India’s squeamish attitude towards China is a liability, the army should implement more violent rules of engagement and prepare for limited war

Over 5000 Chinese Soldiers Intrusion in the Indian Territory | The ...
[Confrontation in more peaceful times]

Developments on the border with China are taking a turn for the worst. The Indian government and army seem surprised by the vehemence of the intruding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers when asked by patrolling Indian army jawans to keep to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). That they have in the last two weeks, time and again, resorted to violence suggests this is not an outcome of local imbalance of forces, or a tense situation going akilter, as many retired Indian generals believe is the case. Alone among the major armed forces of the world, the PLA is comprehensively top-driven, with the lower field and unit commanders enjoying little discretionary power. There’s simply too much at stake for Beijing to leave it to local commanders to blunder about in what is plainly a hazardous policy terrain.

     At the local level then the PLA troops are scrupulously following orders. There is little doubt their aggressive stance is prompted by the highest military authority in China — the Central Military Commission (CMC) — chaired by President Xi Jinping; this new found bellicosity as evident in eastern Ladakh as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. While exploiting the disjunctions in a COVID-19 ravaged world to advance its geopolitical goals, Beijing doesn’t want to tip the situation over into where everybody gangs up even more against it.

It is a risky exercise but Xi believes he can punish India – China’s putative rival in Asia, take it down a notch or two in the subcontinent, and show it up as a political light weight to its smaller neighbours (Pakistan, Nepal) so they can  take liberties with it. For this purpose the forward-deployed PLA units are instructed to physically belabour Indian troops and otherwise raise the tension and the temperature without having these encounters spill over into uncontrollable military hostilities. Beijing is convinced it can do this at no great cost and so far it has been proved right. The Modi government seems unable to muster other than timid and confused statements in response even as Indian jawans and officers are assaulted with barbaric weapons – steel spikes-embedded batons, cantina wire wrapped rods, etc. redolent of the medieval age.   

China’s belligerent reaction to the matching Indian border infrastructure build-up – far less dense than on the Chinese side, especially in eastern Ladakh, is hardly surprising and ought to have been anticipated by the Indian intelligence services and the army. It is curious the entire process of the PLA building up its encampments in the Galwan River Valley went unnoticed by any Indian agency. This doesn’t sound true because the Delhi-based Defence Image Processing and Analysis centre (DIPAC) that interprets Indian satellite-derived imagery data regularly onpasses its assessments to RAW, IB, PMO, Military Intelligence in Army HQrs, etc..

Moreover, given the sub-metre resolution cameras on Indian satellites the Chinese construction activity would have been picked up very early, perhaps, as far back as 8-10 months ago. So, how come the Indian army and Modi government were clueless?

     That the PLA is sitting pretty on the Galwan and in the area between the hill features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake is in no small part because the Indian army is not proactive and did nothing as the Chinese constructed their facilities in both these locations. By controlling the foothills and the approaches to the Galwan River fronting on the newly constructed Karakorum Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang road, complete with a superbly engineered bridge over the Shyok River, for instance, the PLA now commands the heights and is in a position to interdict Indian military traffic at will.

Considering this road supplies the army’s Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier and affords the Indian army easy access to the Karakorum Pass, the first thing the army should have done after the Border Roads Organization laid down the alignment for this road some ten years back was to protect this asset by pre-emptively securing the foothills and, hence, the heights on the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers. It would have closed out PLA’s options on the Indian highway. The army blundered by not implementing so basic a precautionary military measure.

     Why it didn’t do so, is one of those issues where there will be a lot of finger pointing and no accountability. But this reflects a laidback attitude of the army that conforms to the Indian government’s equally lackadaisical, historically complacent, outlook when dealing with China. This combination has allowed the PLA, post-1962 War, to affect incremental grabs of Indian territory resulting in a loss of over 60 sq kms in the Galwan Valley alone and some 1,300 sq kms in all on the LAC fin de siecle onwards. This is the Chinese policy of creeping annexation that will surreptitiously realize for Beijing its territorial claims to the fullest extent.

Based on land grabs here, feints there, the PLA periodically presents the Indian army and government with new territorial faits accomplis that go unchallenged, whence there are ever newer alignments of the LAC and reality. This has happened on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso. It suits the Xi dispensation to keep the border undefined and to string Delhi along with promises of dispute resolution in the Special Representatives forum. The perennially hopeful Indian government always falls for it and may do so again.

The brutal killings of Indian infantrymen, including a Lieutenant Colonel of the 16 Bihar Regiment on the Galwan slopes has, however, radically transformed the crisis,  increased its political gravity. The Indian people will simply not be satisfied with Narendra Modi’s usual bluster – though he was quiet until last (June 17) evening when he voiced a wishy-washy commitment about responding in kind. In his televised statement the Prime Minister said India ‘will respond if it is provoked’. Not sure what he meant by ‘if it is provoked’ when the Chinese troops are already deep inside Indian territory on the LAC, have entrenched themselves there, and Beijing has declared the Galwan Valley and the area covered by Fingers 4 & 8 in the Pangong Tso region as parts of China.  Is this insufficient provocation? If so, then, perhaps, the government is setting the scene for India’s acceptance of this redefined LAC with the Galwan and Pangong Tso areas that PLA has newly occupied as Chinese territory.

That said, several steps need to be taken urgently. The Indian mountain infantrymen deployed on the LAC, other than normal weapons, have to be equipped with nail-studded heavy wooded baseball bat-type weapons with standing instructions for first use against PLA troops at close quarters.

The larger, more meaningful, action that’s imperative and will have to follow is a conspicuous military operation – not some Balakot-type of secret strike with a dubious outcome.

If in 1998 the Indian army forcibly vacated the Kargil ridge overlooking the road supplying Leh of Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry troops, then why would it and the BJP government tolerate PLA’s control of the Galwan frontage imperilling the lifeline to the Siachen Glacier, Daulat Beg Oldi, and the Karakorum Pass?

To those who argue that maintaining all-year outposts on the remote Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers would be prohibitively expensive and beyond India’s capacity, they need to be reminded that the army has for 40 years sustained its presence on the Siachen glacier, which is remoter and at a much higher altitude. Manpower wise, larger numbers of army units, on rotational duty, will need to be processed through the ongoing high-altitude acclamatization programme.

Whatever its financial, political and diplomatic cost, Modi can motivate the people to bear it, because his government cannot avoid ordering such a military operation to evict the Chinese. Nothing less will do, not if the PM means to retain even a semblance of his “nationalist” credentials.

It will mean embarking on a localised limited war, and some sections of the army, albeit in a minority support this option. Should the government approve such a mission, it will have to publicly define these parameters before it gets underway just so, like Pakistan in Kargil, China is aware from the start of the Indian military’s focus and severely limited goal.  By way of strategic cover for this action and to deter China from escalating this fight into something bigger – even though there’s zero possibility of this happening, India should publicize the forward deployment of Agni missiles, and alert the Arihant SSBN on patrol for possible attacks on China’s economic heart – the Shanghai coast and its immediate hinterland.

The recovery of the Galwan in particular can be preceded by a set of punitive economic measures to show India means business. One, Huawei should be banished from the telecommunications sector for security reasons. Two, extraordinary tariffs ought to be imposed on all Chinese goods without exception, justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies all exporting companies ex-China benefit from, and three, Beijing must be informed that this closing of China’s access to the Indian market can be reversed in stages depending on verifiable withdrawal of PLA from all the points where it has ingressed. The financial steps announced to-date by the government against certain Chinese companies are small time and don’t move the needle much.

It is doubtful if Delhi has the balls to do any of this. Especially because there’s no indication of Modi junking the Indian government’s historic appeasement mindset and relying on a military solution to restore the status quo ante, national self-respect and equilibrium in the relations with China.


A shortened and edited version entitled ‘India-China standoff: Creeping land grab is classic Beijing feint; small punitive steps won’t help, Delhi must prepare for limited war’ published in Firstpost, June 18, 2020, 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 arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Tibet, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to India’s squeamish attitude towards China is a liability, the army should implement more violent rules of engagement and prepare for limited war

  1. RG says:

    Carpet bomb askai china with nukes to cut off TAR, then drop drop across LAC to neutralize them coming from behind, simultaneously launch forward action.

    Askai china is ours, they claim it too, so we can nuke our own land. Lets make them sweat. China will be cut to size once and for all. Also, nuke the karakoram highway under our claims lock stock n barrel. nuke in such a way that no one can enter there for all times to come.

    • manofsan says:

      What if we placed nuclear mines along the LAC, and China did the same? That would then put an end to “salami slicing” tactics by China. Even the largest attacking force could be defeated by the triggering of nuclear mines by either side.

      • That’s what I have argued in my book Staggering Forward.

      • manofsan says:

        And yet if we were to put nuclear mines on the border, with China also doing the same, then they’d be in a much more secure position to cut off our water supply by damming up vital rivers.

