It is surprising that China’s transgression in Eastern Ladakh went un-noticed and unreported till the first clashes commenced with our border guarding force – ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) in May. One reason for intelligence failure is wrong selection of border guarding force and dual command and control. While the ITBP is deployed on a border guarding role, so is the army responsible for it. The ITBP has not been placed under command of the army despite repeated requests, although when an incursion/incident occurs, it is the army that is asked for details, while the ITBP slinks away. This is due to our political leadership not wanting to ruffle the feathers of the police, as they depend on them so heavily for a host of activities!
Unlike the army, ITBP sub-units carry out tasks of border management in a lackadaisical manner. In addition, unit headquarters of ITBP do not deploy with the troops they command but are located in more congenial rear areas, thus effective leadership is lacking at the border. Like all central armed police forces, ITBP sub units first send reports through their channels, instead of sharing it with army units and formations. This results in loss of vital time for the army to take quick action.
Besides the ITBP, our intelligence agencies were once again involved in other activities as in the past! They became active only after the event. Yet, one has not heard of even one case of anyone being held responsible/accountable in the last nearly six months for such a major incursion!
When China’s major incursion in Ladakh came to light, the Indian Military reacted with force and with alacrity. However, the various core groups dealing with security strategies could not properly advise the policy makers at the apex level. Besides structural and legacy reasons, such inaction is probably also due to the highly personalised and centralised control that our Prime Minister exercises. In addition, loyalists instead of professionals hold important appointments! Resultantly, we again opted for the policy of ‘appeasement’, as we have done in the past. This can hardly be called strategy. To make up for their inability to take a decision, military level talks continue to be scheduled to show forward movement, although the situation requires vigorous political and diplomatic action. Military commanders are constrained by laid down parameters and have no lee-way to change them.
China’s incursion in Ladakh, though apparently military, is deep-rooted and concerns many non-military aspects too. Since the drama started, however, it is apparent that our government, led by the diplomat-bureaucrat-intelligence combine seems to be sold on continuing the policy of ignoring the intrusion by China’s PLA, like all earlier governments. Details of our past blunders are well known and need no repetition, except to state that the timid approach adopted by us has ballooned into one of the biggest strategic problems for India. The Indian Military had many times advised that legalistic and spineless approaches against China will not work, as China only understands power.
On account of our diplomatic-driven policy, we have neglected our military and continuously lowered its capabilities, by starving it of funds. Even in other fields, like economy, we have allowed China to have an upper hand. Resultantly, China has weaned away our immediate neighbours and in some cases our long-standing friends too, by both our internal and external policies. The overall result is that we are unable to influence events on our borders, as well as in the political; economic; energy; social; law and order; and other fields. Major reasons for this state of affairs are lack of a well drafted strategic planning policy document that is long overdue; linear structures and thinking of our successive governments that remains unchanged from colonial days; weakening our long-established institutions for short term, mainly electoral gains; egos and turfs; a slow and ponderous bureaucracy devoid of any vision; and under the present dispensation highly individualistic and centralised control.
When the policy makers at Delhi have no plan of action, they resort to jingoism. Our TRP-oriented electronic media that believes only in sensational and breaking news steps in with a bang and soon highlights it to feverish pitch, which is hardly conducive to rational decision-making. Sadly, many veterans are coaxed to join trite panel discussions, and foolishly divulge information of value to the enemy, at the behest of the anchors. The overall result is irrelevant noise; lack of clarity; unnecessary speculations; and high expectations.
Besides lack of a strategic policy; core groups tasked to advice the political leadership give coloured advice, which they feel the political leaders want to hear. As an example, the China Study Group (CSG) that was set up to harmonise different views and present specific options/plans keeps scheduling military-level talks, which serve little purpose. The CSG itself has over the years become yet another ponderous committee that has failed to come up with concrete proposals. Since I have been a part of the CSG from its inception and was also its co-chairman when I was the Vice Chief of the Army, along with the Foreign Secretary, I note with dismay its ballooning with a dozen very senior additional members, resulting in further reducing, if not eliminating its usefulness to provide cogent advice.
Like a wag had mentioned, our various committees are in a state of ‘analysis by paralysis’.
The Chinese leadership must have planned what they wanted to achieve in political, economic and military terms, before they had launched their forces in the area. This would include their appreciation about the risks of armed conflicts of some type that may ensue. Besides counting costs and benefits by the incursion in Ladakh, flare-up in other areas of the border would have been catered for, which also need troops. Their opening of many fronts around their periphery have already been highlighted. On the face of it, opening multi fronts, like in South China Sea; and against Taiwan; Japan; and South Korea, on the one hand and against USA, India and to an extent Australia, appears fairly irrational and thoughtless. Great powers and even super powers do not behave like this, unless they have a death wish!
In an important statement following the Quad Meeting of Foreign Ministers only two days back, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticised Beijing for its “Bad Behaviour”. The US National Security Advisor went a step further and stated “The time has come to accept that dialogue and agreements will not persuade or compel the People’s Republic of China to change. There is nothing to be gained from looking the other way or turning the other cheek. We’ve been doing that for far too long”.
Many reports have indicated that the major Chinese military incursion in Eastern Ladakh was also on account of two important domestic reasons. Firstly, Xi’s assumption of full powers in all aspects of decision-making, although endorsed by the powerful CCP (Chinese Communist Party), was carried out by purging many senior and influential members of the hierarchy, who are now disgruntled. Hence, there is an undercurrent of mistrust in Xi. Secondly, despite propaganda and not revealing statistics about the Virus in Wuhan and surrounding areas accurately; widespread unemployment due to slowing down of the economy; and hiding the number of casualties suffered in Ladakh; there is widespread resentment against the establishment.
The best time for military action at the local level was soon after the incident of 15 June, when enemy troops were still moving in. We had the capability; the ‘causes- belli’; highly motivated troops and sufficient force to launch a local attack to take on the motley force China was still assembling. Such a foray would have given great dividends and would have made the enemy pause and re-think. However, this fleeting opportunity was lost on account of our slow decision-making.
As China has achieved the bulk of its objectives, a full-fledged war is unlikely. The fast approaching winter also precludes such an action. Should however a shooting war starts, our troops are likely to maul the enemy badly. The main reasons are that structurally our troops are better organised and equipped for high altitude warfare; have much better trained and led troops than the puny Chinese conscript soldiers; have already shown their prowess in June and August; and know that the nation is fully supportive.
Since both sides have massed huge forces facing each other, a flare-up can take place, which both sides would like to localise. However, we would be forced to keep the large number of troops and equipment that the military has pumped in and the logistics to sustain them, in the area. Unless some modus vivendi is worked out at Delhi, our troops will have to stay put, despite the approaching winter, which will make the situation worse. This applies to Chinese troops too, but they have much better infrastructure already existing on their side. The important point is that delays in resolving the issue increase our difficulties and affect our image in military, economic, social, and political arenas.
While concluding, I suggest that we re-explore the erstwhile package deal with China by giving up Aksai Chin in the west for China’s giving up its claim in Arunachal Pradesh, with some modifications. It will require biting the bullet, deft diplomacy, strengthening our military and close political oversight and would take a number of meetings at many levels over a few years, but it can be achieved, provided political/electoral considerations are set aside by our political leaders of all hues and colours.
Simultaneously, we must increase our capabilities, both militarily and economically, as well as by strengthening relations with our neighbours and friends further afield, like the Quad, Taiwan and the littoral nations of South East Asia. This must be done on a war footing. Unless we are strong in all these fields, we would be unable to do well for the nation.