In the present standoff, since the disengagement process and de-escalation have been happening at a very slow pace, India cannot afford to disengage its focus from planning its options to deal with the dragon. Amid the ongoing developments, Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane firmly told his commanders to be prepared for any "eventuality" and maintain the highest operational preparedness. With the Indian position being ‘the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is non-negotiable’, the Indian troops will need to remain forward deployed until the Chinese disengage.
At the same time, with the restrictions in lockdown being totally lifted from September 1 across the country, treating the Corona pandemic as another disease learned to live with and the fear of protracted economic slowdown, India cannot ignore both health and economy. Thus, dealing with the pandemic, putting the economy back on track sooner than later, continued vigilance against terrorist activities by the western neighbour and dealing with Dragon, all at the same time, are the harsh realities of the times. The country has to gear up for hard options. Undisputedly, the present times have been the most difficult since Independence.
Pragmatic approach to deal with China: We need to look at the scenario with a pragmatic acceptance of realities taking an unemotional and detached view of the situation – China does not withdraw to the April, 2020 positions on LAC, it keeps delaying the process of disengagement and de-escalation by continuing to maintain troops through the winter and beyond, making it more or less as a permanent deployment.
Claims and physical control, realities and talks are never congruent in most of the ground situations. No dialogue is meaningful without the backing of hard power, in the times we live in. We also need to apply our minds to determine what should be our objectives in dealing with the present situation. Ideally, these should include all outstanding disputes on both the fronts.
In the opinion of former Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis (the chief during Kargil war) “There is a strong case for not only keeping the Chinese clear of the LAC but to claim our territory right up to the International Border (Johnson Line in Aksai Chin and McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh, not forgetting the Central sector). It should also be our endeavour to sever the Tibet-Zinjiang Highway #216 and simultaneously, pushing our way down the Indus to Skardu, so that the Chinese don’t bear on our positions on Siachen. The long term plan must be to liberate Gilgit-Baltistan area, claiming entire Gilgit-Baltistan-Ladakh area as one contiguously integrated, thus not part of the J&K dispute”.
A limited alternative would be launching limited attacks to reclaim areas which China has occupied since May, 2020 and not vacated after the deadline. This is fraught with likely escalation into an all out war on both the northern and western fronts without solid diplomatic and military support from the nations at loggerheads with China.
What are the options available to India? The harsh reality is that there are no meaningful options available without very heavy costs and the nation willing to bear them. We need to match China’s firm belief that ‘economic development is essential for power and that economic power generates military power’, in keeping with Kautilya’s axiom in the Arthashastra—“from the strength of the treasury, the army flows.” Our neglect, unwillingness and incapacity to invest in creating corresponding power and allowing the asymmetry to reach the present state fore-closes any military options for the present – a hard and unpalatable fact. We cannot lose sight of the fact, that both countries have roughly the same population, India’s GDP is only $2.5 trillion, compared with China’s $12.2 trillion. Standing upto China sounds undeniably patriotic. But we must know the threat in order to repulse it. The way to counter the Chinese strategy is not empty bombast and blowing hot and cold, but to build up India’s own economic strength. We cannot hide for too long under the façade of diplomacy.
India is firming a series of economic responses against China, following border tensions that remain unresolved. Already, investment from the country, which shares a land border with India, has been put under the approval route and other tariff and non-tariff barriers are being looked for various product categories. This is the opportune time to see resurgent India, with all its fault lines. India is weighing to build stronger supply chains with Japan and Australia to counter China’s dominance as trade and geopolitical tensions escalate across the region. The intensifying US-China conflict, unlikely to change after the ensuing Presidential elections in the US, and worsening diplomatic relations across the region are forcing companies to consider whether they can continue to do business in China as before. India has already restricted some Chinese imports and banned several Chinese apps.
There are positive indications in favour of India in the recent times. While foreign corporate launches, mergers and acquisitions in China amounted to nearly $41.6 billion last year, India had $40.6 billion in FDI. In terms of remittances from abroad- India’s $79 billion Vs China’s $67 billion. The trend has to be stepped up. As the foreign minister has already said that “the policy towards China has to change. Cosmetic changes won’t do and it needs a transformation. The earlier script of eternal appeasement has to be replaced with cool, calm, and ruthless pursuit of national interest. Strategic autonomy has to be achieved”.
Strengthening the military: In India, the civil and police bureaucracy handles security policy formulation, and is conditioned and oriented towards finding solutions to an issue. The military is conditioned to handle and address an issue and problem. We have been content to manage our security issues rather than address them. It serves no purpose to keep blaming the past leadership, even if there have been monumental failings – political, bureaucratic and military. It would be appropriate to say that it has been a national failing. It is time now to look for some meaningful and positive changes. There is no doubt that true wisdom lies in strengthening our defences.
A common jingoistic refrain heard is that our Army is not the Army of 1962, what is wished away is that neither is the Chinese Army of 1962 nor is the Indian Army what it should be in 2020. Same applies to the other two services. Nirmala Sitharaman, who earlier held both the defence and finance portfolios has said at last (albeit in Sanskrit) “There is no virtue like protecting the nation and there is no vow like the defence of the nation”.
It is hoped that in the current dispensation, these manifest on the ground in viable defence and deterrence, compatible with the threat we are facing and the capability we have to acquire to fight and win the war that the nation is keen to settle all conflict areas both with China and its closest ally Pakistan simultaneously. Thus said, the real war should be fought on the economic front, and quickly stitching up alliances with like-minded nations whose economic and territorial interests are threatened. Sustained diplomatic efforts must ensure - the US, Britain, Australia, Japan, Taiwan continue to pressurise China in South China Sea, support Hong Kong Independence and clear all the artificially made Chinese Islands of their occupation. China needs to be economically isolated. This global political-diplomatic offensive is essential to weaken China, not a foolhardy pipedream as the world has realised that China’s growing national power is a global threat.
At the other end, the defences have to be shored up – the long pending demands of the three services need to be met expeditiously. For example, the immediate need is to bolster air force strength, accelerate delivery of 36 Rafales and complete the demand for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircrafts (MMRCA) by negotiating off the shelf purchases, alongside continued induction of indigenous fighter LCA Tejas. Many seem unaware that warfare has changed in recent times. The PLA is a global player and would fight to its strengths in the new virtual war domains.
The PLA’s other strength is its projectile-centric strategy built around its ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles, unmatched by India. This is an area which needs to be addressed on priority along with satellite-based close surveillance for intelligence gathering.
Tailpiece: We are at a crucial juncture in consolidating our nationhood as one that is strong and confident to claim, wrest back, and keep what is rightfully ours. This needs a united national will, with willingness to make sacrifices in the short term. Citizens at large must understand the consequence of letting the dragon have its way. It is now imperative that every resource is brought to bear in an optimal manner to counter the growing threat from the Chinese dragon. Build of comprehensive national power is essential to overcome our security challenges against a powerful adversary.This pandemic crisis is a China-originated opportunity for the political class to correct its flaws and leanings. Let their attitudes rest a while so that the national interest takes precedence.
(Author is a Wing Commander in the IAF, was a Fighter Controller who actively participated in 1965 and 1971 wars. He was awarded Vishisht Seva Medal by the President of India. Views expressed are personal.)