he had always followed the rules of the game and was fully aware of the limitations of powers of unit and formation commanders to deploy men and equipment for training and operational requirements. I will not be surprised if the Ministry of Defence and the Army Chief have no awareness of the plans and actions of other branches of Government of India. I was sent by Indian Army to serve on deputation in a military organization called Establishment No. 22 or Special Frontier Force. I can state without any hesitation that Indian Army and the Army Chief are not involved in our operational tasks and planning. We do get the necessary cooperation as and when needed without divulging any information. Special Frontier Force is a small military organization but it represents a military alliance/pact between the United States, India, and Tibet( as represented by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile). I do give credit to the intelligence capabilities of People’s Republic of China. This incident involving Chinese incursion in Ladakh is a test to verify the resolve of this military alliance/pact to continue its mission to use military force to establish Freedom, Democracy, Peace, and Justice in occupied Tibet. This organization is not a relic of Cold War era. It is real, it is alive, and its primary mission is fully supported by the member nations. I would not ask or expect Indian Army to take action without trying other options that we have to resolve this crisis. The first action that I recommend is that of evicting all Chinese nationals present in India besides the members of the diplomatic mission. We can accomplish this simple task without firing a single bullet. China would withdraw its troops on its own. We must all remember that China had declared unilateral ceasefire on November 21, 1962 and withdrew its troops from the Himalayan territory it captured. We all know that China is not inclined to capture Taiwan using its military power. To get China out of Ladakh, I would recommend placing an immediate trade embargo and prohibit the export of all natural resources that could be used by their Defence Establishment. President Kennedy had failed in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba but he did not fail when he placed a naval blockade of Cuba. United States, India, and Tibet are partners and the real fight is about freedom in Tibet.

  5. RK Anuj says:

    @Bharat Karnad It is nobody’s case that no action should be taken, least of all Shyam Saran. But there is a process and a sequence to any sane response. Taking recourse to the last resort military option, which can only be escalatory by degrees, the national pride of both adversaries coming in the way of any stepping back once the initial threatening moves are made, right at the outset, can only be foolhardy, just a wee bit short of insanity. As I said in an old post, ‘strategy is about preventing wars and not calling them on’ and ‘military solutions begin where diplomacy fails’. Diplomatic effort is not appeasement, as you should well be aware. And there has been a prompt, but measured military response at Depsang……..( I suspect we agree on the correct terminology for Border Defense units and ITBP…….spare me the clarification). The 86′ episode lasted over a year, we are now just in the first few days. The last word has not been spoken yet on the issue and future actions will have a story to tell. But all of that in its own turn! And yes, I guess you should be more knowledgeable about the messages India has been sending by its own patrolling, infrastructure building activities, force accretions and rocket/ missile testing in the last decade. You may have failed to notice but things have been happening!

  6. Whatever “things” have happened are entirely inadequate, insufficient, and even misdirected.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Oh yes, India could have nuke/ missile proliferated in the SE Asian region, carried on with more nuclear testing, broken all diplomatic ties with its adversaries and generally behaved like a pariah in the world community, a la North Korea or Pakistan, just like you have been advocating for a decade that I recall. Anything short of that is obviously, “entirely inadequate, insufficient, and even misdirected.”

  7. Shaurya says:

    Just to record what Shyam Saran has said:

    “I recall accompanying Ambassador K P S Menon to lodge a protest with the then Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister and being witness to a most undiplomatic, offensive and vituperative harangue by the latter,” recalled Saran, who was then posted in Beijing. “The Chinese were taken completely by surprise as perhaps were our own political leaders,”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.