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The Bellicose Dragon Forced to Eat Humble Pie
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
The year 2020 in the current century had been remarkable for many not so good reasons such as the Covid-19 pandemic induced crisis for the human health, global loss of business and job opportunities and economic crisis, the Chinese hegemony and assertion over its Southeast Asian neighbours, a major Chinese standoff with India in Ladakh, global crash-off the stock markets, trouble-ridden US Presidential elections including the impeachment of the incumbent President, and so on. These fateful and potentially some dangerous developments had one striking commonality that almost all of them were influenced or induced by the acts of omissions and commissions of the Communist China in one way or the other, including the bloody clash of Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley of the Eastern Ladakh in June 2020 leading to the casualties of the total 60-65 soldiers and over 100 injuries.
Although the global print and electronic media have significant role in reporting and analysis of significant world events, but the most of media houses too have failed to deliver factual and unbiased reporting during the period. Reasons for this media malady are many but two more significant ones are: 1) they claim to be independent but are often found divided on left- or right-wing ideologies receiving commensurate monetary incentives and funding through overt/covert means; and 2) they frequently resort to sensationalism to garner more attention, and commercial reach and earnings. With the largest audience base in the free and democratic world, the Indian media is no exception to the aforesaid maladies and, in fact, has increasingly gained notoriety in recent years for these reasons. So, it was not surprising that a very significant development of the withdrawal of the Chinese troops from the dispute territory of the Pangong Lake area in Ladakh in February 2012 following nearly nine months of stand-off remained largely underplayed and unreported.
Brief Chronology of Confrontation and De-escalation
India and China share nearly 3500 km border, of which nearly 2152 km is in the Western sector and the remaining in the eastern region. During the April-May 2020, incursion and transgression of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops was noticed into the Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh at several points. Consequently, they were challenged by the Indian troops, which led to multiple face-offs, scuffles and skirmishes with more serious confrontation reported near the Pangong Lake, Galwan River valley in the East Ladakh and Nathu La in Sikkim. After the Commander level talks at various points, it appeared that the two sides have reached a broad consensus and the troops would go back to original position. Then suddenly hostilities broke out again on 15-16 June 2020 (night) in the Galwan Valley, in which several casualties and injuries were reported on either side. While India revealed the list of 20 such casualties on their side including the commanding officer, Chinese side remained tight-lipped and in denial mode for long while various international sources reported their casualties to 43-45.
The Galwan Valley clash received wide international attention with appeal to both sides for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. In general, the Indian version of the dispute received more acceptance in the world community and many of them, particularly the Western democracies including the United States and France, were seen tilted more towards the Indian position. The United States even despatched the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike and the Nimitz carrier strike groups of their Naval fleet in the South China Sea. Both sides resorted to heavy deployment of troops, heavy vehicles and advanced weaponry along the border. The trade and commerce too was adversely affected between the two countries. However, bilateral military commander level talks, political and diplomatic channels were kept open despite the border tensions and Chinese propaganda war. While the experts and strategists had forecasted a long-drawn stalemate in the conflict areas, the news came around mid-February 2021 that China has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Pangong Lake area and withdrawal of troops already commenced.
This withdrawal would mean that the PLA troops would go back to their original military post behind the Finger Point 8 and Indian troops will resume their deployment at their post behind the Finger Point 3. Remarkably, the Chinese troops had moved forward upto the Finger Point 4 (about 8 Km) in a covert operation in early May 2020, fortified their positions with heavy troops and machinery, and were reluctant to vacate the occupied territory. Consequently, the troops of two countries remained face to face for nearly nine months with situation going out of control on many occasions. For now, the patrols of the either side will not enter the dispute territory till an amicable agreement is reached in future. Thus, the ongoing dispute between the two neighbours in the east Ladakh appears to be over. This, however, still leaves other similarly disputed other areas including the Depsang Plains yet to be resolved. A chronology of the fateful events ever since the hostilities broke out between the two sides is briefly given as follows:
As it appears, at the end of nine months of dangerous military standoff, the India has not ceded any land as claimed by them while the Communist China has only lost its face besides earning bad name globally for its villainous act. Apparently, the national and international media have already had their piece of cake by garnering enough attention and publicity during the first few months, often much hyped and exaggerated, so this new and significant development did not invite much attention and interest and the news was routinely published and reported by the media. The available reports suggest that the withdrawal of forces by the either side after dismantling bunkers and other temporary/permanent structures erected during the height of the border tension was completed around 20 February 2021. The task of the restoration of peace at the border is, however, not yet complete as the other disputed points including the Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang plains are to be further negotiated and resolved.
What Made the Dragon to Soften Their Stand?
