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 BloombergQuint.com, July 10, 2020, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/the-high-cost-of-a-loose-china-policy