Since the start of the standoff in Ladakh in April 2020, Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in a high-stakes scenario that involves control over a long, disputed territory between the two countries. India’s claim over these territories has been much more comprehensively documented, both legally and historically. Despite a host of ‘peace and tranquillity agreements’ signed over the last three decades, and strategic directives at Wuhan and Mamallapuram, the Chinese converted their exercise deployments to real ones and ingressed into a number of Indian areas.
Shocked by this, India mirrored the Chinese deployment in strength and equipment across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in all aspects — resorting to emergency procurements, reorganisation, re-orbatting and modernisation, and incurring costs of finance and committed manpower. However, an important issue not debated or highlighted enough in most analyses is that the costs imposed on China have been more disproportionate. China has mostly suffered financial and psychological costs apart from the usual military ones.
Speaking about the military costs first, India learnt a few lessons about China the hard way. As a result, Indian deployments were reinforced and better supplied across all fronts. The evidence of all these preparations became clear in 1967 (Nathu La), 1987 (Sumdorong Chu) and even Doklam (2017). Sustained economic support was available for both India’s modernisation and operational logistics. The current deployment has come at an even larger cost for the Chinese who have had to mobilise around 10 times more personnel from the rear to the forward areas in their Western Theatre Command, as opposed to Indian mobilisation of around 3 times more personnel to the frontlines in eastern Ladakh.
Strategically, Taiwan remains China’s short- to medium-term objective. India was supposed to be a sideshow used for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) to practice its new theatre commands as well for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s directive of ‘training through operational action’. Since that move has been thwarted, China now faces a multi-front threat, a much more formidable challenge compared to India’s two-front threat, since the United States and even Japan have pledged military support to Taiwan against Chinese aggression.
Even along the LAC, the Chinese infrastructure buildup has been mostly in eastern Tibet opposite Arunachal Pradesh. Due to India’s mirror deployment in eastern Ladakh, there has been hasty infrastructure creation by China in western Tibet now, which has put a huge drain on their weakening economy. Evergrande was just the start and the enfeeblement can be witnessed in the slowing down of infusion of funds into the new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.
China’s big tech failure
India first banned 59 Chinese social media apps, including the hugely popular TikTok, in June 2020, post the Galwan clashes, and retained the ban in January 2021. This was followed by a ban on 118 more apps in September 2020 that hasn’t been revoked yet. All these bans have made it impossible for Chinese companies to enter the Indian gig and startup market, already one of the biggest in the entire world.
In May 2021, in one of the biggest thumbs down to China, India’s Department of Telecommunications granted approval to nearly a dozen companies to conduct a six-month trial for use and applications of 5G technology. These did not include Huawei and ZTE, both of which had applied. Combined with the US’ restrictions on Huawei, ZTE and Hikvision on 12 November 2021, under the ‘Secure Equipment Act of 2021’, and a reorienting of the Quad in these technologies, these moves have put excessive pressure on Chinese firms to look for alternate consumer markets.
Closely following India, the US’ Commerce Department too made it hugely difficult for Huawei to procure semiconductor chips not only directly but also from companies that use US technology, hampering the entire Huawei supply chain. This twin move, compounded by Xi’s ‘self-goal’ in hugely regulating big tech in China, has devastated the Chinese digital empire.
India also imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese goods, especially on five Chinese products, including certain aluminium goods and some chemicals, for five years starting December 2021 to guard local manufacturers from cheap imports from China. Similarly, the psychological cost in China has been immense and the evidence has been strewn across a number of Chinese and English language reports and news items. It only needs to be collected, collated and analysed.
Troops in Ladakh
Three top Chinese generals in charge of the Western Theatre Command have been changed within one year. Out of them, two have died due to health complications related to prolonged exposure to high altitudes. Chinese lines of communication are much longer, therefore they have to spend much more than what India spends to maintain troops in eastern Ladakh. There have been some murmurs in the open-source intelligence (OSINT) circles on Twitter regarding the alleged death of some Chinese soldiers in the first week of January 2022 due to extreme winter conditions. Most Chinese soldiers have been unable to cope with the harsh weather and the inhospitable terrain, and there has been a sudden increase in the need for doctors, psychologists and counsellors in the foreign areas.
The Chinese PLA has had to scrape the bottom of the barrel while recruiting and the newly inducted personnel are neither hardy nor technically proficient to handle the brutal nature of war. The strategies to recruit them include video games and music videos. Soft peacetime ‘chocolate soldiers’ need extra comfort. This is a stark reminder that the Chinese experience of war is essentially null. Reduced educational and physical standards, combined with a focus on multiple fronts against India, Taiwan, Russia, and the US, have forced China to stretch its workforce. Consequently, the Chinese are looking at recruiting Nepalese and Tibetans to carry out deployments against India.
Not only this, but after losing close to 40 soldiers during the Galwan clashes in June 2020, China has indulged in continuous information warfare against its own citizens. The entire wasteful exercise of 2020, which was essentially engineered to unilaterally stake a claim and appropriate Indian territory, has shown no results on ground. Naturally, its propaganda machinery has been working overtime to ensure that the Chinese citizens do not question the PLA and Xi about this.
China’s costs have been mostly intangible yet intensely damaging and acute. Entanglements with India have cost China a lot and given a cause célèbre to other countries to stiffen their spines and oppose China on all fronts.
Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd) is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is visiting fellow of CLAWS and specialises in neighbouring countries with a focus on China. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets from @chanakyaoracle. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)