At a time when the world is immersed in combating a pandemic, China has upped the ante with its military manoeuvres and territorial onslaughts on nations in the South China Sea and cartographic aggression in the Indo-Pacific region combined with an aggressive display of naval and air power. Forays into the Indian territory were an adjunct. Nations at the receiving end scampered to put up a united front against this unexpected rampage. The US responded by sending two Carrier Battle Groups with their aircraft, cruisers, guided missiles, destroyers and submarines to operate in the South China Sea, and also to maintain surveillance over the choke point of the Malacca Straits through which some 94,000 vessels pass each year carrying a fourth of the world trade. There was accelerated focus on the QUAD and a desire for a combined front at international forums.
Even as these events were unfolding, China engineered a significant manoeuvre with wide-ranging ramifications. It signed a $400 billion deal with Iran encompassing a wide range of important sectors of Iranian economy such as banking, ports, rail and telecommunications. India has also been put on notice for the development of the Chabahar Port, the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link as also the development and exploitation of the Farzad-B oil field. Add to this the reported handover of another port of Jash, merely 300 km from Chabahar, which will deny India access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. With India hampered by the US sanctions on Iran, this was something waiting to happen. The situation can be retrieved as this deal has its opponents within the Gulf region, even as it hampers the US trade agreements with the Central Asian republics. Simultaneously, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Daimar Basha dam which has been built by China in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and signed up for another two—Azad Pattan and Kohalu, all part of the CPEC to which India has objected to vigorously. Ultimately it boils down to dexterity and speed in decision-making while putting money on the table. A quote from Shakespeare would drive the point closer home: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune: omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows.”
Closer home, towards the end of April, the Chinese Western Theatre Command, having completed their exercises on the edge of the Gobi Desert, took to the Xinjiang highway with one motorised and one mechanised division. In a well-rehearsed move, they branched off on to a series of feeder roads along the LAC in Ladakh. Once the troops were in position, they initiated multiple incursions across the LAC. A mirror deployment by the Indian Army resulted in a clash at the Galwan Valley about which much has been written. After the Doklam incident, this was the next provocation. The Doklam plateau is of extreme strategic value, poised as it is to dominate the Chumbi Valley dagger which in turn is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the “Chicken Neck” of the Siliguri corridor. China has now laid claim to the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan. A first for a country laying claim to a territory not contiguous to its own and passing through a third country.
In Ladakh, both sides had agreed to a phased withdrawal and the creation of buffer zones with limits of patrolling to avoid any further clashes. As events are playing out, it is evident that China is dragging its feet on a pullback beyond symbolic gestures. Now that we are in for the long haul, do we have a well thought out long-term plan? To my mind, this is just a pause in an extended game of checkmate. We are dealing with a bellicose neighbour obsessed with reasserting rights over land which their predecessors may have acquired through conquest or guile. Their own history of submission for over a century to the Mongols, then to the Japanese, followed by the colonial powers that ruled over them are glossed over, as of little consequence.
China has land borders with 14 neighbours covering an estimated 22100 kilometres. As its economic status burgeoned, so did its military muscle. Based on a medieval mindset of the Middle Kingdom, the Centre of the Universe and head of the Confucian family, China has embarked on claims based on perceived imbalances of treaties forced on them when the country was weak. Some of these have been resolved after bloody clashes such as with Russia and Vietnam, while others were resolved through a combination of lucrative offers of money, trade and guile. In most cases, the result has been such that victory can be claimed by both sides. Russia accepted half of China’s claim, Kazakhstan was given lucrative economic deals, who in turn promised help with the Uighurs, and Kyrgyzstan retained 70 % of the land, ceding 30% to China. Tajikistan gave up 1000 square kms, less than 5% of the claim, while the Myanmar issue was settled with an oil deal. Generally, nations wish to avoid war and prefer a settlement. India with a strong central leadership which has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and with battle hardened armed forces is no push over. We have displayed a strong resolve with our build up post Galwan. What next? Now that there is a pause, it is time to plan our strategy for our Northern borders.
The Sino-Indian border stretches over 4056 kms (2520 miles) and traverses one Union Territory (Ladakh) and the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. Mobilisation of considerable sections of the army, air force, naval has a high economic cost. Factor into this the stocking supplies for the additional troops and equipment which will be positioned there during the winter months, when temperatures plunge below zero degree. Add to this the value of weapon systems and platforms being procured expeditiously from across the world. An economic cost has been imposed on us even without a single shot having been fired. As a soldier who has witnessed the death, destruction and devastation during the 1971 war and Kargil war, I would opt for the adage of Sun Tzu - “The supreme art of warfare is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Out of the box solutions, based on years of experience, sensitive details of which cannot be shared in articles or debated on television channels could and should be examined. There is a need to create a Border Vigilance Force along the entire Northern border to lessen the strain on the Army and the ITBP. As per reports, the ITBP Is seeking an expansion of its personnel deployed along the entire length of the border to assist in turnover and relief. We have another valuable armed asset of approximately the same strength—the Sashatra Seema Bal (SSB)—raised in 1963 for employment along our Northern borders. It is currently looking after the Indo-Nepal border. Since this is not a very active border, the present situation can easily be handled by the respective state police forces with their armed wings. It would be worthwhile to deploy both the ITBP and the SSB on the LAC, one to the eastern and the other to the western sector of the LAC. Stiffened by Scouts Battalions from the Army, they can maintain vigil across the entire LAC. Given intelligence resources, satellite imagery, drones and Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems, they can easily maintain vigilance along the entire border during the winter months.
The Army can then be pulled back closer to base areas from where they can be redeployed in any sector in which the need may arise. Here they can integrate and familiarise with the new equipment being procured as also prepare for the next summer. It is obvious that the Chinese cannot use tanks and mechanised columns in the mountainous terrain prevailing on our side of the LAC during the winter months. Also, we need much lesser troops in a defensive role enabling us to use the surpluses thus created open to options for a strike by a larger force. If the head of the opponent is an obstacle, we can strike at the middle or the tail to force a recoil. A potent threat to help deter a war. Taking up the cause of suppressed and antagonistic groups in Tibet and along the CPEC at world forums will be a great force multiplier.
(The author is Former Commander Special Forces and Senior Instructor, Army War College. Views expressed are personal.)