Winter Blues

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The two Asian giants have constantly had face-offs with each other. While the present one along the LAC is more serious, with winter approaching, India should be prepared for the long haul.   

By Praful Bakshi

When two nuclear neighbours like India and China come on the verge of an armed clash, the world sits up and watches with deep concern. Their tensions over the last seven decades have led to a war in 1962, followed by armed spats at Nathu La in 1967, Sumdorong Chu in 1989, Depsang (2013), Chumur (2014), Doklam (2017) and the current one from May 2020 on­wards. This has created a volatile atmosphere not only in the sub-continent but the entire Asian region. And if India is not able to evict the Chinese from the Ladakh region by October 2020, the approaching winter could see them ensconced more firmly on the chilly heights.

The last stand-off was after the Doklam one in May 2020, when two brigades of the PLA with some 6,200 soldiers and artillery units infiltrated four places in eastern Ladakh—three in Galwan Valley and one near Pangong Lake. India responded with suitable force deployed along the LAC. 

Following this, there were protests and counter-protests from both sides with flag meetings at appropriate levels, followed by a final one between the top commanders of both sides. China agreed to fall back by 2 km and evacuate some 10,000 troops, along with armour and other weapon systems, and asked India to do the same. However, the reality is that China has not retreated from many places along Pangong Lake, Galwan Valley, Depsang and other locations.

The various clashes in the past differed from the present one as this situation has serious consequences for both countries. A number of reasons could be attributed for the stand-off. They relate to different views by both countries on the cartography of the region and diplomatic relationships with strategic outcome in the region and other factors related to Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan. 

China, like other countries in the neighbourhood, was taken aback by the abrogation of by India in J&K and the creation of the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. The Chinese thought that repealing of Article 370 would remove whatever little autonomy J&K enjoyed and this included the disputed area in Ladakh. This move meant that the entire area would now come under the Indian government with no scope on the part of Pakistan or China to manipulate local politics.

It was after the 1962 war that China realised that it had to develop the areas opposite Ladakh and Arunachal from a military logistics point of view. This was because both India and China faced tremendous hardship in reaching tactical areas. Hence, China went about developing the whole area from the east of Ladakh to Arunachal systematically and logistically. China claimed this portion as southern Tibet and made it its own territory.

One just has to see the overall Chinese defence structure—military bases, railway yards, storage depots, air fields, helipads, radar and communication centres, missile bases, ordnance and supply depots—from Ladakh to Tawang, which covers some 3,700 km of the LAC, to realise how serious their military mind is (see box on the next page). India has a threat from five main airbases of China—Khotan, Kashgar, Golmud, Chengdu and Kunming. These are not very high in altitude and are within reasonable distance from Indian bases. 

China also decided to tackle India economically and started the massive $90 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This will ultimately be part of the transnational silk route involving a host of countries and will see various industrial development zones coming up with heavy loans provided by China.      

In comparison, the development by India’s logistic supply lines—roads, railways, advanced landing grounds, helipads, military stations—are insufficient, to say the least. Astonishingly, one defence minister even remarked that if military communication roads were built in places like Arunachal, the Chinese could use them to advance their own logistics in case of a conflict. 

However, for the last five years or so, this chink in our national security armour along with other shortcomings was noticed with great concern. So from 2014 onwards, massive projects in the form of roads and bridges were undertaken by India. This is one of the main reasons along with the repealing of Article 370 that propelled China to make intrusions.

India inaugurated the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road along the LAC in 2019. China, as expected, took serious objection to this as it felt that it was a major threat to its own ongoing projects in the Ladakh-PoK zone. In fact, what angered China further was that India had started to connect the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road to Galwan, close to Aksai Chin, directly, thus trying to reduce travel time from eight hours to 35 minutes. The Chinese demanded that India discontinue the project. Sixty-one such strategic roads were started by India and 75 percent of them are complete.

China has also run into rough wea­ther with other countries. Serious objections have been raised by Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Singapore to various extra-territorial activities by it in the South China Sea. China is not only posing hindrances in sea trade routes but creating artificial islands and claiming exclusive territorial rights over them right from Spratly Islands to Maldives.

The world community has taken the matter seriously and many countries have vehemently objected to China’s bullying tactics and have sent in their warships. America has sent in two nuclear aircraft carriers, Nimitz and Ronald Regan, along with its squadron of warships and nuclear submarines. The UK sent in the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and a squadron of warships. India has sent four warships. Australia, India, Japan and America are creating a Quad body to counter the expansionist tendencies of China. In spite of all this pressure, China’s stand in Ladakh is still aggressive. It has not vacated the occupied areas in Pangong-Depsang.

Meetings are still going on and the Chinese are continuing to consolidate and strengthen their position. If India is not able to evict the Chinese by October 2020, it will go against its interests as winter will be approaching. If India does not show aggression now in spite of being fully prepared militarily, China will gain territory. Sun Tzu, the legendary military strategist, said: “The best victory is that which is gained without fighting.”

Can India manage to achieve that?

—The writer is a military analyst and air accident investigator

Lead Picture: UNI

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