The Chinese may have begun the process of ‘disengagement’ in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra Heights, but restoration of the status quo ante which prevailed before the incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) this April is unlikely to be realized, not at least in the near future. Which is why getting the PLA to quit from the heights of Pangong Tso will be next to impossible given the strategic advantage. Only the militarily naïve would interpret the Chinese thaw as a sign of Beijing’s weakening resolve to ratchet up tensions along the Ladakh border. A clever enemy knows when to step back, and the Dragon has its reasons.
Actual positions or troop movements are difficult to confirm even with the help of satellite images. But there is ample reason to believe that the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border, has moved slightly into Bharat’s side, and that Patrolling Point or PP14, the original LAC marker which our army has been reconnoitering for decades now falls closer to the Chinese side of the new three kilometer buffer zone agreed upon by army commanders on either side. The stratagem is fully in keeping with the Chinese policy of chipping away at neighboring borders, the mantra being two steps forward, and one step back. Salami slicing is the exotic name of the Great Game. Periodic shifting of the LAC is a tactic which Beijing puts to effective use. Hence the disinterest in a clear delineation of the LAC.
A tweet from defense expert Brahma Chellaney was quick to expose the deception: “By agreeing to the buffer zone on the Indian side of the LAC, and to restrict patrolling to the west of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers, India will…give credence to China’s freshly minted claim to the entire Galwan Valley.” In another tweet he warned: “This is unlikely to end well for India largely because the political leadership in Delhi, in its eagerness to de-escalate, has given short shrift to the military risk factor.”
Chellaney’s observations may seem like hair-splitting, but our diffidence to dig our heels on core territorial claims could have enormous long-term consequences given 3-side landlocked China’s larger geopolitical aim of uninterrupted access and maritime dominance. Pre-emptive military action to seize the initiative and send the enemy in a tailspin holds the key to PLA strategy. Chinese generals call it the self-defensive counter-attack (SDCA) when it is the PLA which is almost always the aggressor. Both SDCA and the pretense of retreat are tabled as tools of escalation management.
Of more immediate concern is the danger of history repeating itself. Banner newspaper headlines dated 15 July 1962 made viral on social media came to haunt: “Chinese troops withdraw from Galwan: Great courage shown by Indian jawans” followed by “Delhi warning has telling effect”. Each announcement, uncannily, fits the current situation. Chinese troops have withdrawn from Galwan, if only a couple of kilometers. The army did display enormous pluck in avenging the death of 20 of their martyred mates on the night of June 15-16, and Delhi can take some credit for the perceived Chinese rethink after prime minister Narendra Modi’s philippic directed at the Dragon’s “expansionist” designs in the presence of troops at Ladakh on 2 July.
Young soldiers and officers posted at the front must now be on tenterhooks. Will the Chinese return to risk another outright war as they did 58 years ago regardless of the time-frame? 2020 is not 1962, and we are in a much better position to take on the Dragon. But the question which cannot but nag is why has a festering border problem with a formidable and hostile neighbor remained unattended and unresolved for over 70 years. Few will quibble that it is the political and bureaucratic class which has persistently let our brave hearts down when they are ready to sacrifice their lives. Ad hocery and the glaring lack of a long-term strategic perspective still hobbles Raksha Bhawan.
What’s worrying is that our messaging is still inclined to be defensive. Undue care is taken not to hurt Chinese sentiment even when a rebuke is in order. The PM’s instinctive response was to downplay the July 16 clash with the asseveration that no outsider or intruder had entered Bhartiya territory in Ladakh nor had any border post of the army been captured. The remark played into the hands of the Chinese, bolstering their faux claim that they had not stepped into our side of the LAC, and that their movements were within the liberal purview of their cartographic claims.
Thankfully, the damage done was realized and repaired by the PM’s surprise visit to Ladakh whose impact was instantaneous. Army feedback said it was difficult to recall the last time when a sitting prime minister sat down with the country’s corps commanders and generals at the border to understand the nation’s security challenges. The PM’s physical interaction with troops at Nimu (Leh) was definitely a factor behind the Chinese defreeze, howsoever impermanent.