The Sino-Indian relations have a long history of disputes and bitterness; hence any singular reason cannot be ascribed for the Chinese troops withdrawal from the land covertly occupied by them in early May 2020. However, some credibility certainly needs to be attached to the version of Lt Gen YK Joshi, the General Officer Commanding-in Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Army Northern Command. According to him, when the continuous dialogue at various military and civil forums could achieve the desired progress and result, the instructions were passed on to the operational command to do something that would put pressure on China. Consequently, the Indian troops captured Rejang La and Rechin La heights on the southern shore of Pangong Lake in a swift operation on 29-30 August 2020. This action put the two armies under tense situation in the Kailash range nearly facing the probability of an all-out war. The event probably proved to be a turning point too because when the next round of talks commenced, the tone and attitude of the Chinese negotiators had considerably changed.
He admitted that the pull back of China from the Pangong Lake area was a bit surprising because the Indian side did not expect them to retreat so easily and quickly. On the rumours that India has conceded some land in the North Bank of the Pangong Lake, the GOC-in-C maintained that there was no truth in it. Under the agreed deal, the PLA troops would vacate the areas between the Finger 4 to 8, which is the Indian claim line, and their troops will go behind the Finger 8 and the Indian troops will be stationed in their post at Finger 3. The status quo as it existed before April 2020 between the territory from Finger 4 to 8 shall be maintained hitherto fore and the Chinese will not carry out any activity near the Indian claim line. Disputes in other areas will be dealt with case-to-case basis by the negotiating teams of the two countries.
There is no doubt that China has distinct numerical edge in conventional as well as strategic warfare and economic strength necessary to sustain any long-drawn war or military stand-off. Despite this if China has currently blinked and withdrawn, it obviously has numerous direct and indirect reasons from the regional and global perspectives. Apart from what is put forth in preceding paragraphs, another important reason for the reversal in the Chinese obduracy could be the fact that India had promptly deployed its best land based conventional war machinery and manpower in the troubled areas while keeping its Air Force in high alert and battle-ready conditions. By resorting to this action, the Indian army had matched their adversaries in every way both operationally and logistically on the frozen soils of Ladakh even through the harsh winters. While the battle-hardened Indian soldiers stood to their ground in the extreme conditions, intelligence reports suggested a lot of unease and weather driven casualties, and consequent low morale, was apparent among the PLA soldiers.
The Chinese intransigence and proclivity of making extravagant claims about the territorial disputes with neighbours is well known ultimately settling with the policy of ‘grab what you can get and then try and grab some more at yet another occasion’. It is not the India alone; many other Southeast Asian neighbours too have had similar experiences with this Chinese bluff and bluster approach. In the previous Congress government regimes, they had largely succeeded with this policy and approach but the tables were turned against them for the first time by the Indian troops with solid backing of the present Indian government during the Doklam crisis in 2017. Though by deploying heavy troops with necessary logistics and strategic support throughout the harsh winter, China had signalled about their intentions for the long haul but Indian stand and firm resolve with commensurate deployment would have for sure constantly reminded them the Doklam nemesis, where Indian army stood only to defend a friendly neighbour’s (Bhutan) territorial integrity and succeeded in their venture.
If the belligerent neighbour has blinked this time, for sure, it is not merely due to bilateral reasons; instead, some other developments globally and in the region are also responsible for it. During the Covid-19 pandemic for which the Communist nation is responsible either directly or indirectly, it rubbed many other neighbours too in a wrong way. Consequently, China had many territorial disputes simultaneously with the countries like Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines in the East and South China Sea region. As the US has crucial political and economic stakes in the region, the earlier Trump administration promptly deployed its two powerful battle groups, namely the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group and the Nimitz carrier strike group in the South China Sea to handle any contingency at a short notice. Though the Chinese CPC expected a change in US policy towards China in the changed regime, the US President Joe Biden has not announced any tangible change in the US policy towards the Communist China so far. Whatever feelers have been received from the Joe administration, it only suggest that any significant policy change in foreign relations is not on card, which is for sure a dampener for the Chinese global and regional ambitions.
In fact, only last month in January 2021, the aforesaid carrier groups sailed through the disputed waters of the South China Sea with the US Navy announcing that they were exercising their freedom of navigation and the move was to demonstrate the Navy's ability to operate in the challenging environments. Taiwan had reported multiple Chinese jets and bombers flown into its air defence zone same day. Only some time back, the Chinese had claimed to have expelled one US Destroyer from the same waters, a claim which was firmly rejected by US Naval spokesperson. Soon after the deployment of the US strike groups, the French government too has dispatched a nuclear submarine in the South China Sea in response to a US call of strengthening friendly presence in the region. The Chinese leadership would certainly know that these developments in the South China Sea area are far bigger a military challenge than what they faced in Ladakh, and both the developments would for sure have some common thread.
