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China has an Achilles’ heel. India must take the battle there from LAC

Not just military salami-slicing, China is also carrying out surrogate conflicts against India through countries such as Nepal. Delhi must change rules of the game.

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For 45 years, India and China never exchanged fire. So, why should 16 June 2020 go down as the date when an argumentative peace of many decades finally ended as the bloodiest skirmish in a long time.

There are two possible answers. Tactically, the Chinese want to assert their new positions that interfere with Indian movement along the Darbuk–Shyok–DBO road at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The road enables India to deploy troops quickly. On the strategic front, China wants to play the longer game of deploying the salami-slicing model to obtain a position of dominance and extract concessions from India – without firing a shot. This is a model China has successfully deployed to impose its perception of geographical ownership – whether it’s at the LAC or the South China Sea.

It’s interesting that this decade has witnessed more standoffs between India and China than the four previous decades collectively. It is no surprise that these standoffs have coincided with the emergence of President Xi Jinping and an assertive China. With each standoff, China has stepped up the intensity of its aggression.

The earlier standoffs at Daulat Beg Oldi and Chumar were of two-three weeks. Demchok followed in 2014, when Chinese troops had the audacity to threaten incursion even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping were signing agreements. Doklam in 2017 was a 73-day standoff to test India’s ability to protect its ally, Bhutan. India did not buckle down and China couldn’t get the mileage it sought. Given that China upped the pressure by a notch in each succeeding standoff, the current Ladakh deadlock, with a new issue raised at Galwan Valley, does not come as a complete surprise.

Also read: Modi-Shah’s Aksai Chin bravado activated China’s Ying Pai to cross LAC

India must change rules of engagement

So, what does India do at the tactical level? On previous occasions, in Nathu La in 1967 and in Sumdorong Chu in 1986-87 – as well as in Doklam in 2017 – India grabbed the ground initiative through local commanders, forcing China to retreat.

In the wake of the 16 June skirmish that cost the lives of many of its soldiers, India needs to show clarity in intent and firm resolve in communication to operate from a position of strength while dealing with China. If so many lives were lost despite familiar norms for unarmed conduct at the LAC, then the rules of engagement need to be revisited. Again, it is China that has changed the agreed norms of engagement – thus the onus is on India to drive the change. China has always chosen the points of skirmish in the past. The 3,488-km-long LAC, however, enables India to pick a ground of its own choosing to surprise China and put it under pressure.

By creating multiple pressure points in Ladakh, Naku La and Lipulekh, China has widened the span of engagement with India along the LAC. However, that too is at a tactical level. So, what is the strategic game plan?

Also read: India has a bigger worry than LAC. China now expanding military footprint in Indian Ocean

China’s surrogate conflicts

The story goes back to Xi Jinping’s ascension as premier in 2013. Two years later, in 2015, China released a military doctrine that named its threats and outlined an offensive-defence approach towards rivals. The US hegemony, South China Sea and Taiwan were named as major concerns but India’s watermark presence in American counterbalancing couldn’t be missed. Isolated in a Covid world of 2020, an insecure China must have pulled out the 2015 doctrine for a pre-emptive strike against its rivals.

A much downplayed India-Nepal issue on the sides of the Ladakh standoff reveals the future: the involvement of a Chinese ally against India is the new surrogate nature of India-China rivalry. When Nepal defied India and changed its map, it was a culmination of a political investment China had made.

In 2015, while a road blockade hampered relations between India and Nepal, China was busy investing in large projects in the Himalayan nation. By 2018, Nepal had signed on Chinese investments for eight important hydro projects. Similarly, in 2015, Sri Lanka borrowed $1.5 billion loan from China to build the strategic Hambantota Port. When it couldn’t repay the loan, China wrote off a large portion of the debt in exchange for a long-term lease on the port, much to India’s dismay. In South Asia, China capitalised on authoritarian governments in the Maldives and Sri Lanka to challenge India’s influence.

Of late, India has grown wary of the dragon’s ulterior objectives. When Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019, India’s S. Jaishankar was the first foreign dignitary to reach Colombo. Ibrahim Solih’s ascension to power in the Maldives ensured India regained its influence over China in the island nation. On Nepal, India enjoys stronger historical people-based ties over China, including Nepalese Gorkha soldiers who serve in the Indian Army. India’s restoration of ties with Nepal through Track-2 channels, thus, should be a priority. In a surrogate conflict, China wants to tie India down in the Himalayas and the neighbourhood.

