Big Picture: Lessons from PLA Tawang incursions and China’s global ambitions
The December 9 PLA transgression shows that China will continue to change goal posts on border issues for tactical advantage and is committed to 1962 war defined military objectives in both western and eastern sectors. China wants a militarily weak India which stays away from the US in the name of strategic autonomy.
Nine days after China sanctimoniously asked India to adhere to 1993-1996 bilateral border agreements and uphold peace and tranquillity on the LAC while opposing India-US military exercises in Auli, the aggressive PLA changed the goal post yet again and transgressed across the border in Tawang sector on December 9. The Indian Army response was quick despite infrastructure hurdles in the area but not before there were injuries on both sides in the ensuing melee.
Even though the aggressive Chinese troops went back to their own positions after the skirmish and the incident is just a speck in decades of border friction, many important lessons can be drawn from the transgression by the Narendra Modi government.
The first lesson is that China is not interested in resolving the border issue and will use military friction all along the 3488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a leverage to rein in the rise of India. Its military objective on the border is to impose a cartographical line drawn by then-Chinese Premier Chou En Lai in 1959 to define the Chinese perception of the border in the western or East Ladakh sector. Its other objective is to occupy Arunachal Pradesh as it claims the Indian border state as part of Tibet, which China military conquered and occupied in 1950. For those within India who think that China will not aggravate the border issue if India remains within the Chinese-defined limits could not be more wrong. The Tawang incursion shows that China will keep changing goalposts to suit its short-, medium- and long-term strategies for the complete sinicization of Tibet.
The second lesson comes out from this endless debate within the Left-inspired armchair strategists who believe that India should not get too close to the US as the latter cannot be trusted and buttress their case by citing the presence of USS Enterprise carrier force in the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 India-Pak war. This intellectual section, of which a large number belong to the Indian Foreign Service, believes that India should pursue confused foreign policy by remaining close to Russia and playing second fiddle to China and get a peace dividend on the border in return. This argument is conflicted as Russia has become a "no limits" ally of China and India needs the latest technology from the West for expanding its military-industrial complex apart from high investments to drive its economy. One must remember that China recognized Sikkim as part of India after Washington offered India a civilian nuclear deal in 2002. India’s close relations with the US are not in China’s interest. The Communist Party of China’s interests are served by weak India and not by QUAD partners. And for the record, the US and not Russia supported India in the 1962 war. The situation reversed in 1971, thanks to the US-China détente with proxy Pakistan being the collateral beneficiary.
The third lesson is that many experts believe that if India does not want to militarily aggravate China, it should keep out of the QUAD game as it suits US strategy of Indo-Pacific, and confine itself to its neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean. Inherent in this advice is that India is militarily weak to China and that India has a regional role as compared to China’s global role. This advice is flawed at its core as the PLA Navy will be patrolling the Indian Ocean in the coming years even if India stays away from the Indo-Pacific. The only way to limit China is to take on PLA belligerence both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Oceans with allies like Australia, Japan, Philippines and Indonesia.
The fourth lesson is that India has no option but to build its indigenous high-tech military capacities with the help of allies like France and the US as it faces a formidable enemy across the LAC. Unlike the past decades when the Indian Army did not want border roads to be built lest it helps the PLA, Modi’s India must match military upgradation of border infrastructure with China and have hardware platforms to deter any Chinese perfidy. This is not as difficult as it sounds but the only hurdle in this is the military-civilian bureaucracy that plays pass the file on most important infrastructure projects like building the tunnel under Shinku La in Himachal or under Saser La in Sansoma-Murgo axis for protecting Daulet Beg Oldi sector from PLA eyes.
The fifth lesson is that India must upgrade its intelligence in China so that it gets advance warning of the PLA's intentions on the LAC and in the Indo-Pacific. In the past decades, Indian intelligence did not penetrate China or the Communist Party lest it aggravates the Middle-Kingdom and their influential vassals in India. Despite India having a sizable exiled Tibetan community in India and Tibetan Buddhism present on the entire Himalayan belt, Indian intelligence in the past has been shy of China and its military activities on the LAC. So afraid was India of aggravating China that even the 1950s-raised Special Frontier Force was deployed only in 2020 in the South Pangong Tso operations by the Modi government. The intelligence situation has changed for the better but there is a huge scope for improvement. Or else situations like Tawang will be repeated again and again.
Lastly, just like PM Modi advocated decolonization of the Indian mind in his 75th year of Indian Independence speech in 2022, the Indian Army must get rid of its 1962 war negative mindset. It is this morally debilitating mindset that makes Indian commanders refrain from confronting the belligerent PLA with a much faster response to transgressions. The events of May 2020 would not have happened if the Indian Army commanders had behaved like Col Santosh Babu on June 15, 2020, at Galwan. Fact is that in the worst-case scenario, the PLA may intrude across the LAC at places where they are dominant and the Indian Army will also have a similar option. Burying head in the sand like an ostrich or speaking softly to China was never an option for India.