Two years ago, on the morning of June 16, 2020, India woke up to the shocking news that 20 Indian soldiers, including their Commanding Officer, Col Santosh Babu, had been killed in a skirmish with Chinese troops at Galwan river bend, on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. A significant number of Indian troops had also been injured. An unspecified number of Chinese troops had been killed in the clash, and some, including their regimental commander, Col Qi Fabio, had been wounded.
The Galwan incident, as it has come to be known, and the Chinese Army intrusions in the month before that, have turned back relations between India and China to abysmal levels, as prevailed after the 1962 war.
The surprise Chinese Army intrusions at multiple points across the LAC, the disputed border in Eastern Ladakh, in the month prior to the Galwan incident, was a brazen attempt at ‘salami slicing’, to grab disputed territory. By doing so, in one stroke, the Chinese wiped out all the positive effort at improving relations, over the four decades following the pathbreaking Beijing visit in 1979 of then Indian Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The last of these positive developments had been the summit level meetings at Wuhan, China, in April 2018, and at Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu , in October 2019.
In Corps Commander level talks held subsequent to the intrusions, on June 6, 2020, to resolve the issue, the Chinese commander, Major General Liu Lin, agreed to disengage by pulling back his troops to the Chinese side of the LAC at Galwan river bend, one of the points of intrusion, by the evening of June 15, 2020. Clashes broke out that night when the Indian troops who went to Galwan river bend to verify the Chinese pull back, were instead attacked by the Chinese troops they encountered in the area. Though taken by surprise initially, the Indian troops regrouped thereafter and gave as good as they got. No lethal weapons were used, as per mutual protocols in vogue at that time, otherwise the casualties on both sides would have been much higher. The Chinese side accepted only four fatal casualties on their side.
However, in January this year, there was an investigative report by an Australian newspaper that stated that at least an additional 38 Chinese soldiers were killed as a result of the clashes that night, while they were attempting to escape by swimming in the fast flowing Galwan river in sub-zero temperatures. So far, there has been no serious Chinese rebuttal to that report.
Two years have passed since the Chinese multiple intrusions across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh and the clashes that followed at Galwan river bend on that fateful night a month later. It was also significant that, in August 2020, in a surprise counter-move, Indian Army troops occupied tactically important heights on the Kailash Range, South of Pangong Tso Lake, which prevented further intrusions by the Chinese troops in that area. In fact, this move eventually forced the Chinese to agree, in February 2021, to pull back on both banks of the Pangong Tso, to start the disengagement process, as the first concrete step towards reversing the intrusions.
15 rounds of talks have been held so far in the last two years between military commanders of both sides, but the Chinese troops have yet not fully disengaged, leave alone withdrawn control, from all the friction points, to status quo ante positions of April 2020.
Recently, diplomatic talks were held under the aegis of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs and both sides agreed to continue the negotiations. In the meanwhile, troops from both sides continue in ‘eyeball to eyeball’ deployment along the LAC, where tensions continue at a high pitch.
Both sides continue to develop military and civil infrastructure on their respective sides of the LAC, much more on the Chinese side as compared to the Indian. More recently, in early May 2022, satellite pictures have been published in the print media, which show that a bridge across the Pangong Tso lake, constructed earlier by the Chinese between December 2021 and April 2022, is now being upgraded to carry armoured vehicles also.
Clearly, the Chinese side is making efforts to consolidate its hold over Aksai Chin, the disputed area between India and China in Eastern Ladakh by building so called model villages, as well as roads and bridges to facilitate military movement. Similar build up is ongoing opposite Arunachal Pradesh. Clearly, its infrastructure build up would facilitate offensive actions in future, by the Chinese military. General Charles Flynn, the Commanding General US Army Pacific, recently described the recent Chinese infrastructural build up as “alarming” as well as “destabilising and corrosive behaviour.”
Hence, it is time to take a serious review of the events of the last two years, especially considering that diplomatic and economic measures appear to not have yielded substantial results so far. Surprisingly, on the military side, the critically important post of CDS has been lying vacant for the past six months, thus losing crucial time towards optimisation and consolidation of our armed forces.
So, what does India need to do?
First, it needs to be recognised that the intrusions of 2020 occurred due to a political decision in China to that effect – at the highest level, and not due to a military decision by some rogue military commander. To that extent, this issue needs to be addressed primarily through political means. Relatedly, whereas engagements at the diplomatic and military level could have some effect, and need to continue, these effects would be limited in impact. Even economic measures would have limited impact to reverse the intrusions, as is evident from the results over the past two years. And most importantly, it is high time that status quo ante is restored so that, without letting our guard down, serious talks to resolve the border problem are conducted.
Second, it is a well-known truism that the only thing the Chinese respect is ‘strength’. There will be many more intrusions across the LAC as well as construction of new roads, bridges, airfields and model villages in disputed areas in Aksai Chin and Arunachal, if the Chinese side perceives that India is weak. Two recent books by Indian authors have highlighted that China views India as weak, ever since its easy victory over the Indian military in 1962. Thus, the only way the China will respond appropriately is if India deals with it from a position of strength, through a variety of means – in the political, economic, diplomatic, military and informational realms. Towards this end, a slew of measures, both internal and external, to build up and emphasise our strength must be implemented. These include:
– building economic strength and resilience,
– modernising and upgrading our military
– cooperating with the US and other countries on intelligence sharing,
– committing more vigorously to the QUAD grouping,
– strengthening partnerships with traditional friends like the US, EU countries, UK, Russia, ASEAN, South Asia and the Gulf countries.
– Concurrently, we must continue to strengthen and highlight India’s commitment to our core values of democracy, freedom, pluralism and human rights, which clearly distinguish us from China, which, on the other hand, is viewed as being authoritarian, hegemonistic and aggressive in its attitudes and practices.
And third, most importantly, the strengthening and modernising of our military capability against China must be implemented speedily. A few steps in this regard, are:
– Adequate numbers of military formations and reserves – all well trained, motivated and acclimatised – must be available near the LAC throughout the year.
– That would also entail ensuring availability of modern equipment in adequate numbers for the Army – infantry, armour, mechanised infantry, artillery, air defence, aviation, engineers, signals et al – which are well suited for high altitude and the rugged terrain along the LAC.
– Ensuring accurate, real-time intelligence availability and round-the-clock battlefield awareness is a dire necessity.
– There would also be a need to ensure ready availability of modern combat aircraft, attack helicopters and armed drones, in adequate numbers, supported by automated sensor-shooter mechanisms and logistic nodes, which are adequately stocked.
– Hi-tech anti-tank and anti-drone systems need to be available in adequate numbers.
– We also need cyber capabilities in both offensive and defensive mode to be optimised.
– Infrastructure building must continue without any let-up.
– And , of course, as highlighted two episodes back, a new CDS, whenever he is appointed, should implement measures to enhance jointness in the military to optimum levels, at the earliest, preferably through theaterisation.
To summarise, it needs no emphasis that the border problem between India and China needs to be resolved at the earliest. For that, as a first step, the Chinese assertiveness in Eastern Ladakh must be reversed and the Chinese troops made to respect the LAC as it existed prior to April 2020. In the meanwhile, India must develop comprehensive national power in a planned and timely manner.