Sino-India border dispute and what awaits the Arunachal frontier

[ SC Mohanty ]

The 12th round of talks between the military commanders of India and China to extend disengagement and de-escalation to the remaining friction points along the LAC, besides the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, is still to take place after the 11th round of talks way back in 20 December.

If the talks between the foreign ministers of both countries on 14 July at Dushanbe and the non-conciliatory statement of Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, is any indication, even if the military commanders’ talks do take place, it may be presumptuous to expect any significant disengagement/de-escalation on the ground, especially in light of extensive construction of concrete structures close to the friction points, deployment of guns, radars, missile emplacements and associated infrastructure all along the LAC by the Chinese, indicating a long haul. While India insists that restoration of peace and tranquillity along the border area is the key to India-China bilateral relations to return to the pre-April 2020 status, China insists that the border issue must be placed at an appropriate position (meaning that border friction is not the key issue but consolidating the results of disengagement that have been achieved and acceptance of current status quo is) in bilateral relations and expand the positive momentum of bilateral cooperation in other areas to create favourable conditions to resolve the differences through negotiations. It is typical of the Chinese strategy of two steps forward and one step back, a coercive intimidation and acceptance of the new normal. It is not for nothing that the Chinese have resolved their continental boundary disputes with countries where it suited them, except India and Bhutan, ostensibly waiting for an opportune time.

The Chinese have jettisoned the concept of ‘Hide your strength and bide your time’ ever since Xi Jinping occupied centre stage and wore the multiple hats of general secretary of the Communist Party of China, chairman of the Central Military Commission and the president of the People’s Republic of China, besides also making himself the core leader for life by abolishing the two-term limit and not appointing a successor in the 19th party congress in October 2017. It may be prudent to recall that the Chinese commenced development of military infrastructure on the disputed islands of the South China Sea in 2012-13. The territorial belligerence in multiple domains to include Whitson Reef in the Philippines, Senkaku Islands in Japan, violation of the Malaysian airspace, multiple infringement of the Taiwan air defence identification zone (ADIZ), encroachment into northern Bhutan and even Nepal are all manifestations of territorial expansionism against weak opponents. The diplomatic offensive against the Americans at Anchorage with unusually long and acrimonious opening remarks and Xi Jinping’s keynote speech on 1 July on the eve of the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party, where he warned the adversaries to have their heads bashed bloody against the great wall of steel formed by over 1.4 billion people if they attempted to bully China, are all to tell the world that the unstoppable Chinese rejuvenation has commenced. This confidence does, however, come out of the remarkable achievement of the Chinese, albeit facilitated by the world community over the past four decades in the fields of economy, military and high-end technology; an economy of 14.7 trillion and set to overtake the US in 2028 (five years earlier than forecast due to Covid), the largest military with 2 million active personnel, the largest navy of 350 vessels, including three aircraft carriers and more in the making, growing nuclear arsenals of 350 with 120 missile launch facilities detected in June this year, and hypersonic technology, where the US is still to catch up.

However, that having been said, the Chinese foreign minister’s remarks that India and China are not rivals but friends, while at the same time consolidation in friction points has not been lost on anybody. Military and strategic commentators have indicated that the eastern sector, mainly Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claim to be south Tibet, is likely to be the next area of Chinese aggression, given the relative infrastructure development on either side. The PLA would, however, be making a serious mistake if they have not learnt the lessons from Doklam in 2017, where the Indian strategic interests were secured when necessitated, even if it involved stepping into a third country to stop the Chinese road construction activities. More recently, in eastern Ladakh, the versatility, resilience and high attitude skills of the Indian soldiers were amply demonstrated. The Chinese, though as an afterthought, declared only four PLA causalities against the dependable Russian agency TASS report of nearly 45 Chinese causalities. It is no more 1962, when multiple ingress by the Chinese went uncontested; neither will the continued rhetoric of south Tibet and the issue of stapled visa to the people of Arunachal Pradesh and J&K will remain unanswered as remarked by our erstwhile foreign minister Sushma Swaraj that China would have to respect the ‘one India’ policy if it wants us to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy. China needs to be conscious of its inherent multiple fault lines, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, which are yet to be integrated into the much-hyped Chinese consciousness. Often, the virulent and aggressive public discourse by its diplomats is a sign of insecurity and uncertainty of its actions. It has territorial disputes, both in maritime and continental domains, with as many as 18 countries, including North and South Korea.

The infrastructure up to the LAC all along the eastern sector on the Indian side has witnessed significant upgrading, especially since May 2020. Focused border area development programmes to include development of border villages (though miniscule compared to the Chinese), road infrastructure, helipads, staging areas, logistic support areas, upgrading of airfields in conjunction with unprecedented augmentation of force levels (compared to those in 1962) and forward movement of troops, guns, logistic support elements, deployment of force multipliers, surveillance capabilities and upgrading of defence in critical areas will render it extremely cost prohibitive for any PLA misadventure. The Arunachalees themselves are fiercely patriotic and will sabotage any attempt to encroach upon their sacred land. The seamless synergy between the civil administration, military personnel, the road construction agencies and indeed the proverbial whole of government approach is starkly evident. The initiative of the chief minister to personally travel on the treacherous Miao-Vijaynagar road to expedite its completion and multiple ground visits by high-ranking political and civil administrative officials to oversee infrastructure development in the forward areas has imparted the much-needed impetus to consolidation of the frontier and closing out vulnerabilities. The days of appeasement strategy with the Chinese are long over and events like the celebration of the birthday of the Dalai Lama have come to stay. Grey zone tactics to include ingress into un-held areas is unlikely to succeed anymore as each of these attempts will be met by a quid pro quo option as the Chinese are not known to hold the entire frontage. The prolonged standoff has resulted in enhanced and multi-tier surveillance and patrolling activities, foreclosing any hitherto surprise intrusions. Audacious ingress into well-defended areas will only invite resolute and ruthless retaliation and is likely to result in unacceptable casualties the Chinese are unaccustomed to. Military wisdom lies in economy of effort and not meeting bullet for a bullet, gun for a gun and aircraft for an aircraft, especially when defence of key terrain is the mission. The acme lies in inflicting unacceptable damage on the aggressor which the Indian armed forces are not only capable of but willing and determined to do till full-spectrum deterrence takes shape and rebalancing of troops from other sectors. The combined arms brigades, the offensive component of the PLA which are largely mechanized, cannot be applied en masse over limited high-altitude approaches.

Wars are generally fought to achieve political aims and what political aim would China seek to achieve if it engages in a conflict it cannot win and in the bargain puts paid to its ambitions of a fully-modernized nation by 2049? If it relies on the false presumption of deleterious effect of the pandemic on India, as per statistics, India’s foreign direct investment closed at $81.7 billion during the quarter ending March 2021, the highest ever in history where the global FDI contracted by 35 percent. This FDI came from 89 countries across 63 different sectors, which indicates the faith the global community has over the Indian economy. To the contrary, the Chinese BRI is facing setbacks in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan. Today, China has very few friends, to include North Korea and Pakistan, and those grudgingly intimidated by economic constraints, further accentuated by obfuscation over the origin of the Covid-19 virus and cyber espionage against open societies. If the Chinese still attempt to pursue the dangerous path, they are destined to be doomed. (The contributor is a retired major general and current security advisor to the Arunachal government)