India-China standoff: Creeping land grab is classic Beijing feint; small punitive steps won't help, Delhi must prepare for limited war

The military operation to recover Galwan can be preceded by a set of punitive economic measures to show India means business.

Bharat Karnad June 18, 2020 10:14:02 IST
India-China standoff: Creeping land grab is classic Beijing feint; small punitive steps won't help, Delhi must prepare for limited war

Developments on the border with China are taking a turn for the worse. The vehemence of the intruding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers when asked by patrolling Indian Army jawans to keep to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is seen in India as surprising.

That they have in the last two weeks, time and again, resorted to violence suggests this is not an outcome of local imbalance of forces, or a tense situation going off kilter, as many retired Indian generals believe is the case. Alone among the major armed forces of the world, the PLA is comprehensively top-driven, with the lower field and unit commanders enjoying little discretionary power. There's simply too much at stake for Beijing to leave it to local commanders to blunder about in what is plainly a hazardous policy terrain.

At the local level then the PLA troops are scrupulously following orders. There is little doubt their aggressive stance is prompted by the highest military authority in China — the Central Military Commission (CMC) — chaired by President Xi Jinping; this newfound bellicosity as evident in eastern Ladakh as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

While exploiting the disjunctions in a COVID-19 ravaged world to advance its geopolitical goals, Beijing doesn’t want to tip the situation over into where everybody gangs up even more against it. It is a risky exercise but Xi believes he can punish India – China’s putative rival in Asia, take it down a notch or two in the subcontinent, and show it up as a political lightweight to its smaller neighbours (Pakistan, Nepal) so they can take liberties with it.

For this purpose, the forward-deployed PLA units are instructed to physically belabour Indian troops and otherwise raise the tension and the temperature without having these encounters spill over into uncontrollable military hostilities. Beijing is convinced it can do this at no great cost and so far it has been proved right.

China's belligerent reaction to the matching Indian border infrastructure build-up – far less dense than on the Chinese side, especially in eastern Ladakh, is hardly surprising and ought to have been anticipated by the Indian intelligence services and the army.

It is curious the entire process of the PLA building up its encampments in the Galwan River Valley went unnoticed by any Indian agency. This doesn’t sound true because the Delhi-based Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) that interprets Indian satellite-derived imagery data regularly passes its assessments to RAW, IB, PMO, Military Intelligence in army headquarters, etc.

Moreover, given the sub-metre resolution cameras on Indian satellites, the Chinese construction activity would have been picked up very early, perhaps, as far back as 8-10 months ago. So, how come India's armed forces or the Modi government didn't know?

That the PLA is sitting pretty on the Galwan and in the area between the hill features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake is in no small part because the Chinese constructed their facilities in both these locations unfettered.

By controlling the foothills and the approaches to the Galwan River fronting on the newly constructed Karakorum Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang road, with a bridge over the Shyok River, for instance, the PLA is in a position to interdict Indian military traffic.

Considering this road supplies the army's Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier and affords the Indian Army easy access to the Karakorum Pass, the first thing the army should have done after the Border Roads Organisation laid down the alignment for this road some 1o years back was to protect this asset by pre-emptively securing the foothills and, hence, the heights on the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers. It would have closed out PLA’s options on the Indian highway. The army blundered by not implementing such a precautionary military measure.

Why it didn’t do so, is one of those issues where there will be a lot of finger-pointing. But this reflects an attitude that conforms to the historically complacent, outlook when dealing with China. This has allowed the PLA, post-1962 War, to affect incremental grabs of Indian territory resulting in a loss of over 60 square kilometres in the Galwan Valley alone and some 1,300 square kilometres in all on the LAC fin de siecle onwards.

This is the Chinese policy of creeping annexation that will surreptitiously realise for Beijing its territorial claims to the fullest extent. Based on land grabs here, feints there, the PLA periodically presents the Indian Army and government with new territorial faits accomplis that go unchallenged, whence there are ever newer alignments of the LAC and reality. This has happened on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso.

It suits the Xi dispensation to keep the border undefined and to string Delhi along with promises of dispute resolution in the Special Representatives forum. The perennially hopeful Indian government has fallen for it and may do so again.

The brutal killings of Indian infantrymen, including a Colonel of the 16 Bihar Regiment on the Galwan slopes has, however, radically transformed the crisis,  increased its political gravity. The Indian people will not be satisfied with bluster. In his televised statement the prime minister said India ‘will respond if it is provoked’. But Chinese troops have already entrenched themselves, and declared the Galwan Valley and the area covered by Fingers 4 and 8 in the Pangong Tso region as part of China. Thus, is India setting the scene for acceptance of this redefined LAC?

That said, several steps need to be taken urgently. The Indian mountain infantrymen deployed on the LAC, other than normal weapons, have to be equipped with nail-studded heavy wooded baseball bat-type weapons with standing instructions for first use against PLA troops at close quarters.

It will, however, have to be followed up by concrete and conspicuous military action. If in 1998 the Indian Army forcibly vacated the Kargil ridge overlooking the road supplying Leh of Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry troops, then why would it tolerate PLA’s control of the Galwan frontage imperilling the lifeline to the Siachen glacier, Daulat Beg Oldi, and the Karakorum Pass?

To those who argue that maintaining all-year outposts on the remote Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers would be prohibitively expensive and beyond India’s capacity, they need to be reminded that the army has sustained for some 40 years its presence on the Siachen glacier, which is remoter and at a much higher altitude.

Manpower wise, larger numbers of army units, on rotational duty, will need to be processed through the ongoing high-altitude acclimatization programme. Whatever its financial, political and diplomatic cost, Modi can motivate the people to bear it, but his government cannot avoid ordering such a military operation to evict the Chinese. Nothing less will do, not if it means to retain even a semblance of its “nationalist” credentials.

It will mean embarking on a localised limited war, and some sections of the army, albeit in minority support this option. Should the government approve such an operation, it will have to publicly define these parameters before it gets underway just so, like Pakistan in Kargil, China is aware from the start of the Indian military’s focus and severely limited goal.

By way of strategic cover for this action and to deter China from escalating this fight into something bigger – even though there’s zero possibility of this happening, India should publicise the forward deployment of Agni missiles, and alert the Arihant SSBN on patrol for possible attacks on China’s economic heart – the Shanghai coast and its immediate hinterland.

The military operation to recover Galwan can be preceded by a set of punitive economic measures to show India means business.

One, Huawei should be banished from the telecommunications sector for security reasons. Two, extraordinary tariffs ought to be imposed on all Chinese goods without exception, justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies all exporting companies ex-China benefit from, and third, Beijing must be informed that this closing of China’s access to the Indian market can be reversed in stages depending on verifiable withdrawal of PLA from all the points where it has ingressed.

But the financial steps announced to-date against certain Chinese companies are small and won’t move the needle.

The author is Emeritus Professor in National Security Studies and author, most recently, of Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition. His ‘Security Wise’ blog is at

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