Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Most strategists in 2020 were deliberating on the intent of the PLA with a focus on Indo – China bonhomie by the Modi – Xi Jinping Summits, which probably blindsided the Indian establishment to the nefarious designs of the PLA. It was a repeat of Vajpayee’s Lahore visit for enduring peace and the Kargil intrusions leading to a bitter conflict in 1999 to regain the heights overlooking the Srinagar – Kargil – Leh highway.
Deployment of PLA in April 2020 for training purposes couched by the onset of the Wuhan virus in India, a total lockdown, lack of intelligence assessments of the PLA intent, thus leading to deep intrusions and denial of patrolling rights to the Indian Army along the Northern Banks of Pangong Tso as well as in the Galwan Valley and further West in the Depsang plains, led to the rushing of additional troops with equipment to contain the Chinese actions.
Galwan and other areas witnessed unarmed clashes. However, Galwan Valley witnessed an unprecedented clash leading to casualties on either side, India lost 20 of its Brave hearts, and the PLA casualties as ascertained later were higher. Brave hearts led by Col Santhosh Babu, MVC, (Posthumous); who created history by engaging with a belligerent PLA, without firing a shot in a contest to remove a military post on the Indian side of the perceived Line of Actual Control (LAC). A strong message was communicated to China.
This was followed by the occupation of Kailash Ranges, thus upsetting the PLA game plan. Over the past year; several rounds of Ministerial-level talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Moscow, and Corps Commander level talks assisted by Ministry of External Affair representatives ensured that a conflict didn’t flare up and the eyeball-to-eyeball deployment was pulled back partially. Kailash Range was vacated as part of the agreed pull back. PLA continues to hold dominating heights on the Gogra, Hot Springs, Daulat Beg Oldie sub-sector, the impasse has yet to be broken and both sides continue to build their infrastructure having weathered the winters of 2020- 21.
While being sensitive to the Ladakh sector, the region was reinforced, strategic planners warn of PLA creating similar situations along the 4000 km long Line of Actual Control and India’s ability to contain such a move, with considerations of limited resources available. PLA has shown its interest in the Ladakh Sub-sector as well as in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in keeping the Indian Army deployed in the winter months to prevent any ingression. It’s a historic flashpoint of the Indo-China conflict of 1962 and continues to remain one as, over several decades, Beijing has deliberately chosen not to settle the boundary dispute with New Delhi.
While the cause and effect are based on some historic miscalculations and forward posturing without adequate troops to task, lack of extreme winter clothing and training, wrong intelligence assessments to the Chinese reaction; caused much grief to India as a nation, the brave heart’s on the ground then and now did not shirk from their duty and laid down their lives in the highest traditions of the Indian Army.
Chinese intentions, its stated grand strategy of becoming the leading power of the 21st Century, Beijing has embarked on an ambitious project of the “One Belt One Road” Initiative (OBOR). Touted as Xi Jinping’s pet project, it is likely to have far-reaching geopolitical implications for the South Asian region especially India as well as strategic ramifications on the host countries including India’s neighbourhood.
The China -Pakistan occupied Kashmir – Economic Corridor (CPoKEC) became a reality in November 2016, when the first Chinese convoy from Sinkiang Province reached Port Gwadar in Pakistan, built by the Chinese.
China under its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative, in conformity with the ‘Strings of Pearl Strategy’, the Chinese are developing new Ports along the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOC) originating from the Indo-China Sea (Popularly referred to as the South China Sea) to the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. Close to Singapore and Malaysia, a new Container Tran-shipment Port as big as Singapore Port is under construction at Melaka in the straits of Malacca. Similar Ports are under development in Port Darwin (currently under review by the Australian Government), Port Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Port Bagamoyo in Tanzania, and Port Sudan. Increased defense spending and modernization of its naval fleet with aircraft carriers are indications of the Chinese ambition of becoming a dominant maritime power in the Indo-Pacific. There is no doubt that China is giving substance to its ‘Comprehensive National Power (CNP)’ with these initiatives.
The peace between North and South Korea has somewhat prevailed. China has a stake in keeping North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s regime in power. China – Russia bonhomie is booming. In the East China Sea, China has intensified its naval presence around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. The United States has assured Japan, the islands fall under their mutual defence security guarantee. But a confrontation with China could test the US resolve and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontation elsewhere. The Joe Biden administration is keen to drag China over hot coals on the origins of the Wuhan virus pandemic, relentlessly.
China’s military infrastructure development in the Indo-China Sea (South China Sea) and the US Navy’s conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS); keep the area as an imaginable trigger point for a conflict. China’s claims to the waters and islands in the Philippines territorial waters were rejected, despite which China continues to intrude on the islands claimed by the Philippines and Indonesia. Recently, Chinese vessels were anchored in the Philippines territorial waters inside its exclusive economic zone on the premised dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law. China’s plan to declare South China sea ADIZ covering disputed Pratas, Spratly and Paracel islands has been opposed by the US and allies. The issue of Taiwan is another smearing zone.
The Chinese have been castigating the Bangladesh government for supporting the QUAD and they have not minced their words on the likely outcome. In Myanmar, the coup and takeover of the country by Tatmadaw and Beijing’s covert support are conceivable. However, Tatmadaw is conscious of the dependence on Chinese investments and ensuing debt trap syndrome. In Sri Lanka, Hambantota Port is now an exclusive SEZ of the Chinese PLA Navy having a berthing place 290 Kms South of Peninsular India. This is of great concern to Indian security establishments.
Thus, China is intended to keep the global situation in a state of flux as it continues to work towards attaining the position of being the biggest economic and military superpower. To that end, it is using, all it has in its capabilities be it legal or illegal, ethical or unethical, coercion or economic baits.
Keeping in mind the complex situation that is prevailing, India is combating the deadly Chinese virus, vaccination of its citizens, natural disasters of monsoon season, holding the peace and tranquility along the LOC, and containing the Chinese along LAC. A glaring two-front live wire scenario is prevailing.
Policy options & way Ahead for India:
Vigorously pursue and engage with friendly foreign countries in the Western region as well as in South West Asia and South East Asia to preempt the Chinese influence.
Tread a balanced strategic path on ties with major powers like the US and Russia without compromising on India’s ‘strategic autonomy’.
QUAD needs to move from a diplomatic plank to a formal security architecture to carry out more joint exercises to dominate the SCS and Indo- Pacific region.
Engage within SAARC with friendly countries and support the governments politically and economically.
Remain a key player in IORA in all of its charters.
Continue engagement with China diplomatically to ensure that the situation does not escalate at the LAC. While China will remain a competitor/adversary, India needs soft skills to negate its CNP.
Step up efforts to increase engagement with Taiwan in S&T, Naval cooperation as part of India’s Military diplomacy (Training/Port facilities).
Develop capabilities to prevent hacking and Cyber-attacks which may disrupt energy needs, transportation thereby imposing economic losses to a fragile economy.
(Commodore Vijesh Garg, VSM, was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1984. He is a Naval Aviator and an Anti-Submarine Warfare specialist with very rich experience of flying from aircraft carriers & ships. In his long career of over 35 years in the Indian Navy, he has held numerous staff, training, and command appointments. He has commanded three naval warships, one naval air squadron, two naval air stations & Delhi Naval Area. His last assignment was as Deputy Director-General of NCC directorate (Tamilnadu, Pondicherry, Andaman& Nicobar). He was a recipient of the Vishist Seva Medal by the President of India in 2013. He is also a Distinguished Member, C3S. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)