Reports have emerged that China has increased its troop strength along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh breaking its agreement made at the sixth round of talks on 21 September 2020. Earlier in December, videos emerged of Chinese civilian vehicles transgressing into the Demchok area also in Ladakh. Meanwhile, the Indian Army referred to a confrontation last week between Indian and Chinese troops in the wake of a transgression by the latter at Naku La in northern Sikkim, as a “minor face-off”.
Essentially, what we are seeing since the Galwan clash in June 2020, is the steady normalization of confrontations and tensions along the LAC as well as of fruitless bilateral talks. This was predicted.
Nevertheless, the Indian press release of the latest and ninth round of military commander-level meetings claimed that there was a “good momentum of dialogue and negotiation”, even as it continued calls for “early disengagement of the frontline troops” and for “effective efforts in ensuring the restraint of the frontline troops”.
Clearly, one or the other part of the press release is true, both cannot be true at the same time. And it should be obvious to all but the most ignorant of China’s domestic politics and its external behaviour that it is highly unlikely that China will ever withdraw its troops unless forced to. And neither Indian military commanders nor policymakers with experience of dealing with China fall in this category.
Why then does the Indian government continue to put out statements that both tie itself up in knots and mislead the public? And what is the way forward?
The Chinese view of structural realities with respect to India suggests to them that a right-wing nationalist government in power in Delhi with a strong majority in parliament is unlikely to seek peaceful relations with China – in many ways, this view reflects also the Communist Party of China’s own zero-sum view of the world. In the same spirit, according to Beijing, it is inevitable that New Delhi will hitch its fortunes to those of the US, which the Chinese see as their principal global rival. Therefore, India is seen as an unfriendly power – talk of ‘civilizational’ ties, ‘Wuhan Spirit’ or ‘Chennai Connect’ are only so much blather. Deals with India are seen as only temporary and to be violated with impunity when the moment presents itself.
Under such circumstances, India would not be wrong to shift from only reacting to acting more proactively to change the status quo on the LAC. Neither the gap in military capability with China nor the difficulties of logistics and terrain that India faces are about to disappear soon but after nearly a year of investment and preparation, India should not again be caught wanting come summer and when PLA transgressions on the LAC restart.
It is time now for the Indian Army to bring out of the closet and implement its vaunted plans against Chinese bad behaviour, to show the results of years’ worth of discussions in military think-tanks on how to respond to China’s “local wars under informatized conditions”.
If the fear is of wider conflagration along the LAC or of a two-front war, then these are overblown. If the Chinese want to widen the conflict, there is still nothing to stop them from doing so at a time of their choosing, certainly not the ongoing military commander-level talks. And neither these talks nor waiting for the Chinese to make the next move is any way to prepare the Indian public for such an eventuality.
A firm, punitive Indian military response to the events of 2020 – and it is still not too late, for such a response – will delay, if not reduce, the possibility that the Chinese will try anything new again at the LAC. It would likely turn the PLA to other countries along China’s long boundaries where it might come away with less opposition or have less trouble spinning its actions into victories.
A two-front war is a theoretical possibility but as much as the Pakistanis might be interested, the Chinese for a variety of reasons should want to go it alone. First, what does it say of the fighting mettle of the PLA that it must want a smaller army to come to its help? Second, the actual level of coordination between the Chinese and Pakistani armed forces despite their long history of interactions, including joint exercises, remains limited. Third, Pakistani involvement could conceivably also loosen any Indian restraints against China, too. Just three reasons out of many more why the Chinese would hesitate to involve the Pakistanis.
While militaries tend to plan for worst-case scenarios, it is also important for the Indian Army to prevent such planning from paralysing all action. Look at how the PLA itself has opened up multiple fronts – despite US pressure and despite Covid – and still seems to get the better of its opponents.
Finances are an important consideration as also the military power differential but the longer the Indian Army waits to send a clear and appropriate response to the PLA for its actions of last year, the more it risks degrading its resources and capabilities as well as morale within the ranks. India can no longer afford to play a waiting game in the face of evidence as clear as daylight that the Chinese do not intend to keep any of their promises, let alone return to status quo ante. If anything, the polite thing for the Indian military to do would be to remind the PLA – by actions not words – of their commander-in-chief’s injunction at the World Economic Forum earlier this week that “The strong should not bully the weak”.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India must no longer wait for China to change its behaviour’, Moneycontrol, 27 January 2021.