When it Comes to China, India Needs to Up its Deterrence Game

China is convinced that India cannot deter it from its coercive behaviour along the LAC.

It is official now! The Ministry of Defence website on Tuesday finally acknowledged People’s Liberation Army intrusions in eastern Ladakh, calling them ‘transgressions’, but curiously, removed the admission on Thursday.

After reviewing the outcome of the fifth round of military commanders talks, the government belatedly accepted that the disengagement and de-escalation process (DDP) had been stalemated, with PLA stubbornly refusing to pull back from Pangong Tso north bank and refusing to discuss Depsang.

Invited to a programme on August 5 by CGTN (a 24-hour Chinese government English TV channel) on India-China relations, the anchor sought my reaction to a Chinese defence ministry’s statement that disengagement had been completed to ease the tension. I set the record straight. China has presented India a second fait accompli with cosmetic disengagement from multiple intrusion points, without a hint of any restoration of status quo ante May 5.

The Chinese-dictated DDP has left India with buffer zones involving withdrawal and dismantling of posts from its own territory, ban on patrolling and forcing it to deploy three infantry divisions along the Line of Actual Control in east Ladakh. The PLA has unilaterally altered status quo by shifting the LAC further west, to conform to its 1960 claim line, annexing nearly 600 square km of territory.

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According to a Stratfor report published on July 22, the PLA has built 26 new encampments, 22 new forward bases and two new helipads. During a webinar, Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong had the temerity to proclaim that disengagement was completed at most friction points, the north bank of Pangong lake was the alignment of the LAC and any mutual clarification of the LAC would create more disputes. He concluded his stinging remarks by squarely blaming India for the Galwan clash and warned against de-coupling, while counselling India to adjust its views on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Xinjiang. One wonders if the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, Vikram Misri, enjoys similar freedom and opportunity of speech.

Sun’s rebuke should not surprise anyone after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the astounding statement on June 19 at the all-party meeting: “Neither has anyone intruded on our border, nor is anyone intruding.” This one statement has irretrievably damaged India’s contention on PLA intrusions and is frequently quoted by Chinese officials to wrest their case.

Modi made up for his lapse in Leh, saying “India knows to look into the eye of the enemy” and calling China “expansionist”. But it was the arrival of five Rafale fighter jets – a storm in a tea cup – that made Modi eulogise (in Sanskrit): “No virtue like protecting the nation; there is no vow like defence of nation”. Defence minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: “The birds have arrived…those who threaten our territory should be worried about our new capability.”

Alas, none of this bluster impressed China, which considers India a subordinate middle power and sees it blocking its own right to be the sole power in Asia. Beijing is incensed at India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and impeding its attempts to woo Bhutan in settling their border dispute independent of India.

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Further, China is convinced that India cannot deter it from its coercive behaviour along the LAC. The PLA has tested this at Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017) and found that India was unable to counter aggression due to an asymmetry in capabilities. Except perhaps in Doklam, where India enjoyed geo-strategic the advantage. For China, Doklam was an inflexion point where India dared to block the PLA – on its territory (not LAC) but disputed with Bhutan – from constructing a road as it has a treaty arrangement on security with Bhutan.

According to Global Risks Insight, Beijing claimed that Thimpu told it of neither knowing about the movement of Indian troops to Doklam nor asking for them. After disengagement, the PLA returned to build the road but India and Bhutan did nothing this time around. Revenge for Doklam became one of the drivers for the current intrusions.

China has studied the predictable pattern of Indian responses to PLA intrusions – as second-mover, blocking intrusion points followed by dialogue for restoration of status quo. Beijing has pretended that intrusions are actions of rogue military commanders whereas these were sanctioned by China’s Central Military Commission to test the Indian reaction while also formally inoculating raw PLA soldiers in LAC infringement drills. The 2020 Training Mobilisation Order for wholesale intrusions in eastern Ladakh was signed by commander-in-chief Xi Jinping in January.

At present, on its own India cannot deter China. Establishing an offensive deterrence is necessary and overdue. Standing up to China will require not only bridging the military capability and infrastructure gap, but also matching its economic prowess. India needs to be able to convince China that it can and will impose costs more than it is imposing. In other words, the Indian response needs to be not just proportionate as now, but disproportionate to levy penalty. 17 Mountain Strike Corps, whose raising was suspended due to costs in 2017, must be revived at the earliest, with punitive capabilities to live up to its name.

Two weeks from now is the 25th anniversary of China’s withdrawal from its first big intrusion in June 1986 across the McMahon Line at Wangdung in Sumdorong Chu Valley. India troops reacted smartly, with strategic messaging. The hugely disproportionate response established total domination over the PLA post, which enabled nine years later, a withdrawal on mutually acceptable terms largely dictated by New Delhi. At the time, India was recognised as a rising military power and both countries were almost at par in terms of conventional military deterrence, with India spending nearly 4% of GDP compared to the 1.5% today. Rhetoric by today’s political leadership is no substitute for defence modernisation.

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Given the spike in the pandemic, woeful state of the economy and obfuscation of intrusions due to grave intelligence and operational lapses, the government needs a face-saving exit after deservedly calling China names. This is Narendra Modi’s dilemma.

Modi finds himself in the company of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who said last month that China had grabbed its territory and though it has a favourable verdict from UNCLOS in 2016, it cannot challenge China militarily to reclaim it. The Modi government’s tactics to divert attention from the LAC to its more nationalistic political achievements – Ayodhya temple and one year of reading down Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir – was marred by the sudden appearance and disappearance of details of intrusions on the Ministry of Defence website.

After six years of the Modi government’s self-congratulations on national security, Indian troops are strung along the LAC without a deterrent but equipped with brave words of its leaders. During the Ram temple foundation-laying ceremony, in a veiled reference to China, Modi quoted the Ramcharitamanas which says there is no love without fear, and unless India is strong there can be no peace. From the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, he will certainly make a less equivocal statement on the LAC than the one he made on June 19. But then what?

General Ashok K. Mehta was part of the monitoring team of Defence Planning Staff in MOD of the year long PLA intrusion at Sumdorong chu in 1987/88.