This is getting seriously worrisome. The media was primed to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally speak about the national security crisis engendered by the bloody border clashes with China; a crisis that with every passing day growingly advantages Beijing. Instead, in his televised address this afternoon the country got more about the corona pandemic and his government’s steps to alleviate hunger of the poor — the hardest hit by it.
The armed confrontation with China is telling on the PM. Modi appeared thinner, deflated. It is as if Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to expropriate Indian territory and zero out the possibility of an Indian military presence in locations (particularly on the Shyok River) potentially threatening the Tibet-Xinjiang highway (No. 219), has let the air out of the Narendra Modi balloon.
Perhaps, Modiji feels that not publicly addressing the fact of a realpolitik-driven adversary itching for a fight will somehow provide him greater purchase with Xi, keep the situation from spilling over into fighting, and allow him more time and negotiating space to persuade Beijing to call off its adventurism and restore the newly drawn Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to its original alignment.
For all his rhetoric (lal ankhen jo dikhayega…etc) minus any mention of China, Modi is no fool. Hence for him to not make an almighty fuss about the brazen Chinese land grab and to act unconcerned, as if Xi’s turnaround and giving back the annexed Indian territory on the Galwan River and in the Pangong Tso area is round the corner, suggests the Indian PM is losing his grip on reality. Or, that he is massively misreading his supposed good friend Xi’s intentions (aided and abetted by the China-appeasers in the foreign service and by Minister S Jaishankar, who pulled time in Beijing as ambassador without knowing a word of Mandarin — talk of getting a runaround in the Forbidden City!).
In the event, Jaishankar’s attempts to lighten the mood by asking his opposite number, Wang Yi, to restore the status quo ante no doubt occasioned mirth in the Zhongnanhai. This because, in the wake of the bludgeonings of 16 Bihar personnel by the PLA, the Xi regime promptly justified its excesses to the world by claiming that the Galwan and the Pangong Lake are and have always been on its side of the LAC, and that the violence was triggered by trouble-making Indian soldiers trespassing into Chinese territory. So, there! The MEA, mealy-mouthed as ever, was preempted by Bejing spokesmen thus strongly making the Chinese case. Whether the Indian or the Chinese view is believed or disbelieved by the international community, what is certain is there’s no sympathy anywhere for India. What there is is the schadenfreude enjoyed by India’s neighbours who too often have felt Delhi’s heavy hand.
The plethora of news reports, especially on TV continue to give the impression of China quaking in its sandals now that the Indian army is entering the theatre in strength, and the IAF is placing Apaches, Su-30s, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s at Leh and other satellite bases. Except, the IAF will have to fight outnumbered should hostilities begin, because PLAAF will switch a lot of its squadrons to this front.
The commentariat, for its part, appropriately featuring a covey of retired militarymen, diplomats, and the usual suspect columnists who started out by urging peaceful negotiation and sounding like MEA careerists, are inching towards more muscular options without any of them clarifying what that action should be and to achieve what end.
So the army is building up to near Division-level force strength in this sub-sector. But the PLA, expecting an Indian riposte, is already fielding brigade-sized artillery and armoured formations in the Depsang plains and beefing up its defensive positions in Chumar and elsewhere where they are emplaced in terrain-wise disadvantaged sites.
Meanwhile the marathon military-to-military talkathons continue at Chushul. The third round that began this morning is heading, as did the earlier ones, to an impasse. Delhi shouldn’t be fooled into expecting any outcome. The Chinese have always used these elongated negotiation sessions to tire out the opponent — not to reach a compromise solution. Decisive results will accrue, to paraphrase Maozedong, from the barrel of a gun, i.e., by a limited war at a minimum.
In this regard, there’s a debilitating belief as much within the government as outside that, if in real trouble, the US will help India out. Indeed, Trump’s pulling US troops out of Germany and the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s taking notice of happenings in Ladakh have been widely interpreted as the US Cavalry preparing to ride to rescue Indians! In actuality, the US is diverting its land forces from their NATO stations in Germany to South Korea and Japan, and last week mounted a 3-nuclear carrier (USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt) operation with some 180 combat aircraft on board and an escort flotilla of two cruisers and three missile destroyers in the Philippine Sea to deter Beijing from pulling a Ladakh-like surprise naval stunt in the nearby South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. This region is America’s focus, not Ladakh. So, if Delhi is waiting for America to take direct action, it may have to wait forever.
As I have been iterating from Day One, there was intelligence failure with Indian satellite information revealing the PLA build-up being ignored by the government for over a year. Lt Gen Kamal Davar, the first Director General, Defence Intelligence Agency, now hints at RAW — the first receiver of satellite data from DIPAC (Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre) being remiss in not passing on this information to the army. (See https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/indian-army-veteran-comments-on-india-china-border-clash-galwan-intelligence-lapse-military). Whosoever is responsible for this particular glitch, such snafus seem par for the course.
I have also all long argued that India must embark on a military counter. The Indian army cannot limit itself to just a holding action in case the situation hots up, which is what it may be planning to do. It has to act to vacate Ladakh of Chinese aggression in toto, secure the heights on the range fronting on the Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang highway and the Shyok River, and to create a hefty military presence on the Pangong and the approaches to Karakorum Pass. Unless India does this it will perennially be at PLA’s mercy. To avoid such a denouement, the western sector of the LAC hereafter will have to be treated as a live military theatre, and developed into a staging area for military action across the LAC and into Tibet by the Indian army and air force. India cannot launch substantial offensive actions into Tibet without having at least three offensive mountain strike corps equipped with 30-35 ton light tanks, a capability the army doesn’t possess.
Politically, there’s little doubt Modi is stepping into what may be a troubling period for him personally. The Ladakh fiasco has shown him up, to use the Chinese phrase, as a “paper tiger”, one that may scare Pakistan some but is a dormouse once the dragon hews into view. The Opposition led by Congress party are mercilessly skewering Modi and unless he shrugs off his diffidence and orders the army to roll-up PLA aggressor units at whatever cost, he will be stuck with the taint of 2020 much as Nehru had the ’62 albatross around his neck. Banning of Chinese apps, barring Huawei and ZTE from the 5G sweepstakes, etc. are small potatoes for a Beijing set to realize its longtime strategic dream of accessing the warm water port of Gwadar as the entrepot for its western provinces. The objective of keeping India as far away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor facilitating it is, therefore, a priority interest that China, by annexing Indian territory, has cemented. This is a military challenge India has to overturn — no two ways about it.
Trying the other day to do his bit to head off the bad notices his boss is attracting Home Minister Amit Shah only prompted a controversy. He messaged on Twitter that “At a time when the entire nation is united, Mr. Rahul Gandhi should also rise above petty politics and stand in solidarity with national interest.” This is a curious statement because, surely, the “national interest” doesn’t lie in everyone unquestioningly supporting Modi’s policy of military inaction. In the light of the PM’s June 19 statement which denied that the Chinese aggressed at all, it would mean that PLA’s annexing Indian territory is in the national interest! Say it is not so, Modiji.