During the global Covid-19 crisis, the world has seen the ugly face of the Communism and Chinese leadership throughout the bygone year of 2020. While various countries were struggling to save their citizens’ life and economy, the China availed it as an opportunity for themselves. On one hand, they sold accessories and equipment of poor quality to the needy nations to garner maximum profit, their banks and financial institutions came out with their mercenary approach to outrightly buy or maximize own shares in the foreign companies facing losses due to global recession. In contrast, the Indian leadership not only endeavoured to take all necessary welfare measures for own people but also cooperated globally to assist other countries with the desired medicines, accessories and equipment to fight corona pandemic. All this has not gone unnoticed and India has received popular support from the global community through their current stand-off with China. Besides, they are also facing stiff opposition domestically in Hongkong for curtailing civil rights and Uyghurs Muslims in Xinjiang province for religious oppression. Many countries have now started realizing the Chinese game behind their much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative that it is actually nothing but a messy debt trap. Obviously, for any belligerent regime, however powerful it may be, it is difficult to handle so many challenges at a time.
What If Two Nations Engaged in A Full Scale War!
China and India are two most populous countries with the largest population and the fastest growing economies in the world. Militarily, China and India are ranked as the 3rd and 4th most powerful countries in the world ranking list. Both the countries have strong armies and a huge inventory of war equipment and weaponry. Besides, both the countries have sizeable inventory of the nuclear arsenals and their delivery systems from the land, water and air. Considering the constant hegemonistic and expansionist approach of the communist neighbour with a long and largely ill-defined Indo-Tibetan border of nearly 3,500 km, such repeated provocations from China or miscalculations on either sides indeed pose a risk of dragging the two Asian giants in a full scale war. Hence A broad inter se comparison of their conventional and nuclear war potential is briefly discussed here.
(i) Conventional Warfare
Traditionally, most of the countries do not reveal their exact military potential and war preparation data in the public domain. Numerically, China may have more personnel on active military service but due their ongoing disputes with the Southeast Asian countries and superpowers rivalries in the South China Sea region, it is not possible for them to divert their resources from these areas to Tibet region. As per the broad information available, the military manpower strength of India and China is nearly equal in Tibetan region. On overall basis, 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 Rafale, Mirage-2000 and Sukhoi-30MK are undoubtedly better than J-series fighter jets of China. Chinese Naval numerical strength is significantly superior than Indian Navy but the latter is worthy enough to ably defend Indian interests in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea from any potential enemy.
After 1962 war, more Indian territories were usurped by China at occasions due to weaknesses of the political leadership but the Indian army always had upper hand in all spontaneous or long drawn conflicts. Two such instances can be quoted as the Nathu La and Cho La clashes in September-October 1967 and Doklam Face-off more recently 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 reported killed, and the Chinese attack was repulsed. During the Doklam crisis, the unshakable grit and courage of the Indian troops ultimately forced the Chinese to retreat after 73 days face-off without firing a bullet.
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 over China in high-altitude mountainous environments, such as the places of current face-off in Ladakh region. While the dynamism and air worthiness of the Indian Air Force as prelude to any possible war has remained visible in Ladakh region throughout the recent stand-off, their position is further strengthened with the arrival and deployment of the French Rafale fighter aircraft. While analyzing the current deployment of two rival Air Forces in the region, the Study gave the Indian Air Force, with its Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi-30MKI jets, a qualitative edge over the Chinese J-10, J-11 and Su-27 fighters in the region. Besides, to weather a potential PLA attack, India is increasingly placing a greater emphasis on infrastructure hardening, base resiliency, redundant command, control, and communications systems with improved air defence. About the ground forces deployment and their combat worthiness, Indians are considered more experienced and battle-hardened force while the Chinese troops have edge in technology and weaponry. Considering all factors together, any conventional war is no more a one-sided piece of cake for the aggressors even if friendly countries do not take sides.
(ii) Unconventional Warfare
Any fixed definition is not given to unconventional or non-conventional weapons but ordinarily the common examples of such weapons include nuclear, biological and chemical agents. They are also known as the weapons of mass destruction. India has developed and possessed nuclear weapons during the last two decades and it is believed that currently it has about 150 nuclear weapons with adequate enriched fissile material to produce another 150 to 200 arsenals, if required. Also, India maintains a “no first use” policy and has acquired a nuclear triad capability as part of its “Minimum Credible Deterrence” doctrine. However, the country has neither signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, calling them flawed and discriminatory. According to some reports, earlier It possessed some chemical weapons too which were voluntarily destroyed in 2009.
