Himalayan Diffidence

New Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked de-escalations

Published in ‘Up Front’ column. India Today, issue dated March 1, 2021, available at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20210301-himalayan-diffidence-1770899-2021-02-19

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After talking with the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, a rattled US President Joe Biden warned that China will “eat our lunch”. Considering the underway military disengagement could end up consolidating Chinese territorial gains in eastern Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought to worry about China feasting on India’s dinner.

     Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked de-escalations, which Beijing may convert into opportunity for annexing territory in small parcels. Consider the withdrawal of forces from the Pangong Lake area. Until not too long ago all the eight mountainous features – the ‘Fingers’ abutting on its northern shore — on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control were notionally under Indian control; today only Fingers 1 to 3 are. So why is People’s Liberation Army’s moving to its Sirijap staging area east of Finger 8, which is also inside Indian territory, reassuring or proof of China’s good faith? 

     Since last August when Special Frontier Force troops preemptively occupied various hilltops on the Rezangla-Rechinla ridge inside the Indian claim line, China has tried to reverse this development because these posts afford a 360-degree view and help the India army get a fix on potentially adverse Chinese military activity in the extended Pangong area. This advantage will be lost with the pullback, especially because the PLA is not thinning its forces from the Moldo garrison. In any case, the past record of Chinese chicanery — easing tensions the PLA itself creates as at Nakula, suggests that once Indians depart the commanding heights, the Chinese will fill the vacated space.

     Meanwhile the issue of PLA’s de facto control over 1,000-odd sq kms of Indian territory in the Depsang Plains in Sub-sector North, of utmost significance to India, is deferred. Here PLA’s blockade of the Y-Junction has rendered the area northwestwards of it inaccessible to Indian patrols, enabling China to bring this vital piece of land within its control without contesting India’s claims — a neat little trick of occupation by indirect military means! This area adjoins the Xinjiang Highway whose branch — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, veers south at the nearby Karakorom Pass and, hence, is of strategic value. The Indian army could forcibly evict the blockaders but Beijing is betting Delhi lacks the guts and the gall to order such action.

     Chinese adventurism, foreign minister S Jaishankar said, has “profoundly disturbed” India’s trust, but apparently not the Indian government’s gullibility and habit of taking Beijing’s professions and commitments seriously. Thus, the China Study Group making policy for the government seems satisfied with a “written agreement”!

     The process of penny-packeting the ‘phased’ mutual withdrawal has helped China evade the eight “guiding principles” defined by Jaishankar as the basis for negotiation, including the two principal ones of respecting the sanctity of all past accords and of the LAC, which China violates on a whim. It has permitted Beijing to dictate the pace, tenor and content of interactions. For Delhi to proceed regardless is, in effect, to legitimate a new tabula rasa for resolving the border dispute and for Sino-Indian relations generally, one in which whatever China wants goes. 

     At heart the problem is the Indian government’s terminal diffidence. It has foresworn the option of discomfiting China by strategic missile arming states on its borders as a belated payback for Beijing’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear missiles, and shies away from using its leverages (Taiwan, Tibet, trade, Uyghurs). This attitude infects the Indian military as well. In an alternative universe, army Special Forces would long ago have cleared the Y-Junction and counter-blockaded PLA on the Depsang. While there’s talk by military brass about reorienting Indian forces China-wards, there’s little initiative on display. The Indian response in Galwan Valley, it may be recalled, was reactive and SFF is run by the external intelligence agency, Research & Analaysis Wing (RAW).

     Accustomed to supinity the Indian government nevertheless believes it will not lose out to Beijing. How is anybody’s guess!

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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17 Responses to Himalayan Diffidence

  1. San Mann says:

    Prof Karnad,

    I feel India should indeed try to pursue “détente” policy with China on our disadvantageous Himalayan front (like America did with USSR on the European front) so that we can then pursue new offensive policy elsewhere (like America did on Afghan front). In our case, instead of looking at Afghanistan, we should instead look at China’s greatest vulnerability, which is the Straits of Malacca chokepoint. Instead of thinking of Afghan-style mujahedin, we should draw inspiration from China’s “Little Blue Men”:

    What China can do to others, we can do to them. But, as General Zia-ul-Haq used to say, “The water must boil, but not too hot.” Avoidance of full kinetic clash should be the priority, while applying a steady gentle squeeze on their most vulnerable spots.

