Not a Bang, but a slow leak of gas

34 Indian soldiers missing in Ladakh after India-China soldiers ...
[An Indian patrol in Ladakh]

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 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.

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, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Europe, 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 Politics, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, space & cyber, Tibet, UN, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Not a Bang, but a slow leak of gas

  1. Edelbert Kmenlang Badwar says:

    If after three months of lockdown we still cannot eradicate Covid 19 how do we expect to win against the Chinese.

  2. Rajesh says:

    Hello & Good Evening Dr. Karnad,

    In your opinion, From the Chinese perspective – What’s the minimum take-away China is expecting from this conflict?

    And considering the present scenario, do you think the Indian Government can negotiate it’s way out of this conflict without loosing any territory?

  3. manofsan says:

    Mr Karnad, will you give us some commentary and analysis on the latest announcement from ISRO & Dept of Space on the privatization reforms targeted at the space sector? Given that space is also a new domain for warfare, will privatization of this sector yield appropriate benefits? What will be required for it to do so?

  4. vivek says:

    any idea if russia can intervene with india side in case of war with china?

  5. Ravi says:

    Sir,crest jewel is gilgit baltistan which should be annexed by india at any cost and to stop chinese dream of entering arabian sea through cpec forever. India should come out of status quo attitude and stop attacking only after being attacked by enemy. Make offensive move where it is worth doing it.

  6. Surya says:

    Mr Karnad what are your views about some experts saying that in case hostilities begin the Chinese will pound us with SSMs and destroy everything else with EW,CW and, if they wanted, destroy our political leadership. So why get into a fight to lose?

    • It is a tragedy that too many people have this defeatist attitude which gets reflected in the risk-averse nature of our government. Simply put, China will not use SSMs because that’ll invite sizable Indian retaliation in kind that in value terms would do more damage.

  7. vikrantsh says:

    India is in a hot economic, cyber and information war with china ( unrestricted warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui). Rather than getting into a Kinetic war let’s start with a hot economic and cyber war. We are funding PLA by doing business with China. Cut off all the trade with this mercantilist power, invest in high technology research and manufacturing ( 5g, A.I, microchip), build electronics industry. Get rid off this free market fetish and have a robust industrial policy. Stop arms imports entirely and build MIC through subsidies, taxcuts, deregulation or whatever way possible. Establish military ties with China’s neighbours by giving them Indian weapons at dirt cheap prices. Increase RAW’s footprint and give it some teeth, venom and invisibility cloak.
    We also have to look reality in the eye and realise that we are a weak nation with a compromised political, military, media, administrative and strategic class.

    • Prashanth says:

      I mostly agree with you. We should start an economic war from today itself. The real answer can be delivered in this way only. In the meanwhile lets build up military might and one fine day launch an attack to take back our territory. All this requires single minded focus by the political leadership.

      With no military industrial complex, its not possible to fight China. They already have built the entire set up and hence are not fearing our sukhois and rafales. In the present situation, we might last 1 month at max.

  8. Mr Karnad, if we recognise Taiwan/upgrade ties with them will it clearly signal to China that we mean business!

  9. Bhaskar says:

    Hello Mr Karnad,
    Is it true that there is NO written agreement showing a working LAC at Ladakh? If not, I presume Chinese didn’t sign it and it seems to be a blunder on army/intelligence part not to capture it earlier
    preempting any adverse move from Chinese.
    However, China, supposedly, never claimed these areas all these years then has it really been left for anyone to grab first and sit down there? All these years this was going on the basis of some vague verbal understanding between the 2 parties? Broadly, is that the same through out the whole border with China now?

    • There’s no written agreement on the LAC. There are only “three frameworks” for negotiation. This leaves both sides free to act on their understanding of where the Line is. In this respect, China is relentlessly thrusting and India dithering and indecisive.

  10. GV Giri says:

    Mr.Karnad, well written. Please clarify your opinion on whether we have conceded territory in 1) Galwan 2) Pangong Tso (here there is no dispute that we cant anymore reach Finger 8 but they already control right upto Finger 4) – so here it is definitely gone 3) Depsang. It would be very helpful.

    • China has eliminated the dead zone between the two lines of force disposition and occupied Indian real estate on the Galwan, annexed way more in the Pangong Tso area and, given the force concentration, is preparing for a rumble on the Depsang plains.

  11. andrew esnard says:

    This is a military challenge India has to overturn — no two ways about it.
    Why is this skirmish an existential challenge that India has to overturn at any price?

  12. Anil says:

    With two chinese divisions arrayed against the Indian forces in Ladakh and another one waiting just 48hrs away in Xinjiang, aren’t the options limited for any kinetic action? It’s not as if it’s a replay of Kargil where the intruders were more or less in isolated pockets and without back up.

    • Prashanth says:

      I think India has a better back up. But its not about that. The Chinese have a well developed military industrial complex. They can produce armaments and throw at us far more cheaply and abundantly than we can do. If we can have such a set up, I think India can defeat the Chinese without sweating a lot.

  13. rbalmoori says:

    Considering all the deficiencies in our armed forces, both in terms of equipment and structure, which you have written about for a long time, it would be a great folly to initiate a war. The Chinese can both prolong the conflict and widen the area and it is they who will dictate the end of the war. The news of Chinese fighter deployments in Pakistan and troop movements near LOC is troubling. I would suggest testing a couple of Nukes in the middle of Ladakh and start acting crazy.

  14. Prasad says:

    Actually, the announcement of PM’s 4 pm speech was crystal clear that it was about covid lock-down. so the basis of this otherwise excellent analysis is skewed

  15. Kunal ( ENGINEERING STUD) says:

    India is still reluctant to sell brahmos to Vietnam they r just talking since last 4 years and doing nothing

  16. Sohamg says:

    Mr.Karnad, you have often argued that Russia will prove to be a better partner for india than the US. But Russia has ,many a times , used india as a pawn in its games against the US and reduced it to a mere covert playground through activities of the KGB and also, perhaps, assassinated Shastri.

    • I have advocated that India be creatively engaged with Russia, and maintain an equilibrium between its relations with the US and Russia without being drawn into the orbit of either.

    • Debanjan Banerjee says:

      Karnad sir, I feel our experts are misunderstanding Taiwan and Vietnam as potential allies against China. These two countries have deep and growing economic ties with Beijing to fight against it. Taiwan is a special case since like PRC Taiwan also considers Ladakh, Tibet as well as Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory. I do not believe Taiwan will renounce her claims to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh even if we acknowledge them
      What do you think about it sir?

  17. john doe says:

    “a crisis that with every passing day growingly advantages Beijing”

    Given XJP has massed his troops in numbers, each passing day that China has nothing to show for that it is rather India that gets advantaged.

    We don’t have to go into action, we just have a standoff that goes well past the winter.

    It’s not like we’ve not had this before. Sumduron Chu in ’86 comes to mind.

    • Except with Galwan in PLA hands, India’s access to Siachen and the Karakorum Pass becomes iffy.

      • john doe says:

        You did mention earlier we have a post on the heights in Galwan. Wouldn’t want to be the ones manning that post. Now have a view of the DBO road from the embankment. We will have camps across the Galwan. I would not say they have the entirety of the Galwan in their hands. They haven’t pushed us out of the Galwan entirely. In a fight that valley is a dead zone with no where to hide.

        How things develop will depend on when the standoff ends.

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