The gloves are indeed off. Now New Delhi must ensure that the Indian Army’s mountain corps is made fully ready to foil further Chinese military moves, writes Anil Bhat for South Asia Monitor
Colonel B Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer, 16 Bihar Regiment and 19 other ranks of this battalion and some other units were killed in the most violent and barbaric close-quarter confrontations over the past 53 years. It was started by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) personnel, who attacked them with stones, boulders, iron rods studded with nails and rods with barbed wire wound around one end. This was on the night of 15-16 June 2020, at Ladakh’s extremely cold Galwan Valley in high altitude, near the 4057 km-long disputed and undemarcated India-China border termed as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The confrontation reportedly erupted as the 16 Bihar Regiment detachment, which was overseeing PLA’s disengagement process, tried to remove a Chinese tent at Galwan Valley. A physical fight started after the detachment objected to the PLA, which did not follow the disengagement process agreed upon in earlier meetings between commanders of both armies. The Chinese soldiers targeted Colonel Babu and killed him. The fact that PLA troops were armed with deadly crude weapons makes it obvious that such an attack was planned by the Chinese.
After the 1962 India-China conflict, the PLA quite often opened fire with small arms on Indian troops who they claimed had violated the LAC. In 1967 at Nathu La, Sikkim, when the PLA upped the ante by using artillery, the Nathu La brigade commander of the Indian Army who wanted to respond with artillery could only do so after approval by the government. When his request reached then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who also held the defence portfolio, she gave her approval. The end result was about 400 PLA soldiers were killed and a convoy of Chinese vehicles and many bunkers destroyed.
Thereafter, the PLA decided to avoid reacting to perceived intrusions by Indian troops with firearms but instead, by discussion between the commanders on the ground. If at all there was any physical confrontation following transgressions/incursions, almost always by PLA troops, they were dealt with appropriately for 53 years, till the 73-day Doklam stand-off in 2017. In this instance, Indian Army troops initially joined hands physically to stop their PLA adversaries from advancing, resulting in some pushing/grappling, or worse, some fisticuffs, but every time the issue was resolved by dialogue and discussion between officers of both armies deployed on the ground, or higher field commander, or at diplomatic levels, as required.
However, since early May 2020, the PLA beat all earlier records of this very mild form of unarmed combat and violated all agreements made for “peace and tranquility” up to the 2018 Wuhan and 2019 Mamallapuram informal summits.
Bridge over Galwan river
On May 5, 2020, around 250 PLA and Indian Army personnel clashed with iron rods, sticks, and even resorted to stone-pelting in the Pangong Tso (lake) area, in which soldiers on both sides sustained injuries. On May 9, nearly 150 Indian Army and PLA troops were engaged in a face-off near Naku La pass in the Sikkim sector. Varying reports of the injured on both sides ranged to 100. Some more incidents initiated by the PLA at Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), and increased aggressive patrolling and fresh deployments in other sectors, are definite indicators of a considered ratcheting up by China. Indian Army personnel reportedly matched and mirrored all Chinese moves.
While the PLA’s strategic infrastructural development in many parts of the Chinese side of the LAC has been going on since decades, the same long overdue and vitally important task on India’s side began only in recent years. One such major project completed at a faster pace is the construction of the 255 km long Darbuk–Shyok-DBO road, also called the Sub Sector North road, which included a bridge over the Galwan river, well inside Indian territory, which miffed the Chinese.
They did not react much to the construction of the road mentioned per se, but lateral to this road a bridge over the Galwan river leading towards the LAC, which became a strong reason for the May 2020 standoff. The PLA reportedly inducted 5000 additional troops with artillery guns and infantry combat vehicles at locations close to the LAC and pitched 100 tents.
Some earlier developments which also irked the Chinese were two exercises conducted by the Indian Army in September and October 2019 in India’s forward areas of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh respectively.
The one in September 2019 was an integrated military exercise involving tanks, mechanised infantry, paratroopers and various other arms of service in eastern Ladakh and, that too, just days after a faceoff between the Indian and Chinese troops in the region.
The second one in Arunachal Pradesh was an exercise to test the capabilities of the newly conceived integrated battle groups, which was carried out in phases in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh near Tawang and faced some resistance from China, but the matter was resolved through diplomatic channels. Also, a greater irritant for China in the larger context is India’s abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution on August 5, 2019 along with designation of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh as separate Union territories.
'It'll be a long haul'
Having made the aggressive May 2020 military moves, that too during the peak period of the Covid 19, also called the Wuhan virus by the rest of the world, and then accusing India of aggressively trespassing its territory and blocking PLA patrols and President Xi Jinping exhorting PLA to “be prepared to defend the nation”, is a clear indication of China attempting to distract attention from the deadly virus that it exported, knowingly or unknowingly, and 125 nations seeking an impartial probe into its origin.
Interacting with this author, Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (retd), Director General, Centre for Contemporary China and Studies and Member, National Security Advisory Board, commented: “Wolf warrior diplomacy, a euphemism for aggressive behaviour by China’s diplomats, has been on for a few months now…… China’s increase in comprehensive national power seems to be driving this behaviour….. It appears that PLA simply wants to assert its perception of the LAC. Therefore, India’s armed forces must be prepared for a long haul and ensure the sanctity of India’s perception of the LAC. Also, efforts must continue to get the LAC clarified so that such incidents can be avoided”.
After about twelve meetings since the first week of May on the LAC on June 6, 2020, Indian and Chinese corps commanders were to meet to discuss and resolve the stand-off in Eastern Ladakh at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC. However, the Chinese commander who met Lt Gen Harinder Singh, GOC, 14 Corps, was Maj Gen Liu Lin, commander of South Xinjiang Military Region. The Chinese appointing an officer one rank junior to confer with Lt Gen Singh was a calculated, unbecoming but not a surprising move. They addressed the ongoing tussle in Eastern Ladakh over the heavy military build-up by the PLA along the LAC. This was soon followed by another major general-level meeting.
On June 9, 2020, it was reported that PLA’s process of moving back had begun but only in the areas around patrolling points 14 and 15 in Galwan Valley and another in the Hot Spring area, but not in Pangong Tso.
Use of medieval weapons
On June 15, 2020, it was this process that Col Babu and a detachment of 16 Bihar were overseeing, when the PLA troops attacked with lethal crude weapons. In doing so the PLA adhered to its post-1967 Sikkim skirmishes method of not using firearms against the Indian Army, but resorting to medieval methods and violating every agreement for peace and tranquillity on the LAC since the past many decades.
The CCP-PLA have obviously planned this major attempt to change the status quo on the LAC by also involving Pakistan and Nepal, which gave New Delhi an unpleasant surprise by disputing Indian controlled territory and making cartographic changes on its map with swift political endorsement. Pakistan in any case is China’s long-term lackey and may already be part of Beijing's grand plan for South Asian dominance. It has kept India’s security forces quite busy in Jammu & Kashmir.
The gloves are indeed off. Now New Delhi must ensure that the Indian Army’s mountain corps is made fully ready to foil further Chinese military moves. While PLA may be feeling gung-ho about launching land-grabbing moves, the Indian Army must be allowed to respond to PLA in the “language that it best understands” - like Nathu La with firearms or Sumdorong Chu without them. Indian authorities, while responding appropriately, must also keep in mind that PLA has for many decades been a grand but unblooded army.
(The writer is a former Indian Army and Ministry of Defence spokesperson. The views expressed are personal)