The Chinese muscle flexing on LAC over months culminated into the horrific killing of twenty Indian soldiers by PLA in Galwan valley of Eastern Ladakh on June 15, in the backdrop of an ongoing consultation between the Army commanders of the two sides on the situation in that segment as also a long standing higher level liaison between the Special Representatives of the two countries. The development brought into focus the need for a stronger display of military and diplomatic strength by India in dealing with a recalcitrant China and led the opposition leaders as well as many military experts to raise questions of operational and strategic handling of India-China relations.
They pointed to the known fact of a Chinese build-up along the LAC in Ladakh going on for several weeks before the attack of June 15 and to the generic comment made by India’s Defence Minister in early June — based on the briefings he had already received from CDS and the Army Chief — that ‘the Chinese had come out in the area in large numbers’. Military Intelligence would have seen the gradual strengthening of troops and field equipment by the Chinese in the territory across LAC but was perhaps unable to assess the motive and designs of the opponent. It does not matter if India happened to give a long rope to China in testing the latter’s professed adherence to ‘peaceful’ resolutions of differences — so long as we now draw well-considered conclusions about how China would turn out to be for India in the long term. The current developments on LAC come as a timely reminder to the Modi government to reset its views on this neighbour.
The Galwan episode has unravelled the new mindset of China about asserting its illicit territorial claim in Ladakh area. The incident of June 15 has understandably evoked a huge political furore and made a deep national impact causing widespread anger against China among the people here. The Prime Minister did well to use the occasion of the all-party meeting called by him on June 19, for dispelling any impression that Chinese had seized some land or post on the Indian side of the LAC. Considering that all necessary details about the June 15 violence occurring at a high altitude on the LAC would have been first subjected to analysis from various perspectives, the meeting was not unduly delayed — it elicited full support of most parties present for the government notwithstanding the persistent criticism of Prime Minister Modi’s policy by the Congress. The sequence of events leading to the clash was still hazy in terms of defining the nature and place of the PLA’s encroachment that had caused it but the implications of the grave scenario that exists in Galwan valley today are becoming abundantly clear to all.
It seems that in pursuit of ‘consensus’ on preventing an ‘escalation’ — which was a line of approach initially put forth by the Chinese themselves, apparently in a show of ‘moderation’ on their part — India was trying to secure through a commander level talk a pushback of the Chinese from a tent they had put right on a disputed spot off LAC at Galwan valley. The Chinese contingent pretended to be going along with the plea of the Indian side but clearly had instructions not to give way and stick to that vital point in the valley. The PLA attacked the Indian soldiers who reportedly tried to remove the encroachment.
It is not clear if responses of our Army through this critical spell rested on a wishful thinking about Chinese reasonableness — a hard assessment of what the Chinese were doing in the wider Ladakh sector would have given indications to the contrary. It is now emerging that the fast changing geo-political scenario in this region was one of the factors prompting the scaling up of Chinese military consolidation in Galwan valley. The timing and territorial focus of the Chinese military build-up on the LAC perhaps warranted a high-level political intervention from our side at an early stage.
The incident of June 15 got mired in the controversy on whether our soldiers on the border patrol, who were brutally killed by PLA, had carried firearms at all and if they did why were those not used in a situation of ‘life and death’? It is the Minister of External Affairs as the spokesman of the government, and not the military, who gave a clarification on a matter that was directly linked to the professional SOPs of the Army. Many observers wondered if it is the diplomacy that was setting military strategy — it is always the other way round since foreign policy establishment would at best give an input for evolving the defence plan and not direct the latter. After the incident of June 15 India’s External Affairs Minister did reach out to his Chinese counterpart to convey our total denunciation of the PLA’s aggression and warn China of its ‘consequences’ for the India-China relationship. It is a matter of satisfaction that the first step of the government was to give a free hand to Army commanders to decide about the use of weapons in responding to a grave provocation on the LAC in future — something they were obviously kept from doing because of overriding ‘diplomatic’ considerations.
India would surely make up for lost time in building its military infrastructure on our side of LAC, further review the implications of Sino-Pak axis that evidently is a major factor in shaping China’s hostile attitude towards India and activate its international relations to deal with global ambitions pursued by China at the cost of India. We have a right to learn from our experience with China, our handling of the neighbours in SAARC and our relations with other countries in the region and create adequate countervailing factors to give out a message to China not to underestimate India’s potential and political will to deal with hostility from any quarters. Our defence leadership should be more visible in articulating our policy and resolves. This is the time for fresh recruitment to Indian Defence Forces.
The diplomatic establishment must step up playing its vital part in furthering India’s defence and security strategy. Internal governance particularly the ministers rolling out policy of trade and commerce towards China should implement the comprehensive framework of our domestic and foreign policy as reset after the Galwan watershed. All spokespersons of the government should be coordinating out of the same script. The nation will stand united if the leadership spoke in one voice and communicated the policy content on defence and security to the people at large from time to time. India’s strategy should be to adhere to the demand for restoration of status quo ante on LAC through a process of negotiations but, like the Chinese, speed up military and strategic consolidation. At the joint secretary level talks on June 24 the two sides agreed to abide by the ‘consensus’ earlier reached by the leadership of the two countries, maintain peace along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh and resolve relevant issues of the border through bilateral dialogue. Clearly, PLA intends staying put in Galwan valley through this indeterminate timeline of consultations. India should use this to prepare itself for any eventualities of the future.
After the abolition of Art 370 of the Constitution by the Modi government through a due process of law making in Parliament, there has been a clear meeting of minds between Pakistan and China in their activities on the borders of India. There is plenty to show that China is playing ‘the great game’ by seeking to have a decisive influence and hold on the Afghan-Pak-Kashmir region. India would be justified in taking out one limb of this axis — Pakistan — by imposing new costs on it on the Kashmir front by pursuing the terrorists right inside the POK even to the point of destroying some of the edifice of CPEC in the process. If China tries to get directly involved there, India has ways and means of stretching China on its periphery from Xinjiang to Hongkong where movements for democratisation have been going on. India must unleash a campaign that the Pak-China combine was fostering Islamic terrorism and giving protection to radical extremists.
Prime Minister Modi has already given a clear signal of India’s interest in safeguarding Indo-Pacific region against aggressive moves of China there. Our relationship with US, Japan and Australia is solid enough for us to make investment in QUAD as an instrument of deep maritime defence of India. The reaffirmation of special ties between India and Russia during the meeting of our defence minister with Russian Deputy PM at Moscow on June 23 is timely. This is a moment for India to give clear signals to those around us that we are a major power — friendly to the democratic world — willing to play a dominant role in this part of Asia. While US and China could be moving towards a Cold War on military and economic fronts, India on its own and in concert with the democratic camp, has to step up its own strategic moves and border management operations to counter China’s designs against this country.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)