China in quandary as India’s tough response at border torpedoes its plan
With grit and determination, India has responded to challenges thrown by China in the western sector of the border
The past couple of years have been exceptional years in Indian journey – with pounding pressure from an assertive China. India lost 20 soldiers guarding the borders at Galwan in the western sector of the border. India also lost nearly half a million people for a virus that spilled over from Wuhan in early 2020.
With grit and determination, India faced these twin challenges that China posed. Today, it can be said that India has been able to stand up and nearly weathered the storm. More needs to be done of course to protect its citizens and its sovereignty. Moreover, India needs to impose costs on China for indulging in aggression and encroachment and damage to its national security.
It is said that China’s gross domestic product ($16.9 trillion) is far higher than that of India’s (at about $3 trillion). China’s defence budget (of $nearly $300 billion) is several times higher than India’s (at around $70 billion). Also, Beijing’s estimated 1,000 nuclear warheads are nearly ten times that of India.
The natural corollary of the above asymmetry in power relations is that Beijing could easily impose costs on India. However, the ground reality is completely different. While China may have assumed superiority, it has to keep the ongoing conflict in the western borders below the threshold of open conflict and only engage in competition of comprehensive national power indicators and through “three warfares” (legal, media and psychological). For, China knows the costs on it are exorbitant in terms of soldiers, economy and to the ruling communist party itself.
China deployed over 60,000 troops to cajole India in the Galwan skirmishes in June 2020 and aftermath. India not only mobilised over 90,000 troops in the western sector but also over 50,000 additional troops in the rest of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) areas. The mountain terrain and warfare preparations suited India well.
Numbers are not only the biggest constraint for any cakewalk for China. India mobilised military equipment in tanks, armoured personnel carriers, multiple rocket launchers, missiles, fighter aircraft (including the newly inducted Rafales), transports, helicopters and others. India also stocked up food and ammunition for a protracted contest with China.
With no border advancement possible, nor any prospect of successful military outcomes, China had reluctantly agreed to “disengagement and de-escalation” process both at the September 2020 Moscow meeting as well as at February 10, 2021 defence ministerial announcements. Like other border talks, China’s penchant for endless negotiations is being implemented. While it stalled this process on the ground, however, Beijing found it difficult to resolve the issue on its terms with “peacetime” casualties among its ranks mounting.
Given its inability to force India in the past two years, China began propaganda war and psychological warfare ranging from sermons to India to follow “strategic autonomy’ and move away from the United States to advertising its military modernisation in Tibet and Xinjiang. There are few takers for such Chinese propaganda in India, except for a few “fellow travellers”.
Beijing has also furthered infrastructure projects in Tibet including over 200 “well-off society” villages across the LAC, implementing a Land Border Law from January this year, recruited 6.970 Tibetans in the support services, changed place names a second time for Arunachal Pradesh, built a bridge across the vacated Pangong Tso lake or even advertised “robot soldiers” deployment! The more ridiculous claim was supplying “hotpot” dishes to the deployed picnicking cannon-fodder soldiers in Tibet through drones.
India made measured and multidimensional moves to counter China’s aggressive approach. First, New Delhi continuously exposed China’s façade of being a “responsible big nation” by asking why it had to intimidate neighbours with military deployment and coercive diplomacy while previously agreeing to observe peace and tranquillity through border protocols in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. China has no answer to either India or to the international audience so far. This has depleted its soft power considerably.
Secondly, India strengthened its conventional and strategic deterrence capabilities in case of escalation into a hot war. Apart from the “emergency purchases” of essential weapon systems, deployment of S-400 ballistic missile defence system and others, India launched a number of new missiles to strengthen its deterrence posture vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.
These include nuclear-capable Shaurya missile of 800 km range, laser-guided anti-tank guided missile, Rudram-1 anti-radiation missile to destroy radars, air defence systems and communication networks, ABHYAS missile, tested a hypersonic technology demonstration vehicle, a naval version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and SMART -supersonic missile-assisted release of lightweight anti-submarine torpedo.
Thirdly, while China has beefed up its infrastructure in Tibet, its logistics are stretched and have to pass through hostile regions. On the other hand, Indian construction spree is leading to alternative ways to reinforce troops to the border, besides triggering economic development of the LAC regions.
India took the decision to construct 44 strategic roads across the LAC last year. India had earlier set a world record of laying 36 km of roads a day across the country, although in the mountainous terrains at the LAC the pace reduces to laying down half a kilometre.
In July 2021, the government identified 73 critical roads of 4,203 km in length on the borders with China. Apart from these, over 21 roads of over 800 km are being constructed and upgraded by the Border Roads Organisation. It was stated that construction of 42 roads with a length of 1,530 km has been completed. Notable ones are the road connecting Shyok and Indus valleys in Ladakh, Flag-Hill to Dokala in Sikkim, Yangtse in Arunachal.
Fourthly, while the “kill ratio” of the Indian armed forces declined since the 1:10 achieved against China in ‘Operation Checkerboard’ in 1987 following the Samdurong Chu incident, the professionalism of Indian forces is at a higher level compared to that of the Chinese forces. This is reflected in the military training, exercises, simulation, and battlefield experience.
Thus, while India held back the aggressive intent and posture of China in the past two years, it needs to proactively impose costs on China. Joining Quad, strengthening relations with Japan and Australia, supplying BrahMos cruise missiles to Southeast countries are some measures it conceived of. However, India is yet to utilize all its potential capabilities – especially naval assets – to counter China’s aggressiveness.
***The author is a Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University; Views expressed are his personal