LAC Standoff: In Conversation with ‘Dragon on Our Doorstep’ Co-Author

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Pravin Sawhney

IN his 2017 widely acclaimed book that he co-authored with his Force Magazine colleague, Ghazala Wahab, Pravin Sawhney writes that should New Delhi find itself involved in a border war with Beijing, it will lose.

Much of this, he argues, has to do with “China’s superior military power, close coordination between the political leadership and the military, the ability to take quick decisions, the potent anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities”.

Even more shockingly, the book reveals, “regardless of popular opinion, India today is not even in a position to win a war against Pakistan”.

This, the authors argue, has nothing to do with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

“It’s because while India has been focused on building military force (troops and materiel needed to wage war) Pakistan has built military power (learning how to optimally utilize its military force). In this lies the difference between losing and winning.”

Over the years, Sawhney writes, despite the many treaties and agreements between the two nations, border clashes (including the disastrous 1962 war) and disagreements over Tibet and Jammu and Kashmir have complicated the Sino-India relationship.

Since 2008, when it was recognized as an economic power, China has become assertive after keeping a low profile for decades, he says.

“Today, this Himalayan balancing act of power is clearly tilted towards China, in whose view there is room for only one power in Asia.”

In this rise, the authors of Dragon on our Doorstep argue, Pakistan has emerged as China’s most trusted and crucial partner.

The partnership between China and Pakistan, whether in terms of military interoperability (ability to operate as one in combat), or geostrategic design (which is unfolding through the wide-sweeping One Belt One Road project), has serious implications for India, he says.

“The best that New Delhi can do is try and manage the relationship so that the dragon’s rise is not at the cost of India.”

Three years after the book was published, Sawhney’s views on the current Sino-India standoff at Line of Actual Control (LAC) are being sought for their incisive defence insights.

In an exclusive chat with Kashmir Observer the veteran military expert talks about the Dragon’s Ladakh move and New Delhi’s Kashmir management post-Article 370.

Security smokescreen created around Sino-India standoff is still making the picture hazy at LAC. As somebody who has a sharp defence eye, what do you see?

People’s Liberation Army has reportedly made multiple incursions across a broad front of over 100km from north Sikkim to northeast Ladakh. Three important incursions are in north Sikkim, Galwan valley (both not listed as disputed areas) and Pangong Tso.

With north Sikkim incursion, India’s seemingly impregnable defense-line overlooking Chumbi Valley has been bypassed from east and west with increased threat to the Siliguri corridor – India’s sole land link to northeastern states.

In Galwan area, the PLA has reportedly intruded three kms inside India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and has built permanent defenses and concrete bunkers holding all heights overlooking the operationally critical 225km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road leading to the vulnerable Sub Sector North (SSN).

To the west and adjacent SSN lies the Siachen glacier. The Karakoram Pass is about 10km north of it. By doing this, the PLA has achieved two purposes. One, it has changed the LAC alignment permanently. And it has checkmated Indian Army reinforcements from reaching SSN where the threat of a two-front war is real.

Pangong Tso does not have any tactical importance. Its importance lies in dictating the border alignment – this, of course, is more of perception since border would eventually be mutually settled by the two sides. Here, India claims till finger eight (fingers refer to mountain spurs overlooking the lake). The PLA claims till finger one. The PLA now has moved till finger five and has made an eight-km-long road.

But why is Galwan Valley important to China?

Galwan valley is important for China for two reasons. One, by overlooking the DSDBO road, Indian Army’s sole round the year, shortest and easy approach for reinforcements to SSN at an average height of 18,000 feet will not be available.

Sources told me that Chinese had twice objected to India building the Colonel Chewang Rinchen bridge on the Shyok river to facilitate fast movement on the DSDBO road. India ignored China’s objections and the bridge was inaugurated by defence minister Rajnath Singh on 21 October 2019.

Two, by changing the LAC alignment, China has reached close to its 7 November 1959 claim line suggested by Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Nehru. What this means is that China will no longer respect the agreements signed between India and China since 1993 agreement of peace and tranquility which created the LAC.

In other words, the LAC that Indian soldiers have been holding round the year is no longer sacrosanct. This has serious strategic, geopolitical and military implications for India.

Do you also see a link between Chinese intrusion and revocation of Article 370, as some Beijing-based think tanks make one believe?

