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Monday, June 27, 2022

Pragmatism, not jingoism will help India deal with China

India must shed naive optimism and halt China’s covert but steady haemorrhaging of Indian territory

Written by Arun Prakash , Ashok Hukku |
Updated: February 24, 2022 2:36:48 pm
The government’s stand that ‘no Indian territory has been occupied by China’, seen in the light of the May 2020 sanguinary clash in Galwan, and the 22-month Sino-Indian military stand-off, has confused the citizen and raised many concerns.

Well before it recklessly triggered World War II, Germany had provided enough evidence of its hegemonic intent and disdain for international conventions. In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on return from the Munich conference with Hitler: “I believe it is peace for our time.” His gullibility was shown up a year later when Hitler, ordering the invasion of Poland, remarked: “Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.”

India’s “Munich moment” came in 1962 with the egregious misreading of China’s intent by a naive political leadership, leading to a humiliating military defeat in the Sino-Indian war. On October 20, 1962, India’s 7th Infantry Brigade was overrun by the 11th Division of the People’s Liberation Army at Namka Chu. The Indian soldiers fought gallantly, often to the last man and the last bullet, but in vain. Similar actions took place elsewhere in NEFA (now Arunachal) and Ladakh. The rout lasted all the way up to November 20 when the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew 20 km behind the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The LAC had been described by PM Zhou Enlai in 1959 as conforming to “the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west.” India did not agree with this definition but its failure to diplomatically contest and militarily defend this line gave China physical control of 38,000 sq km of the Aksai Chin plateau in 1962. Subsequently, China has claimed 84,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh as part of “Southern Tibet”.

There is probably no precedent where two belligerents after fighting a “border war” have left their disputed boundary undetermined and unmarked for 60 long years. Indian politicians and diplomats used to derive satisfaction from having de-linked the border issue from the rest of the Sino-Indian relationship and rejoiced as bilateral trade — though adversely balanced — zoomed past the $100-billion mark. But to a layman, it appeared that by neglecting to pursue a negotiated demarcation of the LAC, and by glossing over repeated territorial incursions as “differences of perception,” our security elite had played into China’s hands.

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The government’s stand that “no Indian territory has been occupied by China”, seen in the light of the May 2020 sanguinary clash in Galwan, and the 22-month Sino-Indian military stand-off, has confused the citizens and raised many concerns. In Ladakh, if the Chinese have indeed not encroached on our territory, then why are our troops unable to access previously established “patrolling points” and what exactly are the “friction points” that find frequent mention in communiqués? In Arunachal, are the freshly-built Chinese enclaves and the towns re-named by them located in Indian territory? Finally, what has been the outcome of 22 meetings of the “special representatives” and why have military commanders failed to achieve “disengagement”, leave alone “de-escalation” in 14 meetings?

These conundrums indicate that from Jawaharlal Nehru’s desperate optimism, encapsulated in the “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” nostrum, to PM Modi’s sustained engagement with Xi Jinping, Beijing has deviously managed to camouflage the true motivation behind its actions as well as its long-term intentions vis-à-vis India. New Delhi, on its part, has failed to evolve a strategy to counter China’s designs or even issue a White Paper to explain the dimensions of this challenge to Parliament and the public.

China, having amply demonstrated its penchant for “salami-slicing” territory, as well as its disdain for international law, leaves India with little room for complacency or for vainly hoping that so-called “legacy issues” will resolve themselves with time. It is, therefore, vital to deconstruct China’s elaborate charade and to halt the covert but steady haemorrhaging of Indian territory.

While jingoism has its place in politics, we must be realistic enough to understand that neither conquest nor re-conquest of territory is possible in a nuclearised South Asia. India’s Parliament and government should now accord utmost priority to establishing settled, viable and peaceful international boundaries all around. Only then will India be able to focus on nation-building and socio-economic development without interruption. A few pragmatic options offer themselves for resolving the Sino-Indian imbroglio.

First, India could exhume and revive the offer reportedly made by PM Zhou in 1960. Seeking strategic depth for Highway 219 that links Xinjiang with Tibet across Aksai Chin, Zhou had suggested negotiating a “quid pro quo” wherein China would recognise the McMahon Line in exchange for India making certain adjustments in the west. This would call for considerable political boldness and diplomatic adroitness.

A second option would be for India to bring sustained pressure to bear on China on the diplomatic, trade and psychological fronts and await results. At the same time, Indian forces must remain poised for swift direct action; seizing unoccupied territory and holding on to it as a bargaining chip. The surprise capture of tactical heights on the Kailash Range by our Special Forces brought severe psychological pressure on Beijing and must serve as a template. While skirmishes and physical confrontations may take place, it is considered most unlikely — for several reasons — that China would take on India in a major or even a limited conflict.

A third option lies in the maritime domain where opportunities exist, both for power-balancing via partnerships, as well as direct naval action. China’s economy and industry are overwhelmingly dependent on uninterrupted seaborne trade and energy. Thus, China’s Indian Ocean sea lanes constitute a “jugular vein” that India could threaten via trade warfare. In this context, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, suitably fortified and militarised, could become maritime bastions, dominating the Malacca Straits. Far more strategic advantage could accrue if India were to shed its political coyness and offer Port Blair as a logistic “watering hole” to selected friendly navies.

The last option would, obviously, be to maintain the status quo — with 50,000-60,000 troops deployed at high altitudes — and engage in sustained military/diplomatic parleys hoping for useful outcomes — with an unpredictable Chinese threat hanging over our heads like a sword of Damocles.

Prakash is a former Indian naval chief and Hukku was a major general in the Indian army

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