Ladakh could be a feint, China’s big push may be coming from the east
For the last few weeks, one has repeatedly been saying both the Chinese intrusion in the Pangong Tso area and the activity opposite the Indian position in the Galwan Valley is a smokescreen. Unfortunately, like moths drawn to a naked flame, the chorus of having “lost territory” to the Chinese seems to have completely dominated the Indian mindset.
Politics in a democracy like India’s is nothing but a game of perceptions and in what has now become a trademark of sorts, once again the optics are pushing us into a corner. The latest in this bizarre game of showmanship is the Defence Minister’s visit to Ladakh, once again with the CDS and the COAS in tow. The band seems to be playing only one tune at present and it seems to have the Prime Minister as its benchmark—what you can do, I can do even better!
There obviously has to be a strategic and a military objective to the Chinese moves. Strategically, in the overall game plan of global domination, by giving India a rude shock, it would clearly establish that there can be just the one sun in the sky. Chairman Mao virtually said this before green flagging the PLA’s offensive plans in 1962. Mao, also for good measure, is reported to have then said that after dominating the Indians in the head, repeat the exercise half a century later. By that criteria, these moves are almost eight years behind schedule.
WHAT ARE CHINA’S OBJECTIVES?
From the military objective point of view the only thing that makes sense is the cutting off and capturing of Daulat Beg Oldi for which they have been quietly building approach tracks inside what is considered to be their own area to the east of the Depsang Plains. As in most areas in Northern and Eastern Ladakh, the Chinese have not defined their LAC and a fluid situation similar to the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso exists in this area as well.
Further towards south-eastern Ladakh, the Chinese probably see themselves as being vulnerable in the Chumar area, so they have flooded that region with troops. That still leaves them with a formidable amount of additional forces that have been brought in to try and eliminate any threat to the Shaksgam Valley and also the Aksai Chin, through which all their lines of communication are now running linking not just Sinkiang and Tibet but most of China’s land trade as well.
If indeed the probe in the Pangong Tso area was only to test Indian resolve, then the one positive message that would have gone from the Indian side that cannot be lost on Beijing is that India would not hesitate to match the Chinese build-up, bringing into play its carefully enhanced airlift capability over the years. Should China decide to settle for the establishing of buffer zones that in its perception do not allow India to threaten Aksai Chin, it would have accomplished only a part of its objective. It is highly unlikely that China has initiated all these moves to just settle for these limited objectives, especially since it knows that despite the belligerent statements made by the Indian Home Minister in Parliament, the capturing of Aksai Chin by military means is a virtual impossibility.
Daulat Beg Oldi on the other hand is on the furthest possible limb for India, the airfield there notwithstanding, it is a logistical nightmare. Being within artillery range, if it is considered to be a threat by China to its road network on the other side of the Karakoram Pass, then that argument cuts both ways—the airfield can be neutralized by bracketing it by Chinese guns and rockets in the eventuality of an open war. In all probability, once the threat of flooding in the Shyok recedes, the Chinese will shift focus to the Depsang Plains.
There is also the real possibility that the moves against Ladakh are by themselves a feint, and the big push will once again as in 1962 come down the Khenzemane axis, bypassing Bum La and Tawang altogether, in a bid to establish a new Claim Line along the Se La massif itself in Arunachal Pradesh. Already last fortnight, the Chinese for the first time laid claim to parts of Eastern Bhutan, something which they have never done before.
India, led by its overactive media, will continue to harp on the carefully laid out trap that focuses on “loss of territory” and the Chinese will, inch by excruciating inch, most probably pull back up to Finger 7 by early October, allowing the Indian government many small illusions of victory to exploit in the game of optics along the way, something the BJP is fast developing a mastery over. The Opposition, and the Congress, that right from the start has been more intent on embarrassing the government rather than question it meaningfully on key issues, will continue to do its macabre dance on the sidelines, exposing every existing fault line to the Chinese. And exploit it they most certainly will!
Fortunately, despite every possible attempt to hack away at its core by almost every government that has been in power, the basic institution at the centre of the storm, the Armed Forces, remain steadfast and solid. It is bizarre that even three months after the Chinese intent became clear, Government of India is still shying away from adopting a transparent and open approach that is allowing space to various nefarious agendas to play themselves out. The government, on its part, must look into the mirror of time and realise it cannot allow the subversive propaganda to continue, for sooner or later it will start affecting the mind-set of the very men who have to stand up and fight when the time comes.
