India-China stand-off: Sun Tzu in action
'The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting' said the famed ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. That seems to be the ploy behind the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh, says Colonel (retd) R Hariharan
Merely by sending a platoon of their troops to camp 19 km (upgraded after 10 days from 10 km reported earlier) inside our territory on February 15 near Daulat Beg Oldi along the Line of Actual Control in the Aksai Chin region, the Chinese have made the Indian government look weak and helpless in the eyes of its billion-plus people. We are seeing the classic Sun Tzu (the ancient Chinese military strategist) ploy -- "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting".
Whether this act is tactical and limited to a remote icy waste, it is a strategic victory for Chinese policy because it is the Indian authorities -- not the Chinese -- who have been compelled to explain why the Chinese intruded.
Over the years, India and China have stepped up functional cooperation in all areas. In the words of Indian Embassy, Beijing: "The two foreign ministries have instituted dialogue mechanisms on issues relating to counter-terrorism, policy planning and security, besides strategic dialogue and regular consultations. There are also close cooperation in areas as diverse as water resources, judiciary, science and technology, audit, personnel, finance, labour etc." for the last five years, an annual defence dialogue had been taking place.
The latest one was held in Beijing on January 14 at which both sides discussed bilateral and international security issues of common interest including those of the India-China border issues.
In spite of such a growing climate of friendship, the Chinese have chosen to embarrass the Indian government by creating a minor crisis for their own reasons. For the average Indian it is difficult to take it in the stride, like politicians do.
Despite this unseemly action, except for hawks, most of the people in India do not want a war with China, but all of them want India to be treated as a nation with dignity. This is a minimum China cannot ignore in its Machiavellian calculations regarding India.
And to face facts, as a nation we are not prepared for prolonged war both mentally and physically with a major power like China. Among the people, China does not generate the fratricidal genes Pakistan kindles.
Probably, China also does not want a shooting war for a very different reason. They remember the Sun Tzu's quote "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
So it does not make sense for the Chinese to go to war when they can achieve what they want without firing a shot. Why should they? After all by the simple act of moving a platoon of troops into the disputed area, they have managed to divide the nation, confuse the government, frustrate the armed forces and get away with what they want to do.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh took 12 days to come out with a comment on the issue that had been dominating national media. Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of a defence investiture ceremony, he said India does not want to "accentuate" the situation and is working on a plan.
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Image: An Indian army soldier keeps guard on a mountainous road before the foundation stone laying ceremony for a tunnel on the Srinagar-Leh highway in Zojila, 108km east of Srinagar
Photographs: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
Why don't the Chinese troops go back to Depsang Valley?
"We do believe that it is possible to resolve this problem. It is a localised problem. I think the talks are going on," he added.
But can we ignore foreign troops intruding into our territorial claims and camping in tents for 12 days in an icy waste at over 16,000 ft altitude where maximum temperature is -4 degrees as a local problem?
Even if the national leadership chooses to do so, no military force can be lulled into such complacency. It has to be studied in the overall doctrine of People's Liberation Army and its activities in Xinjiang and Tibet and along the Indian border with China and in the series of PLA violations on ground, and air and in the waters of Pangong Tse in the past.
Actually, the government expects the issue to be resolved when the Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid visits Beijing on May 9. In other words, already we have accepted the Chinese status quo rather than the Chinese listening to our call.
This is not surprising because no responsible person has asked the Chinese the simple questions: why are they intruding? Why don't the Chinese troops go back to Depsang Valley -- where they came from? Semantics, on which diplomacy depends so heavily, are not only indicators of the mind and but also our lack of clarity.
Of course the prime minister's explanation is in line with what he said in the Lok Sabha last December 201: "There are sometimes intrusions according to us. But the Chinese perception of the LAC sometimes differs. Therefore, I think, some confusion is created. These matters are sorted out between the area commanders on both the sides," as a mechanism for handling such incidents was already in place and it was working.
But the problem this time, which cannot have escaped the notice of the prime minister is the commanders on the two sides have not been able to sort out the issue. And that is the nub of the standoff.
When India and China decided to bury the hatchet and in the interest of fostering better relations signed an agreement on November 29, 1996 at New Delhi on a series of confidence building measures recognising the problem of un-demarcated border and accepting an LAC of uncertainty. The present Chinese standoff goes in the face of Article I and II of the CBM.
Article I stipulates: Neither side shall use its military capability against the other side. No armed forces deployed by either side in the border areas along the line of actual control as part of their respective military strength shall be used to attack the other side, or engage in military activities that threaten the other side or undermine peace, tranquillity and stability in the India-China border areas."
In military perception if a subunit of a foreign force supported by helicopters intrudes well inside our LAC and establishes a camp it would be reasonable to construe it as a military preparation to deployment.
Article II makes it even clearer: "Pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question, the two sides reaffirm their commitment to strictly respect and observe the line-of actual control in the India-China border areas. No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control."
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Image: Chinese air force soldiers arm a plane during an exercise at a military base in Jinan
The govt's biggest weakness is the loss of credibility
So every time such an intrusion is perceived by one side as overstepping the LAC they have the right to invoke this article. So a reasonable ground exists for India to object every time a perceived violation of LAC takes place.
In order to make the process of managing the contentious border easier, both India and China have agreed upon a joint mechanism on border affairs. It continues to be in place even now; so taking immediate military action to "throw out the Chinese" is not possible, unless we abrogate the 1996 agreement.
But that does not forbid us from asking the Chinese troops to pull back to where they came from in unambiguous terms as it violates the terms of the agreement. The public need to be informed whether we have we done this at least in private.
This can be done without revealing either military manoevures or political and diplomatic moves the government is making. However, such explanations carry weight only when the government statements enjoy credibility.
Unfortunately, the government's biggest weakness is the loss of credibility due to lack of transparency in its action and lack of timely communication of its actions to the people. This has been a routine not only on matters of defence but even many other mundane issues till a crisis situation is built up by absence of meaningful communication or total silence.
So the Indian government had to put up with a lot criticism from the political opposition and media every time an incident involving the Chinese was reported. But as things happen in India, the government and the public had been putting up with this style of "management" as they do with many other aberrations in each other.
Initially, this time also the government action went according to the script; it felt shy of sharing the news till news anchors went into frenzy.
The government has tied its own hands by not allowing the media to go near the border these days, perhaps as a gesture after the Chinese complained about the Indian media's negative play on China. This action has media reports even more sensational as they competed for scoops.
As the Chinese media had chosen to ignore the incident, the government was equally keen not to overplay perhaps because the mechanism was at work to handle such aberrations. This seemingly reasonable response though made after three days of media badgering, was grudgingly accepted by the public as they had done in the past.
And the government expected the Chinese troops to up stick and go as in the past, so that it can go back to business as usual. But this time the Chinese apparently decided to change the rules of the game. The intruding troops pitched tents and decided to stay put. Chinese helicopters intruded with impunity and vehicles brought the supplies.
Even after two flag meetings they grudgingly agreed upon, the Chinese failed to change their mind on maintaining "status quo". Though Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying talked about the mechanism to handle differences, she has struck to her line: "I want to reiterate here that the Chinese border troops have been acting in strict compliance with the bilateral agreements and conducting normal patrol on the Chinese side of the LAC. They have never crossed the line."
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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi address the media in New Delhi
They want to change how the govt had been handling the situation
Despite Khurshid's daily pleas to trust the "mechanism," the Chinese spokesperson has now advised, "The two sides should abide by their consensus which is in the interest of both. The two sides should work together to properly resolve border issues within the framework of existing mechanisms and create favourable conditions for the bilateral relations."
