by Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko

Border skirmishes are not new to India. We have had numerous ones with Pakistan and continue having it. We have almost become used to Pakistan’s needling and have responded with appropriate severity, mostly discreetly and recently in highly publicised manner. Territorial losses if any is invariably regained. The LOC, with action at some or the other location, remains lively all through the year.

However, when China needles us with incursions, the response, both of the Government and the people, is different. This happens because we use different templates of perception to view the incursions. While Indo-Pak relationship is viewed from victory podiums with a victor’s perspective, Chinese transgressions are unduly influenced by the deep wounds of 1962. The official Indian response, referred to as ‘mature calibrated diplomacy’, is invariably conciliatory, restrained, muted and devoid of even traces of aggression. We somehow seem to deliberately ignore the severe drubbing India gave Chinese in 1967 at Nathu La and Cho La. According to reports against 88 Indian Army personnel who attained martyrdom and 63 wounded, China lost 340 of its soldiers and had 450 wounded. Chinese couldn’t have forgotten the lesson yet.

The current series of Chinese transgressions and resultant military stand-off is a cause of worry to every Indian. As the latest news trickle in, both countries, it is reported, have agreed to pull back to ‘pre-incident’ positions. Accusations, clarifications, denials and rejoinders would continue to come for some time before the dust settles down. What happens on ground is for experts to assess and evaluate. How much ground we ceded or they returned is likely to remain unanswered for some time. It will take a while for the public to know the details. The details could be out of reach of RTI.

Unlike the enthusiastic cry to go to war with Pakistan, public, is normally guarded in its response to Chinese incursions. Said or unsaid, every Indian mind carries two simple questions. “Will there be war?”, “If there is war who will win?”.

Answers to both exist in the realm of situation building. It needs understanding of the Chinese mind and their game plan. Though many Chinese actions border on the irrational, we have enough historical and contemporary inputs of such irrational behaviour. This can help us rationally predict the likelihood. The outcome of a possible war, is not purely confined to mathematics of matching force levels and capabilities but of persistent grit, unmatched valour and selfless service. Since the questions are related it is better to address the two conjointly.

In terms of force levels and capabilities, China stands way ahead of India both in conventional and other means of war. When it comes to Ultra-modern means of war, India lags far behind Chinese military capabilities. Moreover, China has the economic muscle and political will to pursue its military aims. It makes no qualms about its intentions and cares little for world opinions. In fact, it makes a grand show of its aggressive stance.

Victory in a conventional war is about converging warfighting assets, military and economic, at the point of conflict against the enemy. The 1962 scenario is not likely to be repeated because a lot has changed ever since.

A research paper authored by Dr Frank O'Donnell, non-resident fellow at Stimson Centre's South Asia program and Dr Alexander K Bollfrass, senior researcher at the Centre for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich published by the Belfer Centre for Science and International affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, seems to suggest that the Indian Army can make available 2,25,000 personnel for the China border against an estimated 2,00,000 to 2,30,000 Chinese under the Western Theatre command, Tibet and Xinjiang military districts. The figures, especially that of china, can be debated. True figures will always remain hidden. However, China may have to reserve its forces for contingencies arising from other external and internal threats in case of a confrontation with India. They have enough to worry about.

The Chinese forces are now deployed considerably far away from these locations and deploying them into combat may need time. However, with a long-term view of territorial expansion, China has been investing considerably in upgrading infrastructure and communication in the border areas. Improved means of communication makes it easier for the Chinese to mobilise and maintain required force levels in case of a war. The large mobilisation displayed by China during the latest showdown was to drive home the message to India and the world that they can mobilise enough troops at very short notice.

Building infrastructure at the border by India can speed up Indian deployment and better maintenance of required force levels in situ. This takes the sheen off the advantages enjoyed by China due to better infrastructure on their side. That is precisely why China aggressively objects to any infrastructure development in the Indo-China border. In the current scenario China may induct and station more troops permanently in and around contested locations. This is possibly done with the primary intention of forcing results of the ongoing negotiations in favour of the Chinese. Unmindful of Chinese objections India must press ahead with infrastructural development in the region.

According to news reports, China spend $ 261 billion in 2019 compared to $71.1 billion spend by India. While China has been frantically modernising its armed forces, India seems to stutter and hobble along with eyes primarily focused on reducing defence budget. It is widely believed that India raised the china-centric formation through the “Save and Raise” route necessarily meaning that it cut from somewhere else and aggregated it to form a new force. While it has surely given a better command and control structure and inducted additional troops into the area, the cumulative force levels haven’t changed much. In someone’s considered opinion there is great scope for scrounging on dwindling defence allocations. Powers that be must understand that sovereignty is non-negotiable. The country must bear the cost of raising and maintaining a force potent to ensure its sovereignty.

