China is showcasing its capability and capacity to move on from COVID and to simultaneously engage militarily and provocatively (belligerent actions against 27 immediate and near continental and maritime neighbours) in SCS and ECS, and India, and economical and diplomatic coercion elsewhere, writes Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor
The East Ladakh Line of Actual Control (LAC) imbroglio has been written about and discussed threadbare, with the range of emotions moving from despair a la ‘repeat of 1962’ to the jubilation of an ‘all-powerful New India’, ready to ‘give a bloody nose’ to China.
There has obviously been an intelligence and military oversight, either in terms of interpretation of Chinese intentions or of carrying out suitable countermeasures like moving up formation reserves, forward posturing of artillery and mechanized forces, increasing patrolling and surveillance activities, strengthening of posts and deploying mobile reserves to fill in the gaps. Hindsight is always easy to predict! Unlike the methodology followed every summer by China and India, this time the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) exercised closer than usual to the LAC, and stayed put, which allowed the Chinese troops normally deployed in Tibet to move forward and occupy previously un-held areas.
On the other hand, Indian troops including some formations from outside Ladakh region, ostensibly due to COVID. did not carry out corresponding exercises, which normally acted as a countervailing force to prevent exactly such a situation from happening. One must accept that the intention of Chinese movement forward from their exercise areas to LAC (to some extent it would have been camouflaged under the garb of regular border troops affiliated to those areas) should have been identified as unusual and alarming. Misreading Chinese intentions and the initial hesitant response added to the confusion.
China’s greatest strength in TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) lies in infrastructure in terms of the rail link to Lhasa from the mainland, numerous airfields, multiple roads of entry from hinterland to forward locations/LAC, logistical stamina and smooth supply chain, providing the capability to deploy large quantum of formations ranging from mechanized/motorized, artillery, army aviation, engineers, air defence, rocket forces, communication and surveillance units and most importantly logistic supply chains, in an operationally quick timeframe. China's wherewithal to mobilize is truly impressive and vast in scale. Notwithstanding, India acted with great alacrity by our commensurate mirror deployment, mobilization of the IAF, combat-hardened formations and troops, terrain familiarization and altitude acclimatization, and mobilization of additional reserves.
Tactically and operationally in East Ladakh the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) are fully confident and capable of handling all challenges without getting militarily embarrassed. By all accounts, China’s well laid out plans to gain valuable strategic territory and embarrass India's armed forces and nation has been stalled, at least temporarily. In fact, China would risk embarrassment if they continue the misadventure, as even a stalemate by India will indicate Chinese loss of face, to which they hold tremendous importance.
Emerging operational story of PLA in Ladakh
Starting late Jan/Feb 2020, the PLA began what was viewed as routine mobilization for annual exercises in Xinjiang, which borders Ladakh. This year in a major departure from the earlier annual exercises, PLA troops for the first time moved closer to the border, while border frontier troops remained in the forward areas. There were sufficient visibility and knowledge of PLA moving into TAR. In Jan 2020, President Xi Jinping issued a new Training Mobilisation Order (TMO) for strengthening military training in real combat conditions and “to maintain a high level of readiness.” The new order updated the 2019 TMO, which was the first such order to be signed by President Xi and had called for implementing new military training guidelines announced by him in 2018 to improve combat readiness. This dramatically altered the pattern of annual exercises and China’s forward deployment posture, not just with India but also in other theatres, where tensions have flared this summer including Japan, Taiwan, and in the South and East China Sea (SCS and ECS). It called for confrontational training to assess commanders in real-time combat situations and deal with a multi-front situation. This TMO is likely to be in place till at least 2021.
If this input is true, it is extremely bold and in keeping with President Xi’s hurry to achieve the ‘China dream,’ and partially explains the goings-on. Their aim is to deliberately cause disruption, but emerge with strategic gains whilst showcasing its rising comprehensive national power (CNP) to the world. India, especially the armed forces, needs to prep for a new normal urgently and has to plan, equip, and play accordingly.
China’s military operational movement along LAC is just one vertical of their plan and they have a larger aim. Explanations offered of Chinese apprehensions of India's LAC infrastructure build-up, especially the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road and probing actions, for Beijing’s aggressive actions in East Ladakh are tactical at best and miss the larger strategic picture. China has moved everywhere near-simultaneously, from Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, to even the Philippines, Nepal, Bhutan, and even Russia. China is indicating a willingness to take on the so-called liberal democratic world order established by the US and its allies, especially in Asia, which China considers its strategic playground. China intends to demonstrate its domination of Asia.
China is showcasing its capability and capacity to move on from COVID and to simultaneously engage militarily and provocatively (belligerent actions against 27 immediate and near continental and maritime neighbours) in SCS and ECS, and India, and economical and diplomatic coercion elsewhere. This is no off the cuff measure, but a planned thought out strategic manoeuvre. China plans to resolve the turbulence created, after making strategic gains/inroads at the time of their choosing. indicating Beijing’s growing stature and CNP to the world. Incidentally, China is not going to implode, as the very large population of middle-income citizens support this regime as it has brought them prosperity for the price of sacrificing some freedom.
Specifically, China’s raison d'être to move against India, a direct competitor for strategic space and a possible impediment to its aspirations to become a superpower, is India’s continued opposition to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is nothing less than existential for CCP (billions invested), being the gateway to multi-lateral trade and influence. The idea is to coerce India into accepting the BRI or at best not oppose it; fear of losing access to Gwadar Port which reduces dependence on Malacca Straits; abrogation of Article 370 (by the Indian government that revoked the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir) and New Delhi’s justifiable announcement of its resolve to get back the entire sovereign territory of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, which includes Gilgit Baltistan and Aksai Chin; and the high probability of India becoming the main beneficiary of economic, manufacturing and trade pullout from China. Also, to show India’s unstable security environment in the bid to dissuade other countries from re-locating to India.
China’s wolf diplomacy
While the world is battling COVID-19 and its effects in other domains, China (Communist Party of China to be more precise) led by Xi is changing the global status quo. Like a high-stake gambler, XI has rolled the dice, to see what he can win on the security and geopolitical front. Muscle-flexing has been impressive; intimidating or sinking fishing vessels (Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, even Japan); threatening Southeast Asia naval ships by locking missiles; conduct exercises to intimidate and develop specific skills needed to invade Taiwan; use belligerent language at all adversaries including stating the intent of “reunification of Taiwan” openly; activities in exclusive economic zones of neighbours, Japan included; changing status quo along LAC, an already tense unresolved land boundary with India; and finally ‘wolf diplomacy’ a recent phenomenon knowing its adverse impact.
Aggrieved and angry about COVID-19, which added to the frustration and growing realization of a challenger in the global order, the US followed by its allies, mainly from the western world, have reacted with alacrity and alarm at China’s belligerent actions that threaten to change the global power equation. Many other nations are watching from the sidelines as China’s CNP and economic might (considerable) and hold on their sovereignty could get strengthened if China gets away relatively unscathed. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that China’s pursuit of offshore resources in parts of South China Sea is “completely unlawful.” In its latest annual defence report/white paper, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government criticized Beijing for “relentlessly” attempting to undermine Tokyo’s administration of the Senkaku Islands in the ECS, even at a time when international coordination is required to contain the virus. The document rebuked China over its persistent attempts to “unilaterally change the status quo” in the ECS. The white paper also referred to China’s unilateral creation of two administrative districts in the SCS, in which Beijing has overlapping claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The two districts are named Xisha and Nansha, using the Chinese names for the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, respectively. Concurrently, a comprehensive Pacific Deterrence Initiative is being formulated. The US has announced and is currently rebalancing and redeploying its forces to counter future threats emanating from China, which includes increasing freedom of navigation patrols in Taiwan Straits, more military and economic aid to Taiwan, and deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups to SCS.
Aligned countries are coalescing either bilaterally or through groupings like Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) (and Plus) to meet the Chinese challenge. Chinese strengths in IT, hardware, manufacturing, and infrastructure are being weakened using multiple fronts. India’s ban on 59 Chinese apps, as also resolve to ban Chinese participation in sensitive sectors (including Huawei and ZTE) has been applauded and has acted as a catalyst for others to emulate. China will be justified if it feels it is strategically isolated by the liberal democratic West.
The jury, however, is still out regarding the outcome, as most nations are finding out to their dismay, that China has considerable economic and political clout and has enmeshed itself so intimately into other nations economic fabric that it will be very difficult to exorcise it, and it will come at great cost.
Indian elephant through Chinese eyes
India’s resolve and response, coupled with the June 15 violent clash between Indian and PLA troops, appear to have surprised the Chinese strategic community. Their utterances/debates instead of bringing consensus have widened the differences on how to deal with a more confident India and a professional battle-hardened armed forces. This school headed by India watchers Lin Minwang and Zhang Jiadong, from Fudan University, and Li Hongmei from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS) among others believe that the present conflict is an “inevitable result” of what they perceive as “India’s long-standing speculative strategy on the China-India border.” Beijing getting wary of India’s pronouncements (Article 370, taking erstwhile J&K back including Aksai Chin), growing alliances and infrastructure surge all along our Northern borders were “fed up” and “had to teach India a lesson.” They feel our growing alignment with the US and China’s adversaries (Japan, Australia, Vietnam, etc.) is taking India further away from rapprochement, becoming a quasi ally of the US with no reversal, and the possibility of border settlement getting grimmer.
