The Unfolding Situation at the India-China Border: Call to Prepare for a Prolonged Haul

While the talks were at play at different levels to diffuse the tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), on 30 August, the Indian Army pre-empted Chinese provocative actions to occupy the dominating heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso and Rechin la or Reqin mountain pass in Eastern Ladakh. Based on effective surveillance and situational awareness, India foiled the PLA’s attempts, along with their mechanised elements, to occupy the said heights. This successful offensive action exemplifies the grit and undeterred attitude of the Indian Army against its adversary. Besides, it also adds to the motivation and morale of the Indian troops on the ground. But this win calls for a longer battle that is likely to unfold, that the Indian Armed Forces need to be prepared to fight. Owing to this new development, it becomes imperative to understand: What is China Thinking?

To note, China’s state-owned newspaper Global Times reported that, China’s Western Theatre Command has accused the “Indian troops to have once again illegally crossed the LAC near the south bank of the Pangong Lake”. Calling it a “blatant provocative move that seriously infringed on China’s territorial sovereignty”, it further stated that India is a “typical opportunist” when it comes to the China-India border issue, and that “China must resolutely counterattack India’s opportunist move”. These very statements by Global Times, although do not represent the Chinese Government’s official position, but it somewhat resonates the Chinese thinking. In this case, China thinks it will be able to ‘coerce and intimidate’ India by these statements.

To add, Global Times also categorically stated that “China-India border frictions are likely to prolong, and various kinds of crises, be they big or small, will become normal.” Further, it accused India of ‘trying to turn it (south bank and strategic heights) into a new disputed area as a bargaining chip in negotiations’- adding to Chinese psywar campaign to deter India. These statements make an interesting case in point, and also suggest that a prolonged deployment on the LAC is likely to be the new normal.

For China tends to forget its own actions in the past, just four months ago. To note, the precursor to the current tensions was laid by PLA’s aggressive actions at the borders, both in Sikkim and Eastern Ladakh in May. Wherein, China was engaged changing the status quo at the India-China border by taking actions such as: diverting its troops conducting training in high altitude areas on the Tibetan Plateau towards Eastern Ladakh; mobilising additional mechanised formations (4 Motorised Division and 6  Mechanised Division, along with their light tanks T15, vehicle mounted 155mm howitzers and air defence guns) and fighter aircrafts to areas closer to the LAC and forward airbases respectively; contacting the LAC on a wide front at multiple points; transgressing across the LAC that led to large scale standoffs and physical scuffles, resulting into killing of 20 Indian soldiers on 15 June at Galwan; continuing build-up of war waging systems and preparations of field fortifications and infrastructure up to the LAC; and fiercely unleashing information cum psychological warfare campaign  by way of: fake news, false narratives, morphed images, videos, incorrect maps, blocking information dissemination systems, manipulating the perception of domestic and global audience, and exhibiting superiority in economy, GDP and technology. In response to China’s incessant psywar campaign, at least two messages must be clearly given out: one, that Indian troops are battle hardened and are highly proficient in mountain warfare, and that any military misadventure by China will be dealt with severely; two, an often quoted statistics has been that Indian military is no match to China’s, as the latter’s economy and GDP  is minimum five times that of India. History is replete with examples, including China’s conflict with Vietnam, which suggest that outcomes of military conflicts are not dependent on GDP differential alone.

Needless to say, these Chinese actions highlighted the intentions and sinister design of the PLA to change the status of the LAC to its strategic advantage; thus, disregarding the spirit of diplomatic cum political initiatives,  and the five major  border management mechanisms and CBM agreements and protocols that were signed between 1993 and 2013, by the two countries. Post 30 August military action by India, Global Times reported that “if China and India are really engaged in comprehensive antagonism, it will be much easier for China to rope in countries, including Pakistan, against India”.[1]

What explains China’s adventurism along the LAC? Given the several challenges being faced by China, both within and outside,  China’s actions may have been due to cumulative effect of a number of reasons: India’s opposition to China’s flagship projects BRI and CPEC, and RCEP; India’s role in Quad and further enhancement of strategic partnership  with the US; development of strategic infrastructure along the India- China border, especially the 255 Km strategic Road Darbuk- Shyok-DBO; and India’s actions to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A  in Jammu and Kashmir and publication of maps in which the entire Aksai Chin is shown as part of the Union Territory of Ladakh. In this regard, India’s pre-emption only checkmated China’s unfolding sinister design at the LAC.