Apparently, the Chinese want to change the way the Indian government had been handling the situation. This warrants further analysis in depth than dismissing the latest intrusion as 'tactical.' Some of the reasons for the Chinese to bring pressure through the intrusion in Ladakh could be:
- The Chinese perhaps want India to halt its much delayed infrastructure development now in progress in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh because it would help Indian troop movements and operations. Strategically it would strengthen the Indian government's hold on the area, further reinforcing its claim. The most charitable explanation would be the Chinese want to strengthen their bargaining position in the border talks by pressurizing the government to halt the work in progress.
- A new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping has taken over. Xi had proposed five proposals for improving bilateral ties with India. These included keeping aside differences on various issues while improving mutual ties and accommodation of each other's concerns while dealing with "core interests". He had also suggested that peace and tranquility should be maintained on the boundary pending settlement of the issue. At the same time, at the recent BRICS summit Xi said "The boundary question is a complex issue left over from history, and solving the issue won't be easy". Is the border intrusion to emphasise that India should not pressurise his leadership on the border question as it affects China's core interest?
- China has tried to assert its position with an aggressive posture with its neighbours like Japan and Philippines over disputed territorial claims. It would be reasonable to construe, in the case of India also the Chinese leadership is trying to assert its position by creating a minor crisis that has caused concern to Indian leadership. Is China trying to remind India that though India might be friend, they are the masters?
- Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang chose to visit New Delhi to be his first trip abroad as prime minister perhaps to stress the importance China attached to improve relations with India. Is the DBO intrusion on the eve, a subtle reminder to India that it was China which calls the shot? As Li plans to go to Pakistan, China's long term strategic ally, such a reminder would please Pakistan.
- The Chinese have been carrying out joint exercises involving the PLA, air force and the public security forces involving air lift of troops using trying out their c3s systems in Xinjiang area. Is the PLA testing new drills in a simulated situation in border? Or trying to provoke a military response to understand our current response mechanism? These are some of the legitimate questions for military analysts to answer.
As a veteran, it grates my sensibility to see an Indian military delegation sitting and discussing with their PLA counterparts about a joint military exercise between the forces, even as their subunits are sitting eye-ball to eye-ball in inhospitable weather for nearly two weeks because their governments cannot come to an understanding. I suppose it is for the army chief to take a call on such niceties of thought in the national interest.
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Image: People's Liberation Army recruits at a military base in Changzhi, China
We should remember what they did in 1962
Even if the government thinks the intrusion in tactical terms, defence planners in South Block will be planning for the worst case scenario of a war with China. But a nagging question is, will our army be depending upon individual valour of our troops rather than modern arms and equipment they never got? Unfortunately, it appears so as we have become inured to serious deficiencies in arms, equipment, mobility and officering in the armed forces.
Unfortunately, the national leadership and people appear to have been lulled into the often repeated cliche "Our government will take every step to protect the national integrity and security" But words do not protect us in actual war.
In 1962 the nation made the same mistake and paid a heavy price that wiped our national confidence, which we have not yet regained while dealing with the Chinese. Are we making the same mistake because the Chinese are sure to exploit this national weakness to achieve many victories applying the Sun Tzu dictum, which we have never read:
"Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign."
We will do well to remember they did so successfully in 1962.
Even as an embarrassed Indian government was trying to soften the strong public reaction to the intrusion, China released a white paper on PLA for the first time giving details of the organisation and structure of the military, and the country's major defence priorities. Two of the defence priorities are:
- Aiming to win local wars under the conditions of informationisation and expanding and intensifying military preparedness.
- Formulating the concept of comprehensive security and effectively conducting military operations other than war.
Does Ladakh fit in the scheme of "local wars" the doctrine talks about? Is PLA intensifying its "informationisation and military preparedness" to win a local war there? As Chinese do not indulge in frivolous actions for the sake of form, it would be worthwhile to ponder over these questions and keep the powder dry even as we palaver with the Chinese to de-escalate the situation.
As Sun Tzu said "Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across."
Colonel R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and its neighbourhood, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. email: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.colhariharan.org
Image: The Chinese onslaught