Band aid, tactical non-solutions, for China’s policy of creeping territorial grab

China increases military presence along India border » Sirf News

[Indian troops on LAC]

Strange, but there was no mention of the troubles the country is facing on the disputed border with China by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his latest monthly edition of radio talk “mann ki baat” on May 30. It is as if all is normal on the national security front and Beijing, emulating the Modi regime, has fully imbibed the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirits and is committed to resolving all issues peacefully. Except, a month plus into the confrontation with China, Beijing’s territorial grab at various points on the 3,800 km disputed border, especially in the western sector, is reality.

The Narendra Modi government and the Indian army’s response to this aggression has been along predictable lines. It is being officially stated that (1) there has been no territorial loss, (2) India has adequate forces to deal with any China front-related contingency, and (3) existing negotiation mechanisms at various levels ranging from field commanders at one end, MEA, to the hotline connecting the Prime minister and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the other end, are working to defuse the situation.

The third factor — diplomacy and negotiation — that the army and the government are stressing and is being publicized is possibly because that’s what they are relying on to restore a modicum of peace but on Chinese terms — meaning Delhi’s acceptance of the new territorial status quo, because the Indian army, honestly speaking, is in no position forcefully to restore the status quo ante. As regards, the first two assertions — well, to put it bluntly, they are false.

There has been serious and extensive capture of territory over time on the Indian side of the claim line by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), most recently and egregiously in the eight terrain features, called “fingers” abutting the Pangong Lake (discussed in the preceding post) . The wide-area satellite imagery that has been available to the Indian government since well before Narendra Modi became prime minister ought to have alerted the army and government to the larger picture of relentless expansion of its presence on the LAC but did not. Why not, is a legitimate matter for investigation. It proves not just the loss of valuable real state elsewhere, but particularly here in one of the most strategically sensitive regions.

The government’s military pointman on the China border issue, the Mandarin-speaking Lt Gen SL Narasimhan, one-time commander XXXIII Corps, Military Attache in Beijing, and presently a member of the National Security Advisory Board, firstly voiced the unexceptionable opinion that the reason PLA has acted up is to hinder military-use border infrastructure construction proceeding apace on the Indian side. Like the long, high altitude, Chewang Rinchen bridge across the Shyok River in eastern Ladakh connecting Durbuk with Depsang via Murgo. Secondly, he attributed the clashes on the LAC to the summer patrolling season, and conceded that territory may have been lost owing to an undefined border. He then adopted a variant of the MEA line that nothing’s amiss to make a perplexing statement: “I think [the Chinese] are trying to lay claim to their perception of LAC. I don’t think it should be seen as if they want to pick up territory or otherwise. It should be seen as they are trying to lay claim to their perception of the LAC.”

Well, what is it, General Narasimhan? Has the PLA ventured onto the Indian side and captured territory, or not? China’s laying “claim to [its] perception of LAC” surely amounts to its creating a new LAC and “picking up” Indian territory, no? Or does he think the enemy’s “perception of LAC” can be abstracted from his activity to realize his perception on the ground? In any case, what kind of hair splitting is this, and that too by an army general? In the event, nothing good can be assumed about the quality of his advice to the government. (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/face-off-along-lac-in-ladakh-chinese-build-up-will-be-matched-says-nsab-member-6432174/)

Narasimhan’s confused and confusing statements notwithstanding, there’s in fact a methodical buildup by the PLA of staging areas, including a forward air field in Ngari, shelters for infantry combat/light armoured vehicles and associated stores, permanent shelters for troops, etc. on India’s side of the claim line that leaves little doubt as to Beijing’s intent to convert this line into the new LAC, one from which it will not withdraw.

But this is not the sensible conclusion reached by the government. Modi’s thinking, embellished by MEA and the likes of Narasimhan, is reflected, for instance, in today’s newspaper op-ed by the ex-foreign secretary Shyam Saran, also Mandarin conversant, who believes that despite the construction by the PLA of military facilities on various sites on the LAC, China will withdraw upon a negotiated settlement. (See https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/as-the-lac-heats-up-reading-china-s-playbook/story-0b7pzNwsL282ktzMsj5YWK.html). It is an MEA pipe dream the Indian government has long been lulling itself into quiescence with. On the ground though, per Saran’s own report India as of 2013 lost 640 sq kms of territory — a loss that may have doubled by now with China’s policy of creeping occupation of contested and strategically important territory.

