Are India and China heading towards another war?

[ Man Norbu ]

Over the past few months, India and China have been facing off against each other along the disputed border in the Himalayan region. There have been military face-offs and border skirmishes along the India-China border, including the finger areas of Pangong Tso, Galwan valley and Gogra post in Ladakh and the Naku La pass in Sikkim.

Following India’s construction of a new road along the LAC in Ladakh, a violent military face-off began in June which resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. This is the first deadly clash in a border area between the two in more than four decades, and thus the relations have continued to deteriorate.

Though the possibility of a wider armed conflict between India and China is unlikely as per analysts, as both the countries face several domestic as well as external challenges, particularly the economic fallout due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one cannot completely discount the possibility of a war, taking into consideration the recent military border face-off between the two in Ladakh and Sikkim and the border tensions thereafter.

Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for a war with India on 13 October, during his visit to a military base in Guangdong province. He told the troops to “put all minds and energy on preparing for war.” Does it indicate a green signal for another war between the two?

Reacting to the Jinping’s statement, on 17 October, union Home Minister Amit Shah also made it clear that India’s defence forces are always ready, and said the country’s sovereignty and borders would be protected. He said, “Every nation is always ready. That’s the purpose of maintaining armies – to respond to any form of aggression. I am not saying this in reference to any particular comments, but India’s defence forces are always ready.” He also stated that “we are vigilant for every inch of our land; no one can take it away… Our defence forces and leadership are capable of defending the country’s sovereignty and border.”

Thus, the pertinent question is whether India’s policymakers, intelligence agency and top political and military leaders have learnt any lesson from the debacle of the 1962 war? And if so, how far has India been prepared to counter China in case of any future war with China?

The people of Arunachal Pradesh witnessed how India had to suffer a shameful defeat at the hands of the PLA in 1962. The PLA could occupy the entire disputed territory by completely destroying Indian outposts within a short period of time. In fact, the PLA captured Tawang, Sela, Dirang, Bomdila, Rupa-Tenga valleys, Khalaktang, all the way down to the eponymous foothills on the Assam border. What actually did happen which resulted in China’s success in driving Indian forces back behind the Chinese claimed lines within a short period of time?

Several factors were responsible for the defeat of the Indian Army in 1962, such as lack of road and communication, lack of sophisticated arms and ammunitions, shortage of food supply and clothing, numerical inferiority, insufficient knowledge of the topography and lack of proper map, acclimatization problem, lack of proper training or fighting skill in hilly terrains, habit of living comfort lives, lack of coordination and communication among the top brass, and failure of the intelligence apparatus.

Thus, in case of any war with China, India should not repeat those mistakes committed by the erstwhile political as well as military leaders in 1962; rather, it should take into consideration all those determining factors to avoid such failure.

It is often stated by the leaders in New Delhi that “it is not the India of 1962,” and in fact there is no doubt about it. But the top leaders cannot deny the fact that China too is not the China of 1962. For the past three decades, China, unlike India, has consistently built its border infrastructure, including railway lines, strategic airfields and roads that can bear the weight of the heaviest vehicles, leading right up to the LAC to ensure quick mobilization of troops in the event of a possible conflict with India.

Besides, China, being the second largest military spender after the US, hiked its defence budget to 179 billion dollars in 2020 from 177.6 billion dollars in 2019, which is nearly three times that of India (India’s defence budget for 2020 is 66.9 billion dollars) and is also a matter of serious concern for India.

Moreover, India’s security risks have been increased in the recent years. India’s GDP had contracted by 23.9 percent – the largest contraction among the other major economies during April-June – and the bigger concern for India is that China’s GDP grew by 3.2 percent in the second quarter (April-June), though it had contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter due to the coronavirus outbreak. Thus, India needs to speed up infrastructure development and inclusive growth of the border areas, as well as develop its economy to arrest any security risks from China.

