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Opinion | Marathon Military-to-Military Talks With China Will Serve Little Purpose

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As it stands today, China assumes India has shot its bolt for now and will not initiate any offensive action unless China executes its next move. So the ball is in China’s court.

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Lt Gen (Retd) PC Katoch

China has no ‘India Study Group’ but an institutionalised system within the government in addition to think-tanks, researchers and scholars to study countries. Naturally, focus on India would be more – a country with unresolved borders that China wants to subjugate.

China’s political and information warfare is famous that helps it align the target country with it. China would have been amused how India could be duped into complacency despite China having acted consistently against Indian interests since 1962, even if we didn’t realise that China’s annexation of Tibet was adverse to India’s strategic interests.

In 2005, Lt. Gen. Lin Yazhou of PLA Air Force had stated, “When a nation grows strong enough, it practises hegemony. The sole purpose of power is to pursue power. Geography is destiny … When a country begins to rise; it shall first set itself in an invincible position”.

Not only did successive governments neglect defence preparedness, the fear of our policy makers has been that China has reached the ‘invincible position’. This, along with lack of ‘hard power’ vis-à-vis China brought us to a reactive-defensive policy which is also reflected in our responses to the current Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. Our troops occupying heights South of Pangong Tso and in areas of Chushul and Kailash Range on August 29-30 was good initiative. But these were unoccupied features in our own territory and by no measure can be termed offensive.

India’s ‘China Study Group’ (CSG) was set up in 1975; an inter-ministerial secretary-level classified organisation presently headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA), other members being the cabinet secretary, foreign secretary, home secretary, defence secretary, three vice chiefs (Army, Navy, Air Force), director of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and director of R&AW.

The CSG advises government on policy and issues related to China like the Protective Patrols (PPs) in news these days. All PPs are not on the LAC. For example, in Depsang plains PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13 (Raki Nala to Jivan Nala) are short of the LAC on our side.

Western scholars had been warning since early 2000 that China will start flexing its muscles from the beginning of 2010 and if India didn’t settle its border with China by then, it would face problems. But we never read through years of border talks with China that it never wanted a border resolution because of its insatiable hunger for more territory.

Despite the above warnings, we neglected building hard military power which is the currency for dealing with China and Pakistan. Improvement of border infrastructure remained mostly on paper and even today doesn’t match that on Chinese side, though some efforts in this regard have been made in recent years. Incidentally, large segments of the recently inaugurated Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road which Border Roads Organization (BRO) began constructing in 2000 under direct supervision of PMO for completion by 2012 had to be realigned and rebuilt.

A government inquiry estimated that half of the money spent in the Rs 320 crore project, mainly for cutting 14,900 cubic metres of mountain side per kilometer stretch, had been “misappropriated”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Bogibeel Bridge on Brahmaputra River in December 2018, but border infrastructure north of it remains neglected. In December 2017, Chinese built a 1.25 km jeep-able road on our side of the LAC under three feet of snow in Tuting area, and but our nearest village Bishing had no road.

To our disadvantage China has built nearly 5,000 km of rail network in the Tibetan plateau, linking it with mainland all-weather roads right up to the LAC in similarly inhospitable, rugged and very high altitude terrain to sustain over 30 divisions including 5-6 rapid reaction forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). We could take a stand at Doklam because we had the road communications to react there. This is hardly the case particularly in Arunachal Pradesh where our troops are scores of kilometers away from the LAC when not mobilised.

According to recent reports, China has doubled its air bases, air defences and heliports along the boundary with India and has started constructing at least 13 entirely new military positions near its borders with India. According to a senior global analyst of Stratfor, "The timing of the Chinese build-up of military facilities along the border with India just prior to the ongoing Ladakh standoff suggests these border tensions are part of a much larger effort by China to assert control over its border regions."

PLA made an intrusion in Depsang Plains in the area of Raki Nala during 2013, which government officials admitted was 19-km deep. The PLA remained here for some three weeks, including during the visit of Li Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister to India and withdrew only after India acquiesced to Chinese demand of dismantling surveillance equipment and infrastructure at Chumar, 400-km south of the intrusion in Depsang.

We learnt no lessons from PLA’s 2013 intrusion in Depsang. As mentioned, the PPs are much ahead of the Y-Junction – China’s 20-km deep intrusion today. Why did we not occupy Y-Junction after PLA withdrew in 2013 and similarly why not Galwan heights overlooking the Galwan Valley?

Within a month of the India-China standoff at Doklam being called off in 2017, PLA occupied Doklam Plateau by a brigade-strength. Indian media never covered this, but we focused on reducing the army strength, talking of technology in lieu (that would take years to come) and stymieing establishment of the Mountain Strike Corps.

Military modernization went kaput with successive defence budgets negative in actual terms. This resulted in closure of multiple ongoing programs, also killing army’s quest for network centric warfare (NCW) capabilities.