\In contrast, China’s nuclear programme and warheads have remained a closely guarded state secret; various international agencies put the estimated number of the Chinese nuclear warheads anywhere between 260 to 320. If the forecast of some experts and recent Pentagon report is to be relied upon, China has further planned to double its nuclear stockpile in a decade. Currently, China can launch nuclear weapons by ballistic missile from land and sea and is developing its capability to develop an air-launched ballistic missile very soon. It has ballistic missiles of various categories and ranges in its inventory to hit any potential target in the world. Earlier, China had published a white paper on defense in 2005 that maintained its nuclear policy of maintaining a minimum deterrent with a no-first-use pledge but the term “minimum deterrent” has never been made clear. Also since 2013, allegedly China has avoided the reference of no first use. The Chinese leadership cannot be trusted because despite being a signatory of NPT, it has been involved in the vertical as well as horizontal nuclear proliferation by helping North Korea and Islamic countries like Pakistan and Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and missile technology. Currently, China is a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention but it is widely believed that they are in possession of many biological and chemical weapons.
The Indian “no first use” policy was adopted immediately after its nuclear tests in Pokhran during 11-13 May 1998. The nuclear doctrine further firmed up during the Vajpayee government talked about a massive and overwhelming retaliatory strike against the first use by the aggressor country with the scope extended to the biological and chemical attacks as well. India also has an indigenous credible missile programme and inventory with different technologies, ranges and payloads to deal with its enemies in the event of war hostilities. Besides, India has its own programme of developing a Missile Shield and Defense Capability in an advanced staged and most probably the national capital Delhi and economic hub Mumbai would be first cities to have this system in place. In addition, India had entered in an agreement with Russia in 2018 for the supply of five S-400 regiments of the anti-Missile Defence Systems. Each such system is comprised of eight divisions with the provision upto 72 launchers and 384 missiles.
Reportedly, China was the first country to have contract with Russia in 2015 for the supply of six S-400 regiments (batteries) of the air defence systems. The supply commenced in 2018 and delivery of two such systems was confirmed till July 2020, followed by a widely circulated news that Russia has suspended further supplies citing technical reasons. Chinese indigenous programmes are always shrouded with mystery and opacity but it is believed that they may have developed some own indigenous potential too for the anti-missile air defence. Arguably, S-400 air defence systems are considered one of the best and most advanced in the world on date. The overall stockpile and strike capability of the Chinese missiles is much large compared to India and their ICBMs are capable of hitting any target even in the US.
Thus, both China and India have their own indigenous and acquired nuclear arsenals, its delivery systems and viable plan for the enemy missile attacks, which are also mutually balancing each other. Notwithstanding the aforesaid developments and Chinese dubious policy and plan to double its nuclear stockpile, enhance its strike range and acquire own air defence capabilities, India does not have as much a nuclear threat from China as it has from Pakistan, whose nuclear potential and delivery systems are largely supplied and developed through the Chinese assistance and who does not have any qualms about its first use against India. Actually, a lot of academic and strategic debates and discussions have occurred about the change of the Indian nuclear doctrine but none should forget that when the survival of a nation is endangered or under question, with any commensurate policy or no policy, the leadership of the country would not hesitate to use every means available for its defence unless the country itself is run by fools. Hence any full-scale war between two nuclear nations is a madness suffice to ensure their mutual destruction; probably, one of the crucial reasons why China has finally retreated is perhaps the fact that the Chinese leadership knows well that despite their numerical and some technological superiority, they cannot win a full scale conventional or nuclear war with India now.
China has a long history of hindering or stopping India’s progress and position almost at every international forum after 1962 Sino-Indian War. Few people would remember or know that today's sworn enemy Pakistan had once proposed to India for the two countries to adopt a common defence against the "northern" enemy (i.e. China), which was rejected by Nehru’s India, citing its nonalignment policy. During his premiership, Nehru had all along handled the charge of the Foreign Minister too. Subsequently, President Ayub Khan had offered in 1962 that the Indian troops could safely be transferred from the Pakistan frontier to the Himalayas, which was not availed. After the war, the shrewd Chinese leadership started cultivating Pakistan for their regional ambitions and ultimately pocketed them to use against India at own sweet will. They have opposed India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and they are continuously stalling India’s entry in the UN security Council as permanent member despite the fact that the remaining four permanent members are favourably inclined to India’s case.
There is definite reason for this Chinese approach and perennial hostility against the Indian interests in global perspective. The Communist China has emerged as a relatively powerful and prosperous nation after the liberalization and opening of their economy for free trade and commerce with the Western world since late 1970s. After the fall of the erstwhile USSR as the only other superpower and challenger to the US in 1990s, China has not only nurtured ambition to take its place but also to shine and substitute US as the only superpower in the world both economically and militarily. After China, India is the only other important fast-growing country with its large size, huge manpower, and in-house scientific and technical potential that can match China in progress and challenge its hegemony in the world. The case in point could be the constant Indian refusal to join the Chinese Belt and Road despite constant pressure on them. For these reasons, it is not likely in the changed world order that US and China or India and China could ever stand on the same side. In this triangle, India and US share some common ethos and interests but India needs to rise on its own strength to deal with its belligerent and expansionist neighbour.
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