Realists within India have always argued that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) only deals in the currency of power and brushes aside liberal and moralistic underpinnings to negotiations in every realm. Whether the recent talks between India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, and China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, will yield any major dividends, or whether it will be another elaborate smokescreen laid by China, is anybody’s guess
A recent editorial in the pro-government Global Times in Beijing has put out a clarion call for the people of China to be prepared for ‘war with neighbours’, without specifically mentioning India. Presciently, this was put out after the Jaishankar-Wang Yi talks and included a reference to the moral conduct of war.
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Not often have the Indians realised that at the heart of the PRC’s strategy to manage its periphery was another fault line in history. Often referred to as Mao’s ‘Five Finger Strategy,’ the strategy has continuously sought to reassert control over Arunachal Pradesh, or what the PRC calls ‘Southern Tibet’, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh, as part of an effort to secure China’s periphery. This has turned into a Chinese obsession that has destabilised South Asia. It can now be argued that despite being surprised and having had to reckon with a successful PLA operation to change the status quo in several pockets across the LAC in Ladakh, India’s refusal to buckle under pressure has given the PLA and Xi Jinping much to think of.
The spontaneous and violent response of the Indian Army during the Galwan clash of June 15, and the well-planned and executed operation to tactically occupy important heights on both the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso have demonstrated a wide spectrum of capabilities and intent on India’s part. While these have not resulted in any gains on the ground, the PLA remains entrenched in ‘grey areas’ and has been forced to pause and mull over its future actions on the ground, giving India time to build up for the winter and prepare for the long haul.
Some analysts believe that an escalation of some kind seems inevitable, and that it is imperative that the series of meetings at various levels do not infuse a sense of hope that rapprochement is around the corner, unless it is accompanied by a visible change on the ground. Others who have served in the area and observed the trajectory of the PLA build-up argue that there is no way that the deployments, dense as they may be, are enough to support even a localised skirmish. Adding to the difficulties of the PLA in any further operations is the widely accepted military proposition that uphill attacks to dislodge entrenched defenders from the kind of heights now occupied by the Indian Army would require overwhelming force ratios of upwards of 9:1. If one looks back at the heavy losses suffered by the Indian Army during their initial assaults in the Kargil conflict, one may wonder whether the PLA has the appetite to deal with such losses.
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A ‘hot’ LAC will favour the PLA with its greater reserves and will test India to its limits. It is the worst option that India must prepare for, even more than a localised and limited conflict. The latter is a situation that the PLA wants to avoid as it has already achieved several operational outcomes by adopting elaborate coercive methods short of conflict. Hence, the only body language that must go out from the Indian armed forces at present is that it is more than prepared for a limited conflict.
Of greater significance will be a realisation within the PLA leadership that India’s emerging combined arms firepower has the potential to inflict significant attrition on the PLA’s combat potential in and around the tactical battle area and in medium depth on the Tibetan plateau. This may be coupled with a realisation that in its obsession with learning from the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War, the PLA may have missed out on thinking more about high altitude warfare, something that the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have gained much experience in over the decades.
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There is also a realisation that the Indian Navy’s assertive maritime posturing, its willingness to join collaborative groupings to contain an aggressive PLA Navy, and increasing articulation on the need to ensure freedom of navigation reflects a growing willingness on India’s part to ‘go out and meet an adversary’ on the high seas rather than stay in the backwaters.
The biggest stumbling block to rapprochement between the two countries lies within the PLA, which has seriously intellectualised its role as the sword-arm of Chinese national power. It has assiduously developed plans to take down adversaries and rolled out its playbook with a multi-front strategy that will run its course. History looms large again, as the PLA was Mao’s principal instrument against Chiang Kai Shek in the late 1940s as he sought to forge a new identity for the Chinese people. This time around, after shaping the global environment with economic muscle, Xi Jinping is now using the PLA as a vanguard in his bid to narrow the gap further with China’s principal global competitor, the U.S. India would do well not to become collateral damage in this great power competition.
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While diplomatic initiatives and further coercive explorations in the economic domain must continue, pragmatism and realism suggest that in the short-term, it is India’s military resolve that offers the most potential for precipitating any kind of conflict mitigation. Several practitioners feel that the current face-off will only be resolved if the PLA is offered a face-saving proposition, and that would need some deft politico-military-diplomatic manoeuvring from India.
What of a fresh boundary agreement with China following this face-off? Two trajectories seem possible. The first will involve a path of least resistance that brings into play a new paradigm and fresh protocol for managing a stressed but not a ‘hot’ LAC – much like ‘old wine in a new bottle.’ The second would entail a stroke of ‘enlightened statesmanship’ that sees both President Xi Jinping and PM Modi cut through much of the clutter to reach a ‘swap deal,’ the kinds of which are said to have been proposed by Zhou-Enlai in 1959 and Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s. For Xi, it would mean having to get around an increasingly assertive PLA, while PM Modi would need to get around fractured and jingoistic constituencies across the political spectrum that still hold on to impossible historical probabilities.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF, a historian and the author of the forthcoming ‘Full Spectrum: India’s Wars 1972-2020’