The Indian Army remains handicapped in terms of its war making potential and lack of military infrastructure along the ever-vulnerable Indo-Tibet Border. The military men’s cause was first dealt a telling blow by India’s economic crisis of the early 1990s and whatever of it was left to kindle, was extinguished thereafter by the crass failure of the Indian state in modernising its military. Regrettably, that debilitation was not led by just the impositions of fiscal, scientific and industrial stagnation, at its root lay a systemic aberration of security-blindness that seemed to have seized India’s governing establishment, made up as it was of distracted political leadership, unaccountable bureaucracy, moribund military industry and marginalised military hierarchy.
“…China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims… We firmly oppose intimidation, coercion or the threat of force…” —US Defence Secretary Chuck HagelA Situation Grim
Modern China’s survival is inexorably linked with her domestic economic progress…
Modern China’s survival is inexorably linked with her domestic economic progress and rapid rise to superpower status. Given the inherent dispensation that China has adopted, these conditions require to be guaranteed by a powerful and ideologically committed military. Well aware of the linkage, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reinforces its endeavours with stout politics and strong military posturing. Thus one of its ventures, the integration of Tibet, has found India as its direct neighbour. China views India as an obstinate neighbour of reckonable power potential rebuffing China’s naturally ordained superiority and who needs to be chastised once in a while to be kept ‘in place’.
India too is intent on economic upliftment of her people and she too nurtures visions of global appreciation of her endeavours. The contrast with PRC however, lies in India’s inability or debility in building up a military institution that might deter the axis of inimical neighbours from indulging in mischief. The reality that much of India’s infirmity is self-inflicted along with the misplaced persistence, that the damage is not readily irreversible, exacerbates that contrast.
Subject to the persistent animosity of a neighbouring militarily active power and her own poorly managed and stagnant military establishment, the situation is turning grim for India. As a society of ‘believers’ who remain sanguine of divine intervention, it has not reached a point of hopelessness yet. But as the time to gear up is running out, it is necessary to examine the predicament of the Indian military establishment.
China views India as an obstinate neighbour of reckonable power potential rebuffing China’s naturally ordained superiority…
A Military Predicament
In the Indian military establishment, a kind of spiritual yearning to possess some capability, even if modest, to undertake riposte or retaliatory offensive across the Indo-Tibet Border was perhaps felt more and more passionately after the Samdrong Chu – Wangdung incident in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986-1987. Barring a minor clash at Nathu La in East Sikkim in 1967, which was the first instance after the 1962 debacle when a potentially serious year long face-off between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army (IA), took shape.
In that confrontation the IA was no match for the PLA with all the military assets at its disposal. Yet the IA had mobilised its formations with remarkable alacrity and stood its ground with confidence. Indeed that response to China’s surreptitious incursion into a controversial location on the Sino-India Line of Actual Control (LAC) had a self-confident Government’s endorsement. With Deng Xiaoping signalling via American intermediaries, a “warning” of the situation escalating to push China into “teaching India a lesson”, governments on both sides interceded. India sent her emissary to Beijing to de-escalate the situation and the troops disengaged from the stand-off. The final outcome was, however, still tilted in China’s favour, in a sense that while the PLA took the IA’s strong response seriously enough to desist from inching forward, it consolidated its occupation. Since then, it has been the dream of successive generations of the Indian military leadership to find some capability to ‘bite back’ if subjected to another Chinese aggression.
However, that was not to be. India was in no position to match China’s military build up. That is a reality that has haunted the Indian military leadership to no end. “What if the PLA intruded and occupied some other areas of its choosing at a time of its convenience before the IA could react?” was a question they asked themselves and the Government. Indeed, with some exceptions, India’s Tibet Border belt was devoid of the infrastructure needed to sustain any reckonable military deployment thus forcing the IA to reconcile to intermittent vigil by means of long range patrols. That left adequate time gaps for the PLA to plonk its detachments across the LAC if it was intent in doing so and so push forward China’s claim lines.
It has been the dream of successive generations of the Indian military leadership to find some capability to ‘bite back’…
Conversely, Indian military leaders acknowledged that they did not wield enough capability to deter territorial usurpations and evict those that might be attempted by the PLA. While the Government and the people might have had enough on their hands to divert their attention from this state of helplessness, for the soldiery, sentimentally conscious to a fault of their ‘calling’ to defend the motherland with the “last drop of blood”, that was a predicament that could not be accepted at any cost. Professionally astute, if somewhat conservative, India’s military commanders, true to the traditional spirit of ‘never say die’, had therefore proceeded to contrive whatever means they could to loosen themselves from the vice-like grip of the aforementioned state of infirmity.
By deft management of forces available at their disposal, they sought to create what uncommitted reserves they could to acquire some capability, even if modest, to respond to the PLA’s territorial predation. Distinct from the counter-attacks which are intrinsic to defensive battles, these reserves were sought to be positioned in depth of the main line of defences from where these could be launched to counter-manoeuvre either to unhinge the PLA’s attacks on main defences or to riposte at a place of choosing – tit for tat, so to say. Deliberate plans were war-gamed based on elaborate terrain analyses and assessment of relative force-strengths, and updated regularly.
