September 18, 2020
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Placatory gesture
China’s Ladakh posturing and new game plan

The visit of Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie to India recently was occasion for New Delhi to raise the issue of expanding Chinese military presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Expectedly, the Chinese denied that the People’s Liberation Army has posted its personnel for the protection of its many strategic assets in territory grabbed illegally by Pakistan in 1948 in western Jammu and Kashmir and by Beijing in the run-up to the 1962 attack in the northern portion of the former princely state.

That denial itself should alert India to what is sought to be hidden and force it to develop intelligence that could become the bedrock of its tactical/strategic riposte to China. While there are signs of improved Indian defences in the Arunachal Pradesh segment of the Line of Actual Control, Indian defences in Ladakh opposite Aksai Chin are minimal.

By India’s own admission there have been no less than 500 intrusions by Chinese troops in the Ladakh sector over the past few years. There have been brazen attempts to browbeat India and force it to desist from the construction of infrastructure or to try and show presence in the plains leading Tibetan plateau.

Border intrusion

The Chinese writing on the rocks did not just happen by black magic. In what is seen in Beijing as a placatory gesture these have been laid at the door of “perceptional differences” over where exactly the Line of Actual Control lies or ought to lie.

Nonetheless, as the words suggest a line of actual control implies dissuasive presence that would stall incursions the moment they occur.

Recent reports said that Indian security forces had used banners to indicate their presence to intruding Chinese troops. That is how it should be but it appears to be a case of few and far between occurrences as Chinese domination is palpable.

In the Ladakh sector India additionally suffers the hardship of having its lines of communication traversing the Himalayan hump in what is known as the Central Sector or Sugar Sector whereas the Chinese have only flatlands to traverse.

They use motorcycles to patrol the vast distances which is an indicator of the ease of its logistics system.

India estimates that China can bring to bear the full weight of forty Divisions within less than a month in areas opposite Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh thereby activating the whole 4000-plus kilometer Line of Actual Control simultaneously with the intention tying down Indian troops to specific sectors.

This strategy is intended to give Pakistan a relatively easier task of trying to cut off Jammu and Kashmir though the Samba salient in approximately the same point where a transborder tunnel was recently accidently discovered.

In spite of the fact that analysts have suggested that more mountain Divisions than the two raised for the Arunachal segment be created to defend the Ladakh sector as well, objections from the Finance Ministry appear to have created unnecessary roadblocks in the creation of infrastructure and manpower reserves for likely operations against an admittedly superior military force.

What India needs is the wherewithal to prevent a Chinese breakthrough at any point. By holding China at points north of the Himalayas, India would achieve a strategic impasse that would mean a loss of face for the Chinese.

Even while talking of the possibilities of a “two-front war” India appears to be going at too sedate a pace in building up its own capabilities, even while the accent is on capabilities not numbers.

Central to the Indian defence posture in the Himalayas both vis-a-vis China as well as Pakistan is the ability to detect and deter intrusions round the clock, throughout the year.

When Kargil happened, the then Chief of Army Staff General V P Malik spoke of some kind of “gentlemen’s agreement”, whereby both sides vacate untenable forward posts during the severe winter and return when the snow melts (usually around April).

In Kargil in 1999 the snow melted early and so the Pakistanis had a clear passage across the Line of Control and into our forward posts all along a 60 km salient. They penetrated an average of ten km into Indian territory.

Experience ought to have taught India something-there can be no such thing as a “gentlemen’s agreement” with either Pakistan or China.

It is amazing that the very political entities that blamed Nehru for being naïve vis-à-vis China did much the same with the Pakistanis in 1999 and even later when the “trust deficit” was seen to be at its lowest ebb.

Looking forward

One of the first defences that India must erect is to get out of that syndrome of laying too much trust on the intentions of nations demonstrably inimical to Indian interests.

The next option that India has to exercise is to be prepared to stop the Chinese along a pre-determined killing zone. In the Ladakh sector it must, perforce, be broad and long.

While from the Mansarovar Lake eastwards there is a very clearly defined “killing zone” south of the Brahmaputra or the Tsang Po, westwards the Indian armed forces must hone skills to first cross the crest of the Himalayas and, in the case of the Indian Air Force, be able to carry a full bomb/air-to-ground missile load.

For this it already has the capability of air-to-air refueling on which it must put total dependence to help it strike at Chinese infrastructure on which they expect to be able to bring to the forward edge of battle against India as many as 40 divisions within a short space of time.

India has reactivated two forward air bases at Nyoma and Chusul. These could become vulnerable to Chinese ground fire and have to play a secondary role.

India’s holding action in the Ladakh Sector will include the disruption of the Aksai Chin road connecting East China to its western outpost, Xiangjiang.

It is through Xianjiang that its strategic road link with Pakistan and beyond into the Arabian Sea-the Karakoram Highway-passes.

If India is be able to effectively plug these lines of communications it will be able to slow down the Chinese advance in the wide-open spaces of the Tibetan plateau where it can chop up the advancing waves of Chinese mechanized infantry (it is easier for China to bring it heavy armor because of the lay of the land).

This analysis is dependent on the recent penchant for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to exercise jointly for future military operations.

It is presumed that given the capabilities at their disposal the Indian military high command and the political leadership will, this time, have no qualms about using air power as a blunting force against the Chinese. Failure to do so will be a blunder as it was in 1962.         

Without taking the Chinese Defence Minister too much at his word and be taken for a ride, India must take it for granted that any hostility with China will automatically and immediately also activate the India-Pakistan border in keeping with the current appreciation.

Indeed, both China and Pakistan are in collusion to circumscribe, circumvent and demonstrate to the world that India is of no consequence not just in regional matters but also on global issues.

Prevaricating over whether the Pakistanis will attack in support of Chinese operations should be removed from the calculus and taken as a “given” element. Disruption of the Karakoram Highway and thus the China-Pakistan should be high on the military/politico objectives of Indian operations in north Jammu and Kashmir.

Here is more food for thought: The Chinese and the Pakistanis have long been using insurgent groups in the north-east against India.

In the runup to open hostilities India too should explore the possibility of exploiting the Tibetan unrest to create problems for China not just in Tibet but also among the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang.

Opening up lines of contact with both the Tibetans as well as the Islamic fundamentalists in and around Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang would be one way of tying the Chinese down.