The CCP Navy and Pakistani Navy will increase their activities in the Western Arabian Sea after the delivery of four frigates and eight AIP submarines from China beginning next year. This would interfere with Indian Navy’s manoeuvring space in the Arabian Sea

by Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)

Recent clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in Ladakh’s Galwan valley during the withdrawal of Chinese forces from the area where the Chinese had intruded—that led to the martyrdom of our soldiers, including a Commanding Officer of the rank of Colonel—speak volumes about the mistrust between the two Armed Forces. Chinese soldiers pelting stones from higher ground and targeting the CO of a battalion, in addition to soldiers of Indian Army who were overseeing the withdrawal of the Chinese as agreed upon between the two Corps Commanders was a shocking development. Not only was it unethical but also violated the principles of warfare. Subsequently, there has been series of meetings in Raisina Hills amongst the Defence Minister, External Affairs Minister (EAM), the Chief of Defence Staff and the Chief of Army Staff. Possibly, military and diplomatic level engagements have not yielded the desired outcomes.

A few days ago, the spokesperson of the Chinese Western Theatre Command quoted the Theatre Commander as stating that Galwan Valley was Chinese territory. This is factually incorrect. This area has always been within the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. It seems that China is desperately attempting to write a new narrative, which is in consonance with its salami slicing policy. These were premeditated skirmishes, well coordinated at multiple spots on the LAC from east (Naku La) to west (Eastern Ladakh).

The Chinese build-up is huge with artillery and armour backing the infantry.

What is making China resort to such offensive action in complete disregard to the Wuhan and Chennai spirit? The understanding reached during the meetings of two very powerful leaders, who enjoy massive public support in their respective countries, seems to have been thrown to the winds at the field level. As is well known, in China the theatre commanders report to the Central Military Commission (CMC), of which President Xi Jinping is the Chairman. Effectively, he is the Commander in Chief of the CCP Army. Nothing would have happened without his approval. Is it that President Xi has come to conclusion that the time has come to ignore the understanding reached with Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Is it that EAM Jaishankar’s assurances to the Chinese Foreign Minister in Beijing that revocation of Article 370 and creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh did not alter the LAC with China did not convince them? There could be other issues as well that drove China to take this unprecedented step. Whatever be the case, this would certainly impact post Covid bilateral relations.

The construction of an all-weather road joining Darbuk-Shyoke-Daulat Beg Oldie within Indian territory, the activation of an ALG (Advanced Landing Ground) at DBO, invitation given to India to join G7, stepping up of the Quad to Quad-Plus, agreement to enhance India-Australia bilateral relations to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, intensification of India-US bilateral relations, greater scrutiny of FDI coming into India etc., could be some of the many imponderables for China’s aggressive behaviour at the LAC.

It will be instructive to remember that India is China’s competitor in the economic growth story. The China-Pakistan nexus and now the strengthening of its relations with Nepal are very serious strategic developments in the region that could continue to engage India’s attention, deflecting it away from its agenda of economic growth.

It has been widely reported that the Western Theatre Commander of the PLA is one of the favourite Generals of the General Secretary of the CCP and is looking forward to his inclusion in the CMC, which is a big achievement in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy. It is highly probable that the General wanted to signal to the National People’s Congress (NPC) members, who were meeting in Beijing, that General Secretary Xi is a strong and assertive leader who has full and effective control of all organs of the state. The new law implemented in Hong Kong, escalating Taiwan Strait tensions, flexing muscles in the South China Sea, major military exercise in Xinjiang autonomous region and now aggressive expansion along the LAC with India reflect the power that Xi commands. As is evident, these activities declined after the crucial NPC meeting ended. The LAC transgression has possibly put a cover on domestic murmurs about poor handling of the COVID crisis by General Secretary Xi and China’s declining reputation in the world, which could have been brought up for discussion at the NPC. The assertive activities on LAC and inclusion of Hong Kong in PRC’s draconian laws would have earned public support for President Xi. He has two important events ahead of him in the coming years—the centenary celebrations of the CCP next year and the full congress meeting in 2022, where President Xi’s successor is likely to be named, possibly ignoring President Xi’s ambitions for presidency for a lifetime.

It is a contradiction that China cannot be ignored on the economic front. The world moves on China’s global supply chain. China is also aggressively pushing for the entry of Huawei in 5G technology in which it has an edge. Artificial intelligence, space based technology, cyberspace, solar energy, etc., are some areas in which China has a competitive edge. Will these areas continue to progress on an accelerated path post Covid and the trade war with the US? China’s declining acceptance in the European Union and the Australian effort to decouple from China are some of the worries that China has.

What are India’s options? There is a trade deficit of approximately $50 bn with China. China’s economy is four/five times larger than India’s and its military weapons capabilities have overtaken that of India. China will probably not resolve the boundary issue and use it as a pressure point to retard India’s economic progress. The breach of trust between the two leaders would have grown with China’s recent coordinated military assertions on multiple locations on the LAC despite summit level understanding at Wuhan and Chennai. China’s eyes are probably set on the Karakoram Pass, which is in Indian territory, across which lies the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the most important link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India’s access to CPEC worries both China and its autonomous region, Pakistan. China is aggressively securing its energy source and routes to mitigate its Strait of Malacca vulnerability. It is on the verge of signing an agreement with Iran for an investment of $400 bn in the next 25 years in infrastructure, communication, port, financial etc., sectors in return of continuous oil supply. There would be a refinery nearby. Also, the port of Bandar-e-Jask (350 km west of Chabahar) will be leased for development and operations. This port is sits right on top of the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has also announced that the Chabahar-Zahedan railway track, which was contracted to the Indian company IRCON, will be built by Iran due to slippages in the project. This track would have ultimately been a link between Zahedan and Zaranj (Afghanistan) to facilitate trade to and from Afghanistan. This is a serious strategic challenge for India for its trade connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

It is pertinent to mention that in future China would have presence in all three chokepoints of the Indian Ocean due to its presence in the Malacca port, Bandar-e-Jask and Djibouti. This is a very significant advantage to China. It is quite likely that Iranian oil for China could flow through a pipeline from Bandar-e-Jask, and later from Gwadar, to Kashgar where the railway track is being built along the CPEC.

The CCP Navy and Pakistani Navy will increase their activities in the Western Arabian Sea after the delivery of four frigates and eight AIP submarines from China beginning next year. This would interfere with Indian Navy’s manoeuvring space in the Arabian Sea. Effectively, China would have lured all of India’s neighbours and increased India’s security paradigm.

The time is right to reset India’s China policy. Should it be tit for tat along LAC, gradually evicting China from Aksai Chin area or increasing activities along two SLOCs in the Indian Ocean which are lifelines for China’s energy security? Over 60% of China’s oil imports and 58% copper imports traverse through the chokepoints in the Indian Ocean Region. Both these are essential for China’s economic and military technology growth. Tibet and Taiwan are the two other sensitive issues for China which could be looked into. Strengthening the Quad as an economic and security architecture is another possibility. The inclusion of Australia in this year’s Malabar exercise could be indicative of this happening. Or is it time to hard negotiate with China and smoke the peace pipe for assured mutual growth? These are some of the complex strategic options which India has to deal with. These are tough options, but it’s time for strong political and diplomatic decisions that will keep India on the trajectory of economy growth and development.