Never short of dramatic threats and flamboyant rhetoric, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on the brutal killing of Indian soldiers on the night of June 15 by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Galwan valley of Ladakh, was subdued and passive. “India wants peace,” he said. “But when provoked, it is capable of giving a fitting reply.” He didn’t explain what would qualify as a provocation.
The PLA had, in a premeditated assault, lynched unarmed Indian soldiers with iron rods, rocks and nail-studded clubs. Unopposed, it changed facts on the ground by building permanent defences deep inside India’s perception of the 1993 Line of Actual Control (LAC), reportedly capturing 60 sq km of Indian territory. It occupied all dominating heights in hitherto undisputed Galwan valley, overlooking the 225 km-long and operationally critical Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, India’s sole round-the-year road lifeline meant to rush reinforcements to militarily vulnerable north Ladakh, where the possibility of a two-front war (with Pakistan in Siachen glacier and PLA in sub-sector north) stares in the face. It unilaterally rubbished all five mutually agreed peace agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 since the 1962 war by asserting its November 7, 1959 claim line made by Premier Zhou Enlai to PM Nehru. It demanded India stop feeder road construction leading to DSDBO forthwith. The Western Theatre Command (WTC), responsible for war with India, issued belligerent statements, warning Indian troops to stop provoking the PLA. It did all this because it knows what Indians don’t: Indian military is completely unprepared for an escalation whose ascendant ladder, the PLA, being the militarily stronger side, would control.
Preoccupied for 30 years with the wrong war (counter-terror operations) and the wrong enemy (Pakistan), the generals remain oblivious about the right threats (PLA and interoperability or ability of PLA and Pakistan military to fight together against India) and the right war (PLA’s algorithm war, which is worrying the Pentagon). Led by the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat, they believe that fighting a two-front war is doable by improved Second World War mechanised warfare in the shape of Integrated battle groups, where tanks and guns with soldiers holding ground would rush in high altitude areas to choke the PLA movements by attacking its vulnerabilities. They swear that 1962 could not be repeated. Unfortunately, while they are focused on fighting the 58-year-old war better, the PLA has moved two notches higher: from network centric warfare to algorithm warfare, with disruptive technologies.
Today, the PLA has capability to fight in three virtual battlefields—cyber, space and electromagnetic—and end war before a shot is fired. In a whole-of-nation war not limited to traditional physical battlefields, it can destroy most of power, defence and communication grids, bringing India to its knees; the satellites would be thrown out of orbits and radars silenced. Not to talk of PLA’s missile capabilities as part of its Rocket Force, which are unnerving the US military. All this is real now.
Moreover, while India focuses on tactics or immediate results China concentrates on the war or the big picture. It analyses long-term trends and does detached examination of operational considerations. Tactics are meaningful only as long as they serve the big picture. For example, in the 2017 Doklam crisis, the Indian Army won the tactical battle; the PLA won the war.
The PLA started a confrontation where it could not win, egged on India to bring in large reinforcements by shrill rhetoric in order to create a reason to bring in large numbers of its own troops into the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) without looking provocative. While additional Indian troops went back victorious, the PLA, from 2018 to 2020, added more numbers to increase it to 2,00,000 soldiers. It created excellent war habitat, ecosystem and started realistic combat training with live firings to ensure weapons’ calibration for accuracy in high-altitude warfare. With all this, it ended the 15 to 20 days window available to the Indian Army for mobilisation. The Indian Army’s habitat and ecosystem south of the Brahmaputra can easily be interdicted by PLA’s Rocket Force missiles. With large, permanently ensconced trained troops in the Tibet Autonomous Region, its massive and multi-pronged intrusions across over 100 km, from north Sikkim to eastern Ladakh, starting mid-April, were a walk in the park. These could be repeated easily.
The army, once again like in Doklam, rushed reinforcements without proper habitat, war materiel, ecosystem, training, war-orientation, and with little long-term staying power. Its border guarding duties (done with self-defence weapons) against a hostile enemy were downgraded to policing duties, making them sitting ducks. If the face-off continues, China would win for three likely reasons: One, Pakistan will drum up its proxy war and firings on the Line of Control. Two, the US would start wondering if it betted on the wrong horse for its Indo-Pacific and Quad strategies. And three, Modi is likely to lean more on the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, instead of the present balancing between the former and Russia-supported and China-backed Asia Pacific Strategy. This will only bring geopolitical instability for India in the long run.
Was India’s growing border infrastructure PLA’s target? No. With the exception of the Galwan Valley, this is China’s maximalist bargaining strategy. If Gen Rawat learns basics of algorithm warfare, he would realise that good Indian border infrastructure will be meaningless for China’s transformational war, which will be different from previous revolutions in military affairs. Good infrastructure is needed for low-level border management threat, which is not the case now. Today, along with infrastructure, a credible military ecosystem to sustain large number of troops in the operational area is required to take on PLA’s humongous military coercion. Given this, China does not need to go war when its objectives are met by its coercion. Indian military, let alone capability, does not know the war that the PLA would fight 15 years hence: non-kinetic, non-contact and without soldiers.
What does China want? Two things. It believes that the mutually agreed neutrality, which was the basis of all LAC peace agreements starting 1993, and cooperation, which underpinned the Wuhan consensus, has been torn asunder by the Modi government. Beijing feels that Modi, who came back to power with an enhanced mandate, has, starting 2020, been exhibiting hostile behaviour towards it. Instead of discussing bilateral relations between India and China directly with Xi, Modi has preferred to discuss it with other world leaders, especially US President Trump. What’s more, Modi made a special effort to bolster the weakest link in the Quad by upgrading India’s relations with Australia. The way forward to undo these wrongs, China avers, would be by upgrading bilateral talks to defence and foreign ministerial level—two plus two dialogue. I know this because a prominent scholar in Beijing close to the establishment told me.
The other reason is India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir which has created the Ladakh Union Territory. Beijing says issuing new maps showing Aksai Chin as Indian territory has disturbed the status quo and shows India’s expansionist tendencies. To put relations back on track, China wants upgraded communications and meaningful talks. Until then, the situation on the ground is unlikely to change much.
Moreover, resolution mechanisms used earlier in 2013 Depsang, 2014 Chumar and 2017 Doklam will not work. Given the quantum of threat, new bilateral mechanisms for perhaps political and military level talks might be needed.
(The writer is editor, FORCE newsmagazine and co-author of Dragon on Our Doorstep. Views are personal.)