    • Sankar says:

      “… disadvantageous Himalayan front”- ???

      In the aftermath of the 1962 debacle, a number of Generals from Britain and the US visited Delhi for an assessment of what went wrong with the Indian military. One of them, the US General Maxwell Taylor said after studying that India has gifted her impregnable defences in the Himalayas to the Chinese. The mountain Kailash range today is another case in point.

      • San Mann says:

        Again, our best front against Chinese is near Straits of Malacca. China’s room for military action in that area is not great. You can keep going back to Himalayan topic, but I’m going to stick to pointing out why Straits of Malacca area is better for us to take them on. We should confront them on our preferred battlespace, as that’s more prudent. Near the Straits of Malacca is where China is most vulnerable, and where we hold the most advantage. In order for China to overcome us there, the Chinese Dargon would have to move like a Bull Through A China Shop, and cause much wider international backlash.

    • Anon says:

      What you advocating may lead to sanctions from US is it a wise move when we have weak economy .US plans sanctions just for buying s400 how will they react if India really does what you’re advocating. Can India sustain pressure of US sanctions .Is it practical and doable

      • Long argued the US needs India more now that it has China to contend with and, in any case, Indian policies ought to singlemindedly pursue national interest without caring who gets upset. And there are no sanctions India cannot survive.

      • San Mann says:

        Anon@ — Why would we attract US sanctions? For what reason exactly? Why would they be concerned? I don’t understand your topsy-turvy logic. US Navy are already suffering problems from China’s “Little Blue Men”, so the use of similar tactics against China, whether by India or by anyone else, could work as a card in America’s favour.

        Furthermore, whole purpose of “LIttle Blue Men” is to serve as non-state actors, to avoid retaliation against the state. That’s why China uses them in the first place, instead of purely using their main naval ships from PLAN, or even their coast guard. If China has nukes, then we should have nukes, if China has subs, then we should have subs, if China has “LIttle Blue Men”, then we should also have similar tools of our own. Furthermore, we should be on guard against China pre-empting us with “Little Blue Men” operating from the Myanmar coastline against Indian Navy and shipping.

        We don’t even need significant infrastructure upgrades at A&N islands to have our own “Little Blue Men” operating from there. By definition, they are a very lightweight force.

  2. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Is all that China has done with regard to India and other nations part of some grand strategy [including, I doubt, creating a man-made [my suspicion] virus like the Chinese Corona Virus to keep the world dependent on it] to achieve something by 2024? Because in 2024, the Communist Party of China [CPC] will celebrate its 75th anniversary of coming to power and it establishing its so-called People’s Republic of China.

  3. SHANAL SHEKHAR says:

    If we had previously outrun Chinese in capturing Southern Bank Heights, what makes you think they would do it now given more vigilance on Indian side?

  4. Sankar says:

    An excellent analysis of strategic significance for the defense of India’s northern border is here:
    ” If India loses grip on Kailash Range, PLA will make sure we never get it back” –
    https://theprint.in/opinion/if-india-loses-grip-on-kailash-range-pla-will-make-sure-we-never-get-it-back/542327/

  5. ARINDAM BORA says:

    Try to evict the PLA from the Y-junction (reports suggest that the presence in the bottleneck is more like a surveillance and early warning system) and risk escalation? I am no dove sir, but do we really possess the capability to defeat the PLA even in a limited conventional conflict? The recent outburst of General VK Singh notwithstanding, it is a fact that India maintains a defensive posture along the LAC while the Chinese create standoffs and skirmishes at their point of choosing (the Galwan brawl was not a planned one). So if we try to go on a limited tactical offensive in the Depsang region then we would be giving the PLA the raison d’etre to escalate and ingress all along the border.
    Partisanship notwithstanding, people should accept that the government and the military after being totally blindsided by the initial Chinese mobilization and ingress have regrouped and responded quite maturely and effectively. That we can’t get everything we want is due to the larger issue of the disparity in hard power between the two countries. I mean our economy is one-fourth of theirs. We are still in the process of establishing a defence industrial base while they are almost self-sufficient in military production (aero engines being an exception).

