26/06/2020 7:49 AM IST

India Needs To Stop Playing To China’s Strengths: Ex-Army Officer Explains How

Probal Dasgupta, author of ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China’, says New Delhi must be more involved in the Indian Ocean region where China is vulnerable.

Yawar Nazir via Getty Images
An Indian army convoy drives towards Leh on June 19, 2020.

The violent face-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on 15 June, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead, has been described as the “biggest confrontation” between the two neighbours since 1967. 

While the 1962 war between the countries is understandably uppermost in people’s minds, not many know that India and China fought again in 1967 on two Himalayan passes — Cho La and Nathu La. India’s twin victories in 1967 helped shape India’s approach to later conflicts with China, writes Probal Dasgupta, an ex-Indian Army officer, in his recently published book from Juggernaut Books, Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China.

In an interview with HuffPost India over email, Dasgupta said that even though the 1967 battles and the Ladakh face-off are separated by more than 50 years, military and political leadership remains as important as ever when dealing with national security issues. 

“The two economies are larger and interdependent now, and their armies are nuclear armed now as compared to 1967. So we are talking about two vastly different economic and political environments. And that is why I believe that the Indian government needs to have greater clarity in its messaging and handle perceptions better in an information-heavy world,” he said.

At the tactical level, said Dasgupta, the Indian government will now have to be wary and cautious about how the situation develops along the LAC. On the strategic level, he expects the Narendra Modi government to lend a defined voice of support on issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. 

Dasgupta also said that India must play to its strengths instead of staying in the Himalayas and playing to China’s strengths. New Delhi needs to be more involved in the Indian Ocean region where China finds itself vulnerable and India has an advantage, he added.  

1. You have said that one of the reasons the battles of 1967 were forgotten is that both India and China chose to downplay it. Do you see any similarities between then and now, in how the Modi government responded to the standoff and now the clash? 

In 1967, India-China relations had hit a nadir before the battles took place. Diplomats on both sides had been detained and a standoff had occurred in Doklam in 1966. Then, as now, a fresh area of tussle was opened up by China. Like Galwan now, Nathu La and Cho La weren’t disputes in 1967. Unlike with Pakistan, all Indian governments have traditionally been more cautious with China. Interestingly, in Ladakh this time, details started trickling in only later that Chinese casualties included their commanding officer and men but the Indian government had remained discreet. This time, like in 1967, India’s reaction at the political level has been one of restraint though barbs have been exchanged between the two sides. This time, like in 1967, the Indian army was initially taken by surprise but responded well against the PLA. It remains to be seen how the tussle ends.

(Ed—While there is no confirmation from China on their casualties, India media reports cited sources as saying that China’s army confirmed during military talks with India that its commanding officer was among those killed in the June 15 face-off)

2. The clash in Ladakh has got extensive coverage in India. Why do you think Chinese media has downplayed it? Can China make it look like a victory for the domestic audience?

In China, the media has long been repressed and state controlled. It’s not surprising especially if one adds the current context. Post the Covid-19 outbreak, Xi (Jinping) faced internal pressure from within the party, which led him to cobble together a small group of trusted ‘princelings’, or policy hawks as they are known, to clamp down on dissenters, media and opponents. If you remember there were early voices demanding accountability from the government over its handling of coronavirus, but that slowly faded away and the media doesn’t even report it now. So, Xi decided to divert domestic attention towards the border issue with India after clamping down on local media. I believe the Chinese casualty figures in Ladakh can only be released in China after the highest level of approval from Xi and this isn’t surprising given that he doesn’t want his adventurism to result in embarrassment of any nature. It took a number of days after the clash for the Chinese to admit the loss of their commanding officer.

3. What do you think the Modi government’s strategy is in dealing with China now? You told The Quint that the right kind of political and military leadership made the difference in 1967.

Though the events are separated by over 50 years, the importance of military and political leadership has remained consistent when dealing with national security issues. The two economies are larger and interdependent now, and their armies are nuclear armed now as compared to 1967. So we are talking about two vastly different economic and political environments. And that is why I believe that the Indian government needs to have greater clarity in its messaging and handle perceptions better in an information-heavy world. I have also written that in the current scenario, the Modi government could use this escalation to increase its options in responding to China at the tactical and strategic level. Disengagement and de-escalation for now will be the main goal. They will also need to decide what are the new rules of engagement, given that the established protocol has been ruptured. 

In the near future, I believe at the tactical level, given that the agreement of no-weapons use has been broken by the Chinese attack on 15 June, the Indian government will now be wary and prepared on how the situation develops along the long LAC, especially given that ambitious General Zhao Zongqi, who is in charge of the Western theatre and reports to Xi Jinping, might have an interest in keeping the LAC active in times to come. There could be active Chinese involvement in India-Pakistan issues — we have already seen China take the Kashmir issue to the UN four times in the last six months. All this would mean a much higher level of deployment on the LAC. At the strategic level, the actions of the Chinese government might free the Indian government to pursue options on Quad plus and D10 with a higher degree of urgency. I expect the government to lend a more defined voice of support on issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. If India has to play a larger role in the region, it needs to be more proactive. Leadership is remembered by the manner in which a crisis ends, and that is true across different time zones. 

(Ed—The D10 is a club of 10 democratic nations that the UK is pushing the US to form. The D10 will aim to develop 5G equipment and other technologies to avoid relying on China’s Huawei) 

Express via Getty Images
Chinese soldiers at the border on the Nathu La mountain pass on 3 October 1967. 