Recent writings by senior retired army officers attest to this territorial loss. The outspoken Lt Gen HS Panag, Northern army commander 2006-2008, is forthcoming on this score. Panag, it may be remembered, was transferred by the then army chief General Deepak Kapoor to the Central Command to serve out his career for initiating an investigation into the so-called “eggs and tents” scam occurring during his predecessor Kapoor’s tenure in Udhampur, (See https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Army-chief-gets-his-way-Panag-shifted-out-of-JK/articleshow/2814108.cms)

Panag writes that “the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km. There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok.” More worryingly, the territory the PLA has actually secured may be many times more because, he asserts, “the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km. Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase exponentially.” [Refer https://theprint.in/opinion/china-believes-india-wants-aksai-chin-back-thats-why-it-has-crossed-lac-in-ladakh/430899/].

Labeling the slow but deliberate occupation of Ladakhi real estate as “provocations”, the more cautious vice chief of the army Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, 2000-2001, writes, that on the 489 km-long LAC in Ladakh, the “traditional disputed points” at Trig Heights and Demchok, are “now expanded to ten” with China raising fresh disputes on the Pangong Tso and at Chumar. Oberoi also recalled from his time as member of the China Study Circle, the apex China policy-making body, that MEA’s accommodationist ideas invariably prevailed over the army’s views. (https://www.thecitizen.in//en/NewsDetail/index/4/18814/The-Many-Reasons-For-Chinas-Transgressions-Across-LAC).

Interestingly, while both Oberoi and Panag blame the dual-control the army wields on the LAC, and particularly in the Ladakh sector, with the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police for the surprise the PLA was able to spring on the army, the latter also rounds off on the external intelligence service RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) for the fiasco. “At the strategic level, it was the failure of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to detect the build-up of the PLA formations from the rear bases to replace the border defence units”, avers Panag, before admitting that the army’s “tactical surveillance with UAVs and patrols has been inadequate to detect this large-scale movement close to the LAC.”

According to Panag, brigade-sized PLA forces are deployed in the Galwan valley and the north bank of Pangong Tso, and possibly “precautionary deployment…at likely launch pads for offensive and other vulnerable areas along the LAC”, with adequate reserves no doubt placed to be readily at hand “to cater for Indian reaction/escalation”. In support are the upgraded Ngari base hosting fighter aircraft, with “additional troops” posted in the Depsang plains, Hot Springs, Spanggur Gap, and Chumar. This is a good reading of the state of affairs in Ladakh.

[Reproduced below are the two maps, perhaps, with his own markings that General Panag attached with his article.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Likely-area-secured-by-PLA-in-North-Bank-Pangong-Tso.jpg
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Likely-area-secured-by-PLA-in-North-Bank-Pangong-Tso.jpg

But what is transparent to Panag is not so plain to Narasimhan. According to the latter, it isn’t at all clear to the government and the army brass just how many PLA troops there are on or proximal to the LAC, nor the specific numbers of PLA troops that may have transgressed into Indian territory to set up camp. “I have heard variations from 500 to 5,000 to 10,000. It will be extremely difficult to predict,” he states. But the adversary’s force strength is not a matter of “prediction” but a conclusion to be reached on the basis of multiple-sourced information and intelligence, lot of it available in the open realm. But this only points to the larger problem — the Indian military’s inability to estimate the kind of forces the PLA High Command can bring to bear against it, in this case, what forces can be detached at short notice from the 200,000-strong main force based in Tibet to partake of contingent hostilities on the LAC. Without this predicate, plans cannot be made for resisting the operational punch of such PLA deployment. In the circumstances, Narasimhan’s comment that “It is not required to predict the numbers…. if there is a build-up from Chinese side, there will be an equal build-up from our side” is less than reassuring.

In the event, is it the army’s contention that it will be able to summon a Tibet-based PLA sized force if and when it is needed? If so, then unbeknownst to many of us we, the armed services included, are inhabiting cloud cuckoo land where military prowess can be conjured out of thin air, the country is ‘atm nirbhar’, and there’s nothing the country needs to do save await the multi-trillion dollar economic great power status round the corner. Alas, in the real world, the severely depleted War Stock of ammo, artillery shells, and chemical explosives means the movement of guns and longrange artillery to the Ladakh frontlines is of little avail. A down-to-earth assessment would question the Indian army’s ability to survive 6-7 days hostilities against the PLA conducted at full tilt, even if restricted to the LAC.