Though a lot of issues relating to service conditions, anomalies in pay and parity in precedence remain unaddressed, the Indian Armed Forces is one of the most professional organisations in the world. The protests at Jantar Mantar, is a shining example of how soldiers conduct themselves. The protest remains steadfastly apolitical and peaceful despite serious provocative intervention by the establishment and media black-out for unknown reasons. Remarkably serving soldiers, knowing fully well that it affects them as soon as they retire, neither take part nor express their support. Invariably, the day after they retire, almost all of them join the movement. The ability of the Indian soldier to keep his personal needs last ‘always and every time’ in favour of the country is on display every day.

There Is Just One Reason For This

Unlike most armies of the world, Indian Army (collectively used for Army, Navy and Air force) is the religion and faith of its soldiers. The very first time a soldier wears the uniform and takes the sacred oath, the motherland becomes the ultimate temple, Constitution of India, the Holy book, he the high priest and his life the daily offering. Unique to India despite all visible differences of caste, colour, region and religion, there is something so blissfully unifying and sublimely divine that every soldier is transformed into a spectacular selfless fighting machine when the time comes. These are men and women of honour, an undefeatable force.

Both India and China are nuclear powers differences with long-standing territorial disputes. Can China, the one with more warheads, initiate a nuclear war? It may threaten to, but it’s very unlikely that it may resort to actual use. India’s capability to strike back may not be preventive enough, nevertheless it still is a potent deterrent. Moreover, the economic interdependence greatly reduces the likelihood of a nuclear war between the two at least as of now. In the times we live even threatening to use nuclear warheads could cost China dear.

In the given circumstances it is in China’s interest to keep conflict with India going, conventional and below threshold levels. It is easy and more rewarding for China, politically, economically and militarily to continue needling and tying India down at the borders. It is in China’s interest to keep the border dispute alive. It will object to and resist infrastructural upgrades in the border region. Despite all the hopes and statements coming out, we must understand that China will never settle its border disputes with India. In times to come more and more areas will come under dispute on some unbelievable logic. Even well settled positions never objected to ever before could become disputed.

Given the current conditions, the situation is likely to remain limited to border tensions with hardly any firearm used. However, it could flare up any moment and can end up in occasional exchange of fire. But a nuclear war is far off the horizon, a distant possibility, a full-blown war unlikely in the near future and chances of even limited offensive bleak. But the Chinese would in all likelihood keep the pot on simmer.

Why Does China Do This?

China has its own perception of its boundaries. Continuously pushing boundaries to create new neighbourhoods, they can come up with bizarre logic to stake claim for any piece of land sea or sky. They deploy means friendly or coercive to further their claims. In this they have been fairly successful while powerful nations of the world, look the other way, leaving the affected to find their way out by themselves.

While Nepal was busy creating unnecessary disturbances at the well-settled Indo-Nepal borders presumably instigated by China, china staked claim on Mount Everest, through an innocuous tweet which was later deleted. Though the tweet stands deleted, the claim remains unrevoked. China invaded and annexed Tibet, through what they call “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. China has territorial disputes with Nepal, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. It claims sovereignty over South China Sea and has created artificial islands in disputed waters, ostensibly for strengthening maritime reach. Territorial dispute with Russia ‘seems’ settled because through the concluding agreements China made huge territorial gains.

Territorial Dispute With India, Is Just One of The Many Such

Under the world glare for many wrong reasons, China needs a diversion strong enough to rivet the world attention from its foreign and domestic hotspots. It has used its warped logic to interpret various statements and actions of the Government of India and construed it as a challenge to its supremacy. Challenging and checkmating India, irrespective of the results achieved, it feels can separate the two Asian powers.

With India they seem to adopt the strategy of ‘innocuous nibble’, nibbling away land at different places, small enough not to raise huge alarm and politically convenient for the government to turn a blind eye. But when aggregated these intrusions are big enough to be of strategic utility. The Chinese noise, silence and action are minutely orchestrated to ensure ascendancy over the adversary. The current set of incursions are choreographed by Beijing itself and therefore cannot be called ‘local incursions’ undertaken by an enthusiastic local commander.

Chinese strategy of ‘innocuous nibble’ must be effectively countered. India must make no concession and stand its ground till each inch of Indian territory is regained from China. Much like we make our houses rat proof we need to fortify defences at the borders and make it clear that we tolerate no incursions. The Chinese is attempting to replay the 1962 script of deceitful friendship. Friendship and warmth between the premieres notwithstanding, Armed Forces must keep its powder dry.