Enter the Dragon: China crossed the Line, Mr PM

By Ashwin Tombat
21 June 2020 13:45 IST

Deadly clashes on Monday night in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh between the Indian and Chinese armies left 20 Indian soldiers dead and 76 injured. These are the first combat fatalities in 45 years along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.

After the Foreign Ministers of the two countries had a telephone conversation and Major Generals of the two armies held three rounds of talks, the Chinese on Thursday evening released 10 captured Indian armymen, including a Lieutenant Colonel and three Majors. Unconfirmed reports say 43 Chinese soldiers also died in the confrontation.

The deaths resulted from hand-to-hand combat, with sticks and stones. This sounds utterly bizarre. But the fact is that a 1996 ‘confidence-building measures’ agreement between India and China prohibits the use of guns or explosives within 2km of the LAC.

Indians are angry. Eminent Ladakhi educationist Sonam Wangchuk (the inspiration for ‘Phunsuk Wangdu’, played by Aamir Khan in Three Idiots) said: “Fight China with wallets, not bullets.” Calls for a boycott of all Chinese goods are flooding social media. “Go Corona Go” fame union minister Ramdas Athawale has, comically, demanded a ban on Chinese food…!

Boycotting Chinese goods and deleting Chinese apps from our (mostly Chinese) mobile phones is good. It sends a clear message to the world that India stands united. But let us not be under any illusion that it can seriously hurt China’s economy.

Over 14 per cent of India’s total imports come from China, though this accounts for just 3 per cent of China’s total exports. On the other hand, 5 per cent of India’s total exports go to China; which is less than 1 per cent of China’s imports.

If India and China stop trading, China would lose only 3 per cent of its exports and less than 1 per cent of its imports, while India will lose 5 per cent of its exports and 14 per cent of its imports. India stands to lose more than China in any all-out trade war.  

Simultaneously, there is an outcry from many former army officers and politicians (mostly on Twitter and in noisy TV debates) that India should not take this ‘lying down’, and should give China a ‘fitting reply’.

Can India afford a war with China?

China’s military spending, at $261 billion, is nearly four times India’s $71.1 billion defence outlay. It has 3,210 aircraft to India’s 2,123, with double the number of interceptors and fighters. At 21.8 lakh troops, it has nearly twice the number of soldiers as India. India has more tanks, at 4,200 compared to China’s 3,200, but they cannot fight in the Himalayas. On the other hand, China has 33,000 armoured fighting vehicles to India’s 8,600, which can be deployed in the mountains.

China has the second largest navy in the world after the US, with 11 nuclear submarines, 57 conventional submarines, an aircraft carrier that is larger than India’s, 28 destroyers and 46 frigates. India has two nuclear submarines (neither in active service), 13 conventional submarines, one aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers and 15 frigates. But China’s Navy is mostly engaged on its Pacific Ocean coast, and it is well matched by the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean area.

India acquitted itself well in the only two border incidents after the 1962 India-China war and prior to Monday that saw casualties – at Nathu La, Sikkim, in 1967 and in Arunachal Pradesh in 1975. In fact, in 1967, China suffered more casualties than India.

But that was a generation ago. Let’s be clear; we cannot win an all-out war against China. Besides, both countries are nuclear-armed. Any full-scale conflict can easily spiral out of control into a global conflagration.

What can India do when faced with an enemy that has tremendously superior firepower?

We have two examples in history. The Rajputs and the great Maratha warrior Chhatrapati Shivaji both faced the overwhelming might of the Mughals.

The Rajputs took on the massive Mughal armies in conventional warfare, but were no match. Legend has it that when cornered, they opted for Jauhar, where the ladies burnt themselves on a giant funeral pyre, and the men stormed out for a do-or-die battle – and almost invariably lost.

Shivaji opted for guerrilla warfare. He never took the enemy face-on. He ‘retreated’, lured them into difficult terrain, and overcame them by deceit, ambush and surprise. That is how he defeated Bijapur’s general Afzal Khan and Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s general Shaista Khan.

What did he do when he was finally cornered by Aurangzeb’s general Raja Jai Singh? He negotiated a truce, at what seemed humiliating terms. Placed under house arrest in Agra by Aurangzeb, he escaped, returned and recaptured his kingdom.

To take on China, India needs to adopt Chhatrapati Shivaji’s strategy.

Military analyst Pravin Sawhney points out that following the Doklam stand-off in 2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has systematically built its forces along the LAC, with two group armies, three air force bases, and one rocket force base. It has over 2 lakh soldiers in Tibet and forward bases linked by road right up to the LAC.  

While they were creating this robust military ecosystem, what was the Indian Army doing? This is a question that the former Chief of Army Staff and India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat needs to answer. The nation wants to know…

Sabre-rattling in a disadvantageous situation achieves little. India needs to negotiate a truce with China at this stage and prepare well for the future.

But it certainly did not help when Prime Minister Narendra Modi insisted that “nobody has entered Indian territory” at an all-party meeting. As defence analyst Ajai Shukla asked: “Has he conceded to China the Galwan River Valley and Fingers 4-8 in Pangong Tso – both on our side of the LAC?” The PMO has ‘correctly interpreted’ his statement since then (they insisted that it wasn’t a clarification). But the damage was already done.

Very clearly, the Chinese are intruding on territory that, though disputed, is clearly on the Indian side of the LAC. It’s a fact. What’s the point of being in denial?

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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