In recent years, India has also been improving road and other key infrastructure along the LAC as part of its efforts to bolster military preparedness to deal with any challenge from China. The ongoing construction of the Sela tunnel, which is targeted to be completed by February 2022, is a positive step in a direction which will ensure all-weather connectivity and reduce the distance between Dirang and Tawang by 10 kms, and thus will enhance the Indian military’s capabilities in combating the threat of China.

Similarly, the 2000 km Mago-Thingbu-Vijoynagar border road along the India-China border connecting Mago-Thingbu in Tawang district, West Kameng district, East Kameng district, Upper Subansiri district, Mechuka in West Siang district, Tuting in Upper Siang district, Dibang Valley district, Desali in Lower Dibang Valley district, Chaglagam, Kibithu, Dong and Hawai in Anjaw district and Vajoynagar in Changlang district would further strengthen India’s position.

Besides, the inauguration of two strategically vital bridges, viz, the 50-metre Tawang Chhu bridge in Tawang district and the 45-metre Sukha bridge in West Kameng on 23 May by the chief minister will allow faster movement of the armed forces to the India-China border.

The Border Roads Organization (BRO) is also improving the road from Sangestar Tso (north of Tawang) to Bumla pass on the India-China border and NH 13 has also been converted to two-lane road. Most recently, on 12 October, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 44 bridges built by the BRO, which include eight bridges in Arunachal Pradesh, and also laid the foundation and commencement of construction work on the Nechiphu tunnel via videoconference.

No doubt the border areas have developed to a great extent, but the status of road and other infrastructure development in the state are not up to the level they should have been, which is a matter of great concern, given that Arunachal Pradesh shares its border not only with China (1,200 kms) but also with Bhutan (550 kms) and Myanmar (150 kms).

Though the border post at Hatung La in Zemithang circle and Bumla border of Tawang district are connected by road, the condition of the road, compared to that on the Chinese side, is pitiable. Contrary to that on the Indian side of border, it has been noticed that the Chinese side has massive infrastructures, including wide blacktopped road, and multistoried RCC buildings with provisions of modern amenities.

The people of Tawang remember how the PLA was able to develop and construct the Bumla-Tawang track into a motorable road just within a week. Chinese vehicles were seen moving in Tawang in early November, 1962. The Chinese had a 7-ton road only a few miles and a few hours from the Thag La border post. One can visualize the status of the roads now on the Chinese side, and the pathetic condition of the roads in the towns of Arunachal Pradesh gives a clear picture of the status of the roads in the border regions.

Thus, in order to deal with any challenge from the Chinese side, India first needs to give priority to development of roads to match China in all border areas, viz, Bumla, Mago-Thingbu, Namka Chu, Thag La, and Khinzemane (it was through the Khinzemane tract that the Dalai Lama made his way into India when he fled Tibet in 1959) as well as other parts of the state.

Even after 58 years of the 1962 war, there are still several villages without proper road and communication facilities, as a result which, there has been a rapid migration of villagers to the state capital (Itanagar) and other towns over the past few years due to low infrastructural facilities in the border areas.

The local people are the first defence against any external attack. They could play a vital role as porters and guides like they did during the 1962 war. Thus, apart from road and infrastructure development, an important step would be engaging the local youths as porters not only on contractual basis but on regular recruitment. Since the locals are well acquainted with the climate and have the knowledge of topography and short-cut routes, the raising of the Arunachal Scouts and the Sikkim Scouts is a positive step in the context of border management and giving the local people a feeling of genuine inclusiveness besides providing jobs and economic benefits to them.

Thus, in the wake of the India-China border tensions, India, taking into consideration the consistent Chinese claim and strategic significance of Arunachal Pradesh, and, for that matter, the whole Northeast, should emphasize on the infrastructure development of the region and speed up the pace of development of proposed projects, road and communication and other infrastructures along border areas to counter China in case of any future war, so that the war of 1962 will not be repeated. [The author is Assistant Professor (Guest), Department of National Security Studies, Rajiv Gandhi University. Email: [email protected]]