Will Modi go to war with China? — Two-part Interview

Rediff News published a two-part interview (taken 8-10 days earlier) on July 20, 2020 and July 22, 2020

‘By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled to Beijing that he was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation, and that his government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.’

[Modi interacts with Indian soldiers during his visit to Ladakh, July 3, 2020]

National security expert Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research. A prolific author, his most recent book is Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition. He helped draft India’s nuclear policy and authored India’s Nuclear Policy and Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security. He was one of the first security experts to have issued several warnings about the Chinese incursion and occupation of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh.

“Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand,” Professor Karnad tells Rediff.com Contributor Rashme Sehgal. The first of a two-part interview:


Senior government sources claim Prime Minister Modi is upset with General Bipin Rawat on how the chief of defence staff incorrectly advised him on how to handle the Ladakh crisis.

I am not sure how General Rawat can be faulted for the ‘do little, do nothing provocative’ advice rendered by him to the prime minister. After all, it is natural for military advice givers to tack to the leanings of the PM. And Modi has in various summits and meetings with Xi Jinping shown a distinct tendency to accommodate Beijing.

Modi was also reportedly upset with Leh-based 14 Corps Commander Lieutenant General Harinder Singh for the PLA’s deep incursions in eastern Ladakh.

One may hold the Leh Corps commander and the army brass responsible for the deep PLA penetrations into Indian territory, but the PMO cannot be absolved of the responsibility either. It is hard to imagine that the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre, controlled by the army-run Defence Intelligence Agency, was not passing on the series of high-resolution satellite photographs detailing the PLA intrusions and build-up in Indian territory since the late summer of 2019 to army headquarters and the PMO.

There is a view among defence experts that the Modi government is making misleading claims about the extent of disengagement along the LAC/
Why should the government be doing this given that today there is satellite imagery to corroborate what is happening on the ground?

That’s the point I made several weeks ago in my blog. Any misleading statements emanating from the government can be confirmed or belied by commercially available satellite imagery. Hence, it is politically foolhardy to lie to the people.

[Indian Army vehicles in Leh, July 15, 2020.]

There are reports that the PLA has refused to withdraw from the Hot Springs area and from Gogra. Is that correct? Even in Galwan, the buffer zone is being created in Indian territory.

I am not sure about this. Gogra and the Hot Springs areas are where the two governments supposedly agreed to establish ‘buffer zones’. My problem with the buffer zone concept is precisely that they encompass territory claimed by India and the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two sides and, therefore, compromise India’s claims on the LAC. And it leaves this belt of land vulnerable to permanent Chinese absorption.

But newspapers and TV channels are reporting what they are being told by army sources who also qualify this information by stating that the army is spouting the line given to them by the national security adviser’s office.
What are your views on this.

Of course, the NSA is in the business of micromanaging the public perceptions of the unfolding events in eastern Ladakh.

Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand.

[An Indian Air Force Apache helicopter flying over the mountains in Ladakh, July 15, 2020]

Commercial satellite imagery reportedly shows the LAC has shifted 12 to 15 kms in Depsang, 1 km in Galwan, 2 to 4 kms in Gogra and 8 kms in Pangong Lake.
This would be by far the largest loss of territory to China since the 1962 war.
Is this observation correct?

I have been warning since the beginning about the quite considerable loss of territory. I estimate that China’s policy of what I have called incremental annexation has resulted in the loss of some 1,300 sq kms of Indian territory in the new millennium.

Should the buck not stop with NSA Ajit Doval?

Well, yes, because he is supposed to ingest all intel, field reports, military briefings, analyses and recommendations from the China Study Group, et al, and alight on policy options for the PM.

You have said repeatedly that Indian intelligence knew about the Chinese build up for the last one year. More specifically, intelligence had told the army about Chinese movements in the LAC area, but the army took this to be normal spring time activity. Would you say this has been an operational lapse by the army?

As I have already said, there’s no excuse for XIV Corps Headquarters in Leh or army headquarters in Delhi and for the army misreading imagery intelligence transmitted to the Defence Intelligence Agency by DIPAC.

Is it correct to say that the government had considered the possibility of replacing the Northern Army commander and the corps commander but decided against it.

I don’t know about this specific case. But there’s no reason why a corps commander the government judges to be incompetent cannot be replaced mid-operations. In fact, such replacement should be routinised.

In your June 23 blog you highlight how Article 6 of the 1996 Agreement with China permits the attacked to use infantry weapons in defence. Why were they not used by Lieutenant Colonel Babu and his men when attacked by the Chinese?

The Article 6 provision was first mentioned by former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General H S Panag. And hence I argued Babu should have gone prepared on his sortie for a rumble (confrontation with the PLA). Article 6 permits use of side-arms if attacked by the other party.

[Modi with Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist party of China, at their second informal summit in Mahabalipuram, October 11, 2019]

What signal did Modi’s June 17 statement not mentioning Chinese occupation send to the world and more especially to the Chinese?

By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled Beijing that:

1. He was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation;

2. His government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.

Your June 23 blog suggests the Chinese had anticipated that Modi would not fight.
You used the expression ‘Modi’s inaction in the face of provocation’.
On what basis was this assumption based.

On the basis of Modi’s personal relations with Xi and warmer ties with China that he has ballyhooed over the year.

Why were the heights on the eastern shore of the Shyok River facing the Daulat Bed Oldi/Karakoram-Depsang road not secured ten years ago?

This, I have said, is the Indian Army’s biggest blunder. The heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River should have been secured as soon as the alignment of the DSDBO road was fixed. It was an elementary precaution to protect a strategic infrastructure asset it did not take.



