Only last week, this author had mentioned about the deceptive nature of the Chinese leadership that often surprises neighbours with its unexpected and unpredictable moves to gain upper hand in the bilateral matters of concern. There is yet another saying about the Chinese establishment, they seldom do what they say; and what they do, they never divulge with. The Indian and Chinese soldiers were locked in a face to face brawl at several points across the Tibetan border in a climate below subzero temperature ever since a large number of PLA troops crossed the LAC to occupy some Indian patrolling points of Ladakh region in Galwan River valley and Pangong Lake area since early May 2020. As reported earlier, in a joint meeting at the senior commanders’ level on 6 June, they had agreed to de-escalate and withdraw; and, in fact, it was already widely reported by media that the troops of either side have gone back 2-3 Km from the dispute area. Now suddenly a news breaks that 20 Indian soldiers along with the commanding officer have been martyred on 15/16 June night in the Galwan River valley in a violent clash with People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
So What Really Occurred on 15/16 June Night
After the Commander level talks in early June, it was widely reported in media that the two sides have reached a broad consensus on 6 June, de-escalation process has started and two armies have moved 2-3 Km away from the confrontation points in the Galwan River valley. Then all of a sudden news broke on 16 June that in an outbreak of hostilities, one commanding officer (CO) and two soldiers of the Indian Army have been killed in the Galwan valley and this figure swelled to twenty casualties by end of the day with additional information that the Chinese side too has suffered significant losses. Other than confirming deaths, neither the Indian Army nor the Government gave details of injuries or any other losses. On their part, the Chinese External Affairs Ministry spokesperson expressed ignorance on the day about any death or injury but accused the Indian side of crossing the border twice during the period although independent sources like ANI (Asia News International) and CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) reported 43 casualties of Chinese soldiers including their CO citing intercepts as the source of information.
An official detailed version of the incident is still not available giving rise to speculations, exaggerated versions, misreporting, and even distortions and conspiracy theories by the interested elements. However, based on some reports from independent sources and logical derivation, the sequence of events appears to have occurred as follows. On Monday, the 15th June evening, the local CO 16 Battalion, Colonel Santosh Babu had gone with a small contingent say around 35 soldiers to check the implementation of the de-escalation process for which an agreement was already reached earlier during the Corps Commanders’ meeting. As per understanding reached, the Chinese troops were expected to move back about 5 Km from the stand-off point. Finding the Chinese troops still stationed there, Col Babu inquired about the reasons, and this led to altercation between the two sides and the Chinese troops viciously attacked the Indian CO, perhaps with a motive that the fall of the party leader would scamper away other soldiers in fear. Reportedly, in the ongoing melee, the Indian soldiers were assaulted with archaic weapons like iron rods and clubs wrapped in barbed wire laced with nails by PLA men and some soldiers also fell or thrown off the narrow and steep ridge down into the Galwan River.
The Chinese action appears to have been premeditated and meticulously planned. But against the Chinese calculations, the Indian soldiers ferociously fought back despite being outnumbered and tactically on disadvantageous side of the slope. More Chinese reinforcements were brought in, who were lying in wait just a little behind the forward camp where the brawl and violent clash took place. As now reports have emerged from various sources, despite being outnumbered, instead of retreating, the soldiers of 16-Bihar regiment charged into the massive Chinese build up and fought valiantly with batons, stones and possibly some snatched barbed and nailed clubs from Chinese men. As this violent and bloody melee continued for hours leading to death and injury of several officers and soldiers on both sides. There is also a strong possibility that more reinforcement joined on Indian side too in between. There are unconfirmed reports that the Chinese troops had captured ten Indian soldiers including some officers who were returned unharmed later. Similarly, sources also suggest that one Chinese Colonel caught during the fight and bodies of 16 dead Chinese soldiers were returned by the Indian side. As for the war ethics and protocol, Indian soldiers are lucky that their martyrdom is duly recognized and last rites carried out as per their socio-religious tradition. As against this, the countries like China and Pakistan don't even acknowledge their deaths what to talk of giving due recognition and honour to men died for own national cause.
