(Editor’s Note: In arrangement with Defence Research and Studies, a Kochi-based think-tank)
By Colonel (Dr) N. K. Chhibber
The Great Game conceptualised a policy of “buffer zones between the expansionist forces”, in the instant case Russia and British India. Russian southward expansion was intended to be halted somewhere near Afghanistan or Tibet by converting these states into buffer zones.
However, the “Middle Kingdom” surprisingly initiated claims over a sovereign and independent Tibet. Various treaties between British India and Russia hampered any indulgence in Tibet.
However, when the Chinese agreed on the Sir Henry McMahon’s division of Tibet by initialing on the text and the map, arbitrarily disagreed to sign the same document for its finalisation. In most of the attempts to divide Tibet, Aksai Chin was always shown as part of British India and rightly penciled along with Kun Lun ranges, while finally drawing McMahon Line too.
As against the Indian leadership’s idea of Aksai Chin being inaccessible and valueless, the Chinese had acknowledged the strategic importance of this part of the sub-continent way back in 1950 when Mao Zedong declared that Tibet was China’s right-hand palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh its five fingers.
The Chinese, since then, started manoeuvring to lay claim over these “five fingers”. Action to physically occupy these palm and fingers started with invasion and capture of Tibet in 1950.
Post-1949, People’s Republic of China recognised the McMahon Line of Burma (present-day Myanmar) but not India because of its belligerent mindset that a country not under the direct Chinese control was unilaterally considered either a tributary or rebellious and that it would not be possible to annex the five fingers later if it recognises the McMahon Line with India.
The 1962 Sino-Indian conflict left India with a deep scar in the minds of the Indian political masters and military’s top leadership. India won many battles during the 1962 conflict, where stories of outnumbered Indian soldiers giving a bloody nose to the Chinese, in spite of being in overall disadvantageous position, activates the arrector pili muscles.
Moreover, Indians often shy away from articulating regarding the successful Cho la and Sumdorong Chu incidents, where the Indian soldiers killed more than 300 Chinese counterparts, and forced them to retreat, which was no less than a short war when seen in the light of number of casualties inflicted and success in a military operation against an adversary.
China resolved its land border dispute with 12 out of 14 countries in its favour, with an exception of India and Bhutan. This obviously substantiated its territorial intent towards India, notwithstanding Indian appeasement for a resultant peace by giving away its United Nations Security Council permanent seat, trusting ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai‘ slogan, failing to pledge Tibetan cause, allowing the dumping of Chinese goods in spite of prevailing trade deficit and tolerating ‘salami slicing‘ of our territory, all against its national interests.
Endemic deficiency in realism and strategic vision of the Indian political and diplomatic leadership since 1947 manifested into the present situation.
Strategic Importance of the Terrain that China is Eyeing
McMahon Line, by default, covers four important tri-junctions of strategic importance on the crest of the Himalayas in the Indian territory. Karakoram Pass, co-located with Siachen Glacier on China-Pakistan-India tri-junction, Kalapani or Lipulekh Pass on the India-China-Nepal border, and Doklam on the India-Bhutan-China border and Diphu Pass on India-Myanmar-China border.
All these tri-junctions have tri-eccentricity when seen through Chinese prism, that is, possession of tactical heights for strategic gains, endangering India’s territorial sovereignty, if not held physically, and facilitate China’s most ambitious project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Siachen Glacier is known as the third pole is an area of 76 sqkm located at an altitude of 23,000 feet. It is also the highest battlefield in the world. Temperatures go up to minus 60-degree Celsius, with rare oxygen and blizzards whipping up winds of speeds in excess of 150 km per hour.
The combined impact of high altitude and cripplingly cold weather causes severe depression, hallucination, memory loss, blurred speech, frostbite, pulmonary and cerebral oedema, and even death. It is a huge water source for India. It is contiguous to Karakoram Pass and the glacial territory was saved by India in 1984 by a whisker before Pakistan could do seize it.
The glacier is wedged between Indian Aksai Chin that is under Chinese occupation and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, thereby impairing geographical military linkage between both these allies at this location.
Losing Siachen Glacier may have a ripple effect of losing other tactically important places especially Daulat Beg Oldi in Sub-Sector North in eastern Ladakh. This piece of land can be used as a launching pad when India reclaims its territory adjacent to Siachen Glacier. It is, therefore, occupied throughout the year at a very heavy human and financial cost.
Aksai Chin, located at a height of 17,000 feet, is of the size of Switzerland. It is a barren part of Indian Union Territory of Ladakh under Chinese occupation. Situated between the Chinese self-governing but occupied regions of Xinjiang (originally, East Turkestan) and Tibet, it has a small number of natural resources.
In the Southwest is the Karakoram Range, the de facto border. Glaciated peaks in the middle part of this boundary are at a height of 6,950 metres. In the North lie the Kun Lun Range, the actual boundary between India and Tibet.The eastern branch of the area contains a number of small endorheic basins, largest being Aksai Chin Lake fed by the Aksai Chin River.
At present, China’s illegally constructed National Western Highway G-219, a strategic lifeline, runs through Aksai Chin linking Kashgar in Xinjiang and Lazi in Tibet. This highway is a link between the littoral port of Gwadar and landlocked Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Africa and the Pacific region via BRI. The region is sparsely populated and houses an early trade route.
Kalapani or the Lipulekh Pass is situated on the tri-junction of India-China-Nepal. This small piece of alleviated land is situated at 17,000 feet and connects Uttarakhand and Tibet.
There is a forward post of the Indian Army, which provides the tactical advantage and acts as an observation and listening post to observe any Chinese build-up. In addition, its proximity to Chinese military locations in Tibet, facilitates swift reaction by the Indian Army.
For the Chinese, this could be an entry point, a foothold on the Indian territory and fastest means of threatening New Delhi which is only 416 km away. India has enhanced its military infrastructure and capabilities in this area.
Doklam Plateau is situated at 15,000 feet on the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China. Constant vigil and physical presence of Indian troops are imperative to avoid the occupation of the Siliguri Corridor by the Chinese, being very close to Chumbi Valley in Tibet.
This corridor is also called the “Chicken’s Neck“, which is only 22 km wide and connects the whole of North-East with rest of India, and can be easily cut off by China, a devastating scenario in the event of a war. The People’s Liberation Army triggered a stand-off with the Indian Army in 2017 when it started constructing a road in an area of strategic importance belonging to Bhutan. The Indian Army came to the rescue of its ally Bhutan in accordance with a defence treaty.
Diphu Pass is situated at 15,049 feet on the tri-junction of India-China-Myanmar. It is also a strategic approach to eastern Arunachal Pradesh. China has shown its duplicity by recognising the McMahon line with Myanmar up to Diphu pass but not its further extension into India.
This pass is important for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. This project gives China access to the Bay of Bengal and the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, just opposite the strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Arunachal Pradesh is mostly a crisscross of mountain ranges running in the North-South axis. It secures Bhutan’s eastern flank by virtue of being contiguous to India.
Tawang, the second most important monastery of Tibetans, is located on the periphery. In case Tawang gets exposed, Bhutan would be subjected to Chinese pincer attack from both its flanks endangering India’s security, since China’s borders would then rest on the plains of Assam, posing a threat to the other northeastern states.
The Chinese obsession with Tawang region is entirely strategic in its aim, because this region has abundant water, natural resources and is closest to China proper. Arunachal Pradesh provides strategic depth to Brahmaputra Valley and other northeastern states of India.
In terms of any air operations in this region, Arunachal Pradesh would provide multi-layered air defence deployments on the ground as deterrence and it is from this region that India’s missile ranges cover most of the Chinese heartland targets. India had refused a Chinese proposal of its swap in lieu of Aksai Chin.
The Evolving Chinese and Indian Mindset
The Chinese civilisation combined and formed one group around 1500 B.C. During the migration of civilisations from Shang to Zhou in 256 B.C., the development of China was enriched and well-established, which has persisted till today.
Chinese ideology was traditionally bound by Confucianism, that is, Han Chinese, which constituted 92 per cent of the population were socio-political in nature and contributed in making of a powerful, unified, self-confident and a homogeneous society, giving them a feeling of belonging to one state. Chinese philosophy directed people to find fulfillment through socio-political activities.
On the other hand, due to the religious affinity, the socio-religious developments in India identified Indians with ideas and practices based on Hinduism. It was because of religious philosophy and its unique caste structure that evolved a social system strongly intermingled with the traditions of its culture, which influences the contemporary social and political behaviour.
Hindu way of life, symbolised by high moral values of tolerance, truthfulness and justice, constituted the core of Hinduism which sustained it during Muslim and British rule. The Indians seek spiritual realisation of the absolute by annihilation of ego, which bind them to their finite individuality.