Options

What are the options available for India and China? To note, an adversary’s threat to India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is not just limited to the border, but encompasses all elements of its national power. In view of this, India has two broad options: first, use all elements of national power; and second, act militarily both on the continental and maritime domains. So far, against PLA’s aggression and the mistrust that has developed, India has tempered its actions to review and recalibrate its China policy involving political, economic, diplomatic, military, information and psywar domains. It is certainly not business as usual! In the long term, India must progressively improve its comprehensive national power (CNP), sustained economic growth, and build its continental and maritime capabilities. Thus, India must invest in building its capabilities and resolve to deter our adversaries.

According to The Economic Times, the trade deficit between the two countries was at USD 53.56 billion in 2018-19 and USD 63 billion in 2017-18.  India’s trade deficit with China fell to USD 48.66 billion in 2019-20 on account of decline in imports from China.[2]
Specifically, on 2 September, India has banned 118 more mobile apps with Chinese links,  including Baidu, Alipay, WeChat Work and popular mobile game PUBG, citing data privacy concerns and a threat to national security.[3] It took the total count to 224. Some of these actions have already hurt the Chinese companies as the Global Times reported on 3 September that  “China firmly opposes India’s ban on 118 Chinese apps”  and explains that the Chinese firms and investors will bare huge losses.[4] Wherein, a media strategy, though not a robust and comprehensive one at that,  has also been followed to counter the Chinese information – cum psychological warfare campaign. Being more defensive, India has predominantly aimed at shaping the perceptions of the domestic and global audience, which is not good enough against a well-orchestrated campaign by China and Pakistan.

While militarily, the option is to adopt a short-term and long-term strategy. Wherein, the ‘short-term’ should encourage immediate disengagement of troops on both sides- a process that has been halted at few areas of contact at China’s resistance, despite several round of talks. Here, the endeavour should be to restore the status quo, as it existed in April 2020. This would require complete disengagement and the withdrawal of the additional troops (on both sides) that were inducted to their permanent locations, and their movements duly monitored. In addition, propagating narratives that both countries ‘must avoid differences from escalating into disputes’ should be avoided. For it only creates greater scope for new disputes to occur. Rather it would be appropriate to suggest that the existing differences should be resolved on priority- thus, narrowing the room for new disputes. This policy prescription will help seek a long-term solution to the unsettled border.  Being global players, for India and China, the intentions should be on securing a long-term solution to the dispute to bring peace and stability to the region.

Anticipating a Long Haul But Making a Way Forward

If no amicable solution is reached, the standoff would develop into a long haul resulting into logistic build-up for the winters, and deployments of all arms in sufficient numbers to maintain a balanced posture. If this be the case, India needs to follow the bottom-line principle – it is strength that mellows China. It needs to be understood that a strong military muscle based on technology-based systems (hard, soft and demonstrated power) in all domains – acts as a strong deterrence. In this regard, rather than opting for breakneck speeds to carryout emergency procurements during actual hostilities, which reflects insecurity and panic; India needs to act pragmatic and work towards a long-term acquisition plan, backed by adequate defence budget.  It remains indisputable that India’s China quandary is here to stay and thus, wisdom lies in making concerted efforts towards force development and capacity building than acting out of a ‘knee-jerk’ response. What India needs to do?

