Words of wisdom from our ex Chief of Army Staff. We will do well to heed them.
Having witnessed the 73rd Indian Army Day parade 2021 on 15 January, one is assured that the army is performing to its potential and would deliver whenever a crisis occurs to the security of the nation, as it has always done in the past. It has that phenomenal capability of rising to the occasion in the face of adverse situations and emerging successful. The culture that sustains it continues to be strong.
Two major events impacted the country in March and April 2020 and have had long lasting effect on the growth and development of the nation. First was the onset of Covid-19 and the consequent lock down of the entire nation from 25 March 20 onwards in order to check the spread of the dreaded virus. Depending on its severity, the lock down has persisted off and on in different parts of the country till date and continues to wreak havoc on the Indian economy besides causing casualties.
The second and a more worrisome development impacting India’s territorial integrity took place in April 2020 when the Chinese clandestinely built up massive troop deployment in the garb of annual military exercises in Tibet, opposite East Ladakh. It is interesting to note that while India, including its military, was preoccupied with fighting Covid-19, a virus that owes its origin and spread to Chinese complicity globally, the Chinese used the opportunity to strike across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in East Ladakh and capture sizeable territory in areas north of Pangong Tso lake, Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang Plains in the first week of May. In fact, because of Covid-19, the Indian Army had cancelled its planned exercises for 2020 in Ladakh. In the event, the true face of the Chinese machinations got revealed!
The jury is still out on what precisely was the rationale that impelled the Chinese to undertake this aggression in East Ladakh. Let us list out some of the possible reasons. One, China felt threatened by the Indian road construction activities in Ladakh. Two, China considers India a regional threat to its expansionism, hence wanted to embroil it in a conflict to slow its economic progress. Three, China felt aggrieved by Indian decision of converting J&K into a union territory. Four, China is unhappy that India did not join its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Five, India exploring for oil in collaboration with Vietnam in South China Sea (SCS) was not acceptable to China. Six, in view of global condemnation of China for hiding Covid-19 outbreak, China wanted to divert attention by starting hostilities and gaining an easy victory. Seven, China did not like India being part of Quad and getting closer to the US strategically. Eight, Xi Jinping’s position within China was becoming tenuous, hence he wanted to show some gains to strengthen his hold domestically. Nine, India’s objections to CPEC passing through Gilgit Baltistan, a territory part of the erstwhile J&K state and claimed by India, infuriated China. Ten, a combined Sino Pak design to ultimately wrest J&K from India. Eleven, India having given refuge to the Dalai Lama and supported the Tibetan government in exile was not liked by China. Twelve, the Chinese aggression and effort at expansionism was a sheer expression of its growing power on the global stage and a warning to other smaller nations in the region, especially around SCS.
The list is endless. However, it would be fair to assume that some or most of the above reasons provided the rationale for the Chinese adventurism. By 08 May 2020, they went ahead and occupied areas which were hitherto being patrolled by both sides regularly, based on respective perceptions of the LAC. Specifically, areas from Fingers 4 to 8 north of Pangong Tso lake and east of Y Junction in Depsang plains were unilaterally occupied. Not only that, in the area of Galwan river valley, they went ahead and occupied PP15, thus creating a fresh claim in an area which was never in dispute in the past.
It was also clear that all these moves were not actions by their local military commanders but part of a pre-planned, highly coordinated strategy cleared at the highest levels of the Chinese political hierarchy. The accompanying psychological warfare and media blitz further confirmed national level effort to claim victory without losing a life or firing a shot. Frequent references to 1962 victory by the PLA were played up by the Chinese media regularly to demoralise Indian soldiers.
However, in hindsight, it is now amply clear that the Chinese grossly underestimated the ferocity of the Indian Army and the professionalism of its soldiers. Unlike the PLA which is a partially conscripted force, the Indian army is a volunteer force served by soldiers who have a deep sense of nationalism, honour and pride. They are a disciplined lot having ample past experience of serving in formidable terrain and high-altitude areas as obtaining in East Ladakh. For raw courage, they have always proved better than the best in the world.
The response of the Indian Army was swift and firm. The wrath of its soldiers was on full display for the entire world including the Chinese when on night 15/16 June, twenty heroes including a commanding officer laid their lives in the famous Galwan clash in fierce hand to hand fighting. So shocked and mauled were the Chinese that they did not have the courage till date to reveal to the world as to how many of their soldiers were killed. Unofficial figures vary from 40 to 105. Or these could even be still higher!
