The definition was never so emphatic before, as it was when the four met on Oct 06, 2020 in Tokyo. They sounded more like an alliance than any informal grouping. This time pledging to make the Indo-Pacific free, and open and create resilient supply chains, sent a strong message to China. This was their second meeting since 2019, held in the backdrop of the ongoing border tensions between China and India. The foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and India, and the US secretary of state marked their unified strength.
Amidst the global pandemic, China appears to have miscalculated her moves. Threatening existence of Taiwan, usurping autonomy of Hong Kong and nibbling Indian territory in Ladakh were those disruptions in the paradigm.
Commonly referred to as the Quadrilateral (QUAD), an informal strategic forum between United States, Japan, Australia and India, initiated as a dialogue in 2007, QUAD was maintained by semi regular summits, information exchanges and military drills amongst member countries. But not anymore. The QUAD was inching forward into an alliance in the evolving power dynamics from Himalayas to the Pacific.
Amidst the global pandemic, China appears to have miscalculated her moves. Threatening existence of Taiwan, usurping autonomy of Hong Kong and nibbling Indian territory in Ladakh were those disruptions in the paradigm. The ripples of which would be felt over for decades to come.
On May 03, 2020 when the Indian army was busy paying tributes to her Covid warriors, the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army was preparing to cross over in to the Indian claimed territories of Ladakh. On May 05, Chinese and Indian troops got engaged in aggressive melee, face offs and skirmishes brick batting each other at different locations in eastern Ladakh.
The second India China war had just begun.
The first casualty was of a PLA soldier on May 05, at Galwan in a stone throwing exchange. No guns booming, no jets screaming, the troops of these two nuclear giants were fighting it out the pre historic ways, they were soaked in blood with clubs and stones. On the fateful night of 15-16 June, 21 Indian soldiers and 35 Chinese soldiers clubbed and stoned each other to death. The guns were silent all along while the battle was fought.
India was no doubt caught off guard on ground but the Chinese were adamant and signalled a long haul beyond the winter months. Situation looked desperate and India appeared cornered. On Aug 30, the Indian Army surprised the PLA big time, they had out flanked and occupied strategic heights throwing Moldo garrison’s defences vulnerable. This was a classical offensive manoeuvre in this high altitude terrain, executed with military precision. The guns continued to be silent while the battle for supremacy raged.
While the ground situation and challenges thereon are being met with high resolve and professionalism. This involves all spheres involving the three “Ts”, they are Totality of Battle Field, Totality of Technology and Totality of Society.
The 2020 Indo – China silent war was being fought over 14000 feet above sea level.
Will this war continue to be a silent or will this standoff result in a full blown war? This is something only time will tell. As the situation exists, millions of soldiers have been mobilised on both the sides, operation logistics is in full swing and millions are being spent daily to sustain the build-up. For India, all this is when her economy is shrinking at 23 percent in Covid times. These times are not only testing but also defining.
Not a day passes without any reference to the ongoing crisis. On Oct 08, it was the Air Chief. He in his address on 88th Air Force Day said, “The evolving threat matrix in our region is becoming complex, ranging from aspirational adversaries with huge investments in military arsenal, to those collusively supported by non-state actors, apart from growing sub-conventional threats emanating from terrorism and cyber space. Disruptive technologies and easy access to low cost options like drones, are increasingly demanding greater attention to the sub-conventional domain.
This not only highlights the threat India faces on all the three fronts both internal and external. His address also highlights our desperate need for disruptive technologies and over all self-reliance in defence technology.
While the ground situation and challenges thereon are being met with high resolve and professionalism. This involves all spheres involving the three “Ts”, they are Totality of Battle Field, Totality of Technology and Totality of Society. We need to crystal gaze into India’s status in the decades that lay ahead post 2020 Indo-China silent war. And to do so we may have to turn some history pages and take a cue.
We must seek answers to two questions, first, drawing lessons from our past and second, predicting our future. Thus, what would have been the course of our history had the Chinese not attacked India in 1962? And, what will be the geopolitical status for India post this 2020 silent war?
On first question. In order to get a good sense of the thinking prevailing amongst the top political leadership of Independent India in 1947, it will be worthwhile to quote an incident from the book “Major General AA Rudra” by Major General DK Patil, VrC. He writes that General Sir Rob Lockhart, C-in-C Army (India) convened a high powered meeting to discuss defence strategy and prepare a policy paper for the government. The draft policy paper was duly prepared, the C-in-C went to see Pandit Nehru with his draft policy. He returned from the Prime Minister’s office soon after, in just a few minutes. His Military Secretary GHQ India, Major General AA Rudra asked General Sir Lockhart, what happened sir? C-in-C replied, “I was thrown out of the PM’s office, that is what happened. The PM took one look at my paper and blew his top. ‘Rubbish! Total Rubbish!’ he shouted. ‘We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is ahimsa (non-violence). We foresee no military threats. Scrap the army! The police are good enough to meet our security needs”.
