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As China’s long-term intentions remain shrouded in opacity, why India must look back to see what lies ahead

While repeatedly demonstrating its penchant for “salami-slicing”, at sea as well as on land, China continues to stake its claim to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet.” Its determined hostility to India in international forums leaves little room for the hope that “strategic patience” will resolve bilateral problems.

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks past floral bouquets during a ceremony to mark Martyr's Day at the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (AP/PTI)

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), scheduled in mid-October, promises to deliver important outcomes, which will impact not just China but affairs of other nations, far and near. As a transient Twitter-storm about an alleged “coup” in Beijing showed, Chinese politics remain impervious to external scrutiny. While it is believed that Xi Jinping’s bid for an unprecedented third five-year term as general-secretary, even though contested, is likely to succeed, political fortunes can be unpredictable.

Whether it is Xi who is restored to power, or there is a leadership struggle in the Great Hall of the People, China is likely to see a period of flux and volatility. The new dispensation, in order to assert its authority, may not only tighten its grip domestically, but also be tempted to indulge in military adventurism. As China’s next-door neighbour, with our armies arrayed eyeball-to-eyeball across a disputed border, it is vital for India to undertake an urgent reappraisal of the emerging security situation.

We have been on tenterhooks since the sanguinary Galwan clash of 2020, and borne a heavy cost for the “mirror-deployment” of 50,000-60,000 additional troops in Ladakh. Sino-Indian diplomatic parleys having been suspended, the task of LAC negotiations has been foisted on local military commanders. The 16th successive commanders’ meeting would have seen yet another futile conclusion, but for compulsions of the impending Shanghai Cooperative Organisation, which apparently led to a modest breakthrough. Consequently, the third round of troop disengagement and the creation of another buffer zone has taken place in Siachen, this time in the area of Gogra-Hot Springs.

While China’s long-term intentions remain shrouded in opacity, one can surmise that chances of the PLA resuming the pre-2020 status quo in Ladakh are now extinct. Although the man on the street has no idea of what the “pre-2020 status quo” means on the ground, he feels a sense of disquiet when India’s senior military leaders speak of “the unilateral and provocative actions by the adversary to alter status quo by force.” EAM Jaishankar’s terse summation of the India-China relationship, as going through an “extremely difficult phase”, did little to calm nerves.

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In this environment of uncertainty, it is useful to review China’s past behaviour, since it may help avoid nasty future surprises. Ever since the end of its Civil War in 1949, China has been engaged in serial strife, domestic as well as external; invading neighbours, Korea, Tibet, Russia, Vietnam and India. The prelude to the Sino-Indian war saw Chairman Mao Zedong launch the tumultuous and destructive Great Leap Forward, which resulted in 25-30 million deaths by starvation and state violence. In the midst of ongoing domestic turmoil and devastation, Mao’s ruthless calculus perceived advantage in mounting a military campaign to deliver a sharp blow to India, both as a distraction from the ongoing power struggle, and to prove China’s superiority.

Before launching the Himalayan military intervention, Beijing sought and received reassurances from both the super powers. The US indicated that it had no immediate plans to either “unleash Taiwan” or to escalate the Indo-China conflict. Moscow, too, sent word that it would remain neutral in case of a Sino-Indian conflict.

In India’s remote and inaccessible Aksai Chin, it was months before New Delhi realised, in 1955, that China was building a road linking Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1961, to overcome the impression that India had not adequately pursued its territorial rights, PM Nehru adopted what came to be known as the “forward policy,” moving its outposts forward and closer to Chinese forces.

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The Chinese attack on India took place in two stages; a brief preliminary offensive on October 20, 1962, followed by a massive assault in mid-November, reaching the Himalayan foothills. Indian soldiers fought gallantly in NEFA (now Arunachal) as well as in Ladakh, often to the last man and last bullet, but in vain. The rout lasted all the way up to November 20 when the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire, and withdrew 20 km north of the LAC.

An alternate, and more troubling, narrative is offered by Swedish author and China/India expert, Bertil Lintner, on the 1962 war. He maintains that the Chinese offensive was not a reaction to India’s “forward policy” but a pre-meditated operation, ordered well before October 1962 by Mao to divert attention from the ongoing domestic power struggle and to teach India a lesson.

Amongst other supporting evidence offered by Lintner, he cites the considerable time required to build roads, to forward-deploy 80,000 PLA troops and to position logistics in mountainous terrain. Lintner also attributes the detailed knowledge of Indian terrain, shown by advancing PLA troops, to months of prior reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering by Tibetan-speaking PLA officers.

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This “shallow dive” into recent history is meant to sound an alert on two counts: Firstly, that domestic volatility in China is known to have a fallout on the neighbourhood, and secondly, that the 1962 debacle was attributable as much to India’s ill-prepared army as to its complacent political establishment. India has come a long way since 1962, but our adversary is today a great power in its own right, and has a former “super-power” as junior partner.

While repeatedly demonstrating its penchant for “salami-slicing”, at sea as well as on land, China continues to stake its claim to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet.” Its determined hostility to India in international forums leaves little room for the hope that “strategic patience” will resolve bilateral problems.

The inexplicable nine-month delay in appointing a new CDS has sent out mixed signals to friend and foe. The new CDS, as he contemplates our parlous security situation, needs to focus on two imperatives. He must ensure that no whimsical change or innovation is imposed on the armed forces, unless it passes the acid test of “enhancing combat effectiveness”. He must also urge the national security conclave to utilise aids like net-assessment, scenario-building and war-gaming to evolve a “whole of government” China-specific strategy.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

First published on: 05-10-2022 at 04:15 IST
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