No good options

A year after 20 Indian soldiers were brutally killed by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers who had encroached into Indian-claimed territory in the Galwan River Valley in eastern Ladakh, stock should be taken of what has changed for India and how it has adjusted to the new realities. On the positive side, the government has abandoned the ostrich-in-the-sand attitude it initially adopted and accepted the unflattering truth that the PLA took the Indian military establishment by surprise. The tactical advantage China gained has enabled it to call the shots in the military-to-military di.....
A year after 20 Indian soldiers were brutally killed by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers who had encroached into Indian-claimed territory in the Galwan River Valley in eastern Ladakh, stock should be taken of what has changed for India and how it has adjusted to the new realities. On the positive side, the government has abandoned the ostrich-in-the-sand attitude it initially adopted and accepted the unflattering truth that the PLA took the Indian military establishment by surprise. The tactical advantage China gained has enabled it to call the shots in the military-to-military disengagement talks. A mutual pullback has taken place in the Pangong Lake sector, where a brave Indian counterattack resulted in the capture of dominating terrain on the Ladakh Range, which the PLA was glad to trade. But in other sectors, including Depsang, the Galwan valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, China has refused to discuss a mutual withdrawal and continues holding on to its initial advantage. To counter a strong Chinese build-up behind the current frontlines, an estimated two divisions (40,000 troops) of the Indian Army remain deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Effectively, China has forced India into the year-round militarisation of a second live frontier, which must be guarded in addition to the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. New Delhi’s most daunting strategic challenge — a “two-front” conflict — appears to be becoming a reality. This has triggered major changes in India’s military force posture. A rebalance is under way from a Pakistan-centric deployment to one that is geared more towards countering China. As part of this “pivot to the north”, one of India’s three mechanised strike corps has been operationally reassigned as a mountain strike corps, to be used in the event of Chinese aggression. In addition to the two divisions rushed to eastern Ladakh last summer, up to two more divisions have been redeployed to reinforce other vulnerable points on the LAC. This has resulted in a reduction of forces available to deter Pakistan.

To the surprise of many, Pakistan has not taken advantage of India’s predicament as it might have. Instead, a welcome LoC cease-fire has emerged from back-channel negotiations between New Delhi and Islamabad. That said, peace with Pakistan is always precarious and, if any provocation requires New Delhi to retaliate, China’s possible reaction would have to be weighed carefully. The increased military threat to India’s borders stemming from two powerful adversaries acting in concert demands higher levels of military spending at a time when health care expenditure from the Covid-19 pandemic is already stressing the Union Budget. If more money cannot be allocated for defence, it will have to be found from within the military. The single-greatest expenditure head — salaries and pensions — cannot be pruned. That would mean cutting back on the purchase of weapons and equipment, leaving the military vulnerable against a rapidly modernising PLA. With few palatable options, New Delhi is taking a soft line in dealing with Beijing. It has remained silent as a growing international chorus links Covid-19 with Chinese biological warfare experiments. Nor has New Delhi said much about cyber-attacks on Indian infrastructure, allegedly originating from China. Threats to curtail Chinese investments and exports to India have not been followed up. The aces are currently in Beijing’s hands.

 



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