Also read: PM Modi’s silence on LAC stand-off is benefiting China. India must change its script

Find the Achilles’ heel 

How does India change its approach and leverage advantage? Recently, BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan ‘virtually’ participated in Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s swearing-in ceremony that left China fuming. During the LAC standoff, as Hong Kong grew vulnerable, Beijing opened reconciliatory lines to India through Sun Weidong, its ambassador in Delhi. For all its phlegmatic ruthlessness, China adopts a knee-jerk reaction when its pain-points are brushed.

In a world shaped by Covid-19, China struggles with an image deficit and disappearing allies. India has border disputes with 2-3 countries whereas China has disputes with a large number of countries – at its land borders and in the South China Sea. It is this Achilles’ heel that India needs to exploit as it finds itself in a pivotal space.

Increase China’s cost of interference

This is an opportune time for India to bring up Taiwan more aggressively, as Beijing changes its rules of dealing with India. As the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) finds itself wrapped in unpaid loans, debt traps and contradictions, a window of opportunity beckons.

Two years ago, Malaysia cancelled China-funded infrastructure projects worth $22 billion. India could explore the possibility of working closely with allies such as Japan for investments in countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others. China’s defiance of multilateral agreements and continued belligerence in the South China Sea pits it against numerous adversaries. India will need to shed its neutral status and respond through active support towards countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which increases Chinese costs of interference in India’s backyard.

Around 80 per cent of China’s imported energy needs pass through the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean. China’s disadvantage with long sea lines of communication is an opportunity for India. In an expanded maritime role, India would need to increase its naval budget and strengthen the base in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Similarly, proactive involvement in QUAD, D10 and other strategic alignments will give India the role it will need to put China under pressure.

Ladakh has shown China’s aversion to existing peace arrangements. To obtain greater leverage on its disputes with China, India will need to set up new terms of peace by shifting the goals of conflict elsewhere that cause discomfort to China. What India decides against China will define its global influence in a post-Covid world order.

The author is a former Army officer and author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China. Views are personal.

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  1. India needs to make massive investments into Kashmir, Arunachal, Nepal, Tibet and of course Mongolia. Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal are huger strategic weaknesses for China. Based on the original maps of Genghis Khan, india should lay claim to Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia/

  2. Indians are so emotional and irrational creatures. China is politically, militarily, technologically, academically, industrially decades ahead of India. In 1962, it had the same size military and economy. Now the Dragon is 5 times larger economically and 4 times larger militarily than India. Plus, it has UN veto power and political allies in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and the Americas. It is well organized and run and can handle challenges systematically.
    India conversely has some friends who hate China, US and some Asia-Pacific allies, but has no strong friends in the region, while China can call on Pakistan and even Nepal. Plus, its economy is in freefall, coronavirus is out of control. Worse are social tensions promoted by the Hindu fascist regime that have hurt India internally but also its international reputation and standing with Muslim countries which are now actively expelling hateful Hindus.
    Indians need to get real and stop treating the world like a bollywood musical. China is the big player, with allies, military muscle, economic might, industrial and technological prowess while India is a weak divided fanatical nation that got slapped by Pakistan last year. Who are Indians fooling?

    • Touch us and you will know the ‘fool’. China did zilch when we destroyed pakistan (despite being your iron friend) in multiple wars. Let the chinese come down from the mountain and the border areas (they never will). China can call pak and ‘even’ nepal shows your stupidity. These are not even worthy of being called players let alone one state. You say fooling and yet you are deeply immersed in fictitious childrens drama with words like dragon. I really hope you see what happens when a country like India is touched…not just at the borders..but an actual war. You will see which ‘players’ will smash all these clown-worthy nations and the biggest clown of them all. Remember, every tyrant thought they were invincible (germany or soviet union).
      As for ‘hindu’ forces, that force is the only guiding force that will unify this nation. And those ‘hindus’ are the majority who made sure that muslims , budhists and jews thrive in this country. Not yours! Not even by a mile! And YOU talk of unity? Learn from us in that respect. The middle east country expelling who!? We, Indians, are the ones who built it mr clown. Our pm (who you easily rubbish) has been given the highest honour by many of those countries even. Show us even one report that ‘hindus’ are being expelled…hateful or not. If hateful, then more ‘muslims’ from pakistan and african countries are being expelled every single year there (i have reports from the police reports from UAE, Saudi, Omani authorities). Their media has published it too (the highest number of criminals expelled, punished etc are from pakistan in uae and saudi , please google it).
      We have even annexed kashmir. What did your middle east countries do? Nothing. The sheer volume of trade between us itself is so high that pak or nepal is not even a speck to speak about.
      When the US, Aus and others will act, I’d love to see your senses come to wake. As for India, hope you understand who is the fool now.