PLA intrusions have more to do besides revocation of Article 370. It is true that China has not hidden its displeasure at India changing the constitutional and legal status of Jammu and Kashmir unilaterally. This is the reason why the PLA is demanding status quo ante on ground; that India go back to Chinese claim line of 7 November 1959.

However, the reality is that Tibet never had a boundary with Ladakh. It had a frontier where people from both sides could interact and trade freely. Even in India’s official map published in 1950 when the country became a Republic, the western sector (Ladakh) was marked ‘undefined boundary.’

According to China, by creating the map showing Ladakh as India’s Union Territory, India had unilaterally altered the status quo. This made China renege on all agreements signed over years by both sides. Since revocation of Ladakh UT status is not possible without removal of J&K UT status, the present situation is extremely complex.

What about CPEC, has it anything to do with Chinese intrusion in Ladakh?

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has strategic and military implications. Being the flagship of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), interoperability (ability of the two militaries to fight together against a common enemy) and strategic interaction at political level between China and Pakistan is inbuilt into it.

Revocation of Article 370 has strengthened this unique relationship, which although not being a military alliance is much more than it. Moreover, it has brought the relationship into the open.

Given this, security of the CPEC against the Indian threat of taking back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan is undoubtedly one of the reasons for PLA intrusions. This is evident from the fact that China has put talks on the Galwan valley off the diplomatic table. Threat to north Ladakh has shot up. A PLA-Pakistan military assault to provide depth to the CPEC cannot be ruled out.

So what are India’s options under these circumstances?

Notwithstanding the fact that China has changed the LAC alignment and is unwilling to honor all past agreements, India has little choice but to talk for mutual adjustment and peace on Chinese terms. Once talks show results, we will see mutual withdrawal of troops and equipment (tanks, guns and aircraft) from both sides. This will get wide publicity in the media creating the perception of victory over China.

However, PLA will not demolish the new defense infrastructures made by it, nor will the Indian Army be able to demolish them once the PLA has gone. This is called successful military coercion without firing shot.

Little understood by politicians, this would amount to Indian Army facing psychological defeat at the hands of the PLA. It is precisely for this reason why the LAC is more demanding and enervating than the Line of Control with Pakistan where both sides fire at one another with impunity.

But what if talks fail? Can India afford a war with China?

It’s in India’s interest that talks do not fail since the stakes are high. It was the foremost task of Chief of Defense Staff, General Bipin Rawat to explain the strategic, geopolitical, political and military implications of revoking Article 370 to the government. He failed to do so because having been a Counter Terror Operations (CT ops) specialist he could not see the big picture.

Regarding war, China will not start one for two reasons: Its military coercion has worked well, and according to PLA doctrine, it fights only in self-defense. This is its way of winning without fighting by breaking the opponents’ will to fight.

India cannot start a war for many reasons. With total focus on Pakistan, it does not know the PLA’s capabilities and war doctrines. Then, it is woefully unprepared in terms of capability, capacity, training, wherewithal, mindset and leadership.

What is the way forward for India now?

The immediate solution lies in talks and hoping for a good bargain which is possible since China wants India’s cooperation as enshrined in the Wuhan Consensus.

When Prime Minister Modi had met President Xi in 2018 in Wuhan the two leaders had agreed that they would cooperate and not be rivals. This came to be known as the Wuhan Consensus.

In the near term, India should take two actions. One, the political leadership should review its role in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy which China considers to be directed against its interests.

And two, the army should progressively give up CT ops and go back to its primary role of war fighting. It is certain that both actions would not be taken.

Talking about Kashmir, how do you see New Delhi’s current treatment towards the Valley?

I do not see the situation returning to normal in Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.

In the Valley, defiance and alienation have peaked. In my assessment, no amount of developmental work and economic incentives would bring back the trust or sense of oneness of Kashmiri people with India.

The army would remain in internal stability operations indefinitely. This, at the time when PLA war-fighting capabilities and its interoperability with Pakistan military is growing at quick pace, will be detrimental to India’s national security.

But BJP led government at Centre seems unrelenting and has reiterated its intent to take back Pakistan administered Kashmir?

Indian military does not have capability to accomplish it now; or in the future since it is unaware of the Algorithm War that PLA is preparing for. Such expressions of intent should not be seen as anything more than political posturing.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib did his Masters in Convergent Journalism from Central University of Kashmir (CUK) and is currently working with Kashmir Observer as Special Correspondent. He has been contributing stories for the newspaper especially on Politics, Security & defence and has a keen interest in Environment.

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