The road forward with China - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 27 April 2013

The road forward with China

India must keep talking, while building more border roads

India's ongoing build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border with China, has run into trouble at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, where - as in the lead-up to 1962 - its operational ambitions have outpaced the country's logistics. Today, a strong patrol from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has parked itself on territory India claims, benefiting from easy access over a good Chinese road across the Depsang Plains. Meanwhile, the Indian army's access to that area is mainly through a recently reactivated, weather-dependent landing ground. Without the ability to build up force, the army has little choice but to negotiate. The PLA will demand operational concessions, most likely the withdrawal of Indian defences in some other contested sector.

While it is necessary to acknowledge this tactical weakness, it must not be allowed to persist. Over the preceding decade, New Delhi has taken steps to translate India's long-standing disadvantage on the LAC into parity. Additional forces have been sanctioned, including a mountain strike corps, two mountain divisions and two armoured brigades; and forces have been relocated to the LAC from Kashmir and the Indo-Pakistan border. Air power and air defence capabilities have been greatly enhanced and a network of roads sanctioned. 

But little of this has come up on the ground yet, especially communications infrastructure. Without a road network, the cruel Himalayan terrain reduces even the largest divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. For decades, New Delhi has failed to speed up road building, blaming in turn state governments for not providing land; the environment ministry for blocking construction; the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for lacking capacity to take on so many projects at the same time; geological difficulties; and even the Chinese for blocking road construction close to the border.

New Delhi must initiate an emergency inter-agency drive to cut through the difficulties and cut the roads through the hills. A Strategic Roads Plan already exists, crafted by Shyam Saran, a former special advisor to the prime minister who invested years of tramping around the borders into this comprehensive document. The BRO roads, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and the special border area schemes need to be coordinated to optimise effort and expense. And a high-powered government panel, perhaps a group of ministers (GoM), must be charged with implementing the scheme in a time-bound manner. 

Until this network of new Indian roads substantially changes the military equation on the ground, India has little choice but to hasten softly in its military build-up. Beijing's proposal to freeze troop levels on the LAC stems from the confidence that its enviable infrastructure in Tibet acts as a force multiplier, permitting its relatively small number of troops to concentrate and disperse rapidly, running rings around India's immobile pickets. While Beijing can appear reasonable in asking for troop levels to be frozen, it cannot legitimately request a freeze on road building, which also benefits border populations. And as India changes ground realities, it must face the current ones, too - and keep talking with the Chinese army to ensure that tensions do not get out of hand.


  1. Perhaps a strong and more decisive center is required.The way northeast has been completely neglected (how many PMs after independence have visited NE states and how often) it would not be a surprise if we see NE become another Kashmir.

  2. Excellent article that addresses the root cause of Beijing chutzpah.

    Having cross-crossed the landscape with roads and rail, they have the room to out-maneuver India both in the field and in the political/diplomatic space. Further, Indian citizens in these border areas enrich Chinese businesses by purchasing their goods and services because Indian goods are inaccessible.

    Economically, strategically and politically connectivity is vital. Like Napolean, the Chinese are the ones choosing the field of battle and forcing India to respond on their terms. That brazenness and bravado is only supported by ability and hubris. Let them keep their hubris and let us match their ability.

  3. You miss the whole goddamned point. Strong and more decisive Center? When was the last time we had a 'Strong and more decisive Center'? It is not the question of the political affiliation of the people in power. It is more a question of diet. A vegetarian is a vegetarian is a vegetarian. Our national animal is the tiger but we worship the cow. We are cows. I am sorry but we will continue to be screwed till we stop eating grass and green vegetables which only cows eat.

  4. I appreciate your calm and reasoned response. At the same time, a country with a strong will would not just make a counter buildup but also force a Chinese withdrawal, despite the difficult logistics. I realise we have a very bad history with logistics in the Himalayas 1959-62, not to speak of general like Kaul who maintained determined infantry did not need artillery. Make 10 An-32 flights a day if neccessary; prepare to use airpower if neccessary; work day and night to extend roads and tracks if neccessary. But just do it. Of course, as your other readers have said, the will is lacking, which is why we're in this mess in the first place.

  5. Let me simplify what you are conveying with this sugar-coated analysis.

    "Just like Aksai Chin,POK, forget whatever square miles they have annexed with these lateest incursion."

    Dear Manmohan,

    What if premier Li Keqiang 'perceives' your wife and kids to be his? Likely you will put them on special jet-plane to send off to Beijing at the soonest.(Longing for premier to formally ask, right?)

    यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः ।
    यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ।।

    Mother India, it is indeed a miracle that you mothered 1.2 billion fools who would write-off anything including their mothers/wives if need be.

    Clearly I see my grand kids living under colonized India after 50-100 years, the only difference wud be that this time colonization wud be from East.

  6. How many of these improvements in terms of paper approvals have actually translated to real improvements?
    Can you provide more info on that..
    I mean over the past week weve been told the IAF ALGs are decrepit


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