The root of our border problems with China originate in the 1954 political map of the country in which a mutually acceptable international boundary was never demarcated. Referred to instead were map coordinates of official “claim lines” shared by China in 1960. These claim lines give the lie to Beijing’s assertion that the Galwan Valley estuary is Chinese territory. Attesting it are records of meetings between the two sides dating back to the same year which for some reason have never been pulled out of files.
The Bharatiya army began patrolling the China border after 77 manned military outposts posts were set up in pursuance of Nehru’s “forward policy” in 1959-60. Behind the initiative was the need for aggressive patrolling in areas claimed by the Dragon. It was assumed that the Chinese would not oppose the effort in action or word – an assumption which was to prove disastrous two years later. The negative impact of the forward policy was discussed in the “top secret” Henderson-Brooks report which still remains officially classified. Portions of it, however, were disclosed by the London Times war correspondent, Neville Maxwell, in his celebrated and controversial book “India’s China War” published in 1970.
Defense experts say the army would have been better placed to expose Chinese mendacity had full advantage been taken of the patrolling during its early stages. Unfortunately, none of the foot patrols went right up to the actual claim lines along Finger 4-8 of Pangong Tso or Galwan Valley. The full stretch was never covered. “Lines of Patrol” they came to be called, with the various points touched being identified as Patrol Points (PP) 14, 15 etc. A memorial or dedicatory shrine of sorts erected on the actual claim lines or spots where our jawans were felled by Chinese bullets in 1962 would have constituted tangible proof of our territorial rights.
Claims apart, war planning and strategy can only be as good as the weaponry and resources provided to the military. Successive governments regardless of the party in power have ignored our defense needs. The neglect borders on the criminal. The blundering J Nehru wanted the army disbanded. A biography of Major General A A (Jick) Rudra, military secretary to the army chief, General Sir Robert Lockhart, authored by Major General D K (Monty) Palit described the circumstances: “Shortly after Independence, General Lockhart as army chief took a strategic plan to the prime minister asking for a government directive on the defense policy. He came back to Jick’s office shell-shocked. The PM took one look at my paper and blew his top. ‘Rubbish! Total rubbish, he shouted. ‘We don’t need a defense plan. Our policy is ahimsa. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the army! The police are good enough to meet our security needs.” Seen in retrospect, had cross-border raids from Pakistani tribesmen not threatened peace in 1948, the prospect of an army-less Bharat might have become a reality.
It is scandalous that defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP actually declined by 2.42 per cent between 1960-2018. It currently stands at a measly 1.53 per cent of GDP. The total defense budget for the financial year 2020-21 was fixed at Rs 4,71,378 crore (ie. around $70 billion) out of which the budget for the armed forces and DRDO accounts for Rs 3,23,053 crore (roughly $46 billion). The army is the largest of the three forces, both in terms of budget and personnel. Allocation in the current FY stands at Rs 2,97,035 crore, over 75 per cent of which is hogged by pensions and salaries. Maintenance and other expenses take up upwards of 14 per cent. What is left for modernisation is a disgraceful 8.8 per cent.
The air force and navy are comparatively much better off with 45 and 40 per cent respectively available for upgradation. The navy’s share of the defence budget, however, declined from 6.8 per cent in 2015-16 to 5.6 per cent in 2020-21. The standing committee on defence (2018) warned of the delay in induction of critical capabilities and resultant cost-overruns. The number of ships and submarines in 2017 stood at 138 and naval aircraft at 235. This dwindled to 136 and 219 respectively in 2018.
Can/should we expect our armed forces to take on China with such parsimony and penny-pinching? That our soldiers still manage to give the PLA a black eye as at Galwan attests to their valour. They have delivered despite every odd stacked against them. Most experts agree that given the growing threats to external security and the possibility of a two-front war, three per cent of GDP is the minimum that needs to be set aside to keep China and Pakistan in check. We need to get more defence conscious. But this cannot happen till bureaucrat infested bodies like the China Study Group advise the government on our military needs. Not a single representative from the armed forces is a member of this group.
British India’s first commander in chief, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts’ (1832-1914) timeless dictum needs to be permanently plastered in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Raksha Mantralaya. Quoth he: “The art of war teaches us not to rely on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; nor on the chance of not attacking but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” Bharat’s borders will never be safe till the powers that be ingest the wisdom of the great British war strategist, and resources are accordingly apportioned.
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