(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)
By Bhartendu Kumar Singh
Despite relative peace on the Sino-Indian border since 1962 (disturbed occasionally, like the Galwan Valley incident), war probabilities often cloud the bilateral relations.
Our strategic imaginations do factor, and are rather geared up to deter, possible Chinese invasions in Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh and even a Cesarean-operation through the Siliguri Corridor, popularly called as Chicken’s Neck.
Humphrey Hawksley’s The Third World War discussed Chinese nuclear attack coming from Bay of Bengal waters. But a future Chinese invasion could also come, unexpectedly, through Nepal corridors and threaten us in Indo-Gangetic plains!
In the past, Nepal was a good buffer state. Though often at political and diplomatic variance, Nepal’s economic dependence on India was complete and its sporadic attempts to wriggle out of South Asian neighbour’s orbitary was unsuccesful.
Part of the reason was that the alternative mechansim of slipping out to Chinese influence was costly, time-consuming and prohibitive. Therefore, the Singha Durbar in Kathmandu was, by and large, sensitive to India’s security concerns. Consequently, a Chinese march through Nepal did not emerge in our strategic imaginations.
Things are changing though. Nepal is becoming a frontal expansion of China’s peripheral strategy through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has contributed to, and benefited from, the expansion of road infrastructure in Nepal.
They are also discussing railway projects including the Kerung-Kathmandu Railway that would work to China’s advantage as and when completed. Nepal has also taken a policy decision to align its future rail network, including the 945 km East-West or Mechi-Mahakali Railway) on ‘Chinese guage standards’. Therefore, the Indian broad gauge design may not make much of a dent in Nepal hinterlands.
China’s cultural investments have also started paying dividends. For example, the Confucius Centres, China study centres and dedicated language training institutes have proliferated in Nepal. Some of these Chinese ‘cultural activities’ are visible right up to the Indo-Nepal border.
China’s political investments are more scary, as evident in Chinese Ambassador’s publicised mediation games among different factions within the ruling Nepali Communist Party.
These developments should sound alarm bells for India! At the minimum, they turn Nepal into a hotbed for anti-India spying activities. Chinese spies, masquerading as professionals in different fields, could be already operating in Terai region.
At worst, there could be a Chinese invasion through Nepal! Imagine an ultra-Leftist regime in Kathmandu hobnobbing with Beijing to hatch a political-military conspiracy against India.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, using light-mobile warfare divisions posted in and around Xigaze, could sneak into Kathmandu from multiple entry points and run down southwards to the Indo-Gangetic plains through different highways in Terai.
The north-to-south distance in crossing Nepal is around 400 km, covered in a single day. Already, Chinese PLA has been conducting regular combat exercises in Tibet to enhance local movement and coordination capacities.
It might seem ridiculous and fanciful imagination, but a Chinese military march through Nepal is a possible scenario due to various reasons.
First, Chinese military modernisation has come a long way to make it the second or third-most powerful military in the world. Its military strategies have undergone considerable change and do not actually fall under the rubric of ‘active defence’ as some scholars would like us to believe.
The so-called strategy of ‘winning informatised local wars’ since 2014 is a hogwash. Instead, ‘strategic aggression’ defines Chinese military strategy, whether in South China Sea or against India.
Second, Sino-Russian thaw since early nineties and its metamorphosis into a bonhomie has enabled China the military leverage to settle scores with other peripheral countries.
While it faces a plethora of countries and a wilful informal coalition in the South China Sea dispute, it may like to explore opportunities for a favourable border settlement with India through use of force.
Third, while China has expanded its military power projection in Tibet through road, rail and airports infrastructure along with offensive capacity, troops and ammunition; it faces strong Indian defences in the western, central and eastern sectors of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The vulnerable Chicken’s Neck is also heavily defended. Therefore, any attack in these sectors may not accrue significant advantage to China.
Nepal provides a soft-belly through which China can make early inroads into the Indo-Gangetic plains. Deception has been a perennial feature of Chinese strategy adding weight to this hypothetical scenario.
On its side, India has lost traditional advantage in Nepal when Indian military observation posts were located near the China-Nepal border. Today, the preferential treatment is reserved for Chinese PLA, evident in many training related agreements between China and Nepal.
The border infrastructure is still poor in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Roads are in bad shape; those in Bihar get washed away almost every year due to floods and riverine topography.
The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), responsible for construction and maintenance of strategic and peripheral roads in frontier areas elsewhere along India’s land borders, does not have any project or task force in these two states.
The railways infrastructure has also not improved much. Consequentially, East to West connectivity along Indo-Nepal frontier is slow and painful.
India also does not have sufficient offensive or defensive military presence in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to handle such hypothetical invasion coming through Indo-Nepal border. There is only one Mountain Division in Bareilly.
Those present in northern West Bengal are meant to defend the Chicken’s Neck. In between, there is nothing! While the air cover through bases at Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Panagarh and Bagdogra can take care of Indo-Nepal border, their usage is debatable in heavily populated areas.
Therefore, a hypothetical Chinese attack through Nepal must enter India’s strategic thought process for evolution, development and consolidation of response-mechanism. Ignorance of such scenario can be dangerous and self-defeating since Sino-Indian relations are uncertain, unpredictable and asymmetrical. We must also fraternise and lure back Nepal through fast-tracking of cobweb of pull-factors. Probably, that would help perpetuate the ‘relative peace’ with China.
(The writer is an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer)