Despite the enduring threat posed by China, it took Indian military planners decades to begin seriously focusing their operational concentration on countering Beijing’s military and logistical capabilities that are currently on ample display along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.
Senior Indian Army (IA) officers in positions of authority at the turn of the century concede that it was only at the October 2004 annual Combined Commanders Conference that the issue of augmenting domestic military capabilities against China was earnestly taken up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Their claimed reason for this delayed response was that 1991 onwards, the army was single-mindedly fixated on counter insurgency (COIN) operations across Kashmir provoked by Pakistan, China’s ally.
And though this was an inevitable outcome, the army brass failed miserably in sensitising successive administrations to the threat posed by the Chinese who were exploiting Pakistan as part of their ‘borrowed knife’ dogma to unsettle India.
Instead, it left China’s management to naïve diplomats and national security advisers who were unable to even get Beijing to provide maps of their perception of the LAC, despite over 22 meetings since 1988.
Consequently, the Indian Army’s feeble riposte to the PLA’s feverish infrastructure developmental activity across the contiguous Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was to pursue an inexplicable ‘scorched earth’ policy of leaving regions along the Indian side of the LAC undeveloped.
In 2006, the cabinet committee on security approved the development of a network of 73 strategic roads and associated bridges spread over some 4,643 km along and around the LAC for completion in six years. Similar proposals had been mooted earlier by the China Study Group, but had failed to materialise till years later for varied reasons.
The army’s despairing logic for this delay, till the putative 2004 pivot, was that in the event of hostilities the PLA would employ these roads to infiltrate the Indian mainland, clearly handing the Chinese army a psychological victory in advance. Having no roads on its side of the LAC would deter PLA adventurism or ingress across the disputed frontier, the invidious Indian logic went.
Paradoxically, all these postponements and slippages were taking place against a wider strategic backdrop regarding China.
In May 1998, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had declared that it was distrust of Chinese territorial ambitions which had prompted India to conduct the Shakti series of five underground nuclear tests at Pokhran.
In a letter to US President Bill Clinton explaining the rationale behind the nuclear tests, which was promptly leaked by the White House t0 the New York Times, Vajpayee had stated that while Delhi’s relations with China (identified as the country which had committed armed aggression against India in 1962) had improved, an “atmosphere of distrust persisted” due to the “unresolved border problem”.
But regardless of such stark and realistic assessments, little was done by India till well into 2004-05 to launch any major initiative to undertake conventional military parity with Beijing, or create viable infrastructure along the LAC to offset the incipient Chinese threat. After all, it’s a well-known axiom that deterrence stems from two fundamental principles: capability and will. India has displayed neither against China in decades.
Instead, in 2003 Vajpayee paid a six-day visit to China, where much like Modi over a decade later and Jawaharlal Nehru earlier, in the run up to the 1962 war, he was beguiled by senior Communist Party apparatchiks into a false sense of security regarding Beijing’s military ambitions in the region.
It’s no secret that China has long deemed Tibet as its righthand palm and coveted its five fingers – comprising Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the former North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) that became Arunachal Pradesh in 1972. Ever since Mao Zedong, China has believed these five regions needed liberation and integration with the palm.
The PLA probe at the Doklam/Dong Lang tri-junction that ended after a 73-day long standoff with the Indian Army in August 2017 was one such venture. The impasse in Ladakh, initiated by the same commander as the one at Doklam, General Zhao Zongqi, continues.
However, back in 2004, India’s somnolent military and security establishment roused itself in light of the growing military challenge from Tibet, increased PLA incursions across the LAC and overall heightened Chinese belligerence, including in the Indian Ocean region.
According to senior army officers, all of whom declined to be named given the sensitivity of the current situation along the LAC, Indian military planners set a 2010 deadline to be prepared to meet the security threat emanating from Beijing.
An Indian Army transformational study around the same time which confirmed the Chinese military’s rapid modernisation and the alarming combat ratio imbalance between the two sides, appreciably favouring Beijing, further spooked Delhi.
Inherent constraints in India’s overall military capability to meet a two-front conflict – including one with Pakistan – and poor logistic infrastructure which prevented force mobilisation and redeployment of additional troops within acceptable time frames, also roiled matters.
The same analysis also presciently forecast the possibility of partial PLA mobilisation into respective claim lines along the LAC backed by howitzers, light tanks and rocket and missile forces, all supported by the PLA Air Force in a ‘coercive-retaliatory’ posture.
But like the majority of military and security planning, it was an instance of too little, too late as by then China was well on its way to completing its elaborate rail and road network across the 4,000-m-high TAR, abutting the LAC, to enable it to swiftly transport a large military force to the Indian border.
Its extensive military infrastructure also included numerous high altitude airfields like the one at Hotan with blast-proof pens for fighters and advanced landing grounds and helipads, amongst sundry other complementary installations.
Collectively, these are capable of supporting a large combined ground and aerial fighting force that has emerged after China’s 2015 military reorganisation into five Theatre Commands.
India’s military, however, continues to operate in well-defined silos awaiting their integration by the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, who, uncharacteristically, has neither been seen nor heard since the LAC showdown began. Perhaps he knows something nobody else does.