Surrendering a strategic choke-hold on the Karakorum

Across the Karakorams: India-China Dispute through the Centuries
[The Karakorum Range)


Retreating in the face of an enemy’s onslaught may be a tactical necessity. Withdrawing in anticipation of the situation getting sticky is inherently bad strategy but, as the record shows, it is one the Indian government reflexively follows when dealing with China. In eastern Ladakh, the Narendra Modi regime’s play safe-attitude combined with the army brass’ over-caution are allowing India’s main adversary and rival, China, to realize its expansive claims with minimum fuss. An undefined border – whatever the “peace and tranquility’ kind of agreements may say, permits military contestation and territorial gain-seeking. But it is Beijing that has shown the strategic foresight and the stomach to exploit it, leaving a disadvantaged India to always react, to scramble to recover lost ground.

     Maybe it is too much to expect the country’s political leaders and their handmaidens manning the apparatus of state – the generalist civil servants and diplomats with only passing knowledge of military affairs, to be mindful of, and learn from, the country’s own historical experience of dealing with China. It is inexcusable, however, for the Indian armed services to act innocent of the methods that fetched them success against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the past.

     In September 1967, when India was still suffering from the trauma of defeat in the 1962 War, the 17 Mountain Division stopped the PLA cold. An Indian unit marking the disputed border at Nathu La with cantina wire was challenged by PLA troops, a scuffle ensued, the roughed up Chinese soldiers withdrew to their lines and then, without warning, opened up with heavy machine gun fire killing and injuring many Indian soldiers. Rearing for a fight, the redoubtable Major General Sagat Singh, commander, 17 Mountain Division, responded by having his artillery destroy a series of Chinese bunkers with accurate fire that had the PLA crying for talks. (The same Sagat Singh – the unheralded hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War, as Lieutenant General commanding IV Corps in an operation that he thought up on the spot, which was violative of his operational orders to stay put on the Meghna River, heli-lifted his forces across it for the dash to Dhaka.)

     Exactly twenty years later, the army under General Krishnaswami Sundarji, pretending to assess the time to mobilize forces in the northeast – Operation Chequerboard – began deployments. China took the bait, hinted at war, but the PLA found itself overmatched by speedy and massive Indian concentration — some 10 Divisions in all in Arunachal and Assam, three of them around Wangdung where there was trouble brewing. The Chinese once again beat a retreat and called for negotiations that eventuated in the 1993 ‘peace and tranquility on the border’ accord.

     Now fast-forward to summer 2020. The Indian government and army, having disregarded the intelligence generated by Indian satellites over the previous 8-10 months depicting considerable military activity and build-up by the PLA on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the area between terrain features – Finger 4 and Finger 8, on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake, upriver in the Galwan Valley and, ignoring the ‘no man’s land’, right smack on the LAC itself in the Gogra and Hot Springs areas, found themselves up a creek. The Indian and Chinese Corps commanders met June 6 to sort out matters. But on June 15 a detachment of the 16 Bihar Regiment went, boy scout fashion, to its doom. Intending to verify if the PLA had kept its promise and decamped from the Galwan, its members were bludgeoned by PLA troops wielding medieval era weapons (rods with embedded steel spikes, etc).

     Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s remonstrations and demand for the restoration of the status quo ante to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, June 17 elicited a straight-faced, formal, claim over all of the Galwan Valley and a counter-ask that the intruding Indian soldiers get out of Chinese territory forthwith. To indicate it meant business, China as a coercive tactic also positioned two brigades of artillery and armour, in the Depsang plains, threatening to open yet another sub-sector front.

     The Indian soldiers, unaware of the PLA’s penchant for springing local surprises, such as initiating hostilities with machine gun fire at Nathu La in 1967, were unprepared for one when they faced a Chinese attack with nail-studded batons. In the larger context, despite hundreds of unresisted PLA incursions, incremental annexations amounting to a loss of as much 1,300 sq kms of Indian territory in the new millennium, and periodically presenting India with newer territorial faits accomplis that the Indian army and government by doing nothing have, in effect, accepted a reshaped map of Ladakh favouring China.

     In the event, the Indian army’s quickly putting a matching force (of two plus Divisions) in place has been of no avail because it did not rapidly go into action to vacate the Chinese occupation of Indian territory. It fell into the trap of trusting in the diplomatic method to get its chestnuts out of the fire. Except, the July 5 Special Representative level talks between national security adviser Ajit Doval and Wang Yi produced little other than an iteration of Chinese claims on the Galwan, a non-withdrawal in the Pangong Tso area, and acceptance of the newly conceived “buffer zones” at Gogra and Hot Springs encompassing the land between the two claim lines. But with the buffer zones obliterating the concept of ‘no man’s land’ separating the two sides all along the LAC, this border safety belt is exposed to surreptitious PLA takeover. Didn’t Messrs Doval & Jaishankar foresee the unnecessary “buffer zones” furthering Chinese designs? Apparently not, but this is par for the course.

     China’s Galwan claims are to counter a potential Indian threat from the DSDBO (Depsang-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi) road to the Xinjiang Highway (number 219) connecting to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That’s proactive Chinese geostrategics at work. In contrast are the Indian government and army. Having constructed the strategically-important DSDBO Road that permits support of the Indian military presence on the Siachen Glacier and potentially interdiction of traffic at the CPEC-Xinjiang Highway junction on the Karakorum Pass, they failed to take the most basic precaution of protecting it by occupying the heights on the mountain range on the eastern bank of the Shyok River running north to south, to pre-empt the PLA from dominating this road.

