China: An abiding challenge for India
As the LAC challenge heightens, India must evolve a resolute and effective holding strategy to prevent further salami-slicing by PLA
India’s abiding security challenges in 2022 and beyond will be the 3C distillate — Covid-19 in its latest Omicron variant, the climate crisis, and China. They will unfold with different degrees of urgency, but temporal concurrence along all three tracks is likely to be a central feature and will test the policy acumen of the national leadership.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are complex issues triggered by the accretion of ecological distortions and have a direct bearing on human security. These two challenges go well beyond the domestic framework and are being addressed in a larger global context — alas, ineffectually, as evidenced in the Covid-19 vaccine nationalism on display, and at Glasgow, in relation to the climate deliberations.
However, it is China that is the more critical concerning national sovereignty and territorial integrity, given the Galwan setback of mid-2020 and the impasse that has followed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Against this backdrop, more recent events merit mention and review. The new year buzz around China was mixed, with propaganda visuals of Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanging sweets providing one strand, while social media was abuzz with video clips of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops unfurling the Chinese flag in the contested Galwan Valley and vowing to defend every inch of the motherland. Beijing has made the consolidation of contested territoriality its primary objective and the new year statements in relation to Taiwan, Tibet, and now, LAC with India, reflect this inflexible resolve. The construction of a bridge across the Pangong lake by PLA is illustrative of Chinese intent.
Delhi, on the other hand, appears to have adopted a more muted stance and this is discernible in the annual year-end review put out by the ministry of defence (MoD). In a long and rambling overview that highlights self-reliance and a host of other achievements, including the opening of new sainik schools and the move towards integrated military commands, the references to the Line of Control (LoC) and China are anodyne. While China has occupied almost 1,000 square miles of Indian territory in the Ladakh region, no specifics are mentioned.
While asserting that “the Indian Army has been primarily focussed on maintaining its operational preparedness in line with India’s desire to ensure stability & dominance along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”, the MoD summary is restrained yet firm, perhaps keeping the window open for dialogue. The comprehensive paragraph notes: “The unilateral and provocative actions by the Chinese to change the status quo by force, in more than one area on the LAC, has been responded in adequate measure. To resolve the issue, the militaries of the two countries have been engaged in dialogue at various levels. After sustained joint efforts, disengagement was carried out at many locations. Force levels in areas where disengagement has yet to take place have been adequately enhanced. Threat assessment and internal deliberations have resulted in reorganisation and realignment of forces in keeping with the Army’s mandate of ensuring territorial integrity and to cater for the major augmentation of PLA forces and military infrastructure. Troops continue to deal with Chinese troops in a firm, resolute and peaceful manner while ensuring the sanctity of India’s claims.”
The national challenge for India is to “ensure territorial integrity” in the face of Chinese belligerence and intransigence, and this is where the reality check is cause for disquiet. The comprehensive national power gap between China and India has increased in Beijing’s favour and this trend is unlikely to change in the short term. India’s military capability has been enhanced tactically to deal with the LAC challenge, but this is more a case of “reorganisation and realignment” of existing assets — as opposed to any significant addition to inventory or firepower capability.
This, in turn, is predicated on the allocation of funds and the Covid-19 shadow has led to belt-tightening in most sectors and the defence budget remains depressed. This pattern is unlikely to change in the next two years — presuming that the global Covid/Omicron spread will slowly fall below the emergency median. The policy dilemma for India will be to evolve a resolute and effective holding strategy along LAC to prevent further salami-slicing by PLA, and more recent signals from China point to heightened discord.
The brazen advisory to Indian legislators by the local Chinese embassy regarding Tibet, the unilateral changing of names of places in Arunachal Pradesh, and the growing Chinese footprint both in the Indian land periphery and the Indian Ocean region (IOR) testify to this discordant bilateral template for 2022.
The policy dilemma is further tangled by the reality that despite LAC tension, trade with China is robust and growing — with the total trade for the last 11 months touching a record high of $114.26 billion, disaggregated as imports from China $87.9 billion, and Indian exports $26.36 billion. Having opted to stay out of major trade blocks, India has little manoeuvre room by way of minimising China, and this is a contradictory determinant in evolving a viable strategy to deal with Beijing.
Tangible hard power makes diplomacy that much more effective, as the May 1998 nuclear tests demonstrated. India will have to make a more candid review of its military capabilities in relation to China. Revisiting the Khanduri report on India’s military inventory tabled in Parliament in Narendra Modi 1.0, and bringing it up to speed for 2022, is a task that defence minister Rajnath Singh ought to undertake with dispatch, and apprise the nation about its military muscle and the extent of Chinese transgression along LAC in the run-up to India at 75.
PS: It is intriguing that an official Indian “source” referred to the Pangong bridge as being in China’s “territory” (as reported in The Hindu).
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal