The Chinese intrusion into Depsang
Bulge in East Ladakh, approximately 19 km inside our perception of
the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on April 15, has raised
temperatures both militarily and politically on either side. A
series of border personnel meetings between the militaries of the
two sides have not been able to resolve the issue so far and the
standoff continues till date. It would not be incorrect to presume
that this latest provocation from the Chinese side has been
undertaken with the tacit approval of the highest levels in the
As we grapple with the current situation, it has reignited
introspection as to our level of preparedness should things go
from bad to worse.
Fifty years have elapsed since the Chinese aggression took place
in 1962. A number of articles have appeared in the media covering
that period as well as the events preceding it. While there are
many reasons for the Indian Army's debacle, and these have been
discussed threadbare in the past 50 years, there is no doubt about
the valour, courage and heroism of the Indian soldier even in the
most adverse circumstances which obtained then. Given the right
training, equipment and battlefield support, he is better than the
best in the world. With that as the takeaway, we need to ensure
that such a setback is never ever repeated.
For a realistic assessment, first and foremost, there is need for
clarity on some basic issues. Many an analyst has discounted the
very possibility of a future Sino-Indian conflict on the grounds
that both countries stand to gain from a cooperative engagement,
that trade between the two countries is increasing exponentially
over time, that there is enough space for both to grow
simultaneously and that both are speaking in the same voice at
global forums on issues like global warming, climate change,
global economy, trade barriers, etc.
It is further suggested that China already being at the global
level, has more important issues like Taiwan, South China Sea and
finally Pacific Ocean dominance to worry about in consonance with
its stature; therefore, it would not like to get involved in a
border skirmish with India.
While it is good to be optimistic, we should not veer too far away
from pragmatism and reality, especially where issues of national
security are concerned. The possibility of a standoff like the
present one on the LAC flaring up into a bigger confrontation can
never be ruled out.
There is no getting away from the fact that China has assiduously
tried to create an impression that India does not figure in its
scheme of things and that India's rise and growth over the past
decade has little significance and in no way threatens China.
In an analysis carried out by Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace in January 2013 titled "Crux of Asia: China, India and the
Emerging Global Order", Ashley J. Tellis and Sean Mirski highlight
that "Differences in the Chinese and Indian positions sometimes
arise from the two countries' competing visions but more often
from their underlying geopolitical rivalry, which appears to be
sufficiently deep-rooted so as to prevent the two states from
realising any natural accommodation. To be sure, both sides bend
over backward to conceal their differences in public, and both
have often struggled to reach some accommodation that might permit
occasional practical cooperation. But the differences in national
power and performance between the two countries, the seeming
disdain with which China treats India, and the deep fears that
India harbors about China's policies and intentions lead to a
never-ending contest for securing strategic advantages."
While cooperation and healthy competition are welcome and
desirable, the seeds of confrontation are inherent between the two
nations engaged in competition, at both the regional and global
Considering the fact that India is one of the few countries with
which China has not resolved its long-standing boundary issue and
that it has had a prolonged mutually beneficial ongoing
relationship with Pakistan, the possibility of a confrontation
between the two can never be ruled out.
From a national security perspective, it would, therefore, be
prudent to be prepared for a threat to our territorial integrity.
The last thing that India would want is a repeat of 1962!
A second issue that needs clarity is whether we expect to be
subjected to an all-out, full-fledged war or a limited border war.
Development of massive infrastructure in Tibet, modernisation of
the PLA Army, Navy and Air Force, growth of Second Artillery and a
fourfold increase in Chinese defence budget since 2000 gives it
the option of indulging in an all-out war. However, given the
regional and global realities, Chinese consciousness of its image
as an emerging global power and the likely Chinese rationale of
going to war over the boundary issue, the possibility of a limited
war appears much stronger.
Thirdly, we need to introspect that while we may from time to time
upgrade our operational readiness to meet the Chinese challenge,
the Chinese continue to remain far ahead and we are invariably
struggling to catch up. This is inevitable considering the kind of
military spending China is indulging in. For the financial year
2012-13, the official Chinese military budget was $106.4 billion,
the second highest in the world. As per Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates, the actual expenditure
is likely to be approximately one and a half times this figure.
As opposed to this, the Indian defence budget stood at a meagre
$38 billion approximately.
In the current financial year, the official Chinese military
budget is $115 billion approximately. In the span of last two
decades, we have seen the PLA grow from an obsolete force, which
was given a bloody nose by the Vietnamese, into a formidable,
modernised and well-equipped military backed by an array of force
multipliers. In the same period, the Indian military has been
strenuously fighting counter insurgency battles in both J&K and
the northeast and its equipment profile is nearing obsolescence.
The danger is that this gap between the two is likely to keep
increasing with passage of time, if past trends are any
indication. Some major corrective steps are, therefore, necessary
by us before it gets too late.
To begin with, it is crucial that we spend at least three per cent
of our GDP on defence. Yearly shortfalls on this account can never
be made up by onetime infusion at the time of a crisis.
Even during the Kargil conflict, General V P Malik, the then army
chief, was constrained to say "we will fight with what we have" in
the light of the shortages existing. We need to have a military
which is consistently ready to face challenges to the country.
National security, to ensure unhindered growth, is crucial.
With the limited resources available, we need to priortise our
spending in such a manner that immediate threats are taken care of
before we move on to other larger goals. It must also be
appreciated that in the ultimate analysis, victory or defeat is
measured in terms of real estate gained or lost. Thus, in case of
a limited war with China, it is important that the Army and the
Air Force who have to fight that war are allocated larger
resources to begin with.
The infrastructure on our side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)
between China and India has yet to be developed fully, despite our
best efforts so far. This is likely to prove a handicap in
fighting a successful defensive battle. Our own environmental
restrictions and prolonged land acquisition procedures need to be
fine-tuned to hasten infrastructural development. Sixty-five years
after independence, we are still dependent on one single, tenuous
road axis in a number of crucial sectors.
Secondly, the Border Roads Organisation, which is the prime agency
responsible for creating infrastructure in areas close to the LAC,
is neither well-equipped and staffed nor well-organised and funded
to deliver the desired results. Its functioning needs to be
thoroughly reviewed and adequate funding provided to it to
complete important infrastructure projects in a time-bound manner.
The possibility that in case of a conflict with China, Pakistan
will not hesitate to fish in troubled waters and start something
of its own on our western border also cannot be ruled out.
Therefore, India has to be prepared to defend itself on both
fronts and must accordingly develop its capabilities.
With a regime change in China having taken place, it would be
worth India's while to work for a mutually acceptable settlement
of the vexatious boundary issue. A resolution of this crucial
issue would reduce the possibility of hostilities between the two
countries. Further, it would avoid the threat of a two-front war,
improve bilateral relations with China and enhance cooperation
between the two countries on regional and global issues.
Finally, India has been consistent in following an independent
foreign policy which suits our interests best. We have consciously
stayed away from being part of any alignments. However, in the
event of a continuously bellicose and confrontationist Chinese
attitude, India should keep its options open for alignments at
both the regional and global levels to meet the challenges of a
hostile environment. Diplomatic alignments would be an additional
hedge against avoiding a repeat of 1962.
Gen. (retd) Deepak Kapoor is a former Indian Army
chief. This article will appear in the May issue of India
Strategic defence magazine - www.indiastrategic.in. The views
expressed are personal.