The Ball is Squarely In the Political Court
The brawl initiated by PLA against Indian troops in Ladakh’s Galwan valley has assumed serious proportions. Its escalation will be to the detriment of both India and China. Even while addressing the immediate Galwan valley incursion, other PLA intrusions all along the Himalayan border must remain in view.
It is vital to second-guess China’s intentions, which may be one or more of the following:
1. To humiliate Indian political and military leadership as in 1962. This could be linked with #4 below.
2. To establish political hegemony in South Asia by militarily asserting superiority over India, its most powerful neighbour and competitor.
3. To capture/control area in Ladakh and link-up PLA with Pakistan’s military in Baltistan-Gilgit POK, so as to improve the CPEC to Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
4. To punish India for forging civil-military links with USA, Australia & Japan, and for supporting international moves holding China responsible for Covid.
5. To divert Chinese domestic public attention from their internal inconsistencies and problems (now including Covid and its mismanagement) and also divert international focus away from its clampdown on Hongkong.
6. To isolate India politically and economically in pursuit of its “string of pearls” doctrine, by alienating India’s smaller neighbours from India.
The confrontation at Galwan valley is because China has intruded in order to dominate the D-S-DBO (Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi) Road. The place where the physical face-off is happening is not on the heights above Galwan River but in the valley. The question is, whether or not PLA has occupied the heights above the Galwan River, and if so, when. This can be easily known from satellite pictures.
If IA holds the Galwan heights, the PLA’s present position of intrusion would not be tenable for long. If however, PLA has occupied the Galwan heights unnoticed, then evicting PLA from the Galwan valley would take decisive military action, going well beyond talks, stone-pelting (a sad term for India in another context) and physical fighting.
It is unutterably sad that a CO and many unarmed soldiers of IA were injured by an unprovoked, murderous attack by PLA soldiers with rods and spiked clubs, and have succumbed to injuries. It is also sad that our soldiers are constrained (by orders from Delhi?) to restrict their response to going unarmed, instead of being allowed to conduct operations to evict PLA intrusions.
The PLA intrusion on the northern shore of Pangong Tso is connected with the intrusion in the Galwan valley. Durbuk, where the D-S-DBO road starts, is about three hours run from Lukung at the western tip of Pangong Tso.
Pakistani forces pushing eastwards from Skardo upstream along Shyok river, to link with PLA simultaneously pushing westwards from Pangong Tso, Galwan valley and Chang Chenmo valley going downstream along Shyok river, can cut off all of Ladakh north of the Ladakh mountain range from the rest of India and create a totally new LAC both with China and Pakistan.
This possible link-up is clearly a very serious threat to the whole of Ladakh, and India’s territorial integrity, besides putting paid to India’s legitimate claim on Baltistan-Gilgit part of POK. India holding the Siachen glacier and constructing the D-S-DBO road is precisely to keep Ladakh safe from both China and Pakistan.
With PLA’s probable present ground-position superiority at Galwan, the possibility of PLA enlarging intrusions on the D-S-DBO axis cannot be discounted. But surely this would have been foreseen and pre-emptive action taken accordingly. It involves induction and commitment of IA and IAF resources both for logistics and operations, and this cannot but be at the cost of reductions elsewhere.
It is apposite to note that Kashmir, being in a state of political lockdown following abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, calls for substantial IA presence in its IS/CI role, preventing infiltration from POK and dealing with Pakistan‘s military adventures. IA’s commitment in the IS/CI role also extends to India’s northeastern states, where also there is responsibility on the border with China. Altogether, a significant proportion of IA resources are deployed in the IS/CI role. Bravado that we can fight on two-and-a-half fronts may be called into question.