Part-II, July 22, 2020

‘Limited war is the only option with China’

‘The PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from Indian territory.’

[Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Northern Army commander Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi, and other officers at a forward base in Ladakh.]

“War is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Contributor Rashme Sehgal in the concluding segment of a two-part interview.

You say a limited war is the only option for India. What prevents the government from taking this step? Is our army diffident about taking on the Chinese army?
Or does our political leadership want to avoid a confrontation?

Limited war is the only option because the PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from the Indian territory it is ensconced in. But war is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war.

Your blog alleges that Prime Minister Modi wants to cut some kind of deal with the Chinese. What are you alluding to?

How else to interpret Modi’s reticence in calling out Xi’s China for its calculated policy of territorial aggrandisement?

Do you see any kind of political fallout of these developments within the country?

It depends on what the Opposition parties want to make of it, and how successfully they are able to convey to the masses the fact of Modi’s capitulation to China.

Several army sources believe the PLA and the Pakistan army will move in unison and are likely to attack India in the coming months.
What is the likelihood of such a move?

Zero possibility. The Pakistan army is too professional and pragmatic to get into a situation that could redound to its disbenefit.

With China supplying submarines and other naval equipment to the Pakistan navy, will this accelerate tensions further?

China as the primary supplier of military hardware to Pakistan is not a new development and will not aggravate the existing India-Pakistan or Sino-Indian tensions.

While Modi hesitates to take on China, he showed no hesitation in taking on Pakistan after Balakot.

The smaller, weaker, Pakistan is easier to belabour. Besides, being tough with Pakistan has domestic political dividends in that the Hindu-Muslim tensions at home are externalised in India-Pakistan relations.


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.
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11 Responses to Will Modi go to war with China? — Two-part Interview

  1. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir. Now the report is coming that China-Pakistan are together developing bio weapons, that too in Pakistan. I think India will be the prime target here followed by other nations also. So how should India act sir? One of the options can be to use R&AW to eliminate officials (Chinese and paki) involved in this. Another one could be threat of massive retaliation by Indian biological weapons (just like nuclear deterrence), though for this India also needs to boost up its bio warfare program. What other options do you see for India sir??

  2. Tony says:

    Indian generals who are used to being treated like little maharajas in their big mansions with multiple servants are culpable in this ignominy. They should be arm twisting the pygmy Hindu hriday samrats right now. For heaven’s sake, we are a nuclear power with capability to puncture the planet where Han smokes his weed. It’s time to put fear of god in their hearts and PLEASE LIBERATE KAILASHA NOW. It is about time. All Hindus yearn for it and Nepalis will also help us in that holy mission.

  3. Rajesh says:

    Hi Sir, what do you think about PRESIDENTIAL FORM of GOVERNMENT in India ?

  4. dxrickss says:

    Isn’t it is a folly to outright reject the possibility of a Pakistani and Chinese attack in unison; if not a war then, perhaps a limited co-ordinated operation.

    Your answer on this is a little cryptic. It would be great if you explain it a bit or better, talk about it in your blog.

    • Thomas says:

      India should not waste this opportunity.
      Don’t fight a limited war.
      Test a Megaton yield… today! Proliferate!
      Revise the doctrine. An attack on India by Islamabad should also be interpreted as an attack on India by Beijing.
      India has all the excuses necessary.

  5. Rajesh says:

    If we go with nuclear tests again, we won’t get nuclear fuel from other countries which we use in nuclear reactors. India doesn’t have enough nuclear fuel for its nuclear reactors .

  6. V.Ganesh says:

    Don’t Modi’s advisers be it the NSA, the CDS, the COAS, the CNS and the CAS have the courage to go against the tack and tell him that the PRC’s PLA ought to be kicked out from the Indian territory and that there can be no talks with them?

  7. Ranjith says:

    “Zero possibility. The Pakistan army is too professional and pragmatic to get into a situation that could redound to its disbenefit.”

    I don’t understand how this conclusion is reached considering the actions taken by the Pak army historically whether it is Kargil or 1965. If they think the US will not intervene, there is a good chance of them planning a joint attack with China.

  8. An e-letter to me, reproduced below:
    ‘bharat karnad’ Fri, 31 Jul at 10:28 pm

    Dear Mr. Karnad,

    In [an India Today news] show you mentioned new satellite images will tell the story of disengagement which you know is not that favorable to the present government so who will print or publish these images under the air of intimidation prevailing in India?

    During 1962 war I was fourteen, not a single newspaper tried to hide Chinese advances so much so that when Chinese soldiers reached Chisul in Assam, all the local Gujarati newspapers published this fact ( I grew up in Baroda). I was 17 in 1965 war and I remember local newspapers carried how Pakistan had made incursions into and occupying large chunks of Chhamb.

    For a person of your stature/reputation/intellect to appear on the same platform with pathological liars like Amit Malviya is like dignifying such socio paths. I am not urging you to be arrogant but these guys are not worthy to be your coffee boys. Nitin Gokhle sounds like a surrogate whose operations seem to be funded by BJP, Rahul Kanwal phrases his questions like “flull balls” , to use your words from one of your articles, seems he is intimidated enough.

    I went to one of the best universities of those days, Maharaja Sayajirao University known as MS University which had cosmopolitan staff comprising of best brains from all over India in different fields, outsiders were invited for lively debates and discussions. Today the MS stands for Maha Siparasiya (influence peddling in Gujarati) or Maha Swaminarayan; standards have eroded to the extent some former teachers hide their faces in shame.
    Ranjit Barot

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