Indian Army’s pre-emptive action on the night of 29/30 August south of Pangong Tso in occupying dominating heights Magar Hill, Gurung Hill, Requin La and Rezang La shook the Chinese. It ensured domination of Spanggur Gap, a major area of Chinese mechanised forces ingress which had been successfully used by them in the past. Additionally, the Indian army occupied crucial heights above Fingers 3 and 4 north of Pangong Tso thus making PLA positions on Finger 4 untenable.
More importantly, both these bold actions provided the Indian Army crucial bargaining chips at the negotiating table for demanding restoration of status-quo as it existed in end of April all along the LAC in East Ladakh.
Eight rounds of military level talks and innumerable discussions and resolutions at the diplomatic and political levels over last nine months have not produced a solution so far. Both sides have close to 50,000 troops each deployed along the LAC in East Ladakh. They have hunkered down for the extreme winter with temperatures at times touching -40*C. Internationally, majority of the nations have admired the manner in which the Indian military has stood up to the Chinese aggression and broken its mirage of superiority. ‘Saving face’ is perhaps a bigger Chinese worry now!
While the impasse is not likely to be resolved soon, we need to introspect on the lessons that emerge from this and past stand-offs with the PLA. Till the final resolution of the boundary dispute with China, such actions are likely to continue in the future as well, especially because time and again the Chinese have proved to be untrustworthy. Thus, some aspects which must be kept in focus while dealing with them in the future are outlined below.
The requirement of good infrastructure to fight a successful defensive battle can hardly be overemphasised. It is the single most sustaining factor for the troops fighting in forward areas. If we look at the entire length of 3488 kms long India China LAC, the infrastructure on the Chinese side all along in Tibet is far more superior than on our side, an aspect they have continuously exploited to our disadvantage.
While, of late, we have started paying greater attention to infrastructure development on our side, it is a case of too little too late. The best that can be done is to hasten the entire process with greater priority being given to operationally important areas.
The Chinese respect strength. Over the last 70 years, it has been proved time and again that they have tended to be conciliatory whenever we have been firm in our stance. Our stands at Nathu La in 1967, Sumdrong Chu in 1987 and Doklam in 2017 resulting in Chinese climb-down clearly demonstrated this. This approach needs to be sustained.
Lack of Trust
In the confrontation at East Ladakh as well as during innumerable interactions in the past, it has clearly been demonstrated that the Chinese cannot be trusted on their word. Time and again, they have violated earlier agreements concluded with India, to bolster their claims. Agreements concluded in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 have been breached flagrantly whenever it suited them. Thus, to avoid being deceived, it is important to verify and confirm on ground decisions arrived at before implementing them.
Greater Reliance on Technology
Technology dictates the future of modern warfare. We need battlefield transparency, precision and lethality to successfully fight battles with least casualties. Use of space, cyber, artificial intelligence, psychological warfare and robotics to exploit fleeting opportunities is likely to prove crucial in winning future battles. The Chinese are way ahead of us in these fields. The sooner we catch up with them the better.
Better Utilisation of Local Support
An area where we have a distinct advantage over the Chinese all along the LAC is in availability of local support. While the Chinese are considered invaders in Tibet and the local population resents them, on our side the population willingly and happily supports our forces in case of any hostilities along the LAC. Intimate knowledge of terrain and ease of operation in inhospitable high-altitude areas, spheres in which the locals are experts, can be huge battle winning factors. We need to exploit this advantage much more than we have done so far.
We have been heavily dependent on costly imports for our military equipment. With limited defence kitty, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain modernisation of the forces with imports. There is also a possibility that at crucial times these imports may not be available depending on the respective countries’ export policy which is hardly acceptable in the interest of national security. The earliest we follow through with the Atmanirbhar Bharat policy of the PM the better.
Closer Coordination with Like Minded Nations
There is no doubt that China has been spending much more on its military than us for more than two decades now. While we have achieved near parity with China in Ladakh, an all-out conflict especially with a hostile neighbour to our West would be a different ball game. Such a scenario necessitates soliciting global support and coordination with like-minded nations to thwart a hostile adversary. Pursuing closer interaction with QUAD, ASEAN, the US, UK and France to guard common interests would be a step in the right direction.
Enhancement of Defence Budget
Finally, as a percentage of the GDP, our defence budget has seen a downward slide continuously for the last 11 years. For the current year, it stands at approximately 1.48 % of the GDP. Most committees formed by the government and defence experts have recommended 3% of the GDP as annual defence budget. The measures suggested above can be implemented only if the budget is increased appropriately. The possibility of a two-front threat to territorial integrity of the country further strengthens this suggestion. The sooner we appreciate this aspect the better.
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