Time for Modi to use the brahmastra now that military escalation is on the cards due to Indian army’s blunder

Area of standoff between Indian and PLA troops in Ladakh part of ...

[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.

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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65 Responses to Time for Modi to use the brahmastra now that military escalation is on the cards due to Indian army’s blunder

  1. Rajesh says:

    Good Evening Mr. Karnad, Thanks for your insights- In your opinion, Is the current conventional capability asymmetry between India & China the prime reason for this aggressive posture by China & extrapolating the present Indian Government Initiatives (Or the lack of it!) do you expect the present asymmetry to further widen in China’s favour going forward & a very tough decade ahead for India? Thanks

    • With current defence expenditure priorities, yes.

      • manofsan says:

        China has taken provocative actions In South China Sea, including against Philippines, against Malaysia raiding its oil platform, intruding into Indonesia’s waters. China has made more provocations against Japan, China has threatened Australia with economic sanctions. China has launched a crackdown on HongKong and increased threatening language towards Taiwan. China has instigated Nepal against us, even while massing troops on our border. Even North Korea seems to be acting up, as part of China’s instigation. And now the attack on our troops. It seems that Xi has set many balls spinning on China’s periphery, looking to create an external distraction, in order to take heat off his govt for the worldwide COVID19 backlash against his govt. Which neighbors will China choose to harass next? Would China seek to bully Vietnam, or perhaps instigate Cambodia against it? We can see Xi’s strategy in play, but which are his next targets? What is China likely to do next?

  2. Sohamg says:

    So do you think that now,that China has gone too far, that China has finally crossed the line,the government and the army will react and give them a befitting response?

    • PLA has already captured some 60 sqkms of Indian territory in Galwan Valley and the Pangong Lake areas. So far there’s been a loy of dissembling by the Modi government but no “befitting reply”. And there’s unlikely to be any.

      • manofsan says:

        What’s the best strategy at the front?

        I think we should build up our road networks to the LAC, and maintain a large permanent troop presence at the safer lower altitudes, so that we can routinely keep rotating in fresh troops into the higher forward areas to pressure the Chinese. Meanwhile, since China’s side is all high altitude plateau (14,000 ft above sea level), there are no low altitude places for quite a ways back. If they’re forced to maintain a large troop presence there all the time, then that would take a toll on them, especially during the bitterly cold winter. The winter is when both sides normally abandon their posts to re-occupy them in the spring, since it’s almost impossible to survive the winter conditions there.

      • Prasad says:

        Could you provide co-ordinates of the 60 sq kms allegedly captured by PLA? Was the allegedly captured area in absolutes possession of India, prior to the alleged capture? How many Indian Border posts were in the said 60 sq km?. & yes the entire erstwhile state of J&K is part of India, legally acceded to by the the then Ruler of the state. “Aksai Chin” area is under illegal Chinese occupation since 1962 & there is a LoAC with buffer zones in between, which are not under possession of either India or China. Has part of the buffer zone, which anyway was not under Indian possession been occupied? Please do clarify with map co-ordinates and their status pre- & post alleged occupation

      • Re: loss of 60sqkms lost in the recent Chinese expansion into eastern Ladakh, please get the rough coordinates from commercial satellite pics of the area between ginger 4 & 8.

      • Prasad says:

        GE Bharat, your response “Re: loss of 60sqkms lost in the recent Chinese expansion into eastern Ladakh, please get the rough coordinates from commercial satellite pics of the area between ginger 4 & 8.” is disappointing.
        Said area between Finger 4 & 8 was NEVER EVER in Indian possession, post 1959. Undoubtedly, we occasionally patrolled in that area, But Indian Army NEVER EVER had a single Border Post in that area.
        Therefore we have NOT “LOST’ area of 60 sq kms, since it was never in our possession, at best we have lost easement i.e. access to those areas, because of Chinese presence.

      • You can come up with a tubful of reasons why China has done nothing wrong — and that’d be WRONG. PLA has built up in an area India army patrolled and not all that infrequently as you suggest.

  3. Navneet R says:

    Wow ! So now Choclate cream soldiers sitting in air-conditioned rooms watching TV , Google on laptop and read some lovely books find fault lines in the thinking of Field hardened experienced Army Generals .
    India truly is a great democracy !

  4. Swanand D says:

    If our leadership musters the courage, should we, can we, start a limited Kargil-type war to clear the PLA out of those heights?

    • We can send Beijing a message with such an operation, but a fearful Delhi won’t order it.

      • manofsan says:

        Is it best to take action on LAC, or should we look at another theatre, like Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits, where we can leverage geography to our advantage?

      • This theatre-switching strategy won’t work. A detailed analysis of why it won’t in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet).

      • Swanand D says:

        Now I’ve realized why we as a nation should become, as you’ve mentioned several times, “bloody-minded” in our strategic strides

      • HA Gokhale says:

        Capturing heights means sustaining troops. With mountainous topography on our side, how realistic is it? On other hand Chinese supply lines pass through through planes.

      • But we are upkeeping the remoter Siachen presence at a higher altitude, and have a working system of supplying in high mountains.

