By Major General P. Rajagopal, AVSM, VSM(Retired)
Two weeks into the dastardly Galwan incident in which 20 of our brave soldiers were brutally murdered by the PLA, the threat of war is real – there is no denying this anymore. China has come with its virus for a long haul. There is no indication of withdrawing from any of the disputed areas that they had entered in large numbers. While there is no war as yet, when there are heavily armed soldiers facing each other in such close proximity who can predict the future? As normal in such situations there is very little information trickling from the official sources while media houses – print, electronic and even social media- are going berserk with information both verified and unverified. The fog of war has descended at least on the information front, further accentuated by psychological operations.
Without going into the technicalities of perceptions of Line of Actual Control (LAC), one thing which is clear is that PLA has come into disputed areas well ahead of positions they were occupying prior to May 2020. The rules of engagement that neither side will occupy any disputed area have been violated by China. It is also clear that they have come well prepared and have been strengthening their positions since early May. This is a serious matter as it is an attempt to unilaterally change the alignment of the LAC to their advantage, preventing India from patrolling to their line of perception of LAC. It is also clear that the talks at very senior Military level on June 6, June 22 and the more recent one on June 30 have not yielded much result on the ground.
There are some reports of limited de-escalation having taken place in Galwan valley (There is no official confirmation). More importantly, there are also worrying reports of the PLA actually strengthening its positions in other disputed areas, particularly towards rear areas of Galwan Valley and Pangong tso lake Fingers area (there are reports of PLA constructing helipads here) and unconfirmed reports of PLA having come in large numbers in Depsang plains. India is taking no chances and has deployed adequate forces across the LAC to thwart any misadventure by China.
There is an obvious attempt by China to create permanent presence in the disputed areas. They are keeping India distracted and confused by long inconclusive talks while doing precisely what they want to. Hence long drawn out talks of de-escalation/disengagement is not in our interest unless we are also working on our strategic assets quietly while overtly engaging in these talks. China and Chinese assurances are not to be taken at face value – we too have to become masters of subterfuge. The one inescapable conclusion in all this is that one has to be prepared for a very long haul; with both sides primed no one can say whether there will be another Galwan or not. The fact that China has been given a befitting lesson by Indian Army – that any misadventure will only get them a bloody nose – will hopefully impose some caution on their activities. How much and whether this alone is enough is something we will not know till much later, as nothing comes out of China – till now there is no official word about the casualties they have suffered in the Galwan valley! If the current unacceptable occupation is not sorted out quickly, China will not only get more aggressive, but it would also result in Indian Army’s permanent deployment on the LAC with a high degree of chances for escalation.
Is there a possibility of a joint intrusion by China and Pakistan?
What is the larger plan of China? Is it only to occupy disputed areas, show ownership and try to change line of LAC unilaterally or is there a larger aim? China has invested billions in its proxy states mainly Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and now even Nepal. This is the time when it will extract its pound of flesh from these countries. Pakistan will be more than willing. The most potent threat is of Pakistan – already stung by their losing agenda on Kashmir, which will be ready to jump in as and when directed by China. There have been reports of Pakistan mustering large number of troops in Gilgit-Baltistan. A live two front threat cannot be wished away now or in the foreseeable future. It is in this context that we have to look at Chinese incursions particularly in Galwan valley and Depsang plains. Militarily, their recent attempts to occupy Depsang Plains give an indication of the dubious intention of PLA. Could Pangong tso be a diversion while main focus is on DBO and more strategic objectives with a larger aim of committing India on both Pakistan and Chinese borders? The entire Chinese borders have already been activated and India can no longer let down its guard here. Let us look at this scenario in greater detail.
Both Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) and Depsang are strategically important to both China and India for offensive and defensive operations. The DBO at an altitude of over 16,000 feet is just 20 km South of Karakoram Pass. Depsang plains are about 25 km South East of the airfield at DBO and is another disputed area with high strategic value. This area has seen major standoffs in the past also. Here the PLA is reportedly gathered in large numbers at a place called “Bottleneck” about 25 km southeast of strategic airfield in DBO. From here there is a threat of PLA cutting off DBO road and even DBO itself. The larger aim being to threaten Siachen through the 20,000-feet high Saser la pass to the west of Depsang. It can be complicated further by a simultaneous effort by Pakistan towards Thoise and Pratappur which will encircle all areas north including Siachen Glacier. These are extremely difficult areas and India is well-prepared to tackle any misadventure in these areas. However, just posing the threat is enough to keep us deployed on both fronts. DBO and Depsang Plains offer a credible option for a Sino-Pak joint action against India. The PLAs attempt seems to be to inch along in strength at various pressure points along the LAC with a view to assert its position and continue with its strategy of incremental encroachment or salami slicing. Obviously, Galwan incident (which appears to have been more by default than a planned one) is not enough to teach China a lesson. The Chinese will also be sensitive to any Indian thrust through Depsang area towards Aksai chin. This once again highlights the importance of DBO and Depsang Plains and the Leh-Darbuk-Shyok –DBO highway — the life line to DBO. China expert Yun Sun in an interview recently highlighted that China was very concerned about Indian infrastructure development in these areas.
South Asia, in particular Pakistan, becomes important due to Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a pet project of Chairman Xi Jinping, which is a massive project to gain influence and access to markets. Pakistan is an important component in this project as China Pakistan Economic corridor passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, an area which is legally Indian territory. For this major reason, India will not join this project. China has made progress with projects that involves Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. All but two SAARC countries – Afghanistan and Bhutan – explicitly figure in Chinas BRI plans. China is definitely miffed that India has shown no sign of joining this initiative. This is a major setback and loss of face for China. Hence China’s repeated attempts to needle India: at Doklam (India –China –Bhutan tri junction) and Nepal besides the major standoff at Ladakh.
However, there are many “weak links” and “gaps” in the Chinese “belt” plan that can be exploited by India. The present COVID crisis has led to rising resentment against the Chinese worldwide. Moreover, as recipient countries of Chinese so called largesse realize the debt trap they have been enticed into, résistance to Chinese hegemony is building up.
Lessons for India and way forward
In the short term we have to have a concerted approach to include all elements of national power to deal with China’s intransigence and every effort has to be made to make the PLA move back to its pre-May 20 positions quickly. A long drawn out series of sequential talks at military, then diplomatic and finally political level is not in our interest. By then China would have achieved its aim of unilaterally changing the alignment of LAC and keeping India fully occupied, which will affect our economy and standing on the international arena – that is the larger aim of China. We need to be conscious of this and find ways to have strong counter negotiation points even occupying disputed areas ourselves, adopting strong diplomatic and economic measures (banning Chinese apps is a good starting point but much more has to be done) to bring the talks to a close and make them withdraw to their pre-May positions. The importance of DBO and Depsang Plains cannot be over emphasised and India has to be prepared for a misadventure by China and Pakistan acting in collusion.
This leads to the question of military preparedness. Countries try and flex their military muscle covertly or overtly when they feel that their adversary is weak, unprepared or will not retaliate. This is the biggest lesson we have to learn. From the time of our Independence we have forgotten this basic dictum that without military power we cannot be an economic power — leave alone world power, we cannot even hope to be a regional power. There is no way but to be militarily strong with adequate capability to deal with belligerent neighbours – in our case we have to be able to deal with Pakistan and China simultaneously. This situation will not change in the foreseeable future. There will be many naysayers who will be highly critical of spending money on defence –national interest has to be supreme over everything else. Money will be short and there are many demands, but the recent Chinese aggression has told us once again that this cannot be delayed. SOS injection of resources cannot be the answer. The one thing we have to factor in all our calculation is of western and eastern borders being active simultaneously with China-Pakistan collusion.
Notwithstanding whatever has been said, India has the capability and must take the bull by the horns. India should look at this as an opportunity to enhance its military strength, become self-reliant and reduce dependence on Chinese goods. The armed forces have several modernisation programmes that need to be given a fillip and these include artillery guns, helicopters, fighter aircraft, submarines, and drones amongst others. The total number of authorised squadrons of fighter aircraft has to be maintained and for the Navy an extension of submarine fleet is imperative. Indian industry needs to be helped through lesser water tight regulations without compromising quality so that we become self-reliant.
We must make the most of this opportunity to occupy our rightful place on the world stage. We must become an important voice in the world against Chinese hegemonic designs the world over. If we come out of this successfully, with our head held high, it would be the moment of destiny. Not only will our value in Asia grow immensely but also the whole world will look at India differently. This opportunity should not be lost. China has to be stared down.
While China and Pakistan are different, we have to engage other South Asian countries in earnest and make all efforts to remove the fault lines in our relationship so that we truly emerge as a leader in the neighborhood.
A paratrooper who had served in Ladakh at various levels, Major General P. Rajagopal AVSM, VSM (Retired), has also commanded the division in Eastern Ladakh.