  3. World is watching this conflict with keen interest. India’s actions will have long term effects on Geopolitics of world.
    It is inflection point and India should firmly join democracies of world to check this rogue nation.
    A Frankenstein created by US is now ready to devour it and US is also looking for friends.
    I hope, India will take correct steps and join other nations to put stop to this monster.
    Get Tibet freedom and for long time shake away this monkey on India’s shoulders.

  4. Frankly, I’m tired of us trying to understand the Chinese mind..maybe it’s time we should keep them guessing.

  5. A very good analysis. I hope our lazy foreign office jokers will get off their high horses and read this article.

  6. The author recommends India should enter into a military alliance (Quad) with the US and expand a naval base in the Andamans to threaten Chinese shipping. The counter move to the Quad is agreeing to a 2-front pact with Pakistan like in 1987 when India had concurrent standoffs with China and Pakistan. And, building a People’s Liberation Army Navy base in Pakistan. What India decides to do against China does not so much determine India’s place in the world but its own path. India can focus on growth and development or it can be consumed by military requirements.

    • India can achieve lasting progress only when its borders are secured. Dereliction of this responsibility on the eastern LAC, is now central to our weaknesses. What made India wait for an eon to build fortifications and infrastructure? True; economic growth should be the priority of any Indian government, but compromising our security apparatus will only make growth a mirage.

      • China did not build up any military forces between 2009-17 at the border while India undertook a massive military buildup. India’s buildup did not enhance India’s security. The opposite. India’s buildup has started a chain reaction that leads to deteriorating security. If India embraces a military alliance with the US against China then there will be counter moves by China with Pakistan. India under the shadow of a 2-front pact is not more secure and poorer.

        I have read a lot of thoughts written by Indian strategists on China. I find their ability like the author to see one step ahead to be abysmal.

    • Meeting Military requirement leads to growth and development as seen in the development of Ladakh.

  7. Author has pointed out Malacca Strait as an Achilles heel. But that is a Chinese weak point only if there is outright war and all out hostilities. Otherwise India cannot stop shipping there. Most of his other formulations are economic and take some time to take effect.
    There is no alternative to robust face off in the high mountains of Ladakh and NE and we must enable our Army to push back strongly , using all weapons at our command. We have to be prepared for a long military face off with our forces close to LAC and at full alert.

  8. India should drop out of SCO and BRICS and be open to join a military alliance with the QUAD and Nato. Invite Nato soilders to the doors of China. That is only way China will respect India. India should make itself stronger and there is no alternative. People only respect strength.

    • I honestly feel inviting NATO would be disastrous for relations with RUSSIA and seeing how Russia and China are slowly getting friendlier bto each other. It would swing Russia to China’s way. Inviting NATO or any pro western organization or instrument would be detrimental

      • Russia is only interested in business and money, not China. They know chinese tricks very well – Mao tried to play the same card in 1969 against the Russians, ie expansionism. They got kicked in their butt with bloodies nose. Since then, they have turned southwards!! Russians really dont care Chinese or Indians, as long as you show them the money.

  9. India should correct the fact on Tibbet and gave her status of independent nation. It will be big blow to China position in this world and change its image as occupier of Tibbet. Tibbet was historically under British India hence our recognition to them as Independent nation will be a matter of great effect.

  10. Surgical strike 3.0:

    How about Chinese camps in POK? That is a fair game, since it is an occupying force on Indian territory.

    Can always claim to have bombed terrorist camps.

  11. India needs to go on the offensive with China and not just be defensive all the time and wait for China to grab land bit by bit in the Himalayan region from India.
    India must attack China where it is vulnerable and completely transfer trade it does with China to other countries and hit it where it hurts most ie in the pocket and jobs.
    China and the Chinese are arrogant people who do not care for anyone who is not one of them and give no opportunities to others if one were to go and live there unlike the Western nations.
    So, in the long run it is better to keep China in check rather than let the Western Multi Nationals & other big Corporations betray their country and their countrymen’s jobs for the sake of profits and thus hand power and money to China. This is what has happened over the years unknowingly and now China has become a dragon rearing his head and spitting fire everywhere.
    Time has come to cut China to size.

    • You are absolutely right. It’s time to shift postures and treat China as the #1 enemy that it is. Pakistan is not even an enemy, it is a nuisance, even though the media seems to hype India-Pakistan as if they’re on our level.

  12. The root cause of this border conflict between India and China is mainly related to the economical, medical and social failure of China and India at their native ground. P. M. Modi is in the worst economical, political and social condition in India, and China’s President is eclipsed with Corona crisis and international condemnation including American political and economical war. Both governments need other outlets to divert public attention; they found this conflict soother to their need. Looking to the outcome; Modiji has lost his iron image; he proved himself as a paper tiger and worth nothing but demagogue who can only speak but cannot act. His BJP party has lot to explain of this failure and their mentor RSS has also to think seriously whether Modi is the only savior of their ideology in India. This conflict was instigated by the HM Amit Shah by challenging China and Pakistan that India will take over the control of the entire Aksai Chin (part of China) and POK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) soon. India and Indians will be better off if they remove this immature politician and the outspoken super General Ravat for the loss of more than 20 precious lives, prestige and reputation of India.

