Diplomacy and military thinking will have to evolve more rapidly than we assumed
While the India-China stand-off continues in eastern Ladakh, the Line of Control (LoC) is yet again on the boil. Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda and Harsh Pant discuss whether India faces the prospect of a two-front war, in a conversation moderated by Dinakar Peri. Edited excerpts:
The possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China has been debated in the past. The ongoing standoff with China in eastern Ladakh has brought India closer to that reality. Are we really staring at such a prospect?
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda: I don’t think a two-front war is a prospect in the near future, but a two-front threat has become more real. Earlier, the military and political establishment felt that we could stave off any military action from China through political and diplomatic action. That if conflict was imminent, it was most likely to happen with Pakistan. And because of our conventional superiority, we could handle that front quite easily. I think that notion has now been disabused by Chinese actions in eastern Ladakh. The threat from China has become more real than it was in the past.
Experts have said in the past that a two-front war would mean a failure of Indian diplomacy. Where does the current stand-off put that situation?
Harsh V. Pant: This is a structural problem: two major nations with whom you don’t have good relations straddling you on two sides of the border. There has always been an assumption that we may manage the Line of Actual Control (LAC) better than the LoC because of certain factors. We have now come to a phase where disengagement is not possible because of what the Chinese are doing. And clearly for a while, they have been signalling that they will be more coordinated in their response to India. This is also because India has become more assertive and vocal in terms of what it believes to be its own role in the region, how it defines its parameters, the debate on Article 370, Aksai Chin, etc. So, for the first time, we are seeing China reacting to something that India is doing. That back and forth means that both the LoC and the LAC will be equally volatile.
I don’t particularly see this as being a problem — that Indian diplomacy failed and therefore this happened. I think Indian diplomats and military strategists recognise the challenge. The issue is that we now have in China a regime that believes its time has come and also believes that India is taking certain steps that are important to be countered in real time. The combination of these variables means that Indian diplomacy and military thinking will have to evolve more rapidly than we had earlier assumed.
While deliberations continue on a possible proposal for disengagement and de-escalation to end the stand-off, the close proximity of deployments leaves a possibility for escalation. If so, what are India’s strengths and weaknesses?
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda: In case there is a two-front conflict or threat, we will need to designate a primary and secondary theatre based on who presents the greater danger. We can’t have matching strengths on both the fronts. If the primary threat is from China, that presents a much greater challenge to India. So, when talking about strengths and weaknesses, I’ll talk about China being the sort of primary theatre of operations. India and the Indian military have some distinct strengths. Over the years, we have built extremely strong defences along the border. These high altitude areas are not easy for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to apply major force because of logistical and terrain constraints. The Air Force has a geographical advantage over the PLA Air Force and has also built a fairly strong strategic airlift capability. Our Navy has a significant edge over the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean and there is pretty good maritime domain awareness.
Having said that, there are also some weaknesses. China has a much greater military potential. And if they’re able to bring this military potential to bear, we could have a big challenge, even in the Indian Ocean. The PLA also has a technology edge in some very critical areas like ballistic missile, electronic warfare, cyber, air defence, etc., which are going to play a significant role in future warfare. And finally, despite all our efforts, there are shortfalls in infrastructure along the northern borders.
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Army Chief General M.M. Naravane had termed Siachen as