A Cowering Response To China’s Provocations May Lose India More Territory

Pangong Tso, in eastern Ladakh, on the border with Tibet. (Photograph: Government of India)

[Pangong Tso]

It is not hard to see why China decided at this time to pick at the scab of disputed border with India by starting ruckuses along the length of it at Daulat Beg Oldi, Galwan Valley, the Pangong Lake, Bararahoti, and Naku La in Sikkim. Xi Jinping and his ruling cohort find their pretense to Asian hegemony challenged in their own backyard. Developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong have shred China’s “one country, two systems” policy. President Tsai Ing-Wen, elected to a second term, has made it clear that Taiwan is separate from China and sovereign. The people of Hong Kong, with less latitude, are fearlessly resisting rule by Beijing’s puppets.

     Elsewhere, the United States is embarked on a Cold War that is halting China’s economic gravy train. By pouring advanced weaponry into Taiwan America is making the difficult task of invading that garrison-state People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals dream about, unthinkable. Japan is waving China off the Senkaku Islands, and the freedom of navigation patrols by several extra-territorial navies in the South China Sea and assertive actions by littoral states are making nonsense of China’s “nine dash line” claims.

That leaves the big, cowering, India an easy target for Beijing to coerce to show other Asian countries who is boss.

What is unusual about the latest Chinese provocations are the medieval arms the PLA wielded in the encounter in the Pangong Tso area of eastern Ladakh. An Indian army colonel and a major accompanying a small patrolling unit were grievously injured early May by Chinese troops swinging solid wooden batons with protruding nails! Perhaps, it is time Indian soldiers are armed, other than the standard infantry weapon, with hefty wooden clubs with embedded steel spikes for free use at close quarters against PLA soldiers.

The still greater surprise was the nonresponse of the Indian army and government. The spokesman of the army’s Eastern Command, almost condoned Chinese provocations saying “Temporary and short-duration face-offs between border-guarding troops do occur as boundaries are not resolved.” The Ministry of External Affairs, equally conciliatory, conceded PLA had disturbed India’s “normal patrolling patterns” in Ladakh, but referred to the “established mechanisms to resolve such situations peacefully through dialogue.”

It is as if the clubbing of senior Indian officers is normal and the Chinese are amenable to quiet persuasion. No hint here of what this portends for the armed monitoring of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or of the potential for such designed eruptions to escalate into war.

Such anodyne statements, moreover, do three things. They demoralize the frontline troops, hide from the public the seriousness of India’s deteriorating military situation vis a vis China, and by reflecting the acute timidity characteristic of the Indian government and army leadership when confronting China, encourage Beijing to be even more obstreperous. Aggregated, such reactions only reinforce Beijing’s contempt for India and convince it to push India around some more.

Rajnath Singh interacts with Army Chief General MM Naravane, in Delhi, on Feb. 21, 2020. (Photograph: PTI)

[ Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with General MM Naravane]

The latest events on the LAC may have shaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s confidence in his policy of rapprochement with China that pivots overmuch on his personal relations with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Otherwise the apex meeting of the principals called by Modi on May 26  would not have so quickly followed the May 23 briefing of defence minister Rajnath Singh by the army chief General MM Naravane who bore ill-tidings from his Ladakh trip, with national security adviser Ajit Doval and chief of the defence staff General Bipin Rawat in attendance.

Obviously, the situation is grim and getting worse. While the decision by the PM forcefully to oppose the Chinese changing the status quo on the LAC and especially in the sensitive Daulat Beg Oldi sector is reassuring, it fails to address the central problem of sustained piecemeal territorial aggrandizement by China.

Just how much territory has been lost is revealing.  Punchok Stobdan, a native Ladakhi and former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, refers to a 2013 report by Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary (2004-2006) that indicated China had until then annexed 640 sq km of Indian territory deploying  “area denial” measures that, in effect, changed the alignment of LAC on the ground. It is an activity, incidentally, that has proceeded unmolested by Indian forces. With China creating new status quos and Delhi accepting them there’s every incentive for Beijing to persist with this “no cost” policy.

Invariably there’s strategic intent behind Chinese moves.

Regarding the Chinese claim of 80 sq kms in the Chumur region containing the Tible Mane (stupa) holy to Tibetans, for instance, Stobdan points out that its control is “critical” for the safety of the Leh-Manali road. And, in an extended geographic context, why the PLA is “desperate” to grab the Lukung Lake area to stage operations from to cut off Indian access to the Chip Chap plains, the Aksai Chin in the east and the Shayok Valley to the north, and how this will create a new LAC bracketed by the Indus and Shayok rivers. Gaining control thus of the southern side of the Karakoram range China, he explains, can then reach the Siachen Glacier from Depsang and cover “the Tashkurgan junction from where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) crosses into Gilgit-Baltistan”. It will weaken India’s proximity to, and leverage over, CPEC, the Indian military’s hold on Siachen and, according to Stobdan, permit the diversion of the waters of the Shayok, Galwan and Chang-Chenmo rivers to Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin.

Army Chief General MM Naravane meets jawans during his visit to the base camp in Siachen, on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photograph: PTI)

[Army Chief General MM Naravane in Ladakh]

China’s “occupy, build-up, intimidate, occupy some more, build-up”-policy begun in the early 1950s and proceeding apace has hollowed out India’s paper claims. More brazenly, Beijing is justifying PLA actions on the basis that India is constructing roads, bridges and airfields on its side! If the Modi government fails to implement a policy of absolute reciprocal actions, such as filling vacant spaces beyond Indian claim-lines with  armed encampments, allowing the Indian army to blow-up offending Chinese infrastructure and, by way of retribution, ambushing passing PLA troops, and relies only on endless and futile negotiations, then India should be prepared for a map thoroughly changed by  China.   

Published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint.com, May 28, 2020, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/india-china-tensions-cowering-response-to-chinas-provocations-may-lose-india-more-territory

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.
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47 Responses to A Cowering Response To China’s Provocations May Lose India More Territory

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sun Tzu once said “Winning 100 battles is not the height of the skill, but subduing your enemy without fighting is”. This is what China is following against India. China knows that its unilateral and ruthless behaviour has psychologically affected India and the Delhi is almost getting subdued.
    Now who can save India-Chanakya. But instead of following Chanakyaneeti, we have somehow axed our feet by following f****** pacifism.

  2. Pratap AR says:

    A lot of analysts like Nitin Gokhale and Abhijit Iyer are arguing that there has been no intrusion into Indian territory.
    As per your inputs,Is it an intrusion or just a standoff with troop build up?

    • The govt, army, official agencies have a vested interest in putting out that no territory has been lost. Almost all commentators are inclined to propagate the official line.

  3. vivek says:

    Well india doesnt have too many options against china. The only credible option is to start nuclear testing (atleast at sub kt level ) to improve TN design, which china already doing and US preparing for same.

  4. Surya says:

    Do you think that the Indian military have the resources to kick out the Chinese or fight a limited war?

    • For limited forceful actions,yes. A long duration war (lasting more than 3 weeks), no. But the latter can be avoided by a nuclear first use policy (something I have advocated in my book ‘Staggering Forward’) and being less risk averse. Because China has far more to lose in a nuclear exchange.

  5. thomas says:

    How would the escalation ladder look if India tested a MT yield at Pokhran?

  6. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir, I have a couple of questions..

    Sir, a lot of folks bark in India that to counter China’s BRI, India must first become an economic power than military. Bur I think if India gets access to a no. of overseas military bases, it will be very helpful in countering China. We already have access to Vietnam, Indonesia. Singapore, Oman, Seychelles, Mauritius etc. Then there are logistics agreement with France and S.Korea and talks are with Aussies and Japan. These bases are enough to provide India a good expansion to counter Chinese ambitions in IOR. So I think India must first aim to get more overseas bases. I really don’t understand where the hell big economy comes here??? Thinking strategically will give us more military power and anyway military power is above all..

    And Sir my second question is regarding disruptive behaviour. There are several reports of Russians and Iranians following aggressive moves against US Navy and Airforce, not allowing US to move freely in Arabian or Md. sea . These nations are so disruptive (by following unprofessional moves) that even US does not want to take panga. So sir don’t you think that Indian Navy and IAF should also follow the same disruptive behaviour against Chinese navy and Airforce. These sort of unprofessional behaviour will definitely send a clear signal to China. I think at least we can do this.

    What do you say sir?

  7. Thisandthat says:

    “The people of Hong Kong, with less latitude, are fearlessly resisting rule by Beijing’s puppets.”
    What a hypocrite you are! Does that same “fearlessly resisting” apply to others also?

    • If you mean the Srinagar Valley Muslims, of course, not! And I’m not a hypocrite either! International relations is not charity but hard even harsh “game” of morality-less realpolitik. In my posts I have made clear that in tit-for-tat for Chinese outpourings on the normalization of J&K’s status within the Indian Union, which, incidentally, I have been asking for, for the last 35 years (!), Delhi should counter blow up Beijing for HK but also Taiwan, the Muslim Uyghur-dominated Xinjiang and Tibet.

  8. Kuldeep says:

    Hello sir, your views on Dalai Lama: What exactly is he doing for freedom of Tibet? Why has the media forgotten him and Tibet? Sometimes he feels like a useless asset because India has gained nothing from him for the last 60 years.

    • The Dalai Lama has done all he could to peacefully promote the cause of Tibet in the world, and his exile in India has helped him do it. There’s only so much he can do if the Indian government has a “hands-off” Tibet policy.

