[A face-off now escalating]
I have been proved right so often where China is concerned it is almost besides the point to crow about it.
In all my books — from the first one in 1994 (‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’) to the latest one (Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s global Ambition) in 2018, I have pointed to China as the premier, and only credible, threat that India has to fully commit its resources to somehow neutralizing. I have also repeatedly stressed that the difference between the Indian military and its Chinese counterpart, other than the differential in the quality and quantity of hardware and software available to them, is this: The Indian armed forces’ planning as regards China, is on best case basis, meaning as in the case of the current confrontation in eastern Ladakh, that there’s always diplomacy to fall back on, to defuse the situation should it come to a boil.
The Chinese on the other hand plan and act on the basis of worst case, and prepare accordingly. So, if the local PLA commander is instructed to test Delhi’s resolve by killing a few Indian soldiers on the contested border, their troops carry out the order without having any doubts that their escalatory actions can be followed up with decisive military hostilities on a larger scale. This is simply not so in the Indian case. Yesterday, the Modi government put out that forward field commanders are now free to initiate such retaliatory actions as they deem fit without first getting clearance from Leh or, perhaps, even Delhi.
But — and this the real difference — the Indian army is in no position logistically to escalate the hostilities in kind and to the levels the PLA is capable of doing owing to the dense border military-use Chinese infrastructure in place for some two decades. The Indian buildup has been hesitant, tardy and is, as yet, too thin on the ground to support the forward units engaged in aggravated tit-for-tat actions from spiraling into something more serious in the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Tso. Per a story in the Global Times — a Chinese government rag, in response to the killing of two Indian jawans and a Lieutenant Colonel, five PLA troopers were terminated and 11 more injured. While this is somewhat satisfying at a base level, it is small consolation considering the Indian army, lacking the wherewithal to fight a long duration war in the mountains, is plainly over-matched.
Military folk generally seem to have no bright ideas about what to do next other than, yea, sit down with the Chinese to resolve immediate issues. Lt Gen DS Hooda, the former Northern Army commander and presently adviser to the Congress Party who, along with me, was on an NDTV news programme earlier this afternoon to discuss these latest incidents, after saying the PLA’s violent actions constituted escalation — because for the first time there were fatalities, fell back on that tired old solution of talking this situation out with the Chinese. Implicit in his view that one finds mirrored in the thinking of a number of other retired senior army officers (such as Lt Gen Jaiswal, another ex-GOC-in-C, Northern Command, tapped by another TV channel) is his assessment that the Chinese having taken the measure of India will now relent and stick exclusively to the negotiating table without simultaneously pressing Indian forces militarily in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere on the LAC. How realistic is that?
As I pointed out in my preceding post, the Indian army finds itself in these straits because it committed the cardinal military mistake of not securing the heights in the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok river valleys fronting on the newly built Karakoram Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Durbuk-Tangtse highway supplying Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier, that affords India proximity to the Karakoram. Beijing, mindful of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, its gateway to the warm water port in Gwadar, being vulnerable to Indian military actions off the Karakorum Pass, moved to preempt India from utilizing its new road for the purposes of interdicting CPEC traffic by all but annexing the Galwan Valley areas deep inside the Indian claim line and, in fact, acquiring the location and the means to counter potential Indian pressure on CPEC.
There’s a price to pay for the army’s blunder in this respect. Unless Delhi ups the ante, and threatens to use the brahmastra it has had in its policy quiver but for incomprehensible reasons shied away from using, India will be permanently handicapped. Modi must now use this weapon and threaten China with the loss of access to the vast Indian market in which Chinese companies selling light manufactures, consumer durables (Haier home appliances, air conditioners, etc.), mobile telephony (Huawei, Xiaomi, Gionee, etc) and computer hardware (Lenovo), have acquired a near stranglehold. Modi has talked, as the predecessor Manmohan Singh government did, about requiring China to correct the completely unbalanced trade (with $70 billion Indian trade deficit) but has done precious little over the last six years to force the issue.
Moreover, owing to the Indian government and military’s sub-strategic, small country, mindset, India is hugely disadvantaged all long the LAC. Indeed, as I have argued in my book ‘Staggering Forward’ it is because of the widening military disparity with China that India needs to now go in for atomic demolition munitions in the mountains to stop any serious PLA ingress across the LAC in its tracks, and otherwise adopt a nuclear first use posture featuring forward deployed canisterised nuclear-warheaded Agni missiles that for the first time provide India with launch-on-launch and launch-on warning capability.
The current crisis should be prevented though from getting to beyond that fail safe stage. Modi can do this by publicly raising the economic stakes for Beijing by banning Huawei for security reasons from the Indian telecommunications sector altogether, and by imposing prohibitive tariffs — justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies that all Chinese exporting companies benefit from — on all China-sourced goods without exception, and barring Indian trading outfits — big and small — from buying any products whatsoever from China. The complete cutoff of access to the Indian market should be held in reserve as the ultimate punitive measure. To incentivize Beijing to act “responsibly” on the LAC, phased removal of the newly imposed tariffs should be predicated on complete and verifiable withdrawal of the PLA to well forward of the Indian claim line in eastern Ladakh.
Such hard decisions are bound to surprise Xi and induce in Beijing a sense of caution in dealing with India. Delhi has to use whatever works. India’s conventional military challenge such as it can muster is, from China’s perspective, laughable. The loss of access to the Indian market, however, is whole another matter altogether, and not something Xi will risk, given that Trump is closing off the American market to Chinese exports, and the Chinese economy is slumping. Now is the time for Modi to stop fooling around, stop pulling India’s punches.
This means playing hardball. But there’s no indication Modi has the political will and gumption to play it as Xi does, or the Indian army the will and endurance to fight it out against the PLA. This leaves India in a bad place.