The emerging Sino-Indian military normal
Experts believe that “China will only grow more assertive globally. In this milieu, India assuming the presidency of the SCO opens a window of Chinese opportunity”.
The disengagement at Gogra post turned out to be a false dawn. All hopes of a thaw in Sino Indian relations during the SCO summit ended with Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, pointedly ignoring each other. This was reinforced when the foreign ministers attended the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly but did not hold one-on-one talks.The Indian view is pretty clear. Diplomatic, economic, and commercial relations can only normalize if the military relations between India and China are normal and if there is peace and tranquility on the border. The border holds centre stage in Sino Indian equations.
After the Chinese perfidy at Galwan, many things have changed in China and India. The Sino Indian normal as it existed before Galwan has vanished. At that point of time, China was on the verge of becoming a superpower. Its military was supposedly very strong – almost unstoppable. While the Virus was laying many countries down, China seemed to have collared it. China was flying high. Achieving its global ambitions seemed inevitable. At that time, it appeared that China was forcing a border solution on India on its terms.
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Two and a half years later, China is on a palpable multifront decline with portents of internal instability clearly visible. While it continues to be weighed down by the Virus, the post SCO meet internal power struggle can reinforce its woes. On the other hand, India has gained strategic confidence. Its international stature has enhanced on the back of an economic surge. The new normal in future will be far different from what it was. Understanding this will set the tone for what our forces will have to contend with.
Despite severe internal problems, China’s leadership will not give up its global ambitions. In fact, if anything, China will only grow more assertive globally. In this milieu, India assuming the presidency of the SCO opens a window of Chinese opportunity. China, with Russian help, will attempt to use the SCO to drive a wedge in the Indo-US strategic partnership and the QUAD. It will attempt to establish a geopolitical framework where India is seen to be on the Chinese side willingly or unwillingly. China will seek to manipulate India into a neutral corner to achieve this. On the other hand, India will have to continue its tight rope walk due to the ‘Russian angle’. It will have to keep convincing the USA, QUAD nations, and the larger West of its firm stance against a predatory China, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. It will also have to stay involved with Russia and other SCO countries to secure its energy and military requirements.
The geopolitical equations in Asia have also changed since the Virus. The Asia Pacific region was to be undisputedly Chinese. An ‘Asia for Asians’ meant a China’s Asia.The emergence of the Indo Pacific construct with India as its key pillar has changed the scene. China now apprehends an ‘Asian NATO’ against it.
Chinese military actions against India and Taiwan China have induced deep dread and distrust in Asian countries. They wonder if it is their turn next. Further the problems in Sri Lanka and Pakistan have weakened China’s hand. Overall, China foresees a threat to its Asian supremacy from a rising India. It also envisages impediments from India in its maritime ambitions especially in the IOR. The Chinese vision of a Unipolar Asia with India as the junior partner is turning into a distant dream.
In such a geopolitical environment, military normalcy is largely predicated on bridging the perceptual gaps and establishing a stable working equation along the LAC. Constant attempts by the PLA to change the LAC unilaterally by force and the Galwan incident have eroded trust levels between the PLA and the Indian Army. Though LAC transgressions have reduced, force manning levels remain at maximum.
Sixteen rounds of talks at Corps commander level have failed to resolve standoffs at Depsang and Demchok. In the meanwhile, military infrastructure development is progressing unabated on both sides of the LAC. China is leaning on the LAC. Villages are being built more for military purposes than inhabitation. Both forces seek to establish a new normal along the LAC in which they have the upper hand. India’s short-term normal would-be reversion to status quo ante on the LAC as of Feb 2020, and full patrolling rights up to its perception of the LAC, especially in Depsang sector.
China will be happy to freeze the LAC where it is. Both sides will see the buffer zones they have created as transitory since it solidifies the LAC and dilutes each other’s long-term claims. Ultimately, China seeks a border to include the Tawang tract of Arunachal Pradesh and areas up to its 1959 claim line on its side in Eastern Ladakh. India seeks a border which encompasses the entire Aksai Chin without ceding an inch in Arunachal Pradesh. In all cases, any semblance of normalcy can only be hoped for when the Depsang and Demchok standoffs are resolved.
In the IOR, China will continue in its attempts to create a new normal by establishing naval bases at Gwadar, Hambantota andKyaukphyu. Any PLAN base in India’s vicinity is simply not acceptable. In the meanwhile, China will attempt to increase its naval activity in the IOR so that it gains experience in maritime operations. India will not mind transition of PLAN vessels in the IOR but naval movements detrimental to Indian interests will raise hackles. Docking of any spy ship or sizable number of warships will not be acceptable to India in any port in its vicinity. In the foreseeable future, India will continue to strengthen its island based military assets to forestall any Chinese moves. The IOR is likely to see continued friction. That could be the ‘normal’ in the years ahead.
India must remain wary of China’s future moves. These will be indirect and insidious. Such moves are most cost and effort effective for China and most detrimental to India’s interests. India will therefore seek to minimize the collusive threat from China and Pakistan both in the Himalayas and the IOR.
However, more importantly, it must endeavor to plug the inroads PLA constantly attempts to make into Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar through salami slicing. Of particular concern and danger are the ever-widening PLA encroachment at Doklam, the proposed railway track into Nepal from Tibet and the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. The threat posed by any PLAN maritime activity in Sri Lanka cannot be over emphasized. All these pose the danger of completely unhinging India’s defenses. Resultantly, jostling for military advantage in our neighborhood will be the new normal. India has to gear up accordingly.
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What about the LAC itself? Until such time forces are massed along the LAC,tensions will not defuse. Trust deficit will remain. Hence there will be intense patrolling along the LAC. Consequently,the likelihood of any fresh incursion is low unless either side exhibits signs of weakness. Even after de-escalation takes place, aggressive patrolling will continue to ensure that the LAC is dominated.
However, should there be a slackening of vigil, a fresh effort by the PLA to change the status quo is to be expected. High altitude firings and military exercises by the PLA will continue to be advertised as part of propaganda and information warfare. China will create and rake up legal issues as part of its ‘lawfare’ tactics. Legal angles will be exploited to catch India on the wrong foot. China will miss no opportunity to provoke us into a fight and trap our forces in an ambush. The resultant of any incident might be small, but it will have strategic intent and ramifications of showing India in poor light internationally.
From any point of view, the new military normal in the Sino Indian context will remain abnormal. It is also to note that the state of abnormality will be directly dependent upon the internal stability and outcomes of the power struggle in China. Demanding times ahead.
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.
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