    • Anand says:

      We’ll good idea but considering Chinese do have proven missiles and fusion bombs. Don’t seem to be a good idea too.

  2. vivek says:

    Any idea if we have already given up Galwan as it is now occupied by China?

    • Hope not, but seems like it.

      • manofsan says:

        Galwan is one thing – but now they’ve killed a couple of dozen of our people. Is this not a violation of the ceasefire agreement? Should we bombard their new encampment from afar? Or can we hit some mountain passes to isolate their forward positions?

  3. GV Giri says:

    Dear Sir, supplies to Siachen are from souther side, from Leh, not from DBO. Till now, Siachen is still secure. But otherwise a very good suumary by you. If you would agree to come on a call to speak to investors please let me know. I am with IIFL Institutional Equities in Mumbai. Regards. Giri

    • Will be happy to once the COVID constraints are eased.

      • manofsan says:

        Sir, what happened to China carefully cultivating its image based on the “peaceful rise of China”? Their mask seems to have slipped off. Currently, nearly every one of China’s neighbors is on the receiving end of aggressive action from it. Can all of China’s neighbors band together for a collective defense?

  4. Sohamg says:

    Could you tell us the source based on which you assume that china has grabbed 60 kms of indian land?

    • The former Northern Army commander Lt Gen HS Panag who, apparently keeps in touch with officers and units who served under him, has so written. For reference see a previous post in which this was first mentioned.

      • manofsan says:

        “That said, several steps need to be taken urgently. The Indian mountain infantrymen deployed on the LAC, other than normal weapons, have to be equipped with nail-studded heavy wooded baseball bat-type weapons with standing instructions for first use against PLA troops at close quarters.”

        Sir, why bats with nails? Why not swords, knives, spears, tridents, bows-and-arrows? What about slings with rocks? What’s so special about bats with nails, that they get special preference?

        If you tell me that shields are inherently defensive weapons, and thus more politically justifiable, then what new dirty tricks would China use against these? Clearly the Chinese want to use dirty tricks to gain an edge, especially when executing land grabs. So what kind of escalation ladder could be expected in regards to dirty tricks?

  5. dxrickss says:

    You think Chinese spies have infiltrated Defence Image Processing and Analysis centre (DIPAC) ? Or this is just regular bureaucratic laziness ?

    P.S: I read in Hindustan Times that PLASSF is trying to DDOS Indian banking infrastructure but haven’t been quite successful. These were traced back to Unit 61398 in Chengdu. It would be great if you will write about how susceptible government, civil and military infrastructures are, to chinese cyber attacks?

    Can Chinese pull off something like Russia did while annexing Cremia?

    • No, DIPAC’s not to blame. It was regular in sending reports to the government. As regards our cyberwar capabilities and preparedness, the less said the better.

      • manofsan says:

        China seems to have a couple of brigades’ worth of troops in the area now. Can they really survive the winter in those numbers? When posts normally have to be abandoned in the winter, how can they support them? Will Galwam Valley fingers be like their Siachen against us?

      • No, it’ll be like Pakistan holding the Kargil heights.

  6. Indian says:

    Mr Karnad,
    For what it’s worth, Modi’s statement “sacrifice will not go in vain” always followed a kinetic action (one can argue if it achieved anything etc and the scale of the action), but, my gut feel if that there is going to be something soon. Another indication is the silence of all too ministers for a day or two before consulting military brass (presumably on the options)

    All available imagery show PLA still on Chinese side of previously redrawn LAC, but, Pangong seems to be a whole another story. Without any kinetic action, that is a goner.

    On the larger picture, I don’t see why GOI doesn’t have the balls to say the whole area is ours. It keeps making makinn diplomatic statement that I’m sure even confuses the spokesperson who reads it out. Rather than leave it to citizens, it is legitimate to say “All imports from China invite 20-30% tarrifs and no Chinese company to be involved in any project in India”. They don’t want to say that, but, have the trade bodies make a statement.

    Mr Karnad – does my above opinion make sense? If the option is to go kinetic – why can’t Indian army do a tit-for-tat and occupy some other areas and take it from there? This way, China can’t claim India is aggressor”. (Though everyone knows who it is)

    • Let’s wait and see what kinetic action transpires.