After 4-5 days of the Galwan clash between the Indian and Chinese troops, a more illustrated and articulated version of event has also come out in the Indian media claiming it an authenticated and reliable account based on the army personnel located at the face-off point in Galwan valley, Thangtse and Leh in Ladakh region. According to this, 3 separate brawls took place within 7-8 hours on that day. Col Santosh Babu had a reputation of being highly sober and cool-headed; so initially he himself went to the flash point around 7 PM with 35 soldiers including two majors to inquire why the temporary structure (tent) was again erected against the previous agreement and protocol. The party also noticed that the entire deployment of the Chinese soldiers was replaced with new dispatches, who were immediately belligerent and one of them pushed Col Babu hard with expletives in Mandarin (Chinese language). This was an unprecedented misdemeanour enough to infuriate Indian soldiers and in the ensuing brawl the Indian soldiers prevailed destroying unauthorised Chinese structure at the point and overpowering them. Sensing imminent trouble, more reinforcement were sought by Indian soldiers on ground that included Ghatak platoons (shock troops) from units deployed in the area; the Chinese troops already had a sizeable strength as per a premedited plot. Next two serious brawls occurred at 9 PM and 11 PM at several places mostly in Chinese areas. Col Babu died of injury during the second brawl; following which, Indian troops fought ferociously with Chinese counterparts to avenge attack on CO leading to large scale injuries and deaths on either side.
While India has formally disclosed identity of all 20 soldiers died including their CO, China has refrained from divulging with such details but reports from various sources suggest a much higher casualty figure ranging from 35 to 50 Chinese soldiers including some officers. Playing a victim’s card in the United Nations, the Chinese MEA officials have put the blame squarely on the Indian side for the LAC violations and unprovoked attack on their soldiers. Also they have now stated that Galwan River valley had always been a Chinese territory, and that the Indian CO and his soldiers had intruded onto Chinese space. They have acknowledged soldiers’ casualties without divulging with their numbers and other details. On the other hand, their international propaganda newspaper Global Times is constantly blaming, ridiculing and threatening India of dire consequences in the event of escalation of hostilities while simultaneously boasting of Chinese military power and war preparations. Indian Army has released the list of twenty soldier including their CO killed simultaneously confirming that none of their men is found missing. The political leadership is now seized with the fallout of the gory incident and possible further escalation of hostilities among the growing demand of avenging treachery and transgression by the enemy in the Galwan and Pangong Tso areas. The Chinese Global Times has even threatened India to be ready to face simultaneous war on three fronts of China, Pakistan and Nepal.
Options Available to India
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic started China Seas, almost every nation but more particularly US, European countries and India have suffered grave loss of human lives and economy. China has also resorted to ill-timed muscle flexing with neighbours like India, Vietnam, Philippine, Taiwan and Japan at the land border and maritime zones of South and East China Sea. Consequently, there is a growing resentment against China worldwide and in the neighbouring Asian countries. US has resorted to selective trade sanctions against China; Japan has offered financial package to its companies for shifting their manufacturing base back to Japan or any other countries. So one of the points for consideration could be if India can muster support of some of these countries to deal with the Chinese aggression at the Tibetan border, particularly when if war hostilities actually break out between the two neighbours.
The way situation is fast unfolding at the LAC and Indian political and military leadership is under pressure to force PLA to vacate positions occupied in a clandestine operation in early May 2020, the first and most probable option would be to have a localized and decisive war. In the world military ranking, China and India are ranked as third and fourth most powerful countries, respectively. Some international experts and strategists have opined that India has a clear edge over China in the mountain warfare. Such suggestion is analogues to the high altitude Kargil war of 1999 wherein Pakistan army camouflaged as insurgents/militants was convincingly defeated and dislodged from Kargil heights after a sustained war of dew weeks. But this option is equally fraught with the risk of an all-out war across the entire Indo-Tibetan border. Further, it may be erroneous to underestimate the Chinese strength, which is capable to sustain a prolonged war and even incite Pakistan for similar adventure on the Western border.