The still grander malady lurks elsewhere. Here I can do no better than revert to my pet theme of two-odd decades that the army, because it disproportionately stresses the minor Pakistan threat, has lacked the resources to invest in comprehensive capabilities to fight China defensively on the LAC and, even less, offensively across it, leave alone take on China and Pakistan in a two-front war — an unwarranted boast the Indian military brass routinely make. It was a case last iterated in my India Today column of January 26 this year [Refer https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20200203-two-front-war-a-convenient-fiction-1639507-2020-01-24; it was posted on this blog].

As detailed in my earlier writings and at length in a chapter in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), there is a practical solution, the only one, staring the country in the face, short of the Modi sarkar committing 3%-4% of GDP every year for the next 15-20 years for the purpose of achieving an all-aspect force for the China front that is as large as it is sophisticated, and matches up with the PLA on all counts. Such gigantic fund sequestration being unlikely, my solution is unavoidable. It requires the implementation of far reaching measures — the army reverting to 5-7 year colour service for jawans and in lieu of pensions a one-time grant to demobilized jawans (to slice the pensions/payroll expenditure by half or thereabouts), majorly derating the Pakistan threat, rationalizing the three strike corps into a single composite corps, and diverting the freed up manpower and relevant war materiel to raising two additional offensive mountain corps equipped with light (30-35 ton) tanks, for a total of three such corps each with, among other things, integral air assault/air cavalry units for taking the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan plateau.

These and other recommendations were featured in the classified report I authored, as adviser, defence expenditure, and which report was ceremonially submitted along with the main documents by KC Pant, chairman, 10th Finance Commission, to the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and hence to the (Narasimha Rao) government, exactly 25 years ago. That report, relegated to a back shelf in some office in the Ministry of Defence, must by now have collected a heap of dust.

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 asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian para-military forces, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Tibet, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Band aid, tactical non-solutions, for China’s policy of creeping territorial grab

  1. Pratap AR says:

    As per some of the Analysts, indian claims were enforced only till Finger 4 atleast from 2004 .From finger 4 to finger 8 was not anyway under indian control with Chinese building roads there .Is this claim true? If so,it will concur with the point that there is no intrusion..

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi sir….if I am not wrong, then China wants to cut India’s access to siachen glacier, from Depsang plain, so that it gets direct access to Gilgit Baltistan from Aksai Chin and then completely encircle India in J&K region. Even Amb. P Stobdan talked about China’s desire of gaining access to Shyok river.
    Am I right sir??

  3. Surya says:

    Shouldn’t we add a clause in our nuclear policy that if China and Pakistan attack us simultaneously we will attack both countries with nukes or at least first wipe out Pakistan.

  4. V.Ganesh says:

    Why doesn’t the GOI order the IA and the IAF to kick out the Chinese from Ladakh?

  5. mohan says:

    sir,
    im sure you must be a veteran of many battles, and represented India in many international crisis(sic)…i remember how in one old article you were all praise for the paki jf17 at some airshow compared to tejas ……..me,im just an indian yokel,who doesnt like to see his countries faujis in poor light……..having no knowledge of weapons or tactics,but i will always support them,even if they hold the guns upside down..

    • You mis-remember. Just go back to my posts on the 2016 Bahrain air show on this blog and my other writings on the subject. I praised the Tejas to the high skies, pardon the pun, as part of my continuing advocacy to make this the main platform of the IAF; and I trashed the JF-17. To show up the military in critical light is not to show down the fauji; on the contrary it is to improve the country’s defence posture.

  6. Raakesh Baskaran says:

    What is the way out of this then? Or are we doomed to forever tiptoe around China?

  7. ravi says:

    Sir, why did India accept LAC? Why did the Indian govt not raise the issue of China’s occupation of Aksai Chin since 1962 in UN like Pakistan raises the Kashmir issue just to keep it alive, and to raise new claims in Tibet, like Nepal’s claiming India’s Kalapani, to put pressure on the Chinese to settle aksai chin issue on the Macartney–MacDonald Line instead of the Johnson line?

    • India took the Kashmir dispute to the UN and lost out. With China in the Security Council, taking the Aksai Chin matter to that body will indirectly resurrect the Kashmir issue in that international body, something that was buried with the Simla Agreement.

      • manofsan says:

        China isn’t a signatory to the Shimla Agreement. All these years, the Chinese have been claiming that Kashmir is a dispute to be sorted out between India & Pakistan exclusively. They always obscured the fact that they too were involved in the dispute, because of Aksai Chin. But now China’s direct activities have brought them from the shadows into the spotlight. It’s important that maximum attention by international media be raised over what China is doing, in order to properly expand awareness of China’s game.