The PLA’s calculated quietude pending its modernisation helped in that rearrangement of field formations. However, as expected of such ad hoc measures, during many of the validating exercises the idea of abstract counter-offensive was either pre-empted or diverted by emergence of tactical bindings which sucked up these reserves into the defensive battles. None of course fooled themselves with illusions of checking the PLA juggernaut; nevertheless, the soldiers took solace from the understanding that even if they could not overwhelm the aggressor, they were in a position to make it pay very heavily. The soldierly trait of nurturing hope made them sanguine that, in the coming days, India’s military capability would be built up to a level when they would be able to better acquit themselves in protecting the nation’s honour.
The dream of contesting any future aggression by the PRC got a boost in the aftermath of the Kargil War. Alarmed at the mammoth scale of military and dual-use infrastructural construction works undertaken by the PRC in Southern Tibet, the Indian Government found some urgency in modernising its armed forces and simultaneously building up communications and base infrastructure in the border areas.
Indian military leaders acknowledged that they did not wield enough capability to deter territorial usurpations…
To begin with, nearly a dozen strategic roads were to be taken right up to the Indo-Tibet Border, alongside which many other tactical roads, Advance Landing Grounds, depot areas and ancillaries were to come up. Subsequently, this plan was bolstered with the expressed intent of creating permanent military base infrastructure all along the border belt so as to provide strength and flexibility to the defending formations. But by 2004 or so, all such plans had stagnated; it took a couple of years more before IA’s dream of confidently defending the border had faded. Similarly, the Government’s indifference paid put to the idea of modernisation.
A decade and a half down the line, the Indian Army remains handicapped in terms of its war-making potential and lack of military infrastructure along the ever-vulnerable Indo-Tibet Border. The military men’s cause was first dealt a telling blow by India’s economic crisis of the early 1990s and whatever of it was left to kindle, was extinguished thereafter by the crass failure of the Indian state in modernising its military. Regrettably, that debilitation was not led by just the impositions of fiscal, scientific and industrial stagnation, at its root lay a systemic aberration of security-blindness that seemed to have seized India’s governing establishment, made up as it was of distracted political leadership, unaccountable bureaucracy, moribund military industry and marginalised military hierarchy.
China’s Tiger Ride
There is a great nation hosting an ancient civilisation of wonderful accomplishments – the PRC. It is a global heavyweight in every sense, gaining in its economic power in near-double digit percentages on annual basis. It is ruled by an autocratic regime of die-hard Communists, heirs of revolutionaries who had assumed state-power after defeating an imperialistic neighbour (Japan) after a long and bloody military struggle, and following it by a victory in civil-war against its rival, the American aided Republican (Kuomintang) Army.
The dream of contesting any future aggression by the PRC got a boost in the aftermath of the Kargil War…
The Communist rule claimed its legitimacy from that victory and sought to monopolise its authority through ruthless enforcement of the ‘supreme leaderships’ idiosyncrasies and obsessions. But six decades down the line, the world has changed; even the Communist world has. Today, to secure legitimacy, the regime must attract people’s acceptability. It seeks to do so by turning to a new found concept of “Communism with Chinese Characteristics” to bring about all round economic prosperity and cultural pride.
Given the past record of her diverse society’s propensity in inviting anarchy, the Communist autarchy is firm in its conviction that China’s progress and reclaim of her exclusive status in the world is contingent upon stability of the realm, which in turn is possible only under the regime’s undisturbed rule. Thus the regime has staked stability, development and China’s ‘rise’ to the perpetuation of Communist rule. However, given the limited natural resources at its sovereign disposal, the regime must look beyond its territories to usurp, garner, lease or buy more and more of these to sustain its economic goals.
Besides dangling economic carrots and homilies of bilateral friendships, that quest for access to resources involves territorial ‘reclamation’ which must be backed up with diplomatic bullying and if necessary, aggressive military conduct. Military power is also necessary to protect the regime should the equation of progress versus popular aspirations go haywire and internal destabilisation implodes. This dependence is moored at China’s historical experience of the devastations brought upon her realm by invading ‘barbarians’ of neighbouring ethnicities – Turks of Xinjiang and Tibetans of Xizang (Tibet) included – as well as her home-grown ‘warlords’. Thus, the PRC’s internal as well as external well-being is inexorably linked to the twin conditions of establishment of regional hegemony and enforcement of internal discipline.
Undoubtedly, the PRC is locked in a vortex of political and economic expansionism from which there is no escape; the regime can distract from that path only at its peril. It is like riding a tiger. Therefore, to a regime that captured state-power, held it against formidable internal challenges and successfully warded off animosities of external powers, all by the ‘power of the gun’, ownership of a powerful and captive military establishment must bring a measure of confidence in dealing with that ‘tiger’. It is so that the percentage of military spending has to remain many notches higher than the corresponding national growth while modernisation of the PLA at a scale gigantic to make it the most fearsome fighting machine, proceeds with a remarkable sense of purpose. That is a fact that neither the PRC, nor its neighbours may choose to overlook.