    We haven’t been able to completely deter a much smaller and weaker Pakistan from bleeding us. Say what you will about this government but atleast it has conveyed the message to Pakistan that it’s trangerssions shall not go unpunished. That India is not afraid of escalation. Thereforer it is unrealistic for people to expect the Modi government to magically solve the China problem. China will try to bully and intimidate India, try to dictate terms and shape it’s behaviour.
    The difference in approach when it comes to China is quite clear. At no point in time did the government talk of escalation, only about safeguarding India’s territorial integrity. The message to China was that unless there is a mutually acceptable disengagement expecting normalcy to return to bilateral relations is unrealistic.
    Criticize when they deserve it; but give credit where it’s due.

  6. Amit says:

    I’ve been reading and watching your comments on Indian defence and security matters for about three years or so now and some of your ideas (or at least the ones you have been passionate about, not sure who originated them) have slowly been implemented or are being implemented. Two big ones that come to mind are the redeployment of strike forces to face China rather than Pakistan and the need to have light tanks to fight China in the Himalaya. Who knows, maybe India might start arming China’s neighbors with missiles too in the near future. I certainly think we should be aggressive with China.

    However, if I may submit, the Depsang game is not over. So we will have to see how it plays out. You’ve been advocating military action here from the beginning, but the time for such action was at the beginning of the stand off. Now if there is military action India has to be prepared for a war, which I do not think is in both countries interests.

    One must also factor in India’s defence capabilities which have only now started to improve. And there is the aspect of attitudes. Unless you have more maverick military leaders like General Sundarji or General Sagat Singh, one will not see the kind of response you have advocated. And such leaders rarely survive through the system in India. That’s a fact. And until India develops the right organizational and hard military capabilities, it cannot adopt maximalist positions. That could invite disasters of its own.

    • Taking ownership! These policies, for instance — shifting materiel and manpower from plains/desert relevant strike corps (I,II, XXII) to three mountain strike corps, and orienting the military primarily to China, strategic arming China’s neighbours with nuclear missiles, and private sector-led defence industrial push for arms self-sufficiency, and a whole bunch of other ideas and geostrategic concepts (Asian littoral and offshore states with India and Japan in the lead as counterweight to China, unreliability of any extra-territorial power as security provider, etc.) are detailed in my official writings in papers/documents of the (10th) Finance Commission and the 1st NSAB, and advocated in my books, starting with the first one in 1994. It is satisfying, of course, to find the GOI and Indian mlitary moving in the directions I have been suggesting, but also frustrating because the process of shift is so, so, slow that when change happens it often fails to have the desired effect.

      • Amit says:

        Yes, I can relate to the frustration as many of us do feel it at all times about India, but as someone who is looking at this from the outside, India is also moving to the positions you have been advocating. For a country as large and complex as India, that has to be an achievement! India is always a few years behind, but it is also making progress. But perhaps I can say that because I’m not so close to it as you are.🙂

  7. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Good Morning Professor Karnad & fellow readers,

    Sir, I would like to know your opinion about the following;

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neville_Maxwell

    Why hasn’t Modi government de-classified the Henderson-Brooks report? They have nothing to lose by doing so as they weren’t in power during that time.

    • The two man Henderson Brooks Report (featuring Lt Gen Henderson-Brooks and Major General Parminder Singh Bhagat, VC) was “leaked to Maxwell, then Delhi correspondent of ‘The Times’ (London). The latter based his entire book — India’s China War, on it. It is high time GOI officially released this Report but the lingering hesitation may possibly because it would embarrass the Indian army leadership of that time. Why this should matter 60 years on is hard to speculate.

  8. Kunal Singh says:

    Isn’t Khurnak to Sirijap have been under Chinese control since 1962

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