  8. mohan says:

    sir,
    when ever numerous analysts discuss future indian war scenario’s with china or pakis then they never fail to mention the humiliation india will face against the chinese or the huge losses they will against the pakis….but the same people say that its difficult for america to take on North korea or for china to capture taiwan although in tech and manpower both lag behind india respectively, india being placed fourth in military ranking….why this bias,why are indian forces portrayed in poor light….even after being ranked 4th?????

  9. Swanand D says:

    This seems to be a Kargil like situation, albeit with a better prepared occupying force. Should a limited war happen, are we in a position and adequacy of arms, ammo, and manpower to get back the lost territory? What could be a long term solution to this Chinese aggression so that they don’t dare again?

    • Honestly speaking, no.

      • RG says:

        Mr Karnad, no to what? That it is not a Kargil like situation?

        This is what I gather:

        They have finger 4 now, the point where we were ablt to patrol earlier. We were able to patrol between finger 4 and 8. Substantial area. Now we can hardly go till finger 4.

        Gen. Panags assessment is we would require 2 divisions in the future and the vast swathe is as susceptible to our incursions in the future? On our future incursions: I think its feasible but would require substantial logistics and planning as it would be a proactive move, I think if we plan in advance we can pull this off.

        I think we should seriously think about it, i see this happening, they being so in the bone when it comes to strategy would do it, we should preempt this.

        So yes, in terms of territory, we lost some, its compounded as its very strategic geographically.

        I ve read little but I ve read from both sides, have i got it right? Kindly comment

      • Swanand D says:

        Our response should be like this… If the Chinese are giving us a headache, we should give them a migraine!! However, we are on the defensive again. Don’t you think this is our collective mindset at work and we feel more at home with setbacks! This must be addressed at the earliest. How did this mentality creep in into our minds, is it not a bigger problem? What is the reason we find ourselves on the backfoot always? How can this mindset be fixed?

      • For the answers, read my Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet).

  10. Vishnugupt says:

    @Prof Karnad

    Instead of dissecting the border issue like this, wouldn’t it be wiser for us to look at the big picture. Which is “Why is Emperor Xi the Pooh”doing this on a larger scale amidst a global Pandemic.

    Now, I know what Sun Tzu said about attacking ones enemy when they are the weakest, but Beijing isn’t exactly at the peak of it’s strength either, as they clearly miscalculated the extent of devastation that Sarscov2 will unleash, before they decided to let it spread.

    So it is clear as day that Beijing is obviously nervous and is doing everything in its capacity to stop companies from leaving China as a fallout.

    This is the sole reason which explains their renewed zeal on border aggression.

    This is their Achille’s heel, which India can exploit shoud it develop a spine and outlaw all the militant labour unions and scarp all the labour laws in manufacturing sector and fix land laws, which were put in place by the Left parties in India on China’s behest from 1991 onwards.

    This will do more damage to China than a 3.3mt DF-3A going off in Shanghai.

    Right now they seemed to have successfully bullied us to stop luring their companies with tax exemption and no labour laws like they did under Deng from 1978 onwards.

    So my question to you is this Since we are at a obvious disadvantage at LAC to make the Chinese back off, due to 60 yrs of lethargy in building border infrastructure and testing Thermo nukes, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop worrying about them capturing some barren area, where not even a blade or grass grows (as once observed by the great startegist Mr Nehru)

    And cut the Chinese jugular vein by luring their companies out.

    As the only force the Chinese Communist leadership fear is its own people turning against them.

    Let us not waste a pandemic and make their worst nightmare come true.

    It is high time someone tells the middle kingdom that their mighty dragon is just a myth, it doesn’t exist.

    And that the world knows it now.

    • By as usual, putting the cart before the horse, Nehru created labour unions in the European fashion before there was a worthwhile manufacturing sector and by watering down the sovereign imperatives of the state to take land for any reasons it deemed necessary, a monster corpus of rules and regulations that prevented easy acquisition of land and converting them for profitable use, and strong labour unions were created that hinders and hampers India’s economic growth. No govt, starting with Narasimha Rao’s that began liberalizing the economy, has had the conviction and the political gumption to sweep these self-created legal barriers aside. I, for one, had hoped a strong regime under Narendra Modi would by now had cleared the mess. Alas, the mess is still there along with the high flying rhetoric!

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