     Having messed up hugely, the Modi government and the Indian army – if they are not to permanently have mud on their faces – have no alternative but to ignore agreements and telephonic understandings if any, and expeditiously occupy the heights above the Shyok to safeguard the DSDBO Road,  and to waste no time in launching a limited, possibly intense, war to take back the Galwan fully and to recover Indian territory on the Pangong Tso at whatever cost. Anything less will, in practical terms, mean ceding these territories to China, imperilling the lifeline to Siachen, surrendering a potential Indian strategic military chokehold on the Karakorum, and reinforcing Beijing’s perceptions of India as a weak and pliable state it can safely mistreat.  


Published as “The High Cost of a Loose China Policy” in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in, July 10, 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 asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, space & cyber, Tibet. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Surrendering a strategic choke-hold on the Karakorum

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    No doubt Kennedy once said “India takes slap after slap from China but pretends it never happened”.

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Bharat sir is there any chance that Thailand will succumb to chinese pressure for Kra canal? Even if it does, still I think Indian Navy will be able to block Kra alongwith Malacca when time arises because Andaman islands are strategically situated near it, provided India plans proactively. How do you look at it sir?

  3. Sankar says:

    Brilliant exposition!
    The recently appointed CDS has been clamoring for a two-front war for some time now. Was that crying “wolf”, now the real wolf appeared and he has ducked for cover? This Modi show stands as the epitome of Hindu cowardice. As reported Modi has been running to Australia after the Galwan incident for succour having dismissed them previously for military partnership (to please China?) – the Aussies must have had a great laugh behind the scene. In the context of Indian State’s security apparatus, it is amazing to see NSA Doval sticking his head around in the public news every now and then. In the western world does one see ever the public face of the CIA director, or KGB chief, or MI5, or ASIO of Australia? The entire state administrative machinery in Delhi of foreign service etc seems to have stooped to an unbelievable low level in their efficiency. Unless the intelligent class in India stands up to oppose the Government now, the future will be bleak.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      Hindu nahi boss, hindutva.
      Inability to acknowledge this basic difference is the cause for the inexplicable fall of both opposition and Modi, each in its own ways.
      India (which includes Hindus) has given a sufficient account of itself for a sufficient amount of time.

      • Sankar says:

        You have a point, but to date, I have been unable to delineate “Hindutva” among the Hindus. I am at a loss in the hypocrisy reigning the Hindu mindset in every step of the nation’s policymaking at higher echelons of statecraft. On an aside, in 1971 war the final power players were Maj Gen Jacobs (a Jew), Lt Gen Aurora ( a Sikh), and the Army Chief Gen Manekshaw (a Parsi) – no Hindu. But I have not forgotten the diminutive Shastriji – a great man indeed for 1965 when India raised its stakes for Kashmir. And also, Indira Gandhi without whom we would not have had 1971 whatever mud Modi throws now at the dynasty. I doubt whether China would dare to be so aggressive now if Indira Gandhi were at the helm.

  4. Karthik says:

    Excellent analysis and insights ! It’s a crying shame that this cowardly Govt has denied,confused and tried to paint a different picture of the Chinese actions. Also hearing they’ve opened new fronts along Assam and Arunachal while feigning a pull-back in Galwan. Still this Govt with nincompoops in the EAM is busy fine-tuning media leaks as to how best they can misinform people. Modi thinks it’s a win-win because while he looks away Chinese nibbling territory and fortifying no-man’s land ,he can happily avoid a real war as continuing military inaction and lack of will to impose costs suit Chinese perfectly. Literally zero retribution sought , apart from the brave soldiers’ instant / solid counter on June 15th by taking out ~ 100 Chinese soldiers per some accounts. No one is fooled by Modi’s rhetorical speech in Ladakh either because the follow-up has been so pathetic and wimpish that the Chinese must have giggled at the cowardice of our Govt. But Modi’s in for a rude surprise if this sly game of intrusion does not stop or Pangong Tso is vacated completely. Primarily because voters will judge him by so called nationalistic credentials vis-a-vis Congress which in any case has been proven meek and weak. But once they get an inkling that Modi is also pretty much mirror image of previous Govts esp regarding China,then they won’t forgive and forget as easily.

  5. Brig Pradeep Sharma says:

    It is unfortunate that political expediency takes precedence over National Interests.

  6. Rahul says:

    Despite the specter of Chinese practising on scale model,etc. IA could easily have extracted a stalemate, perhaps more. They still can, a full on mil operation is in order, they just don’t have the will. Don’t cede territory , endure substantial no. of body bags, that’s gonna make a considerable impact domestically for them. Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! we must be thinking in terms of end of ccp. Its plausible.

    Get 200 brahmos missles, ,it will cos half a billion, ensure some element of surprise, set the field well, blast all those 200 missiles at the selected targets all at the same time, it can surprise the shit out of them, half a billion spent, job done, immediately after that use conventional weapons n artillery ,whatever. It might require some money, but it can be done. what after that btw? , I dont know, are we going to occupy then? will they not come back again? whatever, but beat the shit out of them first, and let the world see it. Ensure the world knows we whacked them. make it a billion n use 400 brahmos if necesary , but hit them right on. bottomlines: a) no loss of territory b) subatantial no of bodybags.

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