China could leverage border disputes the way Pakistan uses terror. Their common objective: to take over territory and water in J&K and Ladakh.
In November 2016, my interview with the commander-in-chief of the Jammu and Kashmir-based Northern Command, who was poised to retire, focused mainly on the Kashmir Valley as it emerged from months of turbulence after militant commander Burhan Wani had been killed. But I asked one last question about the command’s deployment on the China front.
We have three brigades there, he said.
“Three brigades against the People's Liberation Army!” I expostulated.
He grinned, mildly embarrassed, and replied that it was three times what there was when he took over.
It is true that the Indian army has been beefing up its deployment, armour, and infrastructure to the east over the past few years, but the pace has been dismal. Consider that China has just built a new runway not far from there in a few short weeks. A Sam Manekshaw or a BC Joshi might have ensured an infrastructure upgrade in six months. But the perception of an urgent eastern threat just doesn’t seem to sink in to most strategists’ minds.
No wonder then that the sudden and brutal Chinese aggression at several places along the Line of Actual Control early this month took the country by nasty surprise. The situation was grim in the third week of May; Indian troops had been pushed back at a couple of points, with some severe injuries.
After more Indian troops were hurriedly deployed last weekend, a senior officer who is monitoring the situation closely told me that since Monday, there have been tense, close-quarters standoffs at three points in the Ladakh region. The officer said that on Thursday morning, May 28, Indian troops were at the spur called Finger 3 on the north bank of the Pangong Tso lake, and the Chinese at Finger 4.
Global diplomacy at the highest level doused the heat further on Wednesday. After US President Trump offered to mediate over “the raging border dispute”, China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, told select reporters that "China and India should never let their differences shadow the overall bilateral ties and must enhance mutual trust.”
China’s attack might now taper off but it will almost certainly happen again, and India should be better prepared. While it might be too much to have expected a lightning-quick outflanking of the Chinese, the country’s security apparatus in New Delhi seemed like a deer staring into headlights for far too long. Apparently, the intelligence agencies (yet again!) had no information on what was coming.
As if in sync, sections of the media too preferred to behave as if shutting their eyes to the dragon at the door would make it disappear.
Let’s briefly revisit what happened.
China pushed in at several points early this month, more aggressively than at any time since 1967. They planted a Chinese flag on the hill north of Pangong lake (made famous by the panoramic closing scene of 3 Idiots). Chinese army boats, the colour of dark clouds, now zip across water that India claims.
The prospect has seemed alarming. Early this week, President Xi ordered his army to ready themselves for war and “worst-case scenarios” — possibly an allusion to a multi-country war. Not only has a new runway come up double-quick just 200 km from the LAC, thousands of troops have been transported to those barren heights, along with vehicles and earthmovers.
Plus, China’s move to evacuate its citizens from India owing to the pandemic had set speculation buzzing.
The Chinese seem hell-bent on preventing India from building branch roads running east towards the LAC from the relatively new military road that runs north from Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie. There is nothing along that road, but it allows the Indian army to bring tanks and artillery guns into Aksai Chin.
It may be pertinent that at both the places where the Chinese have dug in, apparently for a long haul, they have grabbed water resources (parts of the Galwan river and Pangong Tso lake) along with adjoining land on which those side roads were coming up.
Earthmoving equipment has probably been brought in to undo the construction of the branch roads.
One wonders whether China’s determination to destroy those roads means that it is preparing for a bigger round of hostilities which could involve Pakistan, even possibly Nepal. Or is it just determined to deprive India of road access right up to the LAC? Surely China doesn't think India plans to attack it?
The belligerent Chinese intruders demanded that India vacate the Galwan Valley entirely, although both sides have hitherto been clear that the LAC cuts through it.
India won’t easily cede the Galwan Valley, for movement on the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie, or south-to-north DSDBO, road would be exposed to whoever controls Galwan.
It is possible that China was only concerned about the new side roads, but the size of its response, its extent along much of the LAC, and its brutality (medieval iron-spiked clubs, for example) indicates that it was testing India.
To understand why, let’s look at the big-picture strategic scenario. I have maintained for a decade now that India faces a triad of threats from China, Pakistan, and street rage in the Kashmir Valley. If it is indeed a triad, China must be its lynchpin and funder. One has noted that the Pakistan-based terrorist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, have on occasion valourised and thanked China.
Most of India’s security wonks have interpreted the Chinese incursions as no more than a border slicing tactic. That follows from their entrenched ostrich attitude to a potential Chinese threat. Tossing around embarrassing figures, their stock analysis is that China would not risk its trade with India. So they ignored the strategic implications of the Doklam standoff, which I viewed as partly a test run.
Many clown show strategists (on TV and elsewhere) focus with gusto on Pakistan without accounting for Sino-Pak jointmanship, even though both countries constantly flaunt it — to the extent that General Musharraf directed the Kargil war from Beijing.
That China and Pakistan have declared themselves the closest of allies (“iron brothers”) means little to most Indian strategists. Nor that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is yoking Pakistan to China, turning that country into China’s most vital passage to the world (the Gulf, Africa, and Europe via Aden). So, they are generally immune to the idea that China might hope to juridically fortify this vital trade route through (erstwhile) Jammu and Kashmir and, in the bargain, bolster its superpower image by suborning India.
The Kashmir prism
That China shares Pakistan's inimical strategic objectives has become clear since last August, if it wasn’t already obvious from its defence at the UN over the past few years of top terrorist figures in Pakistan.
Pakistan and China have together vigorously sought to bring the Jammu and Kashmir issue to a head, more so since the constitutional changes last August. (The new map of Ladakh, which the home ministry released after initially dividing the state from Siachen down, was tailor-made for China.)
Of course, China doesn’t really care whether India tears up the erstwhile state’s constitution, reduces it to union territories, or abuses human rights. But those are all very useful levers to try and gain territorial advantage — juridical control over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in particular. There is a precedent: I have explained in The Story of Kashmir how the British Empire leveraged human rights concerns in the Kashmir Valley to post an agent in Gilgit in 1877 and again in 1889, and then to lease the entire Gilgit region in 1935.
Pakistan and China have tried various tacks since August. Both have sought repeatedly to raise it with high-pitched rhetoric at the UN Security Council and elsewhere. Pakistan got US President Trump to offer mediation last year. And China has plumped for trilateral negotiation.
Each of those would be a more dangerous minefield than any the army might lay out in Ladakh.
Trump’s offer to mediate is particularly fraught. India needs the US’s support, but can’t risk Trump’s mediation. He is undependable and seeks advantage for himself in all things. And while Prime Minister Modi has already played his ace by endorsing Trump’s re-election bid at Houston last year, Pakistan and China still hold powerful aces. Pakistan can keep Afghanistan from imploding — or make it implode — before Trump’s re-election bid. And Xi could covertly bring him several oblique advantages in a time of Covid.
Is a tripartite process the objective?
As for a tripartite negotiation, it would inevitably descend into a two-against-one shotgun meet. Yet, Xi lobbied Modi at Mamallapuram last October for a China-India-Pakistan meet. It wasn’t the first time either!
Though the Indian media was not told about it, the Mamallapuram conversation as well as the various attempts to bring up the issue at the UNSC should have alerted those in the corridors of power to be on guard for coercive moves to try and force the issue. Since the duo calculates that the world would back their calls for talks in case war clouds were to loom over three nuclear powers, it should have been obvious that both or either might provoke trouble on the ground when the snow melted.
Indeed, the Kashmir Valley has seen increased militancy and infiltration from Pakistan since early April.
Another attack similar to the one that killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force jawans on February 14, 2019, was apparently slated for Thursday in Pulwama. The forces contained an RDX explosion after the driver abandoned the car in which it was loaded soon after the army fired at him for tearing through a barricade, according to a senior officer.
China’s aggressions, in this round and perhaps others, could be a tandem effort to try and push matters to a head.
Indian troops must push back at Galwan and Pangong, implementing Chief of Army Staff General Naravane’s suggestion in a paper he wrote when he was a brigadier: Stop China in the early stages of its three-stage aggression. Troops have dug in almost face-to-face now, in such uninhabited places that patrol parties rarely ever bump into each other. More troops are being rushed to Ladakh, but acclimatising takes a few days before they can function at 16,000 ft and more. Transporting is daunting too, for troops are taken from green to green to green zones on the Covid-19 map.
While redeploying troops in Ladakh, vigilance on the Line of Control with Pakistan must simultaneously increase in Batalik and other parts of Kargil. Infiltration efforts may have increased, as they did in Kashmir when the army was moved wholesale from there to Kargil in 1999.
The government should quickly revisit its order for Rafale planes, which was reduced from 126 to just 36, and urgently re-examine how India’s naval fleet may be suitably augmented.
Internationally, India must seek joint responses, getting its Quad partners (the US, Japan, and Australia) to join in putting pressure on Chinese shipping all the way from the Sea of Japan to the Persian Gulf. Commitment to protect Taiwan must be redoubled.
India should reach out to Russia’s President Putin, albeit covertly. He is a master strategist with great influence and clout on the world stage.
India should press for stronger censure of China over its pandemic handling, making it clear to Beijing that a pummelled India is not docile but more pugnacious.
And already, before things might come to a head, India must persuasively make its case on diplomatic and public platforms with regard to Jammu and Kashmir.
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