First, as Global Times suggests, “China needs to prepare to carry out a military struggle in the China-India border area.[….] But when India recklessly challenges China’s bottom line, China must not be soft. It must take military actions when necessary, and ensure it can win”. This also clarifies China’s intention of not returning to the status quo ante – leaving India with no alternative but to be ‘ready’ and ‘prepared’ against the odds. The Indian Armed Forces must be fully prepared to quell any form of contingency in all its sectors with China – Western, Central and Eastern- especially after seeing the satellite imageries that suggest China’s build up opposite all sectors. With its focus on its preparation for military actions against China, one should not dismiss the element of China-Pakistan collusivity and their designs. Notwithstanding these contingencies at the strategic levels, the troops on the ground must be prepared and well-postured to tactically and timely respond to any adversarial action (s), without having to look back for orders.  For to act ‘tit-for-tat’, time is of essence. Rather, India should be prepared for immediate tactical responses given China will not act from a ‘nimble footing’. Comprehensive preparedness should be central to our thought process, on land, sea, air, and cyber space.

Second, call for military preparedness through indigenisation. This current contingency provides India with an opportunity to actively pursue the  ‘Make in India’ initiative. Here, the starting point is India’s Defence Industrial Base (DIB) and the DRDO, which should be subjected to performance audit, and be made accountable. Simultaneously, a significant defence budget (accounting for about 3 percent of India’s GDP) should be allocated to undertake military reforms and modernisation to match the current security environment. Some of the key reforms entail: addressing the  critical hollowness of the armed forces on priority; laying emphasis on technology-enabled systems to manage borders effectively; upgrading surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance systems (reliable intelligence is the key to ensure effective border management and response mechanism); enhancing capacity and capability of the armed forces; instilling jointness among services; cyber security; and building critical infrastructure on the borders. TECHINT and human intelligence sources and collaboration with friendly foreign countries must be explored. Also, dedicated / uninterrupted satellite coverage capability must be acquired along all our borders, with priority to LAC and line of Control (LoC).

Third, at the foremost, niche capabilities of Defence Cyber and Space Agencies; and Special Operations Divisions at strategic levels, must be developed with a sense of urgency, and their progress must be periodically monitored. Simultaneously, force development should be complimented with structural changes. In this regard, organisations such as the DIB and DRDO require transformative structural reforms – to ensure greater indigenisation to meet own requirements, and to finally make them an export-oriented industry. In addition, DRDO should be proactive in providing ‘cutting-edge technologies’ in select fields to enhance India’s reliability and security architecture.

Fourth, the concept of “One Border One Force” was in fact recommended by the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers Reports (1999-2001) for better border management.  This merits consideration in light of the changing security dimensions and technology enabled systems in place. To ensure synergy in application of effort, it would be appropriate to place disputed borders under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. This would imply that all elements, including the ITBP, deployed towards guarding or security of such borders would be placed under the control of the MoD / Army – thus, achieving ‘unity of command, unity of purpose, better situational awareness and battlefield transparency.’

Fifth, an effective information cum psywar policy should be put to place, backed by an appropriate organisation at the apex level with requisite resources, to counter the adversary’s actions and foil their intentions.

While it should be the endeavour of both countries to be responsible enough to resolve the unsettled boundary and territorial disputes, it is unlikely in the near future due to China’s intransigence. With this as the benchmark, India needs to develop its capabilities and prepare its armed forces with vigour to meet the operational challenges of the future against both China and Pakistan. It has the will and it will!

End Notes-   

[1]  Global Times, New Delhi goes astray inciting border tensions: Global Times editorial, 1 September 2020

[2] The Economic Times,  India’s trade deficit with China reduces to USD 48.66 bn in FY20, 2 July 2020.
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/indias-trade-deficit-with-china-reduces-to-usd-48-66-bn-in20/articleshow/76750117.cms?utm_

[3]  Global Times, Why does India recklessly focus on blocking Chinese apps? 3 September 2020.

[4] Ibid.