The second option could be to open a front against China in the areas such as Nathu La and Cho La or any other carefully chosen territories where Indian Army has distinct tactical and operational advantage over PLA and capture piece of land as they have done in Galwan River and Pangong Tso areas. In such eventuality, India can force China to come to the negotiating table and possibly secure occupied areas without more bloodshed. As per reports, India has currently put its Air Force in Ladakh and other areas as also Navy in the Bay of Bengal on high alert along with Army across the entire Indo-Tibetan border. If India succeeds in building pressure on the hostile neighbour to honourably resolve the LAC crisis, it will be a significant strategic and diplomatic achievement for India in exposing the real face of China to the world.
Yet another option could be to formally initiate a dialogue in the much publicized Quad, explain the treachery of China and ground position of the LAC to seek their assistance including military cooperation, if necessary. Quad is a forum for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region, which is maintained by summits, information exchanges and military exercises among the member countries. The forum itself was created in 2007 in response to the growing Chinese hegemony and military threat in the region; so this could be real test too if the forum actually has any significance in the context of the Chinese hegemony and threat to member countries. This may be tried but without being very hopeful because while US President came with unwarranted offer of mediation in brawl initially and Australian Prime Minister recently displayed “Samosa Diplomacy,” but none of the member countries have formally raised a concern on the Chinese transgressions, as also treacherous and barbaric attack on Indian troops when the de-escalation process was still on.
So as I often hold that everyone has to fight his own battle in life and so applies on any sovereign and self-respecting nation because in this selfish and egocentric world even any moral or material assistance has a price. India will have to fight its own battle and at best it can expect some diplomatic support from the countries like US and probably some equipment and war material from Israel on demand. Till China agrees to de-escalate on LAC and actually goes back to April 2020 position, there should be no dialogue or exchange with it on any other issues. The way China has occupied Indian consumer market over the years, in fact the entire world for that matter, the economic sanctions will equally hurt both countries. Nonetheless, the boycott of the Chinese goods due to sheer public outrage has already started and the Government has also announced some restrictions in the Telecom Sector citing security reasons.
How Conducive Is Internal Environment During Crisis?
As we all know, it’s one party rule in China and, in fact, it is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that controls the government; currently, Li Jinping is head of both the party and government in the capacity of General Secretary and President, respectively, which means he is undisputed and unquestionable leader in China. In fact, occasions like Galwan violent clash are used as stimulus to generate and consolidate nationalist sentiments in China. Also one could easily conclude that in China, the Party, Government and Public are in the same league when any crisis precipitates; and the current Sino-Indian face-off is no exception. Occasional dissenting voice, if any, is suppressed with iron hands setting an exemplary warning for others. For instance, Doctor Li Jinjiang tried to caution world about the nature of coronavirus disease and the world only knows now that he died of the same disease. This example is consciously taken because Covid-19 disease certainly has a connection with the current Sino-Indian LAC face-off.
On the other hand, India is a democracy with multi-party system where the Constitution provides many liberties to citizens including the freedom of speech and expression; but incidentally this the most misused freedom available in India. The idea of patriotism or nationalism in India is often ridiculed as hyper-nationalism by the left and left-centric politicians, media and intellectuals. The Indian National Congress traditionally, and more specifically Nehru-Gandhi family, ruled this country since independence; they received first major challenge and survival threat from Narendra Modi led Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in 2014, and the party and members of the family are just unable to accept this situation. Consequently, instead of a healthy rivalry, the two parties conduct like sworn enemies and the nation too has to bear the brunt of this enmity. The Congress is the next biggest political dispensation in the country but the party and its dedicated followers are not with the government in the hour of this national crisis. This is evident from the barrage of embarrassing questions and criticism of the government being raised in the electronic, print and social media.
The aforesaid is also evident from the deliberations of all political parties meeting called by the Prime Minister on Friday, the 18th June through a video-conferencing due to apprise the position at LAC and seek their opinion on the situation. While citing the current violent clash at the LAC and paying tribute to dead soldiers, Prime Minister Modi among other things assured the all party leaders that neither they had intruded into Indian border nor any post was taken over by them (China). He also added that the infrastructure development in border areas has gained in pace over the past years; on one hand it has strengthened Indian troops patrolling capacity, on the other hand it has made enemies more envious and covetous. Most of the leaders representing opposition and partners in governance supported the Government’s stand and action but for the Congress and Left parties.
