A “full strategic review” of India’s relations with China is necessary in the light of the present standoff at Doklam, because bilateral relations are never going to be the same again, whichever way the present situation plays out, former Army chief V P Malik believes. “We have reached the stage where there is a requirement to seriously review our policies toward China, not just diplomatically, economically, militarily also,” Malik, who was the Army chief from 1997 to 2000, told The Indian Express in an interview.
“The military part, there is no doubt we must review. We have to improve our border roads and military capability in the mountains as long as we continue to have an unresolved boundary with China. Lately, the frequency of such confrontations along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) has been increasing. The cycles are getting shorter. The decibel level of threats and warnings has gone up. Under these circumstances, the military has to be prepared for all eventualities,” Malik said.
The retired general, who headed the Army at the time of the Kargil War, said negotiating with a tough neighbour requires the backing of a fully prepared military. “Sound defence is a part of sound foreign policy,” he said.
“India is not interested in picking a fight, but when your national interests are jeopardised, like in this case, diplomacy without adequate military backing cannot succeed. Your risk-taking ability in negotiations gets enhanced when you know that you can defend yourself on the border. We don’t want a war, but when you are faced with such a situation, you don’t want to leave your diplomacy and political initiatives without any backing. It’s nothing new to say that globally, diplomacy feels more comfortable in negotiations when they know that there is a strong military to defend the country,” Malik said.
He described the present situation as “unpredictable” but felt that “an extended, high-intensity conflict was unlikely”. According to him, “India had operational advantage at Doklam but it has to be prepared for skirmishes in any part of the Line of Actual Control — from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.”
Malik said, “China could also resort to supporting secessionist elements in the Northeast once again and even unleash a high-tech cyber war against India.”
“Let’s not forget that both countries are nuclear nations, and neither would be interested in going for a high-intensity or extensive war situation. But if they decide to use force, they would look for areas along the LAC which remain disputed or remote areas where we do not have adequate accessibility and they have better lines of communication and thus better logistics. Our lines of communications from Ladakh to Northeast are tenuous, not in good state at the moment. Our forces lack mobility in the mountains,” Malik said.
“We do not have enough helicopters, light artillery and other equipment which can be fielded more easily in the mountains,” he said.
Even if there was no skirmish, a long stand-off would take its own toll, he added. “We will require considerable amount of logistics and high-altitude conditioning of troops and equipment. Our troops are quite capable of going through that. But it will definitely have its financial and some health costs.”
Although the military had been raising concerns about lagging behind in defence preparedness and military transformation, Malik said, “somehow, both the public opinion and the government have not backed the armed forces in this and we have continued to neglect the defence of our northern border”.
“The mindset in the government,” he said, “has never recognised that we can have a serious confrontation with China sometime or the other. Otherwise why should our infrastructure on the northern border be so weak? We have been talking about infrastructure on the northern border from the time I was Army chief, that is nearly two decades ago. Plans were made but they remain on paper mostly.”
Speaking about the defence budget, he pointed out, “Even though the budget as a percentage of GDP has been going down every year, we are often unable to spend the capital side. We have been surrendering part of the budget so often.”
Recalling his controversial statement at the time of the Kargil War that “we will fight with what we have”, Malik said the situation was no better now. “Same kind of problems, attitudes that we faced in my time, the present lot [in the Army] seems to be facing,” he said.