China’s violations of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh, its blocking of Indian troops from territory that our jawans have patrolled for decades and its almost contemptuous rejection of India’s calls for a return to the positions of April, underlines the disdain in which Beijing holds New Delhi. India’s political leaders — with their cynical focus on domestic politics — have repeatedly chorused Beijing’s assertion that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not captured any Indian territory and that the dispute is all about “differing perceptions of the LAC.” Chinese officials will be rightly wondering what, in these circumstances, there is to negotiate.
With the Indian military confined to blocking further ingress rather than evicting the PLA from the territory it has captured, there is little pressure on Beijing to restore the status-quo-ante. With China having earlier secured its claim lines of 1956 and 1960 by conquest in 1962, a new claim line of 2020 is coming into being. As this happens, senior Chinese officials are counselling patience. Beijing’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, last week recited the boilerplate formulation that the boundary question was “left over from history” and should be “handled with patience”. On Sunday, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared in France that China would never be the first to escalate the situation. All this is said with a straight face even though the PLA’s violent forays into Indian-claimed territory have effectively abrogated the four agreements Beijing and Delhi created together to keep the border peaceful. And with China refusing to even tell India where its claimed LAC runs, it is messaging that it cares little if the border remains unsettled since it pays no cost.
In the circumstances, there seems to be little choice but to make China pay a cost, even if the cost we pay is higher. New Delhi would remember how Egypt imposed upon a far more powerful Israel a cost for its enmity, even fighting a limited war to bring Tel Aviv to the table. Israel’s crushing defeat of the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967 — coming soon after its victories in the 1948 War and the Suez Crisis of 1956 — had engendered a widespread impression of Israeli invincibility and Arab impotence. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat realised that the development of his country was held hostage by the no-war-no-peace situation that existed with Israel. Knowing that an acceptable and sustainable peace settlement with Israel required Tel Aviv to be equally convinced of its benefits, Sadat ordered his military to prepare for a war with clear strategic aims. Even if it did not end in victory, Sadat realistically aimed at damaging Israel’s military, demonstrating that Arab military power could not be disregarded and that the Israeli people’s long-term security would be furthered by a stable peace with Egypt. In October 1973, the combined Egyptian-Syrian armies launched a surprise offensive into Israel on Yom Kippur day, a holy day for Jews, capturing parts of the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. In the 20 days that followed, Israel recovered from these setbacks, eventually recapturing the territory. But the realisation that enduring enmity with the Arabs entailed a price brought Israel to the peace table. Sadat paid a historic visit to Israel in 1977, Egypt recognised it as a country and Cairo and Tel Aviv eventually normalised relations with the Camp David Accords in 1978.
illustration: Binay Sinha
It is nobody’s case that India lightly takes on China in a war for peace. However, like Sadat’s Egypt, New Delhi must clearly demonstrate to Beijing that China will pay a price for its relentless strategic undermining of India, while it would benefit from ensuring that the unresolved boundary does not trigger conflict. In the medium to long term, that would require a mutually agreed delineation of the LAC; a verifiable freezing of the status quo, and finally the give and take needed to agree on the new boundary.
For this, India must do what is necessary — including the use of military power — to enforce a PLA withdrawal to its side of the LAC. If China insists in the negotiations upon retaining its territorial gains, it must also feel the pain. This is feasible, now that India’s military has built up its numbers and neutralised the PLA’s head start. The army has moved over a division worth of Special Forces to Ladakh, which can operate between Chinese positions and occupy tactically important heights to isolate them. The air force, despite its shortfalls in fighter aircraft and force multipliers such as airborne warning and control aircraft and mid-air refuellers, enjoys significant advantages over the PLA Air Force, whose aircraft would suffer major performance degradation from operating from the oxygen-starved, high-altitude airbases in Tibet. Unlike in 1962, Indian ground troops would benefit from close air support. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is well placed to put pressure on Chinese shipping at a time where the PLA Navy is already preoccupied with confronting the US Navy in the South China Sea. It is not necessary to start a full-scale war; the military must be allowed to create its own escalation ladder, escalating in a calibrated manner, both geographically and in the application of force. If the PLA rushes to escalate and Indian forces are getting overwhelmed by China’s over-hyped military — which has not been tested in combat since 1979, and it failed that test—India can threaten use of its painstakingly created nuclear triad. To win, India needs only not to lose, while steadily imposing costs on China.
New Delhi could also signal it is considering abandoning its equidistance from Beijing and the US-led, anti-China coalition. It is unclear why Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party has left no stone unturned in criticising the policies and achievements of his predecessor, Jawaharlal Nehru, continues its unconvincing embrace of Nehruvian non-alignment. This would be directed towards shaping an ongoing debate in Chinese strategic circles over whether India is already in the US camp and is playing a double game by pretending equidistance; or whether New Delhi marches to its own drum. The latter school argues that escalation by China would transform India into a full-scale strategic adversary and create an openly hostile neighbour, just as Mao Zedong’s decision to invade India did in 1962.
Military action by India would be painful, but would discourage future trans-LAC incursions by the PLA. If that threat is not nipped in the bud, the already bloated 1.3 million-strong Indian Army
would need to add even more personnel, completely derailing its modernisation plans. On the other hand, compelling China into a mutually beneficial border agreement would enable the army to reduce its personnel by 300,000-400,000 men, transforming the financial calculus of defence spending. For this, lives would once again have to be laid down today by a military that is too often taken for granted. But nations pay such prices for safeguarding sovereignty and moulding their strategic environment beneficially. Avoiding these hard choices only postpones the inevitable moment of reckoning.