  9. Swanand D says:

    Firstly, China knows this for certain that the leadership in India may do little or nothing to counter this act of aggression by them. Perhaps this is an opportune time for India to smash this confidence by reciprocating their acts (a tad amplified!). We could even arm nations like Vietnam, the Philippines with Brahmos missile. But would we!!

  10. Surya says:

    Don’t you think the Pakistanis will enhance their nuclear arsenal if we declare Nuclear First Use?

    • The Pakistani N-buildup doesn’t really matter. And China has to be neutered with N-first use and transfer of N-warheaded short range ballistic and cruise (Brahmos) missiles to states on China’s border. We have done nothing to reciprocate China’s provocations for over 50 years and especially since its deliberate N-proliferation to Pakistan.

      • Swanand D says:

        ” transfer of N-warheaded short-range ballistic and cruise (Brahmos) missiles to states on China’s border”. Wouldn’t this invite adverse reactions and maybe sanctions from western nations esp. the US? What can India do to pacify these furious nations?

      • Sanctions are the thing that GOI seems most fearful of . But experience shows that sanctions usually do not work and, in any case, India rode out the last time sanctions were imposed, post-1998, by the US, quite well.

  11. Surya says:

    How many years will you think it will take India to become a great power nation at the current pace optimistically?

  12. Bk says:

    Rajnath mentioning about talks …. does that mean no reciprocal indian army action to throw away recently occupied territory????

  13. Surya says:

    How many decades do you think it will take India to become a Great power nation optimistically?

  14. RG says:

    “Nehru’s Aksai Chin Blunder!A must read.Both Indian &Chinese maps showed AksaiChin to be in India. In the1950s Chinese built a road’ through our territory. Pt Nehru came to know but chose to keep quiet.Didnt confront China either.”


    So technically its ours?

  15. Mr Atul Bhusari says:

    Can you please comment on this ?

    Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is claiming that China hasn’t grabbed anything except for natural resources(confusing) ?


  16. Pratap AR says:


    Is the main purpose of the intrusion to grab land and dominate the area? Does the land grab provide significant value? Or is it more to send India a strong message…

  17. Bharat Kumar says:

    Why did china produce the national security bill for Hong Kong leading to condemnation and the US revoking of special trade status of hong kong?
    Why didn’t they do it in previous decades when they got a free ride from previous US presidents ???

  18. Mr Atul Bhusari says:

    Abhijit Iyer has thus concluded, after all 3 articles
    It is safe, then, to conclude the following:

    Pangong: There has been some movement and the Chinese have consolidated their position west of Finger 4. There have been rapid incursions in this region

    — Galwan saw a minor incursion, now repulsed, but China has retaliated by withholding water, which will have serious consequences if not challenged.

    — Gogra has seen no incursions yet, but a significant and recent military build-up has taken place on the Chinese side.
    So,he re-affirms NO Occupation of Indian land, in all 3 areas .
    And regarding natural resources, he mentions water flow being diverted, that we found confusing earlier.

    Do you still disagree ?
    And what are your points of disagreement ?

    Many Thanks

    • To be very honest there’s been so much writing by so many people writing on the topic it is hard to keep up with all of it. But I will stack up Generals Panag and Oberoi against anyone, including the current army brass who have a vested interest in propagating the current official line.

      • Atul Bhusari says:

        Thanks Sir.
        I agree with you.

        I read General Panag ,on your recommendation.
        However,to me, his being AAM Admi Party supporter, somewhat dilutes his credibility.
        I may be wrong in casting aspersions.
        But ,in the given scenario,can’t rule that out completely.

        Many thanks to you sir for being patient, with so many of my questions.
        I really admire your work and thought process.
        Hope to meet you personally ,one day.


  19. Ravi says:

    what is stopping India from occupying uninhabited Karakorum mountains of Baltistan where there’ll ne no no resistance from the people and which we already show in Indian maps and thus pressure the CPEC project with a view to bringing China to the negotiating tables on Aksai Chi?

    • Nothing, except ourselves.

      • Ravi says:

        Sir, I think without cutting the Pakistan-China land link by taking Gilgit-Baltistan (at least those parts of it that are sparsely populated or uninhabited — glaciers, mountains, strategic areas to link up with Afghanistan) there will always be a threat to India from the China-Pakistan combine. Is Shimla agreement or fear of nuclear response from Pakistan or 2-front war, or fear of backlash from Muslim countries, or lack of strategy or lack of will to take back territory we claim as ours, the reason?

      • Lack of will, mostly.

  20. Dear Prof. Karnad: Excellent Article. I learn from your expertise.

    As for Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh, your viewpoint is understandable but if a full blown war breaks out, the government will have to think through its after effects. India is better off to incur into territory that is of strategic importance to China in a tit for tat move and then negotiate with the PLA.

    Pramod Thanedar

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