Come October, China could flex its muscles again. India must prepare urgently

The monsoon will be over by then and the US will be tied up with its elections.

WrittenBy:David Devadas
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Let us make no mistake: we have had a close shave. After the Chinese pushed forward at several points on the Line of Actual Control from early May, there were some reports of forces building up on the Pakistan side too. The two could have been preparing for a pincer operation of some sort.

Floods in China, the United States’s laal aankh, and other factors have kept them at bay. But even defence minister Rajnath Singh indicated that this story is not over. India is urgently preparing, as it should, for a possible resurgence of Chinese hostilities. This could take place next year, or — if floods don’t cause further havoc in China — even by late September or October. The monsoons will be over by then, and the US will be tied up with its elections.

A very slow step back

For the moment, the Chinese have moved back a little but, as one senior officer remarked, “it’s a very, very slow process...seems like a long haul ahead”.

Even for this limited pull-back, we must partly credit sabre-rattling by the US over the past month. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has spit fire at China almost daily. That, backed by the presence of three aircraft carriers and a huge fleet of related US ships in the region, encouraged Japan to flex muscle over the Senkaku Islands (which China claims) in the East China Sea, and the Philippines to tell China it doesn’t own the South China Sea.

This combo of moves on its eastern and southern flanks no doubt helped to put the brakes on China’s aggression in Ladakh.

Failure to consolidate Galwan heroism

Of course, the extraordinary valour of the soldiers and officers who fought at Galwan on June 15 also gave China pause. The unwillingness of the top national security and political leadership to consolidate the military gains of that night is doubly lamentable in light of the extremely slow pace of China’s pull-back.

After the army had beaten its way deep into the other side in the heat of that night’s battle, the powers that be in New Delhi responded to their valour with discretion — to put it mildly. Since it had led to fatalities, they didn’t even want to take responsibility for initiating the ingress. The bout of discretion was so intense through the rest of that week that they only disclosed Indian casualties. In other war situations, those in charge often play down their casualties and highlight the opponent’s.

If the bosses in New Delhi had confidently signalled the army to dig in on the other side of the LAC, with fresh reinforcements in the morning, India would have been well placed to bargain a mutual retreat from various points. The army had gained the sort of scenario that top-notch strategists are now suggesting the army should try to manoeuvre going forward.

As things stand, the general who has been asked to negotiate has been given no cards to play. It is a bit bizarre to ask the top general on the ground to persuade the intruders to back off after giving up the useful tactical advantage gained by his soldiers in the heat of battle.

Negotiations should, in any case, have been conducted by diplomats or political leaders. For, while PLA officers are powerful in the Chinese political scheme, Indian army officers have much less elbow room to negotiate than either their Chinese or Pakistani counterparts.

Autumn blues

If China’s painfully slow withdrawal portends resumed hostilities, it might possibly choose the end of September or October. That window between the monsoons and the onset of winter is generally preferred for major military manoeuvres in this part of the world. It’s the time of year when the 1962 and 1965 wars took place.

Pakistan had initiated a diversionary attack in Kutch in April 1965 before invading at Chhamb at the beginning of September. One waits to see whether the Chinese advances in May-June this year fall in the same category as the Kutch skirmish. It’s also worth remembering that Pakistan signed a ceasefire pact with India on June 30, 1965, just before it initiated its covert Operation Gibraltar in the Kashmir Valley, and followed up with the invasion near Jammu at the beginning of September. Could China’s current talk of disengagement be a similar round of deception?

Having positioned itself in strength at, or quite near, the LAC at several sensitive points in Ladakh over the past couple of months, the PLA will find it easy to interdict Indian military traffic on the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie, or DSDBO, road. It could even hope to take over DBO and thence connect Aksai Chin to the Karakoram Pass, which it already holds.

In the east, China has already installed itself in the Doklam plateau since 2017. From there, it could seek to invade the “chicken’s neck” stretch that connects the north-eastern states with the rest of India. And some reports say the PLA is mobilising opposite Tawang and other points on the Arunachal Pradesh border too.

All this has made military planning extremely challenging. Since special trains transported vast numbers of troops and armour to Ladakh, strategists will have to make critical choices in September over what to leave in Ladakh and what to move to these other locations before the passes close.

If only endless corruption hadn’t held up the highways, railways, and tunnels to Ladakh that prime minister Narasimha Rao had planned a quarter-century ago! Those would have allowed flexibility even after the passes closed.

Prepare urgently

Thankfully, the government seems to have finally woken up to the challenge that has been staring India in the face for a decade and more. It is urgently trying to build up infrastructure, logistics supplies, and armaments.

Tragically, India does not yet have any of the 126 Rafale aircraft that were about to be acquired when the Modi government came to power. They would have substantially strengthened India’s stance. Five planes from the much reduced deal are expected next week, but that’s nowhere near sufficient.

The country will pay through its nose for emergency armament imports, because every exporter will squeeze an India that is obviously too hard pressed to negotiate. It’s a terrible Catch-22: the country must desperately spend in order to avoid a disaster, but the inflated costs might be in vain if the high-priced purchases actually deter aggression. Planning ahead, with enough time to negotiate the best prices and quality, would have been so much better.


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Also see
article imageOpen source intelligence: Why the media needs to handle it with care
article imageWhat a tangled web New India’s defence analysts weaved around Chinese incursions


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