The Acting President of Congress, Sonia Gandhi, posed a barrage of questions such as: on which date did the Chinese troops intrude into our territory in Ladakh? When did the government find out about the Chinese transgressions? Was it on May 5, as reported, or earlier than that? Does the government not receive satellite pictures of the borders of our country on a regular basis? Was it a failure of intelligence? She also said that this meeting should have been organized much earlier and that the opposition should be taken in confidence at all stages if the government expects them to stand by them. Leaders of both communist parties in India i.e. Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party Marxist (CPM) refrained from any criticism of the Chinese action or commitment of support to own government on the stand-off; instead, the former chose to criticize the US asking the government to resist US efforts to drag India into their alliance and the later suggested that India should follow the principles of Panchsheel with China – a failed ideology of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that led to disastrous defeat and humiliation of the country in Sino-Indian War of 1962.
On previous day, Congress Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi had said that soldiers were sent "unarmed to martyrdom". Perhaps he is not aware that soldiers always carry arms but the rules of engagement do not allow use of firearms during face-offs. Another Congress leader from Ladakh, Zakir Hussain, was caught on tape lauding the Chinese forces and berating the Indian Army. He said that China would break Ladakh into 1000 pieces that it has already captured 135 km of India territory, killed 222 Indian Army personnel without suffering any casualties on own side. Hoping that China would take away Leh so that Modi loses politically, the Congress leader made a mockery of the martyrdom on Indian soldiers and lauded Chinese forces for killing them. After the audio became viral on social media, a FIR has been filed against him but the Congress Party has simply ignored his seditious remarks as “private-talk”.
According to experts, the current spate of Chinese fidget and aggression in Galwan and Pangong areas is mainly on account of the roads and other infrastructure development which would enhance access and ease of the Indian Army in defending their areas traditionally dominated by PLA. Although this need was felt and debated so often, even several works were undertaken but the pace of development was accelerated during the past 5-6 years. Why India has been lacking in infrastructure development vis-à-vis China, the reasons are obvious from the following admission in Parliament on 6 September 2013 by AK Antony, Defence Minister in the previous Congress (UPA) governments for eight years:
“To admit truth I have no hesitation in admitting the reality...to admit the truth I have no hesitation. Comparing to India the area of building infrastructure China is much advanced. Their infrastructure development is superior to India, we are only catching them that is also a history. Why? The independent India had a policy for many years that the best defence is not to develop the border. Undeveloped borders are more safe than developed borders. So many years, there was no construction of roads, airfields, nothing on the border areas. By that time, China continued to develop their infrastructure in the border areas. So, as a result, they have gone ahead of us. Compared to us, infrastructure-wise, capability-wise in the border areas they are ahead; I admit that. It is part of the history.” (Speech Verbatim Reproduced)
Inter-Se Comparison of War Potential of Two Adversaries
For the last many years, GlobalFirepower (GFP) has provided military data concerning about 138 countries based on nation's potential war-making capabilities across land, sea, and air. Though the website quotes certain general sources for the data but exact information about who actually compiles it is not known. However, the data appears fairly reliable and can be used with approximate values. According to this source, China and India are militarily ranked as the 3rd and 4th most powerful countries in the world ranking list. According to this, the manpower strength of both the countries is nearly equal; India has more tanks in terms of number and firepower but China has distinct edge in terms of the number of armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery guns and rocket launchers; In terms of the number of fighters and attack aircrafts, China has almost double the number of India but the latter has superior aircrafts in terms of technology and air worthiness, Indian Mirage-2000 and Sukhoi-30MK are definitely better than J-series if jets of China; Chinese Naval strength is much more compared to China but worthy enough to defend Indian interests in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.
Besides, after the humiliating defeat in the 1962 War, India had several conflicts and face-offs with China but it managed to have upper hand with respectable settlement on all such occasions. Two such significant conflicts are Nathu La and Cho La clashes in September-October 1967 and Doklam Face-off in July-September 2017. In the first case, the PLA attacked Indian post at Nathu La on 11 September and war lasted till 15 of same month. Many PLA fortifications were destroyed by Indian troops and in the ensuing battle 88 Indian and 340 Chinese soldiers were killed, repulsing the Chinese attack. The Doklam crisis precipitated due to Chinese attempt of the illegal construction of a road in Bhutan territory. After constant malicious propaganda and threat of an all-out war, the unshaking grit and courage of the Indian troops forced the Chinese to retreat after 73 days face-off.