..we must gloss over the ethos prevailing in the Indian army in the run-up to 1962 debacle. Since the political class at that time thought the army to be a waste of manpower and money…
In undivided India, the army was a little over 4,00,000. On partition, India got a share of 2,80,000 while the that of Pakistan was 1,50,000. However, on Sep 16, 1947 Prime Minister Nehru directed that Indian army be reduced to 1,50,000. And these directions came when the 90,000 troops of Indian army were embroiled in J&K operations.
Simultaneously, we must gloss over the ethos prevailing in the Indian army in the run-up to 1962 debacle. Since the political class at that time thought the army to be a waste of manpower and money, army generals took upon projects involving troop labour to impress their political masters. One such project was “Amar” (construction of barracks and family accommodation by troop labour) undertaken in 1957-58 by 4 Infantry Division located at Ambala. General Thimmayya tried convincing Krishna Menon, India’s defence minister and he advised him that such “an adventure” ought not be undertaken. However, when Thimmaya was away on a tour to the US, Major General BM Kaul, manipulated his way through Krishna Menon and got the approvals.
Unfortunately, within the prevailing environment of that period, internal health of the Indian army had suffered immensely. Professionalism at the back seat, senior army officers were seen enjoying political patronage for their career advancements.
Thanks lord that the Chinese attacked India and gave her a solid drubbing. Or else, this elephant would have continued to be in a state of oblivion, totally ignorant of the vagaries of geopolitical environment. And, slipping into an irreversible decay. This Ashokan blunder would have opened gates to foreign powers once again. In this context, recalling the lines written for India by Mathew Arnold in 186 7would be apt, when he wrote, “The East bowed low before the blast. In patient, deep disdain, She let the Legions thunder past, And plunged in thought again”.
After the debacle of 1962, India set itself upon a serious course correction. Same Nehru, who had once detested the idea of “Defence of India” by the army, and rather felt that the police force was competent enough to do the job. He had now set the reforms in motion. Defence production for self-reliance and expansion of the Armed forces capable enough of defending India was now put in action. Politicians and bureaucrats meddling into the affairs of the military promoting patronage was seen as one of the major reasons of defeat. Nehru instituted major reforms directed at institutional strengthening of the armed forces. And this reform was the most important of all in my opinion.
Ever since the beginning of 80s, India has suffered the Pakistan sponsored terrorism, now for nearly four decades, and the end is nowhere to be seen.
Within a short span of two and a half years everything had transformed. Come 1965, same Indian army defeated a far more technologically superior Pakistani army to everyone’s astonishment. Pakistan armed forces were equipped with the best tanks, fighter jets, missiles and radars making it the most modern military in the Muslim world and whole of South Asia. The confidence of General Ayub Khan was not without any reason. He was to fight the defeated army of 1962.As per his appreciation, Indian army lacked the resolve and organisation to fight a professional army as of his. He had famously said, “we will have breakfast in Lahore, lunch at Jallandhar and dinner at Delhi”. It probably could have been a reality had the Chinese not shaken us out of our misplaced ideals and deep slumber.
By the turn of the decade of 60s India had established herself as a major military power to recon with. Indian army had defeated Pakistani aggression despite her antiquated equipment in 1965 war followed by a bloody nose to the Chinese in Nathu La skirmish of 1967. And finally in 1971 this self-realised strength culminated into creation of a new country Bangladesh, dismembering Pakistan. All these victories could not be possible without the three “Ts” – Totality of Battlefield, Technology and the Society.
In the 70s Pakistan came at the centre stage of the geopolitical great game being played out by the superpowers in Afghanistan. Massive western military aid and economic assistance coupled with Islamisation of Pakistani society ushered a new era of terrorism in this subcontinent. Nuclearization of the subcontinent in the late 90s further emboldened the arch rival Pakistan. Ever since the beginning of 80s, India has suffered the Pakistan sponsored terrorism, now for nearly four decades, and the end is nowhere to be seen.
Over these decades, the nuclearization brought with it a widely accepted perception that there would never be a war between India and Pakistan or India and China. This could probably be the reason of neglect of our armed forces modernisation yet again. However, Kargil war and later the surgical strikes across the LoC and lately the use of Indian air force in bombing of Balakot suggested availability of vast spaces for conventional conflicts did exist.