INDIA RUNNING OUT OF OPTIONS
In the game of perceptions, India is fast running out of options. The latest reports coming out of Iran are suggesting that the Chinese are not only consolidating their grip over that country, but India has been virtually shown the door, the Chabahar railway line project being the latest casualty. Iran, flanking Pakistan, is our most natural ally, just as Russia flanking China to the north has been and continues to be. However, the narrative now is to project a confused and isolated India, unable to handle US pressure. If this is true then it is going to hurt India badly, especially since Trump is also intent on handing Afghanistan to China on a platter owing to his avowed electoral promise of “bringing the boys back home”.
There will be other major implications should the Iranian shift actually take place—of all the over-land routes on China’s wish-list to link western China to the European Union, perhaps the most desirable is the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey route that also straddles the Caspian Sea. This route steers clear of Russia, which is a major factor in the Chinese game plan. A few years ago, a senior executive of Dubai Ports, who were already working on the project, had said Iran remained the last stumbling block, but once that happened (which he said was a matter of time given China’s purchasing power), things would move very fast. This would give the Chinese an alternative to the South China Sea route and considerably reduce the threat from the US and other Quad countries who would otherwise seek to choke off the main trade route.
However, even though the Iranians are playing the engagement game, they are perhaps fully aware of the implications of getting into bed with the Chinese. In all probability, the “lean” towards China will stay in limbo, for the Iranians know in the long run they will not be the beneficiaries. If anything, India must reach out in a far more positive manner and talk with the Americans if need be, for their policy in this case is proving to be hugely counter-productive. The main problem with the Chabahar railway line project is that the Iranian counterpart is owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is under severe sanctions imposed by the US.
In these constantly changing equations of geo-politics, India, and more specifically Prime Minister Modi, has to realise that the threat the country is facing has to be tackled with a degree of maturity which has, sadly, so far been conspicuous by its absence. The failure by the Home Ministry to effectively read the signals (both intelligence and the ITBP, which was manning the forward posts that come under it—it is indeed appalling that the Army was reportedly kept out of the loop till May before the seriousness of the situation was realized) seems to have not only been glossed over, but effectively swept under the carpet. What the previous regime did or did not do was no longer relevant post-2014, but some of the decisions relating to the countries defence preparedness have been shocking, to put it very mildly.
From the appointment of a Raksha Mantri who took it upon herself to teach the Chinese the art of doing Namaste at Nathu La to defence acquisition to senior appointments, there has been much left to be desired. Today, we have virtually one of the largest paramilitary forces in the world, who if properly led, should have had the potential to have handled the Chinese like the Vietnamese Border Guards had done in 1979. Instead we today have a situation where the bomb-lines between the police and the Army have got blurred, thanks in part also to the endless turf wars over the years.
DON’T SAY CHINA WILL NOT GO TO WAR
Also compounding the problem are the endless debates about how China will actually not fight but will keep nibbling away territory. This was exactly the trap Bhola Nath Mullik, the then head of IB and the de facto NSA, had fallen into in 1962. Even on the eve of the Chinese attack on the 2 Rajput positions, Lieutenant Colonel Maha Singh Rikh had walked up to Brigadier John Dalvi’s HQ above the Dhola Post and begged him for permission to pull his battalion even partially back up the slope from the Nam Ka Chu. So confident was the Indian chain of command that the Chinese would not cross the line, the permission to do so was never given. When the attack came, so conditioned were Indian commanders to this ridiculous belief, they had forgotten how to fight.
In my opinion, the Indian Army backed up by the IAF have together shown tremendous maturity in handling a crisis situation abruptly thrust upon them. Not getting drawn into a shooting match on ground of the PLA’s choosing, they have their plans for all contingencies, honed over years, in place. It is now even more imperative that India now realises the game has only just begun. The Great White Hope in the form of Mr Trump who India has wooed even to the extent of declaring “agli baar Trump sarkar” will also look at the US-China equation purely through the eyes of trade and long-term economics.
In any case, any strategic tie-up with the US has historically always been a three-legged race where two of the legs belong to the Americans. The time has come for PM Modi to peer over the heads of those around him. Just being told what those in the immediate vicinity believe you want to hear creates a void where eventually when push comes to shove, deafening silence drowns the screams.