Nepal’s serious objections following construction of the Dharchula-Lipulekh Road and its claim of the Lampiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh (L-K-L) area will doubtless be used by China to exacerbate the alienation felt in Nepal following India’s first-rate diplomatic blunder of the 2015 months-long blockade. Substantial Chinese civilian presence in Nepal is evidence of well-established and growing Chinese political and economic influence. If the L-K-L spat is not resolved and India-Nepal relations are allowed to deteriorate further, it could result in PLA presence close to Bihar’s northern border with Nepal.
“What to do” indicates decision, whereas “What to do?” is helpless wringing of hands.
The Ladakh face-off has India on the backfoot, reactively handling a tangle of political-diplomatic-military situations vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, besides contending internally with a staggering economy, military commitment on IS/CI duties, and attempting to handle Covid and the migrant workers issues.
The issues with China have to be considered along with their Pakistan connections. Whatever brave front government chooses to show the Indian public, there is need to accept that China has an economic, military and cyber capability edge over India at this point in time. The question arises: What should India do now?
This question is best answered by quoting Lt Gen P.C.Katoch: “It is often heard India cannot react “at this point of time” because China is militarily and economically stronger. Will this equation change in the foreseeable future? The answer is no. If we can’t stand up for our strategic interests, we will be pushed more”. [Lt Gen P.C.Katoch; “China Tests India’s Redlines, Military Response Required”; The Citizen; June 17, 2020]. This is a statement of reality.
China’s game is of incremental, stealthy capture of territory simultaneously in widely separated areas. PLA comes forward X-km and when a face-off happens followed by talks, agrees to withdraw X/2-km and then justifies building up military infrastructure to “prevent India from occupying Chinese territory”. The incursion/intrusion becomes an encroachment, giving fresh meaning to the “A” in LAC.
In Ladakh, this has happened east of Depsangla, east of Burtse, and now at Galwan and Pangong Tso. All are directed at interdiction of India’s D-S-DBO road and eventually Siachen glacier, by gaining valuable tactical advantage over territory. China’s “creeping capture” by small tactical gains, steadily enhances its strategy of linking up with Pakistani forces in Baltistan-Gilgit POK along Shyok river. This will continue unless political policy permits IA to stand firm, fight back incursions/intrusions and evict encroachments.
China is much too embroiled in its internal issues (as though India is not!) to engage in a war, howsoever short and intense, and Pakistan can be neutralized at least temporarily by international pressure to prevent opening a second front. If this is a correct strategic assessment, India’s political leadership may show the same spirit that it showed against Pakistan following the Uri attack.
But going further, what, if any, is India’s proactive strategy? Have we learned any lessons from the past? Failing to make available the Henderson-Brooks Bhagat Report on India’s 1962 debacle, and scuttling the raising of a Mountain Strike Corps is evidence of strategic inadequacy of political leadership, and a regrettable subservience of military leadership.
China is clearly superior to India in the economic and cyber areas. PLA’s military superiority in size/jointness, deployment and firepower in areas along India’s border is also undoubted. It’s a big dog – or dragon – which India faces. But this underestimates the fighting capability of the Indian soldier, the man-behind-the-gun. As Mark Twain said, what matters on-the-ground is “not the size of the dog in the fight, [but] the size of the fight in the dog.”
The fighting capability of India’s soldier is legendary, but can be effective only if he has the backing of the nation in the larger context (which he has always had) and more immediately and importantly, of the political decision-makers (which he did not have in 1962, but did in 1965 and 1971).
Continuing with divisive domestic policies affects national integrity and internal strength, and battles of perception regarding the Ladakh face-off for electoral gains will spell disaster. Nothing less than facing up to ground realities and securing our territorial integrity and political sovereignty by opposing Chinese aggression, will do at this juncture, to prevent a repeat of 1962.
The ball is squarely in the court of India’s political leadership, since India’s soldier stands ready as always, to protect the safety, honour and welfare of his country “even to the peril of [his] life”.
Major General S.G.Vombatkere (Retd) has over 5-years experience in Ladakh and has boots-on-ground knowledge of terrain realities.