No good options: A year on from Galwan, Beijing still has the upper hand - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 16 June 2021

No good options: A year on from Galwan, Beijing still has the upper hand

By Ajai Shukla

Editorial comment in Business Standard

17th June 21


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 the 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. China would be a factor in other decisions as well, with Beijing having warned India against creating border infrastructure or political changes in Jammu & Kashmir.


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 healthcare 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 hand.


  1. As usual the darbari journalist tries to show Indian military in poor light,he mentions about the death of 20Indian soldiers but fails to mention the 40+ PLA men killed according to most conservative estimates, to show as if our troops were just massacred,also all the advantages PLA gained in the sectors he mentioned had been mostly gained in 2013 during UPA ,the NDA Govt is atleast hitting back,and about troops in place at LAC,IA has experince in Kargil and Siachen so they will use that experince and it will speed up the infrastructre development that was lacking in those regions ,its actually a blessing in disguise not an adversity as this darbari tries to paint it.If Beijing holds the aces does anybody think they would have held back ,Plz IA will do its job darbaris like you Cannot dent the confidence the public has on its Armed forces

  2. # our officer corps, general staff were, as has become the norm, caught napping. at the heights overlooking kargil our patrolling was observed in the breach; to the extent that pakistan's northern light infantry [formerly gilgit scouts] were able to bring in heavy equipment and construct impregnable gun positions, bunkers under the noses of our military. even when gujjar, bakrewal graziers told our field security entities about this, we did not even bother to check. similarly, in this instance too [eastern ladakh], we were simply not sending out patrols to keep an eye on the PLA border forces; even as we were chuffed about the completion of the all weather road to DBO that we swaggered [merry with braggadocio] would allow us to turn DBO into a launch pad to interdict karakoram highway, retake aksai-chin. the reason - our forward troops at the LOC were observing covid lockdown. the PLA merely moved in to secure the heights overlooking the darbuk-shyok-DBO highway. checkmate! now we are stuck between a rock and a hard-place. we will have to spend, year after year, billions, trillions of rupees, much of it is foreign currency, for materiel, munitions, weapon systems, to clothe, shelter, feed, house, fuel troops at altitudes that are debilitating for men, and materiel. we will continue to feel good about our brave-hearts, thrill at the republic day procession, our soldiers looking fierce, attired in the best parkas, thermals, gloves for mountaineers, shod in the most expensive climbing footwear and carrying carbines, rifles from the finest gun-smiths in the world. meanwhile we will continue to destroy forests, plunder arable land to get at iron-ore to supply to china; grow cotton in arid districts with seriously depleting groundwater so that we can send the raw cotton for value addition to china, and even pakistan. post eastern ladakh our exports of both these primary commodities to china [to support their finished goods international dominance] has been robust, exceeding even twice the previous year's exports.

    1. Well put! Oversight - especially government - always has a high cost attached to it. Why is it we never seem to learn from past follies.


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