The events on the night of August 29-30 once again highlighted the gravity of the situation in the ongoing standoff between the Indian Army and Chinese PLA in Ladakh. It is to the credit of the Indian Army that the troops were alert and displayed resilience in pre-empting the designs of the PLA on the critical southern bank of Pangong Tso.
There is growing frustration at China’s intransigence vis-a-vis the confrontation that started in April. There has been no positive outcome on ground, despite diplomatic overtures, innumerable military interactions and three apex-level marathon discussions between the corps commanders. Talks between at the highest diplomatic levels have not given tangible results. Instead of withdrawing, there is a massive build-up of Chinese forces in the areas of intrusion.
India must not fall into complacency and take measures for not only forestalling Chinese belligerence but be poised for gaining the upper hand in case of the extreme eventuality of an armed confrontation. The armed forces need to ensure a high state of “operational readiness” until the onset of the severe winter. Operational logistics need to be pragmatic. The administrative challenge of maintaining troop accretions at this altitude, during the winter season, will be of serious concern. The political-diplomatic initiative will need to be on an overdrive to ensure that the current standoff is resolved without conflict. But in case of conflict, it must be localised to the Ladakh region. Lastly, it is important to ensure that the country is not faced with a “two-front conflict”.
There should be no doubt that in any military confrontation we are on our own and have to be prepared accordingly. Also, irrespective of all the hype of “new-age warfare” and “maritime power”, limited conventional conflict is still the reality for India due to the expanse of its disputed borders. Therefore, there is a need for clarity at the apex level that expenses incurred for sharpening the arsenal of the armed forces is money well spent. Till Make in India-Defence matures, there is a need for time-bound provisioning of essential war-waging wherewithal.
The prime minister’s resolute leadership has resulted in a meaningful disapproval of Chinese high handedness. It has also led to the banning of nearly 200 Chinese applications. These applications were being exploited by Chinese companies, for illegal data mining. These technologically advanced companies are intricately linked to the PLA and Communist Party of China.
Politically and diplomatically, we must ensure continued US and international pressure at China’s other pain points — the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong. We need to continue to isolate China on its insidious role in starting the current pandemic. We need to strengthen the Quad and other multilateral regional groupings of like-minded countries. There is also a need to create a US-led international consensus that deters Pakistan from any aggressive plans while we are addressing the northern neighbour. We need to seriously consider signalling with our “strategic assets” that China limit the use of missiles in any conflict, as it is difficult to distinguish between nuclear and conventional missiles in a hot war situation. To enhance deterrence, India must spell out its red lines, especially when it comes to territorial intrusions. We need to insist on the reworking of current bilateral agreements with an unequivocal “no war pact” with China and a categorical, time-bound resolution of all border issues.
It is my firm understanding that the India-China relationship has been irreversibly altered. The recent posturing in the Chushul sector is indicative of India’s resoluteness to tackle border issues. It has for the first time taken the initiative to change the narrative. This will presumably lead to breaking the deadlock. However, the loss of trust and China’s insidious statecraft will also weigh heavily on future engagements. In the words of the NSA and foreign minister, India has realised that it needs to create a new equilibrium in its future relations with its neighbours, including China.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 12, 2020 under the title ‘A new equilibrium’. The writer is a former army commander and served as general officer commanding of the 3 Corps, which was stationed at the China border in Arunachal Pradesh.