The new China, as a “responsible (sic)” Great Power, is muscular, aggressive and determined to force its way to the top of the world stage. The Central Military Commission (CMC) assumes responsibility for the security and military-related foreign affairs and plans employment for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The all-important Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making bodies, the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, have a clearly dominant role. The PLA of today is an ultra-nationalistic actor, under the CMC headed by its Chairman, also the General Secretary of the party’s Central Committee and the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Unlike most democracies, the PLA, functioning under the CMC, has total control over defence policy as also significant influence over foreign policy.
As events over the last six decades — more so in the last eight years, especially the last two months — clearly show, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a grievously flawed concept. India and China have had parleys since 1981, meetings of Joint Working Groups from 1988 to 2005 and 22 rounds of Special Representatives talks, in addition to many summit-level meetings. Despite nearly four decades of discussions, with CMC/PLA at the helm of the defence and foreign policy decision-making, delineation and demarcation of the boundary has not been possible. The Chinese have deliberately ensured that the nebulous nature of the LAC is retained as a leverage against India, to undertake premeditated aggression at regular intervals. The intrusion at Finger 4/5 of Pangong Tso and the transgression up to LAC in Galwan are instructive. Out of the blue, most inexplicably and without any historical basis, the official Chinese statement came out seeking the “estuary” of Shyok and Galwan rivers. In no way can such a hegemonic ambition be allowed to be nurtured.
The PLA is at the threshold of achieving its interim modernisation goals of informatised, integrated joint operations by 2021, the centenary of the CCP’s founding. It is well likely that the events of Eastern Ladakh of May-June 2020 are part of a larger testbed. Over the years, the face-offs have witnessed PLA’s jostling and pushing, posse of horses intruding, and scant disregard for the treaties with India. Pangong Tso and Galwan showed a new picture. PLA troops used spiked and barbed wired rods, knuckle-dusters and the like, all well prepared, as if PLA units were officially issued and trained for use. There were no military ethics in the barbarism at display by the PLA.
The major recipe for disaster that affects public and military opinion, is what is served by know-all “experts” and politicians. While debating issues is one issue, but to argue that the troops in contact were not acclimatised or trained is pure heresy. The unit in contact at Galwan, 16 BIHAR, has completed two years of tour of duty in that super high altitude area. It was well trained and had undertaken extensive winter patrolling and domination of the Depsang Plateau. The troops, who have dominated the area for years, understand the LAC on ground better than what experts describe with fancy slides or satellite imageries. Details of location and type of intrusion or transgression are better known to the commanding officers and commanders in Eastern Ladakh, much more than experts who decipher and over-read events in studio debates or tweets! To ascribe motivations or challenge military decisions taken by troops and commanders in contact with the enemy, basically by innuendo targeting political parties, is deliberately undermining the confidence of those battling adversities at the LAC.
For the Indian Army units and formations in Eastern Ladakh or elsewhere facing the PLA, there are limits to adherence to good faith and honour, against a devious and most untrustworthy PLA. The Indian Army has to strategise and should revisit its rules of engagement on the Northern Borders, mindful that troops in tactical situations cannot be shackled by past treaties, which the PLA deals with disdain. The Indian Army does not have to stoop low to knuckle dusters, but remain prepared to militarily handle the situations that will arise.
At political level, there are representative forums like Parliament, the committees and regular briefings to seek clarifications, which is the right of politicians. However, in the instant case, wherein the political parties were briefed of the ongoing situation and prognosis, the summing-up remarks of the Prime Minister were taken out of context. Though the PM was referring to the incidents in the Galwan River area only, his remarks were extrapolated to apply to the entire sector, causing intense disquiet. These were clarified in detail later and this should put the issue to rest. On national security issues, there must be national unity. There ought to be faith in those at the helm that the issues of national security will not be soft-pedalled or obscured on the altar of politics. Similarly, within the norms and constraints of national security, the establishment must keep the nation informed, to avoid an information vacuum that leads to rumour-mongering.
PLA has always shown extraordinary interest in Eastern Ladakh, especially Daulat-Beg-Oldi, the Chip-Chap river, Track Junction and Karakoram Pass. The management practices for the Northern Borders have to be revisited, like placing the nearly division-sized force of ITBP in Eastern Ladakh under the army operationally. Real-time intelligence, surveillance equipment and satellite imageries must be available to field formations that need to act on it. This should not be delayed by the bureaucratic maze.
We need to strategise for the future, including the modern manifestations of non-contact, non-kinetic warfare. We must avoid unnecessary nitpicking on semantics of statements made in a particular context. This will be a great service to the soldier on the ground.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 24, 2020 under the title “Securing the future”. The writer is former GOC of Leh-based 14 Corps
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