In China, there is nothing like the free press or electronic media; the state run or controlled television and newspapers through their propaganda videos and news columns constantly remind India of their 1962 victory and current war preparedness threatening India to crush again in the event of war. What they forget or deliberately ignore is the fact that the Indian armed forces too have undergone a tremendous change ever since, more particularly during the last 5-6 years. More than numbers, India has concentrated on the state of the art war machinery and equipment during these years; While India was shy to use Air Force in 1962 but now its fighter/attack aircrafts, helicopters and transport planes are roaring in the skies of Ladakh and other areas of potential conflict across the LAC to handle any eventuality from enemy. Besides, India has made special efforts to raise and train units/formations specialized in mountain warfare over the years.
The recent studies from the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston and the Center for a New American Security in Washington suggest that India maintains an edge in high-altitude mountainous environments, such as the places of current face-off in Ladakh region. Analyzing the current deployment of two Air Forces in the region, the Study gives the Indian Air Force, with its Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi-30MKI jets, a qualitative edge in the region, where China has mainly deployed J-10, J-11 and Su-27 fighters. Besides, to weather a potential People's Liberation Army (PLA) attack, India has placed greater emphasis on infrastructure hardening, base resiliency, redundant command, control, and communications systems, and improved air defense.
The same study has suggested a near parity in the numbers of ground troops, which according to Belfer estimates the Indian ground forces in the region have about 225,000, while the Chinese have 200,000 to 230,000 soldiers but there is a big gap in their experience in the Himalayas terrain. While India is more experienced and battle-hardened army, having fought a series of limited and low-intensity conflicts in the recent past, the PLA has not experienced real combat since its conflict with Vietnam in 1979. However, the areas where China may have advantage is technology and new weapons following their larger defence budget and almost five time bigger economy to sustain it. Such studies apart, the point that for sure would make difference in the event of war is the confidence, commitment and resolve of the Indian armed forces to give a befitting reply to aggressors and avenge past setback, if the occasion so demands.
In the aftermath of the bloody clash between two armies at Galwan following the treacherous killing of the CO, 16 Battalion of the Bihar Regiment along with two bodyguards on 15/16 June night, the way a massive buildup of the armed forces has been resorted to by both countries, it sure looks like an unprecedented crisis after the 1962 war between the two Asian neighbours. It is nearly certain that if the PLA troops do not soon return to their pre-May 2020 positions in Galwan River valley and Pangong Tso area, the Indian armed forces in all likelihood take a joint surgical operation to remove unauthorized structures, if any, and evict PLA troops from the Indian territory despite the risk of full escalation of war. It is a tragic fallacy of the Indian democracy that the opposition parties like the Congress and Communists are fishing out to exploit Prime Minister’s statement in all party meeting i.e. “neither they intruded into Indian border nor any post was taken over by them (China)”. It simply looks like a carefully worded statement that reflects the ground position. For instance, the first Indian post in Pangong Tso area is at Finger Point 3 and from there, the troops used to go for patrolling upto Finger Point 8, access to which is now being blocked by the Chinese troops and India is committed to restore status quo ante.
The CPI appears to be more worried that India might go to US way rather than the present crisis which is the result of the Chinese hegemony and transgression; CPM is only keen on singing Panchsheel music with the dragon; and country’s oldest political party with its memory loss is conditionally willing to stand by the armed forces but not with the government in the hour of crisis. So India has to fight not only with the Chinese dragon but also simultaneously deal with the Pakistani perennial shelling and sponsored terrorism, new found hooliganism of the Communist government of the otherwise traditional friend Nepal, nationwide fury of the Chinese Covid-19 disease ruining human lives and economy, millions of illegal Bangladeshi and Rohingya immigrants, and last but not the least scores of sold out politicians, journalists and intellectuals, who may stab own motherland without hesitation or guilt feeling. In the given circumstances, the patriotic Indians should not be surprised if three war fronts as threatened by China indeed become a reality. While the armed forces are committed to protect border, every patriotic Indian must contribute his/her own bit to defeat designs of internal enemies.