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INDIA NEEDS TO CHANGE ITS CHINA STRATEGY

Major General Harsha Kakar (Retd) Writes :

For decades, India’s concentration of offensive forces remained on its western borders. Four wars, including Kargil, and decades of terrorism being propagated by Pakistan, compelled India to concentrate on this front. The deterioration of Pakistan’s economy, enhancement in Indian military capabilities, possession of nuclear weapons by both nations, accentuated by Pakistan’s ‘first use’ policy implied a change in offensive strategy, though force levels remained unchanged.

It was also assumed that diplomacy and close coupling of the economy would keep the Chinese at bay, thereby; preventing a two-front war. This belief was cemented by multiple rounds of top-leadership summits. Hence, India maintained a ‘defensive military posture of deterrence by denial’[i] against China while the government reduced defence spending to cater for other development programs. Critical deficiencies in defence capabilities remained, as the government was confident that China was no longer a threat and a two-front war, though spoken off, was distant.

Cuts in defence budgeting has impacted the defence preparedness. Funding for the Mountain Strike Corps was stopped, leaving it without resources to be an effective offensive formation. Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia stated in an article in ‘Tribune’ on 18th June this year, “The aim (of raising the mountain strike corps) was to create capabilities to enable military-diplomatic negotiations from a position of relative strength.”[ii] He added that it was intended to deter Chinese aggressive behaviour along the LAC. Its absence possibly emboldened the Chinese.

Simultaneously, the defence budget as a share of the GDP dropped year after year. Dr. Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan writing on 06 Feb 2020 for ‘The Diplomat’ states, “This year’s defence budget without defence pensions amounts to a mere 1.5 percent of the GDP, which is noticeably low considering the state of the military.” [iii]  Ms. Prabhjote Gill in her article for the ‘Business Insider’ on 01 Feb this year states that, “while the absolute amount has been increasing, defence expenditure has actually slowed down as a proportion of the GDP.”[iv] This had been compounded by increased pension bills. She further adds that, “the modernization budget falls short of actual requirement by a wide margin.” Indian defence capability gaps were an invitation for hostile actions by neighbours.

General Bipin Rawat, speaking at an event organized by the ‘Centre for Land Air Warfare Studies’, post resolution of Doklam had stated, “As far as northern adversary is concerned, the flexing of muscle has started. The salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about and remain prepared for situations emerging which could gradually emerge into conflict.”[v] This statement from the Army Chief was a reality, which was ignored domestically, yet it irked the Chinese.

Mr. Geng Shuang, the Chinese spokesperson stated, “We don’t know whether he (General Rawat) was authorised to speak those words, or it was just his spontaneous words or whether his words represented the position of the Indian government.” He further added that “Just two days ago, President Xi Jinping pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the two countries are each other’s development opportunities, not threats.”[vi] Evidently, the army top brass was expecting Chinese local offensive actions to be a regular feature.

Gen Bipin’s comments were sound advice from someone who had studied Chinese intent and should have served as a warning to the government, but was ignored due to diplomatic confidence, that China is not a threat and can be contained. Thus, when Ladakh happened everyone in the national hierarchy was surprised. India rushed forces into the region and immediately commenced large scale procurement to make up essential deficiencies, something which should have been a continuing process. The stalling of Chinese advance and occupation of the Kailash Ridge in a quid pro quo action led to talks, with both nations being on equal terms, and this has continued.

Simultaneously, India began reassessing its deployment of forces and evaluating its current versus future strategy against China. A defensive strategy was no longer the answer and India needed to consider other options. The current available force levels gave limited options. The other factor was whether China would contemplate an all-out offensive or would it continue seeking shallow gains. ‘The Global Times’, a Chinese mouthpiece has been regularly threatening India with war. The news channel ‘WION’ quotes ‘The Global Times’ in an article dated 09 Sep, that, “history (1962) will repeat itself if India makes same border mistake.”[vii]

Indian analysts have differing viewpoints. Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) , writing for the ‘New Indian Express’ on 28th Sep states, “It appears reasonably certain that China does not wish to risk fighting a war without certainty of its outcome.” He further adds, “In all probability, China chose to employ a calibrated hybrid war against India rather than exercise any conventional option.”[viii] Writing for ‘The Print’, Lt Gen Panag (Retd) stated that “It (India) possesses the military capability and the will to stalemate China and give it a bloody nose in a border conflict. As a great power, China cannot risk such a confrontation.”[ix]

Lt Gen Hooda, a former Northern Army Commander, writing for ‘The Hindu’ on 14 Sep stated, “The two sides have agreed to conclude new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas. This is a good step forward, although we should no longer be talking about peace and tranquillity along the LAC, but conflict prevention.”[x] Force levels currently in Ladakh are unlikely to sustain a large-scale conflict. China possesses better non-contact and hybrid warfare capabilities, however, presently, remains unsure of success, and hence is unlikely to push further.

