A question was posed on Twitter. What was the aim of PLA and CPC? Why would China, the wannabe superpower use military force against a rising nuclear India, without a clear cut aim? Further, China goes back to its starting point, ostensibly, without achieving its aim. As per our understanding. Hence the issue compounds. Understanding this is very important to enable us to deal with China better. This is a regressive hypothesis based on hindsight. It might not be exactly correct. So be it.
Why did China do what it did? The reasons include abrogation of Article 370 by India, asserting global and regional domination, teaching India a lesson, India’s non-participation/rejection of BRI, CPEC and RCEP, India’s decoupling drive, development of border infrastructure including the DSDBO road, denial of investment in India, ensuring that India does not swing towards USA, growing Indo-Australian ties, India’s tacit support to Taiwan, show up India as a weak nation, hyping domestic nationalism during the pandemic, grasping the opportunity of the pandemic, creeping assertiveness, salami slicing, unilaterally altering the LAC as per its perception, changing facts on ground to achieve Chou-en-lai’s claim line of 1959. More could be added. None of them would be wrong. The question still remains—what was their principal aim?
Look back. China undertook pre-mediated multiple incursions at Naku La, Demchok, Pangong Tso, Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang. These were in conjunction with Nepal raking up the Limpiyudhara issue and a spike in violence in the Valley. From the outset, PLA was indulging in ‘Belligerent War Avoidance’. PLA deployments were non-tactical most of the time- in prim straight lines. Chinese non-tactical militarydeployment was always conveying a political message! Also, this was not a military reaction to the violent Pangong Tso face-off on 5 May 2020. Their overall aggression, their parleys at the initial Corps commanders meets and their pre-planned ambush at Galwan had a larger objective. What was that?
There is an almost complete media silence on the Chinese military plans and activities in the past nine months except for the Global Times which blabbers incoherently. Normally, the aggressive Chinese ‘Three War Strategy’ gives a vivid description of all events. That has been missing. On the other hand, the coverage in India was minute to minute through a macro imaginative media and micro knowledgeable China specialists. Think back. The military coverage was one sided- Indian. The political signal was one sided and subtly overt – Chinese. Decipher the political signal.
The article, ‘The Border Clashes With India: In The Shadow Of The US’, by Mathieu Duchatel quotes a number of Chinese analysts. Some views are summarised. Li Shengli (Director, International Security Research Center of the China Foreign Affairs University) opines that China practises self-restraint and does not fight back despite being provoked. However, the ‘determination’ to counterattack is extremely important because the issue with India is a “contest of strategic willpowers”. According to him, China should let Indian decision-makers conclude that the international situation offers no window of opportunity to take advantage of its self-restraint, and the use of force is a credible option.
Hu Shisheng (Director, Institute for South Asian Studies), states that Indian troops have crossed the LAC 1,581 times in 2019, of which 94% in the Western section (source of that number not provided). He also argues that India has perceived the Chinese “border defence infrastructure activities” in the Galwan Valley area as a threat to DSDBO road. Liu Zongyi (secretary-general of the Center for China and South Asian Studies of the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies) suggests the clashes could be due to Indian frontline commanders displaying aggression to get promoted by eroding Chinese territory. He also sees India taking advantage of strategic cooperation with the United States and aiming to revise the existing Line of Actual Control. He attributes three precise goals to India: to force China to recognize their territorial claims with regards to the Line of Actual Control, India’s regional sphere of influence, and India’s status as a global power. Yang Siling ( Vice-Dean, Department of South Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences) sees a confrontation between two antagonistic world visions, the Chinese “community of shared future for mankind” advocated by Xi Jinping, and India’s power game in its region. He advises India to give up illusions about the US and seek rational coexistence with China as the only way out of this crisis.
Su Jingxiang from CICIR interprets it as a longstanding and systematic policy of the BJP, that aims at the destruction of the foundations of India-China border management and that India is becoming—of its own free will—a “frontline country” in the emerging “anti-China alliance”. The common thread in China—blame for the clashes rests on India and China has counterattacked. The theme seems to—India’s ambitions to recover Aksai Chin and Indian behaviour has forced China to abandon its longstanding practice of self-restraint in managing the disputed border. The Chinese worldview is that India’s strategic options are poor. In a nutshell, China is reacting to Indian aggression! However, Indian Army is not the aggressor in any wildest dream. We are wracked internally by Chinese salami slicing our territory. Hence it is not military aggression that they are talking of but political aggression!
As per Dr Yugen Ko (a Taiwanese analyst), China’s ‘Salami Slicing’ has three stages. First, create a dispute on an agreement/ status or stake claim. Second, violate the status. Either physically or legally or by disagreement. Third, physically alter or create a law to alter the status legally in favour of the Chinese. That is deemed as the permanent or desired end state. This pattern is evident in the way the Chinese have asserted sovereignty in the South China Sea—disputed South China Sea—staked claim through the nine dash line—built artificial islands—disregarded international law—enacted and proclaimed own laws (ADIZs) which convey sovereignty to China—claimed an EEZ around the Islands. It has permanently altered the status of the Sea as being Sovereign to China. A similar play book was adopted in usurping Hong Kong prematurely. It is now being adopted to wrest the Senkakus from Japan through their Coastal Defence Laws. ADIZs are established to salami slice Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Abrogation of Article 370 and reorganisation of the erstwhile state of J&K could have meant many things for many people. For China it was the cat in its pigeon coop. India doing the ‘Salami Slicing’ trick on them out of their play book! Intentional or otherwise! The Sino Indian territorial dispute existed. In one stroke, abrogation of Article 370, renewed India’s claim on Aksai Chin and violated the status-quo through an act of the Parliament! All previous Sino Indian agreements fell under a political cloud. India reiterated that China was in illegal occupation of the area just as the nine dash line did to the South China Sea. To this, add the fact that the DSDBO road had been recently completed and India is raising a Mountain Strike Corps! From a Chinese (long term) viewpoint it directly threatens the CPEC, the sensitive area of Xinjiang surrounded by the CARS, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and of course Tibet. We are discussing very remote but strategically sensitive and restive areas of China. Hence the hue and cry of aggression. They mean the political part of it though it is couched as aggressive territorial nibbling by India. This double tone is articulated by Yun Sun in War On The Rocks. Chinese analysts believe that India is taking advantage of Beijing by trying to make tactical gains along the border, and… If a strategic friendship with India is untenable, it frees up room for tactical gains… In the near term, China’s tactical objective seems clear—to advance its position roughly to the occupation line by the end of the 1962 war, according to pro-Beijing media outlets. This will push the Chinese presence to the intersection of the Galwan river and the Shyok river, making the Galwan Valley off limits to India. The whole issue is obtrusively direct.