  13. The problem with India’s strategic policy vis-a-vis China is that there is none. India shouldn’t wait until a conflict begins and its soldiers are martyred. China follows consistency in opposing India at international forums, but India shows less spine in fully opposing China consistently and taking them hands-on. That’s where India’s political and strategic thinking needs to be developed for the longer term.

    Why was China able to spring a surprise by using training as a ploy to intrude into Laddakh, and why was India caught snoozing rather than preventing this incursion? Next, why was India trusting China in sending only 40 odd soldiers to check whether Chinese troops were going back, when they had already intruded in a mischievous manner? Are we Indians fools that we show restraint and patience with an adversary that can’t be trusted in the first place. Instead we should fu¢k the Chinese in the @ss instead so they kick their wound for the next 100 years.

  14. There are quite a few other things India can do – like selling Brahmos and other defensive equipment to Philippines, Vietnam and others, ensuring that our trade imbalance with China is reduced to almost zero in a short span of time, disallowing Chinese firms in telecommunication and power sector, supporting Baloch independence as well as inciting insider’s revolt in Gilgit Baltistan by offering them a status under original version of Art 370 thereby creating problems for CPEC etc. India needs to take trade issue seriously and go for all out tax and administrative reforms for cost and ease of business. India should also seriously consider joining the Quad so that USA and others are bound to help us in Indian Ocean in the event of any war with China , just like we had a treaty with USSR in 1971. China will be taught a few lessons very soon. We should keep Russia on our side as well; Russia and its Eastern allies have like Kazakstan have much to fear from China.

  15. Pakistan and Nepal are distractions. Of these Nepal is the lesser danger. But India must take this opportunity to obliterate Pakistan in the opening moves and alos cause such severe collateral damage through nuclear assault on China that the US and Russia will rush in to stop China from escalating and sponge India down and help it come back from its corner.

  16. It was Nehru’s colossal blunder that gave China its stranglehold on Tibet. Even before China overran Tibet, Nehru conceded Tibet a part of Red China. It was Nehru’s abdication of responsibility to this Country that deprived us of our permanent membership in the Security Council with veto power. US and other countries were willing to consider India as a permanent member – but it was Nehru who vociferously advocated Red China’s right to be the member of the P-5 in Security Council. In matters of foreign policy, notwithstanding his stellar contributions to this Country, Nehru always placed self above the Nation that is still hurting India. . Having said that, we must see what is that we can do to deal with China. With China, any amount of appeasement will not work. More you bend, more they will kick you. They understand only one language – that is muscle power. Our power, as the matter stands now is weak vis – a- vis Beijing. Today India is encircled by unfriendly powers. Pakistan is totally hostile. Nepal is becoming hostile. Bangladesh has lent its Cox’s Bazar to China to build a Submarine base. Bhutan is watching whether India is capable of defending itself. Sri Lanka, though no hostile to India, is extremely friendly towards China and will not hesitate to jump into the Beijing’s bandwagon, should the current conflict in the North goes decidedly in favour of the Communist regime. Notwithstanding our “hugplomacy” our foreign policy is a disastrous failure. . China certainly does not want India to grow militarily or economically. They are not prepared to accept the legitimate activities of our Border Road Organization to construct an all weather road within our border – but aligning theirs along the Galwan River – because they sense strategic significance of this development. Their attitude will not change because they are very clear that they are – and should always be -the dominant force in this region and India must play second fiddle. They do not want 56 inch people at the helm of affairs in New Delhi – even for the name sake. It must be remembered that wars are not won only by military. Mrs Gandhi had shown the prowess of aggressive diplomacy in the 1971 Bangladesh war. The 1971 outright victory rightly belonged to our Armed Forces but there is no denying the fact that our Treaty of Peace and Friendship with USSR, and also complete neutralization of the world powers who could have intervened in the conflict in favor of Pakistan, besides China, was a major factor in protecting our Forces from facing multiple fronts. Even the US Seventh fleet made a show but that was proforma show in content and character. In view of the above, we have very limited options left. We need to bide our time, drag on the no war no peace situation, hold on to our territories very firmly, and behave as cleverly and as treacherously as the Chinese do but build our diplomatic strength with and augment out military prowess to meet the challenges of PRC. China, according to BJP MP from Arunachal Pradesh, is eyeing that part of India. We need to keep our vigil. a k pattabiraman, Chennai

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