China has changed its tactics, not goals. India needs to demonstrate strong national power
Engagement at this scale between the armies of India and China has taken place after more than five decades. The last time the two sides engaged in a violent clash was in 1967 in north Sikkim. The Chinese had objected to the erection of barbed wire fencing along the Indo-Tibetan border and attacked the Indian company commander, seriously injuring him. In a strong retaliation by the Indian side, over 400 Chinese soldiers had been neutralised. The Indian side, too, had suffered 88 casualties. A smaller skirmish broke out between the patrol parties of the two countries in 1975 near Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh in which four jawans of the Assam Rifles were martyred.
In the clashes in Galwan Valley this week, both sides have suffered casualties. The Chinese side does not disclose the numbers of their casualties anymore. The Indian tradition is to respect the valour and martyrdom of every single soldier. The entire nation mourns the sacrifice of those valiant soldiers who have lost their lives challenging the Chinese aggression in Galwan Valley.
Between 1967 and 2020, China changed its tactics, not its goals. It had ended up with a bloody nose in its border conflict with the Soviet Union in 1969. Waving Mao’s Red Book, PLA soldiers had tried to illegally cross the Ussuri river and enter the Soviet-controlled Zhenbao island. In the Soviet retaliation, the Chinese had suffered over 250 casualties, after which China had promptly entered into a ceasefire with the Soviets. The last war that China fought was in 1979 in Vietnam.
In the last four decades, China adopted the Sun Tzu formula of “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. It has resorted to area expansion and domination tactics using numerical superiority and military aggression. It continued to nibble away at our territories through aggressive patrolling and continuous border violations. In the last one decade, more than a thousand such border violations have been recorded.
That there have been no violent clashes between India and China in the last five decades can be partly attributed to India’s insistence on diplomatic engagement and physical disengagement. The result was that the contentious portions of the LAC, like the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake formations, were patrolled by both sides without engaging with each other. During this period, the Chinese side had nibbled away at Indian territory in several places. Traditional grazing areas of the people of the upper reaches in Ladakh have been encroached. The latest flashpoint at the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers is one such location where the Chinese had built motorable rough tracks to claim Indian territory.
While the nibbling by China was ongoing, the Indian side preferred diplomatic engagement, entering as many as six bilateral agreements with China in 1988, 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013. While these agreements were full of the usual homilies about peace, diplomacy and dialogue, they failed to address the main dispute over the LAC. India also lost an opportunity in 1993 during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing when the two countries signed the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement. India had proposed to insert the word “existing” before the Line of Actual Control, thus pinning down China to agree to the concurrent position. The wily Chinese side refused to do so, and we quietly signed the agreement.
Later, when the Chinese had infiltrated and pitched tents 19 km deep inside our territory in the Depsang plains area in 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singhmeekly repeated the same old defeatist argument that the Chinese have a different “perception” about the LAC. It was music to Chinese ears when Prime Minister Singh, speaking in Parliament in December 2013, said: “There are sometimes intrusions according to us. But the Chinese perception of the LAC sometimes differs. Therefore, I think, some confusion is created”. His colleague and then external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, had tried to downplay the incident by describing it as a “local” one. Incidentally, this “local commanders” argument is cleverly used by the Chinese side to shift the onus away from Beijing, and allow for the perpetuation of illegal border violations.
The incursions in 2013 were as bad as they are now. The Chinese had refused to dismantle the tented camps that they put up deep inside our territory. Prime Minister Singh had maintained a stony silence for full two weeks despite repeated questions from the Opposition. The final agreement between the two sides that had led to the Chinese withdrawal after 21 days was shrouded in secrecy. The media had reported that the Indian government had agreed to destroy the bunkers the Indian Army had built in Chumar area.
Post-2014, a policy shift has been witnessed at Chushul in 2014, Doklam in 2017 and Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake now. Unlike in the past, our border security establishment actively engages and physically prevents incursions by the other side. We remove illegal constructions like jeep tracks and listening posts. Indian troops have destroyed a watch tower and a camera installed on a PLA hut in the Depsang plains area in September 2015.
In a 72-day stand-off at the Doklam trijunction between Tibet, Bhutan and India, the Indian forces together with their Bhutanese counterparts stalled the construction of a road by the Chinese that would have shifted the trijunction southwards, affecting India’s strategic interests. India refused to lower the army presence there, leading finally to the withdrawal of the Chinese forces from the area. Considered a diplomatic victory for India, Doklam highlighted India’s new border security doctrine of “proactive diplomacy together with firm ground positioning”.
In the Arthashastra, Kautilya highlighted the need for deterrent military might to demonstrate strong national power. India is committed to peace with China, but not the one of the graveyard. We need Kautilya’s doctrine to defeat the Sun Tzuvian tactics of “war as an art in deception”.
(The article was originally published in Indian Express on June 18, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)