Both China and India had been regularly invaded, causing breakdown of governance. However, China from Han to the nineteenth century experienced strengthening of its culture, thereby producing a close-knit society, and India from Maurya dynasty to the British rule saw a division facilitating growth of caste and regional culture areas in its own language.
In a nutshell, Chinese and Indian character can be compared as follows:
First, Chinese are socio-political; Indians are socio-religious;
Second, Chinese by nature are assertive and Indians on the other hand are submissive;
Third, Chinese imperial system achieved permanency and stability, Indian imperial system was not established until the British rule;
Fourth, Chinese, in spite of having semi-colonial type of environment, took their own decisions, whereas Indians are bound by the political framework imposed by the British;
Fifth, Chinese military was prepared as a part of the political system, Indian military was kept apolitical; and
Sixth, and last, Communist Party of China governs the Chinese people and a multi-party democracy propelled government rules India.
Chinese Strengths and weaknesses
The Chinese strength lies in their history of inventions, discoveries, culture and the evolving mindset of community living. Chinese imperial system achieved permanence and stability due to the combination of military power and socio-political-oriented Confucian ideology of a unitary government. It was, therefore, difficult even for the British to penetrate the Chinese tradition, culture and religious bonding.
More than 92 per cent population being Han, there is less friction, and being the most-populated country in the world, could use its diaspora for the furtherance of its interest. The one-party system is a boon, because it can maintain continuity and therefore accountability.
However, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Chinese became too obsessed with their historical concept of being a ‘Zhong Guo‘ (Middle Kingdom).
Their unchallenged expansionism and the autocratic and totalitarian activities failed to make allowance for the advent of change in democratic functioning and inevitably, degenerated their strengths into weaknesses. Besides this, Xi Jinping professed himself as the interminable ruler of China and decoupled choice from absolute power.
China has the third-largest land area in the world, but its population is unevenly distributed, that is, 96 per cent of its population is concentrated in one-third of its area in the eastern side and remaining four per cent in the two-third area in the western half, that is Tibet, East Turkestan and Outer Mongolia, which were annexed later into the Chinese territory.
China has changed these occupied region’s demography and imposed harsh rules on them against their wishes, resulting in their alienation and seeking for freedom.
Moreover, China refuses to be a signatory to the United Nations water-sharing agreements to be able to use water as a weapon against the lower riparian countries.
It has a maritime boundary dispute with littoral countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Japan. It refuses to acknowledge the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Seas and judgment on the resolution of maritime boundaries.
In its desire to possess East China Sea and the South China Sea, it has antagonised the stakeholders in Malacca, Lombok/Makassar Straits and further sea lanes of communication. The last resort of any nation is their army, which in the case of China is tailor-made for owing its allegiance to one-man party rather than the nation and its people.
Reasons behind Chinese Belligerence
Xi Jinping wanted to emulate Mao Zedong and use PLA for fulfilling the palm and fingers fantasy of his master. Having got used to Salami Slicing of the Indian territory, without being stymied, unfortunately, tried the identical timeworn trick again without evaluating the present government in New Delhi.
The elementary pretext was the present Indian government’s abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir with respect to the illegal occupation of Indian territory by China and its ally Pakistan, which in bargain threatened its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project passing adjacent to this region.
Moreover, the gusto of possessing and dominating the entire Himalayan heights is also evident from its move in Doklam, Nepal and entire McMahon Line on the Indian side.
Having attained ascendency over cutting-edge technology stolen from Russia, United States and other countries and making huge profits by indulging in “white-collar crimes”, it fast-tracked to create a New World Order by adopting unethical means to replace US hegemony with their own.
Fabricating veracity of COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent manipulation not only enraged the world but also the Chinese at home, furthermore the repressive one-party one-man model instead of enticing quick prosperity eventually backfired and degenerated the domestic and geopolitical prospects.
Much against Mao’s dreams Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh is still with India, forced Chinese salami slicing and part-occupation notwithstanding. Sikkim integrated with India by its own choice in 1975.
Nepal is independent and pursues its policy with great élan, despite present momentary Chinese allure of ideology and cheque book diplomacy. Bhutan too can’t be infiltrated till it is under Indian umbrella and the Chinese proposal of an embassy in Thimphu doesn’t seem imminent.