      • A.Kumar says:

        Very thought provoking article.My view is that we go for a short intense war just before the winter sets in in the Ladakh region.If can push back the Chinese and hold the position till the winter sets in assuming that Chinese may not counter attack in the winter.We can use this time to shore up our defences. I am not a strategist but this solution, I feel is workable as the problem for our forces is that they may capture the the Chinese positions but may not be able to hold them for long due to thinned out supply lines.
        Also I feel Modi government has taken initiative for this kind of eventuality like a new mountain corp, light howitzers, Chinook helicopters.Also the concept of integrated battle group is the right concept for this kind of situation.
        To become a super power from a soft power first requires a change of mindset.

      • manofsan says:

        You say switching fronts won’t work – but what about if we expand our weapons exports to other states on China’s periphery? (Similar to the way China has used Pakistan to distract India) Isn’t that a more effective way of switching fronts?

  5. Pratap AR says:

    Looks like casualties are huge on both sides. Are the Chinese still in control of our territory in Galwan? How do you foresee this playing out?

    • China is unlikely to withdraw from its Galwan post. So the army will have to mount ops to vacate Indian territory of their presence. The other option is the one, I fear, Delhi will adopt: Quietly accept a newly aligned LAC.

      • Brig Pradeep Sharma says:

        Two issues strike me. One that a comparison with Siachen is unfair. It takes a huge effort to do that and calls for the Govt clearance. Given the Modi Govts attitude towards the Armed forces there would be no funds. Secondly, there is no option but one of Face saving simply because as a Nation we failed to build ‘Military Power’ to protect National Interests. Depending upon diplomacy alone! How sad that we lose lives because of a failure of leadership in successive Govts and then blame the Army( the Fall guy)

  6. vivek says:

    best option for india is to get out of WTO and impose full sanction on china import , which for sure our govt dont have balls to do!

  7. Manish says:

    Is a limited war between India and China possible,

  8. ranjith says:

    The media narrative is making no sense. They say the Chinese attacked us and killed a few with crude weapons and pushed a few into the ravine. Also, some of the soldiers have been taken captive and were later released after intervention by higher authorities. So how did we inflict casualties when we were so outnumbered to have been taken captive? I’m having serious doubts. What will this do to the morale of frontline soldiers? If there was an agreement for disengagement, why did our Colonel walkover to their post, knowing that they outnumbered us at that time?

  9. Sohamg says:

    The nation is thirsty for blood.So standing up to china will surely benefit india and moreover benefit modi and Bjp politically. Fingers crossed ,Mr.Karnad?

    • Raghav says:

      After reading the article, i understood the gravity of the situation. Mr. Karnad is absolutely right. We now face what we did in 1999. Only difference is we are extremely ill-prepared, caught with our pants down and i hope can only make it out without setting a negative precedent. Nepal is emboldened and this will be a huge demoralizer to Pakistan. While we must teach China a lesson economically, i feel no other govt can do Militarily what Modi can order. Fingers crossed. touchewood. Jai Hind.

  10. Sanket says:

    I wonder if you understand the nuances of sitting on heights as in case of Siachin, which by it self is one too many! Sitting in air-conditioned office doesn’t imply you understand what your retired senior army colleagues in various studios tell you. If it was so simple why these people did’t do it?

  11. Vipul SHARMAA says:

    Are Chinese soldiers who havent fought any REAL war after Korean War More competent than our Battle hardened brave boys ?.?
    And could it be turn into like 1967 skirmish ?
    Pls reply sir

    • Not as battle-hardened, perhaps, but the PLA is driven by a hard-headed, strategic-minded, leadership.

    • Raghav says:

      I really feel we take Indian jingoism to new levels. They have the numbers and the logistics. We don’t. Since 1962 till now, we still are the same there. We still don’t have the capacity there to fight. I hope we can certainly do a lot of damage, but to remain naive on the chinese and their battle hardened capabilities……is childish. Face it. We have a tough grunt to push them back, if our leadership will hopefully give the go-ahead.

  12. snaidu20 says:

    China’s export to India is only 3% of its total export! So to think of stopping that, can be a bramastra for India (given its value in India) but it’s just a simple arrow on China! Besides, they’d have thought over taking this trade loss already.

  13. ranjith says:

    I agree with you in regard to cutting off-market access to China. I don’t see it as a weapon against China but a tool to become self-reliant. I don’t think China/Xi particularly cares for our market that much. For them, it’s a “nice to have” but not a strategic consideration. Maybe in the future, if our GDP ever reaches $8-$10 trillion, but not now.

  14. Raakesh Baskaran says:

    So Mr. Karnad, what next? Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso upto Finger 4 gone. What else is next?

  15. Ravi says:

    Sir,is this not the opportunity India got after a long time to test thermo nuclear weapon and avoid international condemnation,sanctions as this can be portrayed as defense against china and not a threat to other countries and also send a strong message to china.

  16. RG says:

    I was wrong about Ajai Shukla .Him.n gen panag have been warning for almost 3 weeks but no one listened to them . Btw someone mentioned abhijit ,he mixes things up . Modi has been very late

  17. Sohamg says:

    Do you believe the theory that India meddled in Sri Lankan elections and tried to get a pro indian prime minister elected?

