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Not just another border incident

The Ladakh intrusion by China points to India’s imperative to review its strategic priorities

Written by Sushil Kumar | Published: April 30, 2013 12:47 am

The Ladakh intrusion by China points to India’s imperative to review its strategic priorities

It is almost with disdain that a bunch of Chinese soldiers have set up camp inside Indian territory. Baffled by this defiant Chinese intrusion into Ladakh,the Indian establishment has chosen to downplay the incident. What is worrisome is that we seem to have no answers to such repeated Chinese provocations across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This stand-off may be defused diplomatically,but what it really shows is the PLA’s contempt for our military capability. This raises a serious question: why do we continue to remain militarily fragile vis-a-vis China,despite being nuclear-armed,with a deterrent that boasts of an ICBM capability?

A candid assessment will reveal we are operationally disadvantaged across the LAC. In handling border situations,nuclear deterrence is hardly of consequence,as the military equation is determined solely by “conventional” war-fighting capability. In this respect,it would be absurd to compare our war-fighting capability with that of the PLA. China belongs to a different league and we would only be deluding ourselves if we believe that our nuclear deterrent has a sobering influence on China.

Removing the intrusion during the Kargil war,or launching Operation Parakram,may have worked with Pakistan,but against the PLA,a coercive manoeuvre would be a different ballgame. Our strategic calculations would need to keep in mind the PLA’s aggressive war-fighting doctrine of “Forward Defence”,matched by its robust build-up along the entire McMahon Line.

Handling the Sumdorong Chu situation in 1986 was commendable,but we need to remember that the PLA has come a long way since then. With a vastly upgraded conventional war-fighting capability,the PLA has rapidly modernised its armed forces in comparison to ours,which have been degraded through years of neglect. We consequently lack the refinements needed for manoeuvre warfare in our mountainous borders with China. With improved border infrastructure and massive airlift resources,the PLA can deploy up to four full-fledged mountain divisions to any point along the LAC within 24 hours. In contrast,our troops remain bogged down by decrepit border infrastructure and lack of mobility. That is the ground reality.

As the chairman of the chiefs of staffs committee,when I visited our forward outposts on the Chinese border,I was heartened by the brave faces of our field commanders,though they knew they would be outclassed.

But why are we in such a paradox — nuclear-armed,yet militarily fragile? It is because we have deluded ourselves that nuclear deterrence reduces the need for conventional force levels and,taken in by this flawed proposition,scarce national resources have been diverted to build a nuclear war-fighting machine that will never be used. Influenced by nuclear warfare gurus with a “nuclear mindset”,we have misplaced our strategic priorities. Where our foremost need has always been to equip and modernise our conventional force levels to match our vastly superior northern neighbour,we have merrily stockpiled a nuclear arsenal. The overriding need has always been to build up our conventional combat capability,for that is what credible deterrence is about. More,nuclear deterrence remains counterproductive unless matched by an effective and credible conventional war-fighting capability. What ultimately matters is “conventional deterrence”,which not only prevents a war but,if the need arises,ensures a credible response. And that is the dilemma we face,with the Chinese soldiers defiantly squatting inside our territory in Ladakh.

It is mistakenly believed in some quarters that China is preoccupied with its domestic agenda and problems in the South and East China Seas and would rather not stir up a border conflict with India. To military professionals,this would seem unconvincing,for it is China’s belligerence and huge capability that remains our concern. Moreover,China has always been a non-status quo power,which remains miffed at being constantly compared to India. Dismissing the PLA’s intrusion into Ladakh as just another border incident may have geostrategic implications viewed in the context of China’s longstanding territorial claims.

Hopefully,we are not going to make the type of strategic blunder Great Britain made in the 1960s and 1970s,when it opted for the Polaris-Trident programme to bolster its nuclear deterrence. Massive resources were diverted that emasculated Britain’s conventional war-fighting capability. It cost the Royal Navy dearly. An atrophied Royal Navy realised the consequences of this folly much later in1982,when it could barely assemble a motley group of ships to sail for the Falklands. A navy that took centuries to build and proudly ruled the waves was eclipsed by the misplaced strategic priorities of its government. The Ladakh incident may blow over,but it ought to act as a wake-up call to review our strategic priorities.

The writer is a former chief of the Indian navy and chairman,COSC

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