India-China Military Standoff – A Question of Sovereignty and Peace
Being at war with itself, India has neither the intent nor the courage to deter her enemies from nibbling at the ‘disputed’ borders and regurgitate at the negotiating table. Pakistan and China are taking full advantage of a weak Government which is virtually held at ransom by its coalition partners. Also, as a tradition the Indian politician has never felt much interested in national security and military matters, much less in the remotely issues like border management. First, it was the audacious intrusion by the Pakistan Army at Kargil. The strategy with which the intrusion was accomplished made it abundantly clear that the intruding Army was fairly sure that there would not be any serious and immediate retaliation from the Indian side. Our initial response proved them right. Our delayed, measured response later cost India loss of image and precious lives of hundreds of soldiers.
If we were to go by the settled international norms in dealing such eventualities, it would be for the military commander on the spot ‘to prevent enemy ingress in his area of responsibility at all costs.
Now, in keeping with its oft-repeated tactics, China has displayed similar brazen behaviour. Chinese troops have audaciously intruded and, without camouflaging or concealing their incursion, pitched in to establish a post as deep as 18 kilometres inside Indian territory. It was no covert or hush-hush sneak into the Indian territory but a deliberate military operation supported by military helicopters. In their quest to assert their influence and presence in the area, another squad of Chinese troops in boats kept on churning the Pangong Tso lake waters deep inside the Indian territory. Altogether, it was not merely a ‘show of force’; they pitched tents inside India and stayed on – as if assured of India’s cordiality.
If we were to go by the settled international norms in dealing such eventualities, it would be for the military commander on the spot ‘to prevent enemy ingress in his area of responsibility at all costs.’ If, however, the intruding force is beyond the local military commander’s capability, the higher commander should assume the task of restoring the status quo ante. What it simply implies is that military action must be met by a befitting counter military response. To be meaningful, the counter-action must be swift and punitive enough to deter the enemy from undertaking such misadventure in future. Talks, diplomacy can subsequently take over to diffuse military action from escalating beyond a level.
A succession of flag meetings between the opposing military commanders has failed to persuade the Chinese to undo their intrusion. In fact under the pretext of ‘disputed’ Line of Actual Control (LAC) they are insisting that they have ‘not intruded’. By this contention, China is implicitly staking her claim to the Indian territory and pushing the LAC deep inside India.
What is happening along our borders in the north and west is indeed very disturbing. A Pakistani patrol intrudes into our territory, captures our soldiers, beheads them and returns with impunity! No military commander anywhere in the world would tolerate such barbaric action and humiliation. Sadly, except drama little was done to avenge, retaliate and deliver a lesson to the errant Pakistani Army. On the contrary, in cooling down under the subsequent diplomatic exercise, we have conveyed to the world that India still lives by her revered Bapu’s doctrine: ‘If someone slaps you on the right cheek, don’t retaliate – offer him the left one as well.’ Why does the Army need ‘clearance’ from the Government to carry out its assigned task? If there is a Government that hesitates, assure it, warn it but do not give up!
India is the only country in the sub-continent whose decision makers give away their fears best. It seems our leaders have more confidence in the enemy military power than their own…
The Chinese explanation says that enhanced activities like road construction, advanced air landing grounds and infrastructure on the Indian side provoked them to move in their troops. Going by the Indian practice, they should have lodged protest and held meetings with India seeking assurance of no offensive posturing against them. But they did not talk. Instead, they moved in militarily leaving the option of talks for India even though all the ‘impugned’ Indian activities were fully legitimate and well within her territory.
What could be an appropriate military action from India in the given situation? Reportedly, the intruding Chinese body of troops is platoon strength. The Indian military commander in whose area this intrusion took place should have intercepted and forced them to withdraw preferably immediately. Otherwise, an ultimatum could have been served on them laying down specific time by which they must withdraw from the Indian territory. A force of the size of an infantry battalion with requisite supporting elements could have isolated the intruders forcing them to surrender. Such a situation could have provided India a strategic edge to bring about a stubborn China to see reason and settle disputes on mutually acceptable terms.
Ironically, however, India is the only country in the sub-continent whose decision makers give away their fears best. It seems our leaders have more confidence in the enemy military power than their own as is evident from the common refrain in the South Block corridors – ‘we do not want to escalate the situation; remember we are nuclear weapon states. We shall talk and find an amicable solution.’ That is neither a military response nor good diplomacy. Similar assurances were given by Pandit Nehru in 1948 when he – not the enemy – forestalled the Indian Army offensive chasing the Pakistani intruders from what is now Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) by rushing to the UN and asking his own Army to cease-fire. And the wound was left to fester forever. Similarly, Aksai Chin has remained under the Chinese occupation since 1962. Bipartite talks between India and China have lingered for years without resulting in any rapprochement in sight despite 15-16 rounds of futile talks.
Interestingly, among the three nuclear weapon states – China, India and Pakistan – if there is any evidence of ‘nuclear deterrence’ at work, it is in India. We have consistently let Pakistan get away with attacks in the garb of terrorist strikes unpunished – Red Fort, Parliament, Mumbai, to name just a few of the numerous. Unlike other sovereign nations, India has always chosen a fretful posturing and, rather than retaliating forcefully, relied on lodging protests and complaints with Pakistan naively hoping it would prosecute (and not reward (!)) its soldiers and proxy soldiers for their daring acts to bleed India.
If Vietnam can tell China in plain language to behave, India can tell her in a more convincing language.
For an India aspiring for larger global role, this stance of indecisive, timid responses is not conducive to enhance her image as a competent, assertive and credible Power. It is high time India resolved her dilemma and asserted her legitimate rights. There must be a clearly defined policy and unambiguous doctrine to deal with vital issues of national defence and security. Such a policy must be explicitly stated, loudly proclaimed and resolutely enforced. Even as the Indian Army might have to fight and throw out the intruders from own territory, the Government could continue its diplomatic engagement driving home an unambiguous message to all – India is committed to foster peace, friendship and cooperation with her neighbours but every intrusion or inimical action shall be dealt with militarily just like any other crime or violation of law by foreign nationals is dealt with legally on merits of the case. Our policies and actions on ground must convince our neighbours that playing with India’s integrity is highly risky and unaffordable. Good neighbourly relations with China are not a one sided requirement or necessity for India to beg and pursue. Building an atmosphere of cordiality and trust is equally vital for China being India’s largest trading partner. If Vietnam can tell China in plain language to behave, India can tell her in a more convincing language.
Indian troops have never violated neighbours’ borders, LC or LAC and therefore we may not be aware how Pakistan and China would react to an Indian platoon intruding into their territory. It could be a worthwhile exercise to attempt and test this option to learn some useful lessons!
India’s policy confusion raises a few vital questions that demand clear and eloquent answers: How much peace is really enough? Can we ensure it by negating the military’s role in it?