The Indian Army Chief had in the annual press conference prior to the Army Day 2018, stated that time had come to shift attention to the northern border in view of China’s increased aggressiveness. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokes-person Lu Kang on 15 January objected to the remarks of the Army Chief, complaining that the remarks were ‘unconstructive’, and that the remarks, ‘cannot help to preserve tranquillity and peace in the border areas’.
A casual reading of the Chinese media, presents a contrarian but abiding impression. China’s Global times citing official People’s Liberation Army (PLA) newspaper had ominous proclamation that ‘War is not far from us’. Xu Guangyu, a retired general went ahead and stated that likelihood that China would be forced to engage in military conflict has increased over the past few years and named the regions like the ‘Korea Peninsula, China-India border area and the Taiwan Straits, the PLA needs to be prepared for all possibilities’. Onwards, the observations get unpropitious, as ‘regional situations around China are complex and unstable, and dangers are hiding under the peace. China cannot afford a military failure, so we must be fully aware of potential crisis and be prepared for battle at all times. When the country is on the brink of becoming a great military power, it’s also stepping into a period with high risks to national security.’
President Xi Jinping dressed in military fatigues on 03 January 2018, had heralded the New Year, with a rare speech to the military urging soldiers ‘to be ready for war’ and ‘don’t fear death.’ As duly reported, the event was a grand display of military strength at the country’s first mobilisation for the whole armed forces – an event that was beamed to 4000 venues of Peoples Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force. In the exercise, the frontline aircraft of PLA Air Force like J-20 were practicing beyond-visual-range air combat, and other aircraft, including the Y-20 and the J-10C, are training on a “plateau region” which is a euphemism for the Tibetan plateau and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. There were also recent reports of China’s apparent sale of a large combat drone, likely Wing Loong I to Pakistan according to new satellite images – a significant collusion!
As no likelihood of an all out conventional war presently has been broadly and largely accepted, the rationale for the incidents that recur along the LAC is singularly problematic. In the area of Doklam, the Indian Army had reacted with similar intensity in 2008 as it did in 2017, and the face-off was eventually called off. In 2013, the encampment by PLA in the Depsang plains in Eastern Ladakh, near Daulat Beg Oldie, was dismantled following the strong reaction from the Indian Army. At Demchok and Chumar in 2014, the robust response by the Army, ensured an amicable uncoupling. There have also been reports of an incident in Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016. Other than Doklam, Barahoti in Uttrakhand and then the jostling and stone pelting between Finger Four and Five on the North Bank of Pangong Tso happened in 2017. This discounts the routine ones that recur frequently but are called off amicably, or resolved through Border Personnel Meetings.
The Chinese well understand and would have templated the methodology followed by India in consequence to the intransigent standoffs, prior to Doklam, and yet went ahead with the belligerence that lasted 73 days. In fact, a near repeat of the road construction was in Chepzi-Chumar in Eastern Ladakh, wherein a similar standoff lasted for a significant time. Doklam however came in with the significant difference of having a third country involvement. The latest is Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh, another singularly belligerent act. To ascribe all these as localised incidents, by the Border Guards, is missing the hierarchical structures of the PLA and the Party, that from bottom of the rung transcend to the very top – the Central Military Commission. That all of these have been amicably brought to cessation, largely using military diplomacy, does not obviate the issue that they happened! And have the potential to continue on, at differing places. Understandably, and rightly so, there is a continual push for a peace narrative, to obviate any chances of escalation. However, this peace narrative has to be holistically examined with the oft mentioned ‘safeguarding of national sovereignty in China’s periphery’, which contextually is directed towards India-China border too!
The transformation evident in the Chinese military is of great significance, in all its manifestations, ostensibly the force modernisation plans are linked with the Chinese dream of becoming a great power by 2049. The Chinese official media, unofficial (if it exists) and social media have been singularly raucous and belligerent of late. Cumulated with the recurring border intrusions, it is portending dark ominous clouds.
The Indian Army is hardy, rugged, well trained and battle hardened enough to sustain themselves, and would create mechanism for the operational logistics, in one and all of the disputed areas. It does however need to continually reappraise itself vis-a-vis PLA. The crux of the issue is infrastructure development. Long-term perspective plans for border infrastructure development have existed for a substantial time, and despite substantial time, yet not fructified. This must be taken on as a national push, seeking to amalgamate expertise available with public-private sector to plan, construct, tunnel and maintain. Meanwhile operational scenarios should continually be war gamed and response options available on a platter – for they may be required even as early as the summer of 2018. The Chief of Army Staff has hence timely spoken on the need for the Army’s focus to shift to the northern borders, in his talk to the press in the run up to the Army Day 2018.