The Chinese overall aim was to wrest the political initiative from India and bottle it at the LAC. If that is done all other issues fall under its ambit. How do you do it militarily? As you recover from the pandemic you see the adversary stricken. You get reports of his Army being affected by your virus. You assess his Army to be poorly equipped and hamstrung by shortages. You conclude incapability. You plan to achieve the political aim by forcing a military reversal of the effect of abrogation of Article 370. You execute a calibrated plan in that area which you want to wrest forever, where the reaction will be the weakest and can deploy mechanised forces: North of Pangong Tso. You avoid the mountainous area South of Pangong Tso, where you are relatively weak. You prod on a broad front, carry out a quick mobilisation, threaten/lean on Depsang with armour, incur upto Galwan and advance upto Finger 4 and change the status quo there. All the while do not overextend lest you get into the cross hairs of a professional Indian Army. Do not get trapped beyond a bottleneck. Noticed that? They never overextended beyond a bottleneck to get cut off. They held all choke points to deny their own access beyond them. It was kabaddi!
Here comes the political part. Western Theatre Command issues a statement that the entire Galwan Valley is sovereign to China. When the focus was on Galwan, they were firming in at Finger 4. China proclaimed sovereignty over Finger 4 through a map beamed by satellites. An ambush is attempted at Galwan in the garb of border talks and pull back. If the Galwan ambush had succeeded, it was game set and match to China. Substantial casualties. DSDBO Road under permanent observation. LAC permanently altered. Sovereignty notified over the entire Aksai Chin. ‘Victory’ would have been declared. Effect of abrogation of Article 370 would have been completely reversed during negotiations. In fact, India would have looked foolish if the Chinese plan had succeeded with immediate political repercussions on the government and long term implications for Indian democracy and the choices it makes.
Why did this plan fail? Story of men and mice and nothing in war is nice! Gross miscalculation of Indian armed forces. Unfortunately the PLA ambush at Galwan ran into late Col Santosh Babu, MVC and his gallant men. They gave a total shock to the PLA. It forced a partial recoil on an unprepared China. Then India brought in the whole nation —whole of government approach in stages—digital strikes, economic denial, vaccine competition, political presence at the front lines, public anti-China sentiment of 1.4 billion people, vaccine and virus situation, diplomatic swing to the Quad et al. Even then the PLA was holding on for China to declare “Victory”.
Till August, they were flatly refusing all Indian proposals in the border meets. The tables turned when we occupied the Kailash Range and heights above Finger 4. It exposed the military vulnerability of a political PLA in the high Himalayas. This action opened the can. The political cost of this pure military action by IA would be too high. At some point China would look foolish in the stalemate. After 5-6 months of cold treatment and suffering losses they had no other choice but to retreat.
What do we see ahead? China will smart under this loss. They will make all effort to get back at us. Make no mistake. We need to look at the long term political angle. Politically, China likes to declare “Victory” over everything through a “Peoples War”. The CCP backed by the PLA must show victory continuously to the people to be in power. They declared Victory over their Virus. Only for it to reappear. They have declared “Victory” over poverty. Disputable. Look further back. They declared “Victory” over population control by implementing the single child policy. It is turning into a disaster.
Their media blackout was a two way switch. If victorious, even Martians would have come to know. If objectives are not achieved, it could be spun as defending own territory against an aggressive India. That is what is happening through their doctored videos. The focus is now entirely on the LAC away from the rest of Aksai Chin. Either way it enables them to declare a political ‘Victory’. Till such time we remain focused on the LAC, China will be happy. We need to look beyond…at Aksai Chin…at Tibet…at building strength…at rebalancing with enhanced reach to exploit the political value of the DSDBO road…at keeping PLAN out of IOR…at forming new partnerships like the Quad…at keeping our neighbourhood together…
This brings me to a critical question which I raised earlier on politico-military fusion. As per Clausewitz: ‘War is Politics by other means’. Conversely Politics is War by other means. Mao echoed this though when he said ‘War is Politics with bloodshed and Politics is War without bloodshed’. Analyse it. Both these views fit the eastern Ladakh situation. Examine India’s adversaries. In China, the PLA is the armed extension of the CCP. Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the CCP and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. In Pakistan, the Army Chief is the single point political and military authority. There is absolute politico military fusion in our adversaries. The bureaucracy merely executes a given mandate or is executed. Period. The territorial integrity of any nation is ultimately the responsibility of the politico-military leadership.
In India a unique troika of political, military and bureaucratic leadership manages politico-military affairs. This flawed leadership structure is costing India dearly. India must move to politico-military fusion geopolitically and politico-military diffusion domestically. There is need for a rethink.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on www.gunnersshot.com.