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China, not Pakistan, is now India's Enemy No 1

January 15, 2021 16:47 IST

Until last month more than two-thirds of the Indian Army was deployed against Pakistan.
Of 14 army corps, just four-and-a-half faced China, while more than twice that number was ranged against Pakistan.
Ajai Shukla reports.

IMAGE: Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane visits the forward area of Rechin La in Ladakh for a first-hand assessment of the situation along the Line of Actual Control, December 23, 2020. Photograph: Imran Nissar/ANI Photo

Not since the bleak year-end of 1962, when China had just finished drubbing India, has New Delhi contemplated a new year studded with such daunting security challenges.

Besides having to deal with an emboldened Pakistan, the Kashmiri separatist insurgency has drawn in a new generation of local youth.

The economic crash caused by the pandemic threatens to limit defence budgetary allocations for years to come and will complicate even routine military functioning.

Finally, there is the extended face-off in Eastern Ladakh, where China's People's Liberation Army troops crossed the Line of Actual Control last May and occupied swathes of territory that have long been under India's control.

Our counter build-up with some two Indian Army divisions (36,000 soldiers) has imposed major financial and personnel costs.

Yet, change is in the air.

Last month, without fanfare, Army Headquarters issued written orders for a change in operational role for one of its mechanised strike corps.

While the Ambala-based 2 Corps and Bhopal-based 21 Corps would retain their role as tank-heavy forces, equipped and trained to advance deep into Pakistan in wartime, the third strike corps -- the Mathura-based 1 Corps -- was to become a mountain strike corps that would strike into Chinese territory from Ladakh.

The two infantry divisions in 1 Corps will soon begin changing their training patterns and operational plans to conform to their new role.

Meanwhile, 1 Corps's third division -- the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division, which is not suited for mountain warfare -- will become a reserve force, with which Army Headquarters could exploit an advantage or restore an adverse situation.

At the tactical level, switching 1 Corps constitutes a belated recognition of the fact, long ignored by the Indian Army, that its defences in Ladakh are worryingly thin and need urgent reinforcement.

In Ladakh, the almost 800-kilometre-long LAC is defended by a single infantry division, its resources stretched to breaking point.

In Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, each Indian division on the LAC defends a mere fraction of that frontage.

Furthermore, each of the three eastern sector corps have a full division in reserve, ready to react to any breaches.

In Ladakh, the thinly held LAC, the large gaps between Indian posts and the absence of any reserves at the corps level created a vulnerability that was waiting to be exploited.

Making this vulnerability a matter of deep concern was China's sensitivity to the growing deployment of Indian troops in Northern Ladakh, especially near the Karakoram Pass and Daulat Beg Oldi.

Furthermore, India's infrastructure building drive, particularly the road from Darbuk, along the Shyok River, to Daulat Beg Oldi, was seen by the PLA as a threat to China's interests in the Shaksgam Valley (ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963) and the Karakoram Highway that runs from Xinjiang to Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass, forming the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

For this reason, the PLA has -- while expressing its readiness to discuss disengagement at all other points -- stubbornly refused to even discuss withdrawal from the Daulat Beg Oldi area, particularly its ingress into the Depsang Plain.

While India's nuclear deterrent makes a full-scale Chinese attack on India impossible, Beijing has long viewed Ladakh as an inviting target for the 'limited sectoral war' that PLA doctrine prescribes.

India's remote Union territory is not just lightly defended, but also gets cut off from the rest of India during winter. By the time the roads open again in spring, the army's logistic stockpiles fall to almost zero.

When the PLA crossed the LAC last May, in large numbers and on multiple fronts, it forced India's Northern Command to throw in all the reserves available.

The Northern Command's reserve division, as well as Army Headquarters's, were quickly deployed, blocking further PLA ingress.

The conflict has expanded over the year, and Indian troops have occupied the Kailash Range, south of the Pangong Lake.

This commitment of troops has left both Northern Command and Army Headquarters unbalanced -- stretched to the limit and with no further reserves at hand.

It has become obvious to army planners that at least two reserve divisions were needed in Ladakh to restore a modicum of operational balance.

Meanwhile, on the India-Pakistan border in the plains sector, the three strike corps were creating little deterrence.

Over the preceding three decades, it has become apparent that the threat of strike corps offensives has failed to restrain Pakistan from its proxy war in Kashmir.

The prospect of a full-scale war with Pakistan is increasingly difficult to contemplate given Pakistan's nuclear deterrent, including the highly destabilising Nasr tactical nuclear weapons.

This galvanised the thinking that there was a need for the Indian Army to rebalance its defensive posture from the west to the north.

This rebalance also goes some way towards giving credence to New Delhi's oft-repeated assertion that China, not Pakistan, is its primary military threat.

This claim has been hard to sustain, given that until last month more than two-thirds of the Indian Army was deployed against Pakistan.

Of 14 army corps, just four-and-a-half faced China, while more than twice that number was ranged against Pakistan.

Of the army's 38 divisions, just 12 divisions faced China, while 25 divisions were deployed on the India-Pakistan border and one division was a reserve under Army Headquarters.

Even after the reassignment, 14 divisions will face China, 22 will face Pakistan and two will be Army Headquarters reserves.

Even so, shifting an Indian strike corps from the Pakistan border to the border with China constitutes a powerful strategic signal that will resonate in Beijing, as well as other capitals.

It will equally resonate in Rawalpindi, given that Pakistani generals have always cited the Indian Army's deployment bias against Pakistan as proof of New Delhi's malintent.

While the shift of 1 Corps to Ladakh should provide some strategic reassurance to the Pakistan army, the dynamics of political control in that country can be expected to block any positive acknowledgement from the corps commanders in Rawalpindi.

A major offset that would accrue from the diversion of 1 Corps to a mountain strike corps role in Ladakh is that, for the first time, there will be clarity on the role of 17 Corps.

This was raised almost a decade ago as the first mountain strike corps for the north-eastern border with China but, given the troop and funding shortfalls, it was charged with a role in both the eastern and western sectors.

Now, with 1 Corps responsible for a strike role in Ladakh, 17 Corps will be free to focus on striking key Chinese vulnerabilities in the eastern sector, such as the Chumbi Valley opposite Sikkim.

Meanwhile, 1 Corps can focus on creating deterrence in Ladakh, where -- from Depsang to Demchok -- there have been clear Chinese targets to strike, but not enough troops to do this.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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