The recent aggression in Eastern Ladakh took India by complete surprise. This despite the fact that China had severely criticised the formation of Union Territory of Ladakh with map showing Aksai Chin as its part. Why was the mobilization of PLA and construction of a new road just 4-km short of Galwan not taken note of by the CSG, especially when the NSA has all intelligence agencies including R&AW, NTRO and IB reporting to him?

Zha Liyou heading China’s Consulate in Kolkata kept sharing clips of PLA exercises in Aksai Chin with select Indian politicians to deflect attention from actual PLA intentions of intruding into Ladakh, which worked beautifully. An Australian scholar recently revealed a huge land model of Ladakh built inside China (sharing satellite imagery) on which PLA undertook rehearsals during 2014.

Why was the CSG not aware of this – lack of interest? To top this, the Defence Minister told Parliament that the government has elaborate and “time-tested intelligence mechanism” which is shared with armed forces.

Lately, the CSG has been reviewing the disengagement strategy – recent sessions being on August 5 and September 10. But what was the CSG studying about China earlier and what was derived from the 2013 PLA intrusion in Depsang, China occupying Doklam Plateau after the standoff was called off in 2017, and release of the coronavirus by China with first Covid-19 case reported in January 2020? Was the character of Xi Jinping ever studied or was it limited to his dietary preferences of being served dhoklas in Ahmedabad and idlis in Mamallapuram?

Apparently, the magnitude of the Chinese aggression made the government run for cover and feign nothing much happened, presumably on advice from the CSG and the bureaucracy rather than being transparent and firmly calling China the aggressor.

Describing in Parliament our territories under illegal occupation of China, the defence minister only mentioned Aksai Chin and Shaksgam. He deliberately avoided mentioning the 645 sq km sliced off over the years (Shyam Saran report of 2013) even though mostly under Congress regimes simply because the current intrusions involve much larger chunk of territory (Depsang to north bank of Pangong Tso) that PLA managed to occupy within no time now.

We are in this state because of multiple reasons: lack of national security strategy (NSS); not undertaking holistic strategic defence review (SDR); and, military kept away from strategic policy formulation. The designs of China-Pakistan for grabbing Siachen and J&K by joining hands along the Shyok River have been known for years.

Presently, some are blaming the army for the current intrusions. But would they know that the frontage of the division responsible for eastern Ladakh is 800 km. ITBP doing patrolling ahead does not function under the Army and surveillance resources are hardly adequate. A Strategic Defence Review would have proved why Army has been demanding an additional division in Ladakh for past several years, provision of which would have enabled occupation of heights south of Pangong Lake.

We could have also occupied Galwan heights, areas like Y-Junction and occupied higher reaches of the Fingers on north bank of Pangong Tso rather than patrolling along the lake. When China occupied passes along the Himalayas, what was stopping us?

Fast forward to the current ground position and bilateral talks at the diplomatic, military and Special Representatives levels. All the issues, including the recent 5-point agreement, already exist in earlier agreements which China has violated repeatedly. The joint press release after the sixth Corps Commander-level talks on September 21 has nothing new save consensus to stop sending more troops to the frontline. But China has just inducted 10,000 additional troops into eastern Ladakh and does not need more than the two additional divisions it already has in the region.

The manner in which PLA is consolidating gives clear indication that they have no intention of withdrawing. Not only is China in a position of strength, it is thrilled that India is only talking of amassing troops on the LAC, not intrusions across the LAC, which in a manner legitimises the intrusions. China branded India the aggressor from the beginning and says the onus of disengagement is on India.

So we can keep playing the charade of seeking a solution through Corps Commander-level talks. Divisional and Brigade Commander-level talks will also reportedly continue to be held, including in Depsang where PLA has intruded and consolidated at Y-Junction. This amounts to compounding the stupidity with no results especially because local PLA commanders have no authority to take such decisions.

The chimera of “total disengagement” implies we withdraw more in own territory to create fresh buffer zone? Hopefully, the bureaucracy will not agree to vacate heights occupied by our troops South of Pangong Tso, in Chushul and Kailash Range in exchange for China’s promise to withdraw from ‘some’ intrusion areas. We should be clear that if we do this, China will immediately occupy these.

Doklam style continuation of marathon military-to-military talks will serve little purpose other than helping the government deflect attention from the blunder of misreading China, gross intelligence failure, pusillanimous delay in reacting to Chinese intrusions and the existing ground situation. China’s recent statement that it does not recognise the Union Territory of Ladakh indicates it wants to annex Ladakh for itself and Pakistan.

We can take solace over dissent within China against their government and clips of PLA soldiers crying inside a bus headed for the border with India, but hoping for revolt in PLA is utopian. There are also articles, allegedly sponsored, talking of China considering responding to “India’s All Out Offensive”!

Where and when did the Indian offensive happen? As it stands today, China assumes India has shot its bolt for now and will not initiate any offensive action unless China executes its next move. So the ball is in China’s court.

Disclaimer:The author is veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal


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