With winters fast approaching and progress of talks at the army and WMCC levels continuing, the possibility of an escalation remains low. Whether the crisis will resolve with talks through the winters, or progress to next summers is a mute question. In addition, a war between the two nations would involve multiple dimensions including the IOR, where China is currently at a disadvantage. There is therefore a possibility that unless it’s growing navy has the power to project ample power in the IOR; it is unlikely to contemplate operations.

The trust deficit created by the current Chinese action implies that India must remain prepared for Chinese offensive actions. India therefore, needs to reconsider holistically its overall holding of forces against China and whether it needs to change its current defensive strategy against China. While India must enhance its capabilities for non-contact, cyber and space warfare alongside strengthening its naval power to counter China in its backyard, it may need to reconsider its availability of the army across the spectrum.

Pakistan may seek to exploit Indo-Chinese tensions or retaliate to an Indian counter-terrorist action strike. In either case, with Pakistan army’s current multiple internal security commitments, it is likely to limit itself to the Line of Control (LoC) or the International Border (IB) sector of J and K. Expanding the same across the IB would be the prerogative of India, seeking to enforce punishment on Pakistan. Indian force levels along the LoC and IB sector are currently sufficient to stall as also take the advantage from Pakistan.

However, it is the IB sector where India has the option of readjustment and reallocation of forces to enhance force levels along the northern and eastern fronts. Its Cold Start doctrine, nuclear overhang, reorganization of current forces into task specific Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) and creating integrated theatre commands could spare requisite troops for employment against China. The quantum and force levels made available would depend on assessment of threats by senior army commanders post analysis and war gaming. Simultaneously, the stalled Mountain Strike Corps should be raised to envisaged levels.

These additional forces should be employed for offensive actions as a quid pro quo to any Chinese offensive attempts. With this change in concept the Indian strategy towards China should change from ‘defensive military posture of deterrence by denial’ to ‘deterrence by punishment’[xi]. India must possess force levels to warn China that any action by them would lead to a similar response from the Indian side. This would be the ideal deterrent which India must create. China understands force and this should be the Indian intent.

End Notes

[i] https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/reading-the-signals-india-has-a-new-military-strategy-against-china/story-xQx4Zbu8FSoQPRcmgDVbIM.html

[ii] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/revisiting-mountain-corps-to-deter-china-100707

[iii] https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/indias-new-defense-budget-another-year-another-disappointment/

[iv] https://www.businessinsider.in/defense/news/indias-budget-allocation-for-defence-has-remained-fairly-static-for-the-past-five-years/articleshow/73153930.cms

[v] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/doklam-china-salami-slicing-army-chief-general-bipin-rawat-1039864-2017-09-07

[vi] https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/china-angered-by-army-chief-bipin-rawats-remarks-on-its-salami-slicing-1747238

[vii] https://www.wionews.com/world/history-will-repeat-itself-if-india-makes-same-border-mistake-says-chinas-mouthpiece-global-times-326217

[viii] https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2020/sep/28/is-ladakh-part-of-chinas-hybrid-war-against-india-2202802.html

[ix] https://theprint.in/opinion/india-stopped-seeing-chinas-border-moves-as-salami-slicing/306828/

[x] https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-lac-talks-from-peace-to-conflict-prevention/article32594802.ece

[xi] https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/reading-the-signals-india-has-a-new-military-strategy-against-china/story-xQx4Zbu8FSoQPRcmgDVbIM.html

 

Major General Harsha Kakar (Retd) writes and speaks on national security and the armed forces. Commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery in Jun 1979 he has held a number of appointments in field and peace. He was the head of department of strategic studies at the College of Defence Management. He was the first Indian Army officer to attend the National Security Studies Course at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
Article uploaded on 19-11-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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