  18. Raakesh Baskaran says:

    Dear Mr. Karnad,
    Is there going to be another Kargil like operation? Or is this a sound and light show?

  19. Bharat a incisive series on the Ladakh snafu. Could the softball Indian strategy be a precursor for India to recognise that defacto border adjustments and concessions to accommodate the Chinese hardball stance is the only way available to coexist with China whilst waiting for a more equal alignment of economic and defence capacity? Loss of territory is not equal to ceding claim to it.

    • Thanks, Sanjeev. Possession is 9/10ths of the law (or have I the proportion wrong?)

      • Rajinder Verma says:

        Yes, you are correct. Possession with the wherewithal and will may work. In our case the time is ripe to shift focus & locus towards the West. Look East but focus West. Get as many Green Cards off the Chinese Quota even if it means lobbying, a euphemism for bribing, the entire US Senate!! The key to China lies in the US Senate and can be found in Skardu !!!

  20. Brig Pradeep Sharma says:

    Its good interacting with you.

  21. Avatar says:

    India will be hard pressed to win – but she will win-against Pakistan but not against china even if whole of Anglo cabal comes to military aid of India.

    If India foolishly believes USA will protect and bail them out after being duped to provoke China, then the Indians will be sadly mistaken when the Chinese fight back. This will not end well for India if it continues to serve as the useful idiot cannon fodder for USA. Noticed this border confrontation doesn’t make the front pages of Western mainstream news media — this should be a clue to Indians that when push comes to shove, they cannot count on the West from another humiliating defeat

    • Raghav says:

      Since when did India start tagging US line? US is opportunistic in helping india, but India quite frankly, punched above its own weight and China has caught us with pants down. Hope this gets sorted out and we get back to status quo.

  22. Avatar says:

    Since illegitimate regime of unelected mmsingh, and the Indian army has been starved of fund, guns, and armour helicopters missile range and no support from depleted Air force now reduced to a camel air force.
    We Indians have lived in delusion. of economic prosperity.

    India is in situation worse than 1962. China is much more strong comparatively. China can take on usa let alone India.
    India can not win even against Pakistan so easily. It is not the fault of Indian army but of the politicians who deliberately underfunded and destroyed morale of army and of DRDO which provided local arms.

    Yankees! They have no clue how to avoid the economic catastrophe but to ignite another substantial armed conflict on the global stage. The situation is alarming. Americans are at war with China. All their proxies and allies are engaged in creating havoc on Chinese borders. Subservient (so-called) nations like India and South Korea (and, before long, Japan and Taiwan) move first toward the front line. Bankrupt America is doing the same what they did in the late 30s and early 40s of the 20th century. Will Europeans, at the first instance Germans, repeat the same mistakes of the WW II by fighting again for the interest of British imperialism?

  23. Bharat, there’s a narrative that Russia double crossed India with bad intelligence about the intent of Chinese movements. What’s your view on this?

    • We have our own satellite intel; Russia has not been in the picture for some time now.

      • Thanks. I infer from your reply a dismissal of the view propagated by some prominent people that Russia is in China’s lap per se. I would agree. But what need is there to announce this acquisition of 33 more Russian fighter jets when there are already enough in inventory? Buying Moscow’s political favor?

        Indian media and the aam NRI community in the States had forgotten about Sukhoi with statements such as “ab saat Rafale arahe hein to hum tayar hein” to “ab Sukhoi arahe hein to ye ek force multiplier honge.”

        How much air cover – in time – do these “talks” need to provide to build up reserves and ammunition for a limited war that achieves the objective of pushing the PLA to status quo ante?

      • IAF flies Su-30s out of Leh. How much air cover depends on how deep or shallow is the military objective.

      • manofsan says:

        If IAF frontline aircraft flying out of Leh get involved in hostilities, then won’t they be among PLA’s earliest targets? It feels like VTOL/VSTOL aircraft are needed in India’s inventory, when PLA’s main strategy seems to be in targeting airbases.

  24. ranjith says:

    We need tactical nukes and in large numbers. Strategic nukes will not come into play in a quick Chinese attack on us for limited territory. We need to lower our threshold and declare publicly that tactical nukes will be used against massed armor, infantry within 24hrs of hostilities. The more crazy we act, the less chance of a Chinese attack.

  25. Vijay M says:

    In case of escalation is it possible for China to bring more troops on its western borders?
    It is made to understand that India has an air superiority on Chinese and unlike India most of their air bases in Tibet are commercial air strips converted to military air fields.
    Request your views on the same Sir..

    • In an emergency, virtually any flat hard surface can be used for aircraft takeoff and landing. Commercial airports can be converted to military use in a trice.

      • Prasad says:

        True, but unlike airfields & surfaces, one cannot convert the Tibetian high altitude thin air low oxygen to sea level with decent oxygen levels.
        So irrespective of additional flat hard surfaces, the drawback of sluggish performance of aircraft, restrictions in takeoff weight & resulting inability to carry full loads of weapon stores will continue to constrain the Chinese Airforce

      • No doubt about that. But IAF will still have to fight outnumbered by PLAAF.

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