Blindsided in Ladakh: Seeds of Galwan crisis sown by China in 5-year-old white paper
The white paper showed that China would focus on cyber and space warfare and joint military operation; develop 'long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons'; and prioritise local and informationisation wars as 'in the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely'
"War is a mere continuation of policy with other means" - Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (On War)
Tweak this eternal definition of war by the Prussian general and military theorist a little, and the geopolitical and military strategy of the People's Republic of China is evident. 'Local' war is a mere continuation of 'geopolitics' with other means — this has become the guiding principle of China under President Xi Jinping.
The current Ladakh imbroglio and the past incursions by Beijing in the freezing heights, the increasing Chinese belligerence towards Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years, and the continuous fierce military expansion in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea have their roots in China's 2015 White Paper on Defence.
The writing was on the wall in 2015. But the Pakistan-obsessed Narendra Modi government ignored the 2015 defence White Paper in particular and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in general.
In fact, the 2013 defence white paper was a precursor to Xi's intentions, specific emphasis on the modernisation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), alarm on the increasing US presence in the Indo-Pacific, and special mention of Taiwan and Tibet in the 2015 document. The document, released after Xi was elected president in 2013, stated the PLA will "win local wars under the conditions of informationisation" — increased use of information technology in short localised wars.
The 2015 white paper and transformation of PLA
The document was completely ignored by New Delhi and its generals, who were naïve enough not to realise its significance. The PLA was tasked to "resolutely safeguard the unification of the motherland". To jog the Narendra Modi government's memory, Mao Zedong considered Tibet China's right palm and intended to liberate — rather, unite — its fingers: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh).
The paper showed that China would focus on cyber and space warfare and joint military operation; develop "long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons"; and prioritise local and informationisation wars as "in the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely".
In the very same year, Xi carried out two major changes in PLA. He reduced the number of troops by 300,000 to two million to modernise the military and established the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), the cyber, space and electronic warfare service branch.
The following year, Xi reduced the number of PLA Theatre Commands from seven to five — Eastern (Nanjing), Southern (Guangzhou), Western Theater (Chengdu), Northern (Shenyang) and Central (Beijing) — to bring the military firmly under the control of the Party and the Central Military Commission, headed by him, and to "elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theatre, multi-functional and sustainable operations".
The Western Theatre Command is the biggest with the Tibet Military Command (TMC) coming under the jurisdiction of the PLA. In an article published in 2016, Global Times said, "The Tibet Military Command bears great responsibility to prepare for possible conflicts between China and India.”
One year after the reorganisation of the Commands, and putting the TMC under the PLAGF's jurisdiction, the Doka La stand-off occurred with India napping. Though Beijing blinked first and withdrew from the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction, it occupied the rest of the plateau and constructed permanent military structures and stationed troops.
Major Chinese future threats ignored
Local informationised war: Around four decades ago, Deng Xiaoping had predicted the unlikeliness of major wars or nuclear attacks; instead, he foresaw local wars — for example, the Kargil War — and wanted the PLA to transform accordingly. His successor, Jian Zemin, called for the PLA's transformation to win such wars under modern technology and preferring quality to quantity — as implemented by Xi.
Had India launched a military offensive against the PLA in eastern Ladakh after the Galwan River Valley clash, it would have been a "local informationised war" fought by China — geographically limited, speedy, short, with rapid integration and mobilisation of forces, highly destructive using lethal weapons and using C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). China would have also used its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks to cripple India’s weapons command and control systems, power and communications grids, and integrated cyber attacks that can hack our banks, government institutions and our emails. It would be a platform-integated war with PLAGF, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force and PLASSF networked closely.
"… the [Chinese] armed forces will adhere to the principles of flexibility, mobility and self-dependence so that 'you fight your way and I fight my way'," the document says.
Western Theatre Command, especially TMC: The Western Theatre Command and the TMC should have raised a red flag in New Delhi for it was formed with the primary focus on India. It's not a coincidence that the Theatre Command chief General Zhao Zongqi is the architect of Doka La and the current Ladakh crisis.
Around 200,000 PLA combat-ready troops stationed in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) are fully acclimatised to the freezing weather, the artillery guns are calibrated according to the high altitude and China has built a complete ecosystem unlike the Indian Army, which has now moved its troops to the border areas of eastern Ladakh. It will take several months for our troops, primarily used to patrolling the LAC, to build an ecosystem and get acclimatised if India too wants to station them there permanently.
China has been conducting major training and sophisticated multi-dimensional military exercises involving the PLAGF and PLAAF in TAR for the last several years, even after the Ladakh crisis, that have strangely not rattled LoC- and counterinsurgency-obsessed India.
Global Times reported on 31 July that the TMC "recently conducted artillery exercises in high-altitude areas to test the army's long-range precision strikes and fire-assault capabilities in plateau environments," quoting Ministry of National Defence spokesperson Ren Guoqiang.
China also conducted integrated, joint and comprehensive drills on the Qinghia-Tibet plateau involving the Central Theatre Command, PLAGF, PLARF, armoured vehicles, Type 15 lightweight tanks and anti-tank HJ-10 missile systems, attack helicopters and an airborne brigade. "The main threat China faces on its border with India comes from Indian tanks and armoured vehicles, but the Type 15 tanks and HJ-10 anti-tank missiles are very strong counters," Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, told Global Times.
Obviously, such massive integrated drills are precisely aimed at thwarting an Indian offensive. Thousands of troops from the Southern and Central Theatre Commands are now deployed in western China. According to Global Times, Chinese military experts say the drills showed that "the PLA can crush any aggression with land-air integrated joint operations". Forces from other theatre commands can also support the Western Command in case of an emergency, Song said.
Chinese cyberspace and electronic warfare capabilities: The 2015 paper further emphasised the importance of cyber warfare. "As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force". It is believed that China has around 50,000 cyber warriors to "ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability". According to reports, 40,000 cyber attacks were launched against India within days of the Galwan clash.
The PLA's Integrated Network and Electronic Warfare (INEW) — an integration of cyber warfare and electromagnetic warfare — aims to seize and cripple the enemy's information network at the beginning of a war. In all probability, the INEW will collect India's data, process it, paralyse our military's command and control centres — affecting our launch of ground- and sea-based missiles and jamming communication with fighter jets — and also launch kinetic attacks, like the Stuxnet virus that substantially damaged Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2010.
Non-nuclear EMP (NNEMP) attack: The 2015 document mentioned that China "will intensify training in complex electromagnetic environments". EMPs are massive bursts of electromagnetic pulses emitted during a nuclear or non-nuclear explosion — for example, the American Starfish Prime nuclear explosion over the Pacific in 1962, which knocked out streetlights and telephone lines and triggered radio blackouts as far as 1,400 km in Hawaii.
Since using a nuke would trigger global opprobrium, an NNEMP bomb or missile is the best option to jam radars, tanks, missiles, ships and planes by affecting their circuit boards.
When ships from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier group sailed to the South China Sea in March, Song told Global Times that China could use electromagnetic weapons to temporarily paralyse their weapon and control systems.
According to a June 2020 report titled 'The People's Republic of China Military Doctrine, Plans, and Capabilities for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack', issued by Peter Vincent Pry, executive director, EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, "China is on the verge of deploying or has already deployed hypersonic weapons that could potentially be armed with nuclear or non-nuclear EMP warheads, greatly increasing the threat of surprise attack against US forces in the Pacific."
China is the only country to have a naval railgun, which uses electromagnetic energy instead of gunpowder. The railgun can strike targets 124 miles away at a speed of up to 1.6 miles per second, CNBC reported in 2019.
Superiority in outer space weaponisation: China began focussing on developing superior space capabilities after noticing the US use of GPS in the 1991 Gulf War, known as the first 'space war'. Beijing had started developing its space capabilities much before releasing the 2015 document, which says, "China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain."
In 2007, Beijing launched the SC-19 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, a modified form of its DF-21 missile, which destroyed a redundant Chinese FY-1C weather satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometres. The 2013 launch of China's ASAT missile Dong Neng-2, which almost reached the geosynchronous orbit by climbing about 30,000 kilometres, alarmed US.
India's latest test of an ASAT, as late as 2019, the Prithvi Defence Vehicle Mark-II, which can destroy satellites only in low earth orbit, shows how New Delhi lags Beijing in space weaponry. "It [the Indian ASAT weapon test] will not suffice to protect India's space assets during any major conflict with China," according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In 2016, China launched the Aolong-1 satellite on 7 March reportedly to clean space debris. However, a researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing told the South China Morning Post that the satellite has the "potential to act as an anti-satellite weapon".
China is also developing laser systems to incapacitate enemy satellites in lower orbits. According to the report 'China Dream, Space Dream China’s Progress in Space Technologies and Implications for the United States', prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the Department of Defence concluded in 2006 that China had "at least, one… ground-based laser designed to damage or blind imaging satellites".
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