4. How do you think India should act now?

I believe India needs to be proactive in its approach. There have been an increasing number of LAC violations by PLA troops over the years since Xi came to power. In fact, there have been more standoffs in the past decade than in the four previous decades collectively. Earlier incursions such as in Chumar, Doklam, Depsang had been initiated by China and India had to react in each case. On this occasion, India should have seen it coming — particularly if we look at how the internal politics of China was recently developing around Xi Jinping. Therefore, I think India cannot afford to be surprised anymore by an adversary such as China that chooses to exploit a situation, and instead needs to be in a vantage position to drive a subsequent negotiation. India needs to take a pre-emptive approach at the LAC and upgrade intelligence acquisition and surveillance systems for use by local units in the area. There were talks of raising a mountain corps which we finally don’t have. A mountain strike corps would have been a deterrent to China and imposed costs of adventurism such as the one in May-June 2020. The Indian government must realise that speedy modernisation is the way forward to create deterrents. Deterrents are the modern day tools of peace — we are sometimes caught up in a bureaucratic bind and lose sight of strategic purpose.

(Ed—Mountain strike corps were sanctioned seven years ago but due to lack of funds, it was stalled two years ago,The Indian Express said. It added that the first division of the mountain strike corps was raised in the eastern sector but the raising of the second division at Pathankot in 2017-18 was never completed.)

5. You have also said that “peace is obtained when you achieve parity” and parity was achieved in 1967. How can parity be achieved now between India and China?

One of the outcomes of the victories of 1967, which I write about in my book, was China’s disinclination to assist Pakistan in 1971. That was the strategic outcome of a tactical event. Then, in 1971, by signing a treaty with the Soviet Union, India had imposed higher costs on China for any participation in the 1971 war. Therefore, the key is to understand the levers of the international geopolitical environment and exploit the advantages that obtain. China has an Achilles heel in terms of the various fronts it has opened up. By staying in the Himalayas and getting locked in a confrontation with China, India is playing to China’s strengths. India must play to its strengths and that is where parity can be obtained.

I would expect the Indian government to have a robust national security strategy in place and lend a more defined voice of support on issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. India needs to be more involved in the Indian Ocean region where China finds itself vulnerable and India has an advantage. Besides, China’s naval expansion plans for 2030 will also get impacted by its cost constraints caused by OBOR strains. If India aspires to play a larger role in the region, it needs to become an opinion leader in the region and be more involved. 

6. Do you think China is using India’s border dispute with Nepal to be more aggressive along the LAC?

I think China’s new strategy has been to apply pressure at multiple points along the LAC, which is why we witnessed scuffles at Naku La in the east and the Nepal dispute at the same time. I believe the India-Nepal border dispute is in line with China’s larger plan to have a surrogate conflict with India — which means creating several smaller rivals for India to confront. China tried to create one in Maldives and Sri Lanka earlier. In Nepal, India has historical connections and more people-oriented ties such as soldiers and ex-servicemen who have ties with their regiments in India, students who find it easier to travel to India, small-time businesses, traders who have been doing business here etc. I think India and Nepal need to manage their relationship better. What has happened here is that China has been looking to exploit vulnerable democratic systems — and that is how Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka have been targets. China has invested money and time on Nepal over the last few years and is likely to build more equity into Nepali political affairs in time to come. India needs to strengthen its track 2 connectivity with Nepal since it is a natural connect as opposed to China.

7. The relationship between India and China has changed significantly since 1967. What are the new challenges and advantages the Modi government faces in this scenario?

In 1967, China had ambitions at the subcontinent level and wanted to impose itself. It had been applying pressure on India after the 1962 war and had even actively supported Pakistan against India in the 1965 war. It considered India a threat to its desired status as a leader of the third world. At that time, India had not built up its military prowess that it did in the years to follow. Politically, India had a government that was led by a new Prime Minister while an insecure Mao in China was unleashing Cultural Revolution and purges on the people. 

Today, they are two nuclear-armed neighbours that have large militaries. Both countries are led by governments that are firmly ensconced. Trade and investment ties are deeper, though Chinese investments are unlikely to be welcome in India now. The ball is in China’s court to rework their India narrative as India is not going to view China the same way as earlier. 

The Modi government has an advantage as China has driven India straight into the America-plus allies camp. On the India-China standoff, the unnecessary aggression displayed by China combined with the restraint shown by India has translated into a reputation-deficit for China that benefits India. Multilateral arrangements such as D10 and Quad-plus now warrant a greater urgency, which benefits India if it chooses to take the initiative.

The challenges that India faces includes an increased commitment of troops on LAC and on the Pakistan front — given that there is a likelihood that China might play a role in ‘one and half front’ engagement that involves supporting Pakistani-infiltration and trouble in Kashmir alongside its own LAC issues with India. The Indian government at times appeared slow and ponderous while communicating on this issue and thus needs to be more nimble in shaping global perceptions and messaging. The immediate challenge is how the government negotiates public perception of its stand on the issue during the deescalation — quick disengagement could result in political questions on the deaths of the soldiers while an aggressive stance could mean having little control over the outcome of any escalation.   

8. We also have war-mongering TV debates and social media arguments that add to the din now. Can so-called public opinion play a role in that government’s next steps?

In the short run, governments do what they decide to, since they are operating on evolving tactical situations. Public opinion certainly plays an important role in the long run. The government needs to co-opt specialist minds in helping the formation of a China policy and recasting of its security strategy. For far too long, our thinking is rooted in approaches that are tactical. I think that needs to change and as a nation, India needs to think of a larger role for itself — and this is its watershed moment.