The world of strategic affairs has been abuzz with two topics this past week.
One, a decision by India and China to disengage from their confrontational standoff in the Gogra-Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh, and two, the suspicions that this move was made to create an amenable atmosphere for a potential meeting between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping at the forthcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand.
This article argues that such optics have become largely redundant for two reasons.
First, India has firmly adopted a new ‘Forward Policy’ vis-s-vis China since 2014 (albeit with a difference from 1962); and second, that India will not deviate from this policy until a radical political change takes place in either New Delhi or Beijing.
Consequently, the inference is that this is a very different game being played, separate from whether Modi and Xi meet in Samarkand or not, and whether disengagements happen or not.
The easiest way to test this hypothesis is by comparing the situation in 1962 with 2022, to arrive at present motivations and potential future outcomes.
Most students of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict concur that the debacle we suffered was largely caused by four factors.
One: the criminal neglect of our armed forces during a dreadful ‘Ashokan decade’ of ultra-pacifism, from 1948 to 1961.
Two: a myopic foreign policy with vague, confusing, contradictory aims, wrapped in a mesmerising bow of virtue-signalling and pleasing rhetoric.
Three: Jawaharlal Nehru’s dangerously naive faith in the goodness of Chinese intentions.
Four: the knee-jerk crafting of an aggressive ‘Forward Policy’ in late 1961 as pressure from the opposition finally mounted.
This was done against the advice of senior military officers who protested that we had neither the forces nor the border infrastructure to implement this policy, and, that it would force an escalation by China.
(For reference, Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ involved the setting up of numerous border posts to deter the Chinese from eating into our territory, and, pertinently, orders that the Indian Army would patrol farther than before, to dominate Chinese posts, and to prevent them from dominating ours.)
In addition to these four Indian factors there was a resolute Chinese stance: Chairman Mao was clear from the day he took over that China would have full control over Tibet, and that there would be a good road running along the Himalayan edge of the plateau, through Indian territory, linking Xinjiang and Yunnan provinces.
Together, these would provide China with an impregnable wall to its south and west.
To summarise, the ‘Forward Policy’ of 1961 was fatally flawed, Mao’s objectives were immutable and inimical to ours, we were lulled into a false sense of security, and, quite frankly, our public didn’t know the true state of affairs until it was too late.
As a result, Nehru was forced to run from pillar to post, trying to woo China, placating it when that failed, and either covering up his strategic lapses, or trying to salvage the situation via off-the-cuff policies.
However, the situation in 2022 is quite the opposite. Today, it is China which has been forced to devise a fresh ‘Forward Policy’, and it is India’s position which is immutable.
The fiction of Sino-Indian ‘friendship’ is over, bilateral relations are at their lowest in half a century, our foreign office has made it unambiguously clear that China’s military nexus with Pakistan will not be tolerated, leaders of India and China have not spoken or met in three years, Indian border infrastructure and high altitude military formations are being rapidly commissioned on a large scale, and it is China’s foreign minister who was forced to try and break the ice by visiting Delhi in March 2022.
China’s bluff has been called and it is at a disadvantage.
Its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious plan to build new trade routes connecting Eurasia and Africa, is in tatters because the BRI’s lynchpin, the Karakoram Highway, is formally at risk since it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Worse, while the Chinese may amass thousands of troops on the Tibetan plateau along the Indian border, and make inspiring videos of mini-drones delivering meals to troops in forward areas, this sort of braggadocio does not overcome harsh ground realities — that their lines of supply stretch for thousands of miles over the roof of the world, which, for six months of the year, is an icy, inhospitable wasteland.
Even an Arctic winter is not as unforgiving, because the air there is not this rarefied.
Forbidding is the kindest euphemism a writer may use to describe the challenges the Chinese would face, if they were to ever conduct large-scale military operations in such a climate, and at these altitudes — especially in an era when the threat to boots on the ground is growing exponentially greater, because of technological advances.
Ironically, this reversal of positions has come to pass following yet another ‘Ashokan decade’ between 2004-14.
Like under Nehru, the Manmohan Singh government, too, conveniently ignored the Chinese building of a road through Indian soil. And the then defence minister A K Antony actually said in Parliament that the absence of requisite border infrastructure on our side was, in fact, official policy, since it would deter the Chinese from intruding into our territory.
As with Pakistan, China too is being forced to choose. Does it want better relations with India, or does it want to continue propping Pakistan up as a client state, a strategic flank, an avenue for its trade dreams, and as a second military front against India?
That’s China’s choice, because India has now made it obvious that a return to an uneasy status quo ante bellum is not going to happen — especially after the Galwan clash of June 2020.
And the final irony is that whatever decision China takes, Pakistan will get squeezed. If China chooses to retain Pakistan as a geopolitical adjunct, India will, at some point, be forced to neutralise this threat.
On the other hand, if China chooses better ties with India (a very low probability at present), galloping irrelevance will force Pakistan to collapse like a house of cards — upon itself.
Therefore, no matter if there is a token disengagement in Gogra, or if Modi and Xi do meet in Samarkand, it will not change anything. That prerequisite change can take place only within China, and until that happens, India will continue to do what it needs to secure its aims and interests.
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