The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat’s, unambiguous statement that military options were on the table if diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the ongoing imbroglio with China, obviously represents the next logical step on the escalatory ladder. Subsequent actions, such as the refusal to participate in KAVKAZ 2020, a Russian organized military exercise that includes units from China and Pakistan, and the preemptive occupation of heights on the Southern bank of Pangong Tso in the face of Chinese provocation, if correct, leads one to believe it is no longer business as usual and the gloves are finally off.
Of course, there are those within our journalistic and academic community who suggest that he was grandstanding as they believe we are hardly in a position to take on the PLA given the massive disparities we confront in terms of economic strength, infrastructural development, technological and modern war fighting doctrines and net-centric warfare capabilities.
Their implication being that given the vast differential in Comprehensive National Power (CNP), a term coined by the Chinese, we may as well quietly accede to Chinese bullying, accept the inevitable and roll over. Hopefully, this pessimistic and defeatist mindset is restricted only to this lot and has not permeated our political establishment as well.
These deductions are patently incorrect as they seem to have ignored important factors that will gain primacy in any shooting war. They also seem to have disregarded the fact that CNP means little when the adversaries are nuclear powers, otherwise Pakistan would have been consigned to the dust heap of history years ago.
Despite the excellent infrastructure that connects Tibet to the Chinese Mainland, as well as within the plateau itself, Tibet (Lhasa) is approximately 1200 Kms from their supply bases in Golmud in Qinghai. From Lhasa to Rudok in Ladakh is another 1600 kms. From Hotan in Xinjiang to Rudok it is 1200 kms.
Moreover, these lines of communication not only traverse some of the most difficult terrain, but also pass through territory where the Chinese Government is already combating internal unrest. All of this makes it extremely susceptible to interdiction and sabotage. This fact combined with the reality that the vast Tibetan Plateau is a high- altitude desert devoid of cover makes logistics, administrative, command and control bases especially vulnerable to air attacks, despite the extensive early warning and air defence capabilities that are in place.
Distances and the adverse effects of high altitude will certainly impact the ability of the Chinese to induct and deploy large number of forces for extended periods of time. It will also impact equipment functioning and the combat efficiency of the personnel deployed. However, its greatest impact will be on the conduct of air operations. Despite the superiority in Rocket Forces that the PLA may enjoy, the IAF will have a distinct and undeniable edge over the PLAAF.
In complete contrast to the 1962 conflict, where for utterly unfathomable reasons we abjured the employment of the IAF in close support of our ground forces and were in no position to launch credible ground offensives, there is little doubt that air power and offensive actions by our ground forces will be the defining factor in any future conflagration. As Sun Tzu so correctly pointed out “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.”
There are those who suggest that given the Chinese technological superiority, especially in the areas of cyber warfare, space, drones and ballistic missiles, they will be able to defeat us by resorting only to non-contact warfare. It is believed that cyber attacks against our power and communication infrastructure along with economic warfare will bring us to our knees and ensure our forces cannot move to their deployment areas. Anti- Satellite capabilities we are rendered blind and deaf while the use of stand- off weapons will ensure our defences crumble.
High altitude mountain warfare, as I have written elsewhere (Dominating the Mountain Warfare Narrative in the Indian Context; Geopolitics January 2017), poses unique challenges and while technology does have its advantages, it still plays a marginal role in such an environment. Both the United States campaign in Afghanistan and the Kargil Conflict are clear indicators of this fact.
Boots on the ground matter, even more so for the army that is on the offensive, as he needs to have a force ratio of 6-9 times in his favour. In this context, even given the additional forces the PLA may induct, we continue to hold the advantage vis-à-vis relative strength of forces in the region, more so given we hold a defensive posture along interior lines. We must also not lose sight of the fact that we will not sit idly by as he resorts to means other than kinetic to attack us. They are fully aware that we have the resources and the capabilities to create serious internal security problems within the Tibetan Autonomous Region using covert means, if we chose to do so, apart from other options that we have as well.
In another piece (Responding to the Chinese Game Plan; Indian Defence Review 6 Jul 2020) this columnist had laid out various options available for dealing Chinese perfidy on our borders. Among them the most appropriate seemed to be to give them a taste of their own medicine by either occupying unheld areas or capturing those that are lightly held by the PLA within the disputed zones which we claim as well. As per some unconfirmed reports emanating on public media, it appears that this is the very course that we seem to have adopted, if reports of what has transpired on the Southern banks of the Pangong Tso are to be believed.
One hopes that if this is the case, as it should force a rethink on the part of the Chinese leadership and ensure they take the long drawn- out discussions on resolving thedelineation of the border and the ongoing imbroglio more seriously.
Unfortunately, escalation of this conflict into a shooting war cannot be wished away, especially given the Chinese intransigence and aggressiveness on display. Though unnecessary and unwanted a limited conflict would in all likelihood end much in the manner that the bitter and brutal Korean War ended after three years of intense fighting, in a stalemate, or as the American soldiers referred to it “die for a tie”. If that were to happen, especially after a bitter and prolonged conflict, it would be seen within China and by the international community as a defeat for the PLA with concomitant impact on President Xi’s ability to continue to remain the dominant leader that he is today.
Despite these grave risks if President Xi and the PLA continue to escalate matters then we can be fairly sure that they have every intention of drawing Pakistan into the conflict as well. It may be a good time now to increase our diplomatic outreach to ensure Pakistan is deterred from getting involved, while we look to deal with the Chinese militarily.
As for timing, it would also be worthwhile keeping in mind that in 1962 the Chinese attacked at a time when the United States was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the present time too, not only is America completely obsessed in dealing with the effects of the pandemic but also finds itself in the midst of a rather rambunctious Presidential election. Whichever way our leadership wishes to handle the issue it should not be surprised if it finds itself alone once again in this confrontation.