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Rising Tensions:China Catches India on the Backfoot in Ladakh

Updated on May 30, 2020
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MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.


India has a long history of pandering to China and living in a make-believe world. It started with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who coined the phrase "Hindi- Chini Bhai Bhai" (Indians-Chinese are brothers)despite China having occupied almost 37 thousand square miles of Indian territory in Aksai Chin. Nehru made a belated attempt to claim some of India's territory back but significantly failed to sign a border agreement offered by China. Both these acts convinced China that India was not sincere and attacked India in 1962. The Indian army lost badly and other than the United States no power in Asia supported India.

The Border remained undemarcated and the Indians and Chinese areas were separated by what is known as the Line of Actual Control( LAC.) This state of affairs continued for the last 58 years. The basic Indian response to China was not to antagonize the dragon with the result very few roads and infrastructure were built on the Indian side of the LAC. Besides, very few troops were left to face China. The policy was that in case India shows no belligerence, the Chinese will let India live in peace. I recollect when I was doing the staff course at Wellington we were taken for a study tour to Ladakh. At Leh, the Deputy GOC told us that India had one division in place facing China in Ladakh in a "holding position." On the other side, the Chinese had six divisions. This clearly shows that India had given the initiative on the border to China. During these years there were many incursions by the Chinese but they were downplayed by various Indian governments right up to the time of Manmohan Singh.

There was a slight change when Narendra Modi became the prime minister in 2014. He cleared many infrastructure projects of road development on the border in both the East and West.

Modi however also miscalculated and assumed that China would be a friend of India if a fresh approach was made. Accordingly, he began to meet the Chinese President and both of them also met in Wuhan and the Indian press was talking about the "Wuhan Spirit."

Modi like Nehru seriously underestimated the Chinese who were hellbent on browbeating India. Over the last five years, the Chinese have intensified their actions on the LAC and several occasions have intruded into Indian territory. Modi quickly realized the true nature of China but at the same time, he was handicapped as the Indian military has not been built up to that strength where it could win a victory over China.

Chinese incursions in 2020

True to their nature Chinese troops have intruded into the Galvan valley in Ladakh. As per reports hundreds of Chinese troops have crossed the LAC and gone into Indian territory. Indian leaders have been clearly left stunned. Even military intelligence failed in India.

What we have learned is that in early May, Chinese troops put up tents, dug trenches, and moved heavy equipment several kilometers inside what had been regarded by India as its territory. This was the Chinese reaction to an Indian road built in the region stretching to hundreds of miles to a forward base which was reactivated in 2008.

There have been many incursions earlier but this latest incursion shows that this is not a routine matter. Why it is not a routine matter can be gauged from the fact that the area in which they have entered had been accepted as part of India. In that respect, Ajay Shukla an Indian military expert who is retired Colonel has said that this incursion has completely changed the status quo.

The Chinese however say that it is India that has changed the facts on the ground. Reports indicate that at least on two occasions there have been physical clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at three locations namely the Galvan Valley, hot springs, and Pangong lake.

However, one good point is that the Indian and Chinese have had a hand to hand fights but no bullet has been fired.

The current military tension is not restricted to Ladakh but also is taking place at a place called Nakula on the border between China and Sikkim. Both armies came to blows at this location.

The Chinese have now made fresh territorial claims and have claimed that the Galvan Valley region is Chinese territory. China is angry that India has built many roads and other infrastructure support activities for quick deployment of troops on the border. Differences between the two countries have been growing for the last two years.

Way ahead

One of the reasons for China's belligerence is the fact that the Indian leadership has not really planned anything against China. There is no planning as to what India is supposed to do in case there is a war with China. There is no Indian plan to take the battle into Tibet. The proposal to raise two strike corps against China which were to be raised were dropped by the Modi government.

There can be no denying the fact that the Modi government has suffered a big intelligence failure and they never knew what the Chinese were planning when they were massing troops in thousands at the LAC. The smug belief that China will recognize the LAC and the Ladakh border has turned out to be wishful thinking.

China holds all the aces as the Indian leadership right from the time of Nehru and now Modi has really no comprehension of what it means to dominate Asia. This is what China is wanting to do. The fond hope of Mr. Modi that the Wuhan spirit is a landmark has turned out to be fallacious thinking.

China claims the Galvan Valley and in case that is handed over to China, the defence of Ladakh will be greatly hampered.

The Modi government is on the horns of a dilemma as the only way the Chinese can be pushed back is through a war and that is not an easy option as China is the second greatest military power in the world

The Indians have only themselves to blame for this predicament by following pacifist policies. In 1948 India was way ahead of China both militarily and economically. But now things have changed tremendously and China is the second-largest economy in the world and with a per capita income five times that of India. The Chinese have built up their military-economic complex while India is still importing arms and has the dubious distinction of being the largest importer of arms in the world.No nation can become a world power by importing arms. The options for Narendra Modi are limited. He, however, has to build up the army and the industrial complex.

Last word

It's a tough task.In the meantime he has to follow an aggressive policy to contain China. India has been lukewarm for various reasons for an alliance with Australia and Japan.It's about time an aggressive Indian foreign policy took shape with the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country and joining the USA, Australia, and Japan to contain China. There is also no harm in recognizing the Tibetan government in exile which is now operating from Dharamsala in India.

All this will require jettisoning the old policies of Pandit Nehru which for some reason have been adopted by Modi also. Modi should draw sustenance from the great Indian wartime leader Subhas Chandra Bose who had said "give me blood and I will give you freedom". Living in a fool's paradise vis-a-vis China and thinking about the Wuhan spirit and other extraneous things is not the best way to go forward.

The Chinese are extremely clever and after Donald Trump has blown the bugle against them they have retracted in Ladakh. The Chinese Ambassador has now said that the Indian elephant and Chinese dragon can dance together. Modi may do well to remember that China can never be trusted. This is also the view of Donald Trump.


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