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Assessing strength

India’s approach towards tackling China

There is a great deal of puzzlement in India about why a newly-elected Prime Minister of China should indulge in so blatant a violation of the concept of peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control so close to his impending visit to India.

That the platoon of 30 soldiers and their guard dogs finally withdrew after about three weeks when New Delhi hinted that External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid could abandon his trip to Beijing and thereby sour the prospects of Premier Li Kequiang’s own journey to India only added to the general bewilderment.

That China wanted to send a message to Japan, with which too it has exacerbated territorial claims to offshore islands and Vietnam which, with the help of India, is undertaking offshore drilling for hydrocarbons, appears to be the key to such behaviour.  
It raises the question of what options India has to cause similar irritation to China if and when it desires.

Immediate steps

Among the first things that India needs to do is to improve, drastically, its border management procedures that are failsafe in all weather conditions.

In the confusion created by the Indian Army’s demand that the Indo-Tibetan Border Police monitored “Sugar sector”, as the stretch between Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, portions of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (formerly Uttar Pradesh) is called, be brought under its command, was lost the question how did the Chinese penetrate 19kms without being noticed?

Even if the sector was under Army control would things have been different? Kargil did happen when it was under direct military command and infiltration and worse, the beheading of one of our soldiers, also happened under the so-called watchful eyes of the Army.

The reason why China chose that particular location to show up Indian incompetence was that it was in this sector that there was a major revolt by jawans outraged by the mistreatment of one of the men by officers posted at the Nyoma field firing range.

Severe action taken against the mutineers and the officers concerned had created a huge hole in the morale of troops posted in that segment. One can argue that the incident was irrelevant to what happened further south of Nyoma and outside Army jurisdiction.

In the final analysis it is the perception of the enemy of the state of the fighting force it is confronting that matters. The People’s Liberation Army has shown that it has learned to exploit both the physical and the psychological aspect to find chinks in Indian defences.

How well China has learned its lessons is also apparent in the manner it introduced military dogs as part of its platoon units so as to prevent the kind of hand-to-hand skirmishes with Indian soldiers like the one that happened in Nathu La in 1967 where its soldiers lost their limbs to Gorkha khukris.   

Strengthening defences

India needs to review its options vis-à-vis China. The first, unequivocally, would be to strengthen its defences so that no such “no man’s land” exists as happened in the Ladakh sector.

Talk of “aggressive patrolling” makes little sense in the light of what happened in April. Permanent presence as trigger and adequate quick reaction forces for retaliatory strikes should be the norm rather than the exception. Since Kargil, retired military personnel have been lauding the “Nathu La posture” which is, essentially, eyeball-to-eyeball throughout the year (with no withdrawal in winter).  

If the Army requires one more Division, the Ministry of Finance should now have no more reservations.

China has long been using other underhand means to undermine Indian defences by instigating insurgencies in vital areas in the North-east and in Kashmir through Pakistan. India needs to ratchet its own mindset to apply similar tactics against China.

The options are limited but the ones that are in Indian hands could create immense problems for China and force it to draw in its claws against India.

The most obvious, of course, is the ferment that has been brewing in Tibet ever since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. There are many Tibetans who are eager and willing to take up arms against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army even though the Tibetan movement has sought to retain the moral high ground by keeping it strictly peaceful with frequent and tragic self-immolations.

But, as in Vietnam the two strands-military actions and psychological warfare through peaceful means (self-immolations)-can coexist and complement each other. If this tactic can tie the PLA down to internal security duties it would have been paid back adequately through tit for tat.

This is what the Chinese have been doing to India for decades through directly sustained insurgencies in the north-east and through the use of Pakistan as proxy in western Jammu and Kashmir through which it has constructed the Karakoram Highway.

Demolishing links

The Indian Air Force should make contingency plans to demolish the bridges built along its route. Both Pakistan and China are aware of this vulnerability and the IAF will have to take into consideration both surface-to-air missiles (which could be the reason for the underground tunnels that the Chinese have constructed along portions of the highway) and combat air patrols by both Pakistan and China.

Demolition of even one or two bridges could render the whole highway useless for the better part of five years which could really pinch China by disabling a shorter, more economical, route than the current Malacca Strait connection.

India has done well to disabuse China of control of the Buddhist diaspora. Beijing has been trying to woo the Buddhists by grabbing symbols of Buddhism like Tawang monastery and securing contracts from Nepal to “modernize” the birthplace of the Gautam Buddha at Lumbini.

The World Buddhist conclave which meets in India has been wary of Chinese tactics (given that most of the countries with which China has made maritime territorial claims have large Buddhist populations). It has hitherto undermined Beijing’s attempt to use the Buddhist card to show leadership of the religious sect.  China is waiting for the death of the current Dalai Lama to change the rules of the game by appointing its own nominee from Tibet.

The Mongolians too are not too happy with the Han Chinese but that is an option too far away for India to exploit effectively. Nearer home, the Uighurs are not automatically India’s adversaries because of their religion. Quite the contrary. Just as India is able to function effectively in Afghanistan inspite of the schism among the Muslim population now dominated by Taliban thought and philosophy there could be groups of moderate Muslim Uighurs whom India could befriend and support in the same manner in which China has been doing in the North-east.

What China has been doing is to try and restrict Indian influence among its traditional contacts in South-east Asia and the Middle East.

By creating a chain of potential military bases all along the Indian Ocean littoral it is trying to hem India in and constrain its geopolitical ambit. India has to prepare to break out of this encirclement both diplomatically as well as militarily.

The attempt to display dominance was obvious in Chinese attempt to dictate to India what kind of infrastructure it can create along the area under Indian control in the Himalayas. For the sake of peace and tranquillity India has demolished the tin shed at Chumar in the Ladakh sector. Anything more will only encourage the Chinese.