After decades of neglect, India’s military modernisation was underway. However there was a big mismatch between the military’s aspiration and the allocated defence budget which fell lowest on the GDP percentage mark…
The standoff in the Himalayas bring to fore the fact that there exists a huge space for conventional war under the nuclear threshold over land air and sea combined. The risk of an all-out hot war was never so real in the past 50 years as it is today between these two Asian giants.
Now we come to our second question and that is, What will be India’s geopolitical status post this 2020 silent war? Before we get into that realm, it would be prudent to briefly touch upon India’s strategic culture and military ethos before the start of this ongoing silent war pre May 2020.
India had proactively countered the Chinese at Dhoklam in 2017, successfully carried out surgical strikes across the LoC and bombed Balakot terrorist training camp in Pakistan calling the Pakistani nuclear bluff. After decades of neglect, India’s military modernisation was underway. However there was a big mismatch between the military’s aspiration and the allocated defence budget which fell lowest on the GDP percentage mark, bringing it at par with that of 1962 level. Owing to the budgetary constraints, raising of mountain strike corps to its envisaged potential was cut short. The Navy’s ambitious third aircraft carrier discontinued due to resource crunch. And the Air Force continues to be grossly under strength despite the start of induction of Rafales.
Simultaneously the ethos of our armed forces also saw some decay over the past ten years. In this decade, India army witnessed politization of its senior ranks. Senior generals were openly seen displaying their loyalties towards various political ideologies, especially the BJP. They joined political parties post retirement and fought elections thus nearly destroying the apolitical ethos of our armed forces. Though it is absolutely within the democratic right of any individual to be part of any political party. But in the bargain it is that moral fibre of being above politics in selfless service to the nation that comes under serious stress.
While there appears to be a Totality of Battlefield and Technology, The Totality of Society is something that should be a cause of worry. There exists a big communal divide that manifested itself in many parts of India during the protests against the Citizen Amendment Act. On the political front, India’s largest opposition does not appear to be on the same page with the government of the day on the looming Chinese threat on our Northern borders. In addition, recent claims by Rahul Gandhi, the great grandson of Pandit Nehru, should be of greatest concern to all citizens of this country. He at a rally had said, that had he been in power he would have routed the Chinese in flat 15 minutes. This sums up our country’s strategic culture and understanding of matters defence amongst those who formulate policies for our country and aspire to be the Prime Minister of India.
…the then defence minister of India, George Fernandes had said on May 03, 1998. He had categorically declared China to be India’s potential “threat number one”.
There is no denying the fact that India has again been shaken off the slumber with this Ladakh standoff starting May 05, 2020. Fast track procurements of arms and ammunition, amending the Defence Procurement Policy, laying high focus on self-reliance, work on border infra projects on a war footing, enhancing diplomatic efforts garnering international support and at a fast pace carrying out testing and deployment of strategic missiles like the Nirbhay, enhanced range Bhramos, Prithvi and the missile armed with torpedo dubbed as SMART (Supersonic Missile Assisted Torpedo).
New attention has been given to this decades old rivalry as the armies on both side as they on Himalayas stand eye ball to eye ball. It has taken almost over two decades for us to openly acknowledge what the then defence minister of India, George Fernandes had said on May 03, 1998. He had categorically declared China to be India’s potential “threat number one”. It was an unprecedented statement by the defence minister that surprised many. He explained further how India has been encircled along its land and sea borders by the Chinese army and the naval activity in our neighbourhood, adding that India has to be “prepared for any eventuality”.
Notwithstanding the fact that India is actively seeking assurances and alliances through the groupings like QUAD. But there is a lesson of alliance failure which was witnessed in WW II with the fall of Singapore. This was a quintessential failure of alliance, and a strategic policy based on alliances. So the fall of Singapore holds vital lessons. Alliances can and do fail, any strategic policy that does not give reality its due weight is likely to fail. Not that I am suggesting that QUAD will fail but India has to remain prepared to fight the war on her own without over reliance on any alliances.
India would play a major role countering China in this region aggressively and actively. India would no longer be Pakistan centric in a post 2020 scenario.
Hereon in the decades ahead, China will be at the centre of all strategic considerations and planning by India. The world will see resurgence of India at geopolitical stage stretching from the Himalayas to the Pacific in a big way. India would play a major role countering China in this region aggressively and actively. India would no longer be Pakistan centric in a post 2020 scenario.
As India emerges from these cross roads in Himalayas, she could well be a super power in the making. Provided a concurrent progress is made on the economic front and the country tides over the frictions that denies her a Totality of Society.