Taking on the dragon needlessly

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Taking on the dragon needlessly

China has the military capability to embarrass India. Therefore, instead of dismissing Weiqun's warning of escalating border dispute by ‘obstinate disregard' to China's Tibet concern, India must assess whether a few brownie points gained by the Lama's visit were worth the while

A year after he retired from service as the Chief of Army staff on March 2010, I had asked General Deepak Kapoor if the Tibet issue was a likely reason for war with China. After deep consideration, he said, “Only boundary dispute could result in a crisis or war with China. The Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue will not lead to conflict as India will not up the ante on these matters. India has a non-confrontational attitude towards China as China is more powerful.”

Tibet and Taiwan are China’s two core concerns over which it would not compromise. Four major concerns, namely, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea were added subsequently by Beijing as its sensitive issues; it has, however, not indicated if it would go to war over them. Boundary dispute with India has not been named as a war-waging issue, primarily because China knows it is legally, militarily and politically stronger on it.

China’s complete subjugation of Tibet requires religious subjugation of its people as well, which, with the present Dalai Lama, is impossible for Beijing to achieve. While the Lama has been to Arunachal Pradesh six times since 1983, including once to Tawang in 2009, the context this time has altered. For one, China since November 2012 has adopted an aggressive foreign policy, which includes the US accepting its proposal of new major powers relationship, wherein major powers would be sensitive to one other’s concerns. For another, the present visit of the Dalai Lama is a nine-day event, meant to leave a lasting impression on the people of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls south Tibet.

Reminiscent of the 1980’s, when India’s military activism was at its peak with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and General K Sundarji creating a nightmarish scenario of two front-wars (with Pakistan and China), India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seems to be heading in that direction on Tibet. The difference is that India is blasé about it; it has either drawn wrong lessons, or does not understand military power.

Consider the statement made by India’s National Security Advisor (2011 to 2014), Shivshankar Menon in his book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, unlike the Sumdorong Chu incident, when the Chinese set up a post on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 1986, in 2013, India discovered the new Chinese presence on its side of the line immediately, took counter measures and moved in force within days, and insisted that the status quo be restored before it would discuss any of the matters the Chinese tried to raise. In 1986 this resulted in a seven-year stand-off, which was partially defused on the ground. Contrarily, in Depsang in 2013, India succeeded in getting the Chinese to vacate the area within three weeks.

The reality is different. In 1986, it took the two sides one year for build-up of land forces; the focus on both sides was on contact war or tactics (corps and division level forces). Unknown to China, since surveillance capabilities were limited, General Sundarji, in absence of roads and tracks, airlifted artillery ammunition worth crores to forward locations. This ammunition could not be retrieved as it was not found cost-effective to airlift it back after the crisis was over. By summer of 1987, China blinked first. Not because it could not give a good fight, but because it wanted to win without fighting.

The opportunity came in April-May 2013, in Depsang when Chinese military coercion was successful. Finding gaps at Depsang, about 20 Chinese soldiers sauntered 19 km inside the Indian territory and stayed there for three weeks, finally leaving at their own free will. There was no military build-up from India; the Chinese logistics vehicular tracks, which provided them hot food, were not obstructed; all that India did was to pitch tents opposite the Chinese tents and watched their movements.

Meanwhile, the entire Indian leadership from the Defence Minister, to the National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, to the Army chief and so on visited Beijing pretending all was normal. As a consequence of China’s military coercion, India restricted its patrolling limits to the LAC, and agreed to sign the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). The BDCA works to China’s advantage by disallowing tailing of each other’s patrols. In one stroke, the border guarding on the LAC was downgraded to border policing as per the new agreement.

Menon perhaps does not understand that successful military intimidation  requires a potent military power. This is further obvious from the troops’ deployments by India and China on the LAC. While Indian troops (Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police) are holding heights between 12,000 feet to 20,000 feet on the LAC, Chinese soldiers are nowhere on the military line. This is because they do not expect the Indian troops to transgress the LAC, something that the Chinese troops do regularly.

What is India’s strategy in dealing with China on the LAC? According to Menon, “India has not tried to match the People’s Liberation Army’s strength weapon for weapon, acquisition for acquisition, or dollar for dollar. Instead, diplomatic efforts have focussed on convincing China that any misadventure would result in embarrassment and pain to that country (China) and would frustrate the leadership’s political goals”.

Menon should understand that bean-counting of acquisitions is tactics, and the Chinese military, like any major power, has graduated to fighting not battles, but campaigns which win wars by seeking synergy on six battlefields, namely, land, air, sea, space, cyber, and electro-magnetic field.

All this calls for an understanding of modern military power rather than preparing to fight the 1962 war better, which is what the Indian military is doing. The 1962 war was mere tactics since it was fought on a single land battle field with no role for the Navy and the Air Force in combat.

General Kapoor was being cautious when he spoke of the Chinese military being ‘more powerful’ to me. It is much more than that, so much so that the Chinese Army has little need for contact war or tactics with India on the LAC. More to the point, China has many options to showcase its military power short of war. These include military coercion, perhaps a repeat of the Depsang incidence on the 3,488 km long LAC. Or, it could indulge in cyber warfare, wherein it has huge offensive capabilities. Or, it could shoot Indian satellites in both geo-synchronous and low-earth orbits with  proven anti-satellite capabilities.

The reality is that China has capabilities and options to embarrass India militarily, instead of the other way around as Menon asserts and numerous other diplomats believe.

Therefore, instead of dismissing a top Chinese Communist party official, Zhu Weiqun’s warning of escalating border dispute by ‘obstinate disregard’ to China’s Tibet concern, India should assess whether a few brownie points gained by the Dalai Lama’s Arunachal Pradesh visit were worth the while.

(The writer is co-author with Ghazala Wahab of the recent book Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power)

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