Its approach to “liberate” the ‘five fingers’ with military coercion, as done in case of Tibet, therefore, needed to change. China prepared itself to fulfill this aim by simultaneously strengthening its economic and military prowess and ensuring continuity in its objective by proclaiming Xi Jinping as a lifelong dictator.
Asian Century had started to witness China as a key variable in regulating world growth. However deceiving countries by stealing designs for reverse engineering, collecting world data by covertly intruding in the personal, private and governmental institutions, deceptive economic burglary and terrestrial terrorism slowly unfolded and antagonised the world.
Since these countries were heavily indebted, they could not individually remonstrate against the Chinese. However, they were thunderstruck when the world got together to act against the Chinese unethical practices after they clandestinely mislead the world on Wuhan Virus and used this moment of weakness to fulfill their covert aim.
Occupation of Indian territory along McMahon Line by Chinese army in April 2020 became its Achilles’ Heel when India responded with similar strength to dare the dragon.
Chinese followed this up with clandestinely influencing Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran against India. In hindsight, the world realised that Chinese peaceful rise was inconsistent in reality and that a strong China was, in fact, dangerous for the world and disastrous for the region.
It is evident that the world is still dominated by realpolitik. India has to change to pragmatic realism and adopt proactive strategic stance. It is imperative to affirm China and its all-weather ally Pakistan as an adversary of India and review the foreign policy and alignment accordingly.
India may continue economic and other activities in the national interest with due caution. India must claim area up to Kun Lun mountain ranges as per the McMahon Line.
India must not hesitate to include Sahidula post north of Karakoram Pass and to be more realistic all those areas religiously associated with Indians like Mount Kailash and Mansarovar into its own territorial claim.
India needs to spread own tentacles to countries having land and maritime borders with China especially Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan among others.
India needs to master the integration of Information Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Warfare, EMS, quantum computing, missile technology, space and 5G technology at a war-footing, commensurate with the geopolitical environment.
It would therefore be imperative to align with compatible countries like the US, Israel, France, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Moreover, drones which have become a force multiplier and game-changer in contemporary warfare, should be integrated into the overall battlefield scenario.
India must, on one hand, exploit the Chinese in-house weaknesses like freedom for Tibet, Outer Mongolia and East Turkestan besides inciting political disorder, challenges of undemocratic autocratic rule and subjugation of minorities in China and on the other hand embrace Chanakya Niti by building a closer relationship of mutual respect with its immediate neighbours.
Likewise, Tibetans, living in India and other countries, must be encouraged to voice their concern in the UN and other platforms to keep the issue active and also use them for human Intelligence.
It is imperative to expand to a blue water navy to control sea lanes in Malacca and Hormuz straits and project power to dominate South China Sea and the East China Sea, either independently or with QUAD nations and other like-minded countries to make passage difficult for Chinese ships and derange their economy.
Every country big or small has a vote in the UN, therefore draw global cooperation to force a reorganisation of the UN structure, especially the Security Council, by including India as a permanent member based on its merit.
Indians are slaves of our days-of-yore, but the nation cannot afford to repeat the strategic mistakes of the past. China, by daring to challenge India and other nations simultaneously, has not only lost more than it has gained, but also got exposed with respect to its covert geopolitical intent, especially against India.
China always got away unpunished due to absence of collective response. If it was prudent for the Chinese to deceive India time and again during its weak moments, it is equally prudent for India to use any means to teach China a lesson when it is weakest and the world is on a common platform.
Chinese incursion, therefore, has to be challenged and dislodged at all cost. India should entice China to fight where it has an edge, that is, a conventional war between the Indian Army and the PLA, and avoid asymmetrical exchanges for the time being.
Although India has taken the lead, it is imperative that Indians, on one hand, cajole a collective response to burst the balloon of Chinese arrogance and myth, and on the other hand, to manipulate and moderate trade and economic activity, re-position ourselves for a larger geopolitical role, if need be, by tranquilising China, taking a proactive stance on international events and building asymmetrical warfare capabilities.
NOTE: The article was originally posted at https://dras.in/dragons-ladakh-faux-pas-2020/ and the views expressed are of the author.
(The author served the Indian Army for 34 years and is from the Sikh Light Infantry. He holds a Doctorate degree from Chaudhary Charan Singh University on “Sino-Indian Strategic Relations: An Analytical Study, 1962-2010”. His full profile can be read here)