Within this unstable global security environment and a paranoid US, the earlier system of effective management of bilateral differences has crumbled beyond control, periodic violent conflicts, they predict, are the “new normal” in China-India ties. To deal with a resurgent India, Chinese hardliners suggest a policy of “three nos” - “no weakness, no concession, and no defensive defence”. In other words, China should take all opportunities to crack down on India, take the initiative to hit it hard whenever possible. This, they feel will make relations more stable like after 1962. They interpolate that China must be ready for belligerent moves across the entire LAC, from the McMahon Line in the east to the Aksai Chin area in the west; take the initiative to attack and seize territories under India’s control from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, and weaken India internally, by supporting the cause of Maoists, Naga separatists and Kashmiris.
This school which has political thinkers and professors such as Zheng Yongnian and Yu Longyu among others have opined that Chinese actions and reactions in places like Galwan Valley have remained mostly tactical/reactive and without any clear strategic intent. This has stoked nationalism in India and united the otherwise divided nation against China, harming China’s interests and might even draw China into an untimely military conflict. If China-India ties are damaged beyond repair, they warn, India alone or in association with other countries will cause “endless trouble for China”.
For instance, an openly hostile India will use every possible means to prevent China from reaching the Indian Ocean. They feel that strategically, it is not advisable to launch proactive military conflict against India, “a big country with comparable military strength.” at this point in time. While China enjoys superiority in most fields like weapon systems and logistical strength, India too enjoys some strengths in war experience, acclimatization, shorter supply lines, and terrain familiarity. They predict that if the conflict ends in a short period of time, it will benefit China. But if it is prolonged, China will be disadvantaged.
What China may eventually try to achieve? I agree with Antara Singh, who concluded in her article in The Hindu, that China would aim at attaining a comprehensive and overwhelming geopolitical and strategic advantage vis-à-vis India, which cannot be altered by war.
It will be wise to acknowledge that China’s moves along the LAC (even in Sikkim) is part of a larger strategic game plan. China has mobilized a large force, and possibly had more devious designs of altering the status quo permanently along the LAC in its favour. For this China may have been willing to use limited force with a very effective and formidable non-kinetic campaign prior, during, and after the larger tactical actions. China would have employed a fairly new Strategic Support Force for conducting information and psychological, network-centric, electronic, and electromagnetic spectrum operations while concurrently using his CNP to provide a legal, economic, diplomatic narrative.
While robust tactical response by India's brave soldiers at the tactical level and expeditious mirror deployments by the Indian Army and IAF at the operational level has surprised and stymied the Chinese temporarily, India must plan for the worst-case contingency ranging from a localized conflict to full-scale war. The trust built up over decades by abiding by the CBMs (confidence-building measures) and border management agreements (barring the odd one-off incidents) has been permanently broken.
India’s future roadmap
The Chinese respect strength and resolve. It is time to build India's national multi-domain capabilities as that is how a larger-scale war will be fought. One can ignore China’s asymmetric superiority in CNP, infrastructure capacities, military capabilities, cunning and deceit, diplomatic and political clout at your own peril. Numerous China watchers have rightly asserted that China has managed to alienate the youth of 'New India', which is a very large percentage of the Indian population. While India continues strengthening and cementing other domains of diplomacy, economy, strategic balancing through alliances and bilateral agreements and increase our CNP, the focus must be ‘atma nirbharta’ (self-reliance) and ensuring a potent, visible, modern, multi-domain operation capable armed forces, including Strategic Forces Command (full spectrum capability).
For this the expeditious raising of theatre commands; placing all forces - Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along LAC under army; the rapid growth of the Indian Navy to manage maritime policy of dominating the IOR region (the domain of vital importance); IAF capability for a multi-front role; re-energized mountain strike corps; strategic lift capability; potent C5ISTAR system (command, control, communication, computer, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance); are the main ingredients.
India must build its deterrence capabilities to ensure the fulfillment of its national vision and goals.
The LAC imbroglio will serve as a defining moment in the country’s history, and India will emerge strong, resilient, resurgent and confident to take its natural place as the pivotal balancing power amongst the comity of nations in the world.
(The writer, an Indian Army veteran, was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)