Debunking myths of China’s geo-strategic moves

Remaining focused on time-bound infrastructure development, it will be pragmatic to reduce hype attached to construction and inauguration of infrastructure in sensitive areas. Concurrent requirement is to fast-track China-centric, joint theatre commands. To deter the Dragon, we must discard myths, accept new realities and reduce asymmetries.

Debunking myths of China’s geo-strategic moves

Maturity: Indian patrols have displayed remarkable restraint in face-offs.

Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retd)

Former Western Army Commander

Aspate of recent border stand-offs, at two ends of unsettled Sino-Indian border in Naku La (Sikkim), followed by multiple incursions in Ladakh-Galwan and Pangong Tso, is another manifestation of coercive salami slicing by China. For a more informed analysis, the requirement is to debunk prevalent myths and formulate a realistic template.

It is appropriate to start this process with ‘unsettled-settled’ border. The then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2005 that “Sikkim is no longer a problem between China and India.” In recent discussions, the Chinese Ambassador alluded to Sikkim as a low-hanging fruit, disregarding the prolonged standoff at Doklam. It is indeed comical that Chinese patrols regularly resort to childish pranks of disassembling cairns (stone heaps) on the Kerang plateau. The transgression at Naku La, in desolate and sparsely populated Muguthang valley was activated, most surprisingly, the first time in 2017. Galwan, the current flashpoint in Ladakh, is an apt example of ‘creeping claim lines’ by the Chinese. In contrast, our approach has been fuelled by optimism, conditioned by false notions.

Myth 1: Sino-Indian border is largely settled with just a few recorded and identified flashpoints. The harsh reality is that the PLA activates different areas, in keeping with their grand design, often as diversionary tactics. In this case, Naku La was a distraction for Galwan. We draw comfort from nuancing incursions as transgressions, but the unmistakable bottom line is — nothing is settled, till it is delimited, delineated and demarcated on the ground. We have to be prepared for the long haul with more surprises, as China is in no hurry to resolve issues.

Myth 2: Stand-offs are due to overreaction by local commanders. This is another false notion, a convenient excuse to pass the buck. Most stand-offs are recorded by PLA patrols with considerable play acting, giving an impression, that they are vectored by higher HQs. It will be prudent to surmise that the Chinese are masters in centrally planned but locally orchestrated events. In any case, Chinese Western Command controls the entire Tibet border against four different commands of India, micro-managed by the Army HQ, adding to confusion. Indian patrols have displayed remarkable restraint and maturity in face-offs. It throws up a disturbing possibility that ‘strategic guidance’ (agreed to at the summit level) is being flouted by the PLA, with tacit blessings.

Myth 3: The Chinese are superior to us. This myth needs to be junked. Objective comparison proves that our troops are more than a match for their counter parts. The 1962 syndrome was discarded in a resolute stand-off at Nathu La and Cho La, in 1967. Unfortunately, we have downplayed, this heroic action, as skirmish to avoid embarrassing the PLA. In fact, most Chinese troops are conscript variety with questionable domain competence. In Somdrong Chu and other stand-offs over the years, as also UN operations, Chinese vulnerability has been exposed, repeatedly.

Myth 4: Chinese technological asymmetry will cripple adversaries even before the battle is joined. The much hyped technology is yet to be operationalised and is severely degraded by high altitude and weather. On balance, it is part of psychological warfare and can’t be taken as game changer.

Myth 5: By and large, peace prevails as no bullet has been fired since 1967. This needs to be moderated with realisation that China is already waging unrestricted warfare. There is considerable evidence of Chinese engineered cyber disruption in our power grid. Pare-chu floods causing severe damage to power plants astride Sutlej and the more recent devastating deluge in Assam, coupled with denial of hydrological data are gross misuse of upper riparian leverages. Even in the current stand-off, water flow has been blocked in Galwan river. Pacifism is rooted in Deng’s maxim of economic consolidation, preceding precipitate military action, which has been discarded by Xi’s aggressively rising China.

Myth 6: In all situations, China will act responsibly, in accordance with stature. Will any responsible power misuse the pandemic for power play? Conventional wisdom, propagated by experts, is that Pakistan will invariably exploit Sino-Indian hostilities and intervene. China, showing maturity as a global power, will desist from exploiting Indo-Pak hostilities. Chinese reticence in 1971 and Kargil are cited as examples. However, the degree of collusive linkages have strengthened manifold with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Myth 7: China will show reciprocity and respect our sensitivities. 17 Corps, which was initially designated as Mountain Strike Corps and later played down with the dropping of ‘strike’ and curtailing of budgetary allocation has not resulted in any reduction in Chinese intransigence.

The coping strategy in dealing with China has to factor in existing asymmetry and should be confined within the bounds of realism. We have viable options, though limited, yet we must signal resolve. It may take considerable time, like Doklam, but our sensitivities in terms of security to the new Darbuk-DBO road and unfettered patrolling up to our claim lines, including Pangong Tso area should be ensured. In this age of 5G, nail-studded clubs, stoning and wrestling bouts on the LAC need to be eliminated. While diplomats and commanders are resolving the situation, the electronic media should enable an honourable resolution by avoiding rabble-rousing debates.

Remaining focused on time-bound infrastructure development, it will be pragmatic to reduce hype attached to construction and inauguration of infrastructure in sensitive areas. Concurrent requirement is to fast-track China-centric, joint theatre commands. The Mountain Corps needs to be customised as an agile force and most importantly funded to generate multiple quid pro quo options. To deter the Dragon, we must discard myths, accept new realities and reduce asymmetries.

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