      • manofsan says:

        Before pushing back at China on LAC, should we first take precaution of shoring up our position by dislodging Nepal from China’s grip? It seems that “salami slicing” is only one facet of China’s creeping encroachment. I’ve always felt that China had a hand in the downfall of Nepal’s monarchy, and in the guerrilla war that soon sprang up. I feel like this was all correlated with the arrival of US troops near China’s western flank following 9-11.

      • Indian says:

        Hmm.. my hunch was Soooo wrong. Essentially PM gave Pangong Tso to China.

      • Very difficult. And it would mean permitting China to consolidate its new occupation.

      • Indian says:

        Ok. Clarification issued and so I’m going back to my hunch. Sorry, with him making that statement and doubling down on Twitter made me think that kinetic option was out.
        Expecting something (though it won’t be immediate)

  7. Vidyasagar says:

    Bharat sir, just now in an interview general Narasimhan said that there is a difference between galwan valley region and galwan Valley. And China has claimed former while later belongs to India. Is he hiding behind vocabulary or he is right. He said that sometimes talk go for longer duration. And perhaps he is validating what you said. That government will not take military route.

  8. Vidyasagar says:

    Bharat sir, in an interview with print General Narasimhan has said that there is a difference between galwan valley region and galwan Valley. China has claimed the former. So will government hide behind vocabulary? He also said that sometimes talk go on for a longer time. And thus validated your point that government will choose the easier way out.

  9. Swanand D says:

    If this limited war happens, for how long we may have to sustain it? And do you think our actions would give, by the same token, other China tormented neighboring nations some courage to respond in a similar way!

  10. sam says:

    Quite unfortunate to see a lame, flaccid, standard response from the PM concerning the chinese ambush, I can’t image the pain and suffering of the soldiers who were bludgeoned to death in the dark, freezing cold, some plunging to their deaths in the ravines. And after such a brutal and treacherous attack on our men, our EAM rushes for another meeting with their’s and not a hint of what actually transpired on the monday night. I’m convinced, even if searched for, it’d be difficult to find such a spineless, cowardly and timid country such as ours. Can’t even retaliate when our boys are butchered in cold blood, why are we spending 60 billion on defence for? It’s soldiers today, citizens tomorrow, pathetic. It deeply saddens my heart, and I don’t envy you Mr. Karnad, you have to deal with this incompetence and perfidy day in and day out.

  11. rbalmoori says:

    I’m really confused by the Galwan valley claims. I have looked at google maps and it shows the major part of the Galwan valley on the Chinese side of the LAC. (I’m assuming the dotted line on google maps is the LAC.) A part of the Galwan valley just before it merges in the Shyok is on the Indian side.

    • It is the control of the heights on the Galwan fronting on the Indian highway, which is Indian territory, that is of India’s concern.

      • manofsan says:

        Can we build another highway safely farther back? Why was it built so close to the front line? Or was that our only option for building a highway?

  12. ranjith says:

    I’m not sure if the our Govt is aware or not, but Google is showing Finger 4 as the LAC and Bing is showing somewhere between 4 and 5.

  13. Ravi says:

    Sir in my view chinese puppets nepal and pakistan should be told about consequences of any misadventure right now.Threaten communist nepal of permanently annexing terai areas of nepal like russia annexed crimea from ukraine as people there are pro india (culturally,religiously,ethnically same as UP,biharis) and threaten pakistan with annexing gilgit baltistan if they want to open another war front now, then start a limited war with china if they dont go back.Also simultaneously build up pressure in south china sea with QUAD and anti china allies so that chinese wont be able to concentrate fully on aksai chin.On economic front ban huawei and chinese apps as a security threat,also put very heavy tariffs on chinese products so that it ll be impossible for them to do business in india. Also overtly or covertly support break up china forces like tibetans,uiguar muslims,inner mongolia,hongkong, taiwan and all ethnic minorities in china who have problem with han chinese.

  14. Sohamg says:

    When the Chinese say “peace”,they actually mean”we will take a ‘piece’ of your land and ‘piss’ you off but you should remain ‘peace’ful ……”

  15. Bharat, please clarify one item regarding your point about intelligence. Was there a delay in presenting the intelligence to the top brass in the GOI/Army? What was the time frame between having the intel and action by the government?

    Frankly, while economic measures have their place, I think we are underestimating the CPC’s ability to anticipate this and pass the cost onto the people west it the bamboo curtain (a place that, according to Chinese acquaintances here in the States, looks like Africa). Forget paying attention to Mahabharata, our people could intuit geopolitics if they simply paid attention to those saas/bahu nataks. Military action is overwhelmingly the biggest slide of the solution pie.

    • DIPAC processes raw data collected from Indian satellites and its reports are periodically sent to all the agencies I have mentioned, especially NSA Doval and PMO, and to MI in Army HQrs. In the event, the contention that PM or the COAS was not in the know until lately is not credible.

      • Thank you. Very helpful in inferring the broader agendas of the media commentators.

      • manofsan says:

        I’d read that Chinese forces may have intruded onto Depsang Plains near Siachen. If Siachen is being put under threat, then I see no option but war.

  16. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir. I request your opinion on my view. Sir I think India’s traditional obsession with Pakistan again paid us the price. We were so busy regarding POK ,that we forgot the real threat, i.e, China. We started telling weather forecast of POK, while China came and changed the weather of Ladakh. What is the most funny thing is that there are reports that due to covid, India adopted defensive approach against China (cancelling the exercise to get acclimatized), but against Pakistan we became even more aggressive. So covid can’t be an excuse here. Further re : acclimatization, we are fully acclimatized ( we control Siachen).

    So what do you say sir?


    Thanks for your informative views Mr Karnad. Let me explain our situation with my below analysis.

    1. Military : The Chinese are occupying the heights in Galwan and important strategic spaces at Pangong Tso areas. They seem to be prepared for the long haul as they have been placing about 200K troops in Tibet plus they have the Tibetan communist people’s militias numbering about 100K supporting them. If we have to fight them and take away those heights then we probably need to put 500 – 600 K troops in that region. Considering our pre-occupation with Pakistan and counter insurgency in Kashmir that option may now be difficult to implement.

    Diplomatic : No major power is willing to back us. Not even US, Japan and Australia have said that China has trespassed into our territory and illegally occupying it. Taiwan and Vietnam these two countries have also not supported us. Let us not forget Taiwan still calls herself Republic of China and she backs the territorial claims of the PRC to the hilt and they have not renounced any of their claims(interestingly these are also PRC claims) either in Ladakh, Arunachal, Sikkim, Doklam or the South China sea. In the subcontinent we are embroiled in disputes with Pakistan and Nepal and even Bangladesh, Bhutan as well as Maldives have not completely supported us in this standoff.

    Economic : This is the only option we seem to have at this moment. There are already growing calls to boycott Chinese products. It would be difficult to deal with the boycott of significant Chinese investments in this country in the form of angel investors in forms of companies like Ola, Bigbasket and so forth. But still this is the likely way to fight for me.

    So to summarize our military and diplomatic options are very few so economic boycott is the likely way we should go about. I would love your feedback on the same.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

  18. Pratap AR says:

    What do we make of the PM statement that there is no intrusion into Indian territory? Are we going to maintain status quo? If so what is the purpose of troop buildup on the borders?

    • You mean maintain the new status quo engineered by China.

      • Pratap AR says:

        Yes, that’s what I can infer from the PM statement. We would have lost the Galwan heights and finger 4 to 8 area.But not sure why the Indian troop build up continues if that is the case

      • manofsan says:

        This latest move seems to big and brazen to be construed as a mere “salami slice”. This time, it feels like they’re deliberately provoking us. Could it be that Xi wants a war, to distract his people from the sharp economic slowdown and the worldwide backlash against him over COVID19? Is he deliberately pushing our buttons to engineer a war that suits him?

    • Chinese revised status quo, you mean.

      • Pratap AR says:

        Yes Sir.if that is what is planned, what is the intent of the indian troop build up in LAC?

  19. RG says:

    Mr. Karnad do u think perhaps Gov was counselled/pressured by Russia that we are no match for the chinese? So accept .

    Do u think as of now if we fought their transformational war capabilities and algorithm war (as someone uses these terms) would make it one sided?

    Is algorithm war even used by anyone? is it not in conceptual stage?

    Can we give them a decent fight? Please comment.

  20. Surya says:

    Don’t you think if Mr Modi doesn’t do anything kinetic it will be his last nail (or maybe first ) in his coffin and his muscular image will be left in tatters?

  21. JIm says:

    What are the odds of India winning a limited war against China? Isn’t there a high probability of India losing a limited war against China? Modi bet everything on a policy of isolating Pakistan by wooing China and lost.

  22. smjalageri says:

    Bharat Sir,
    Using Economic Lever is impossible, with most of funding coming from Eastern Neighbour.

    Heavy Tarriffs on Imports would cripple whatever manufacturing we have, right from Silk to Soap Powder.

    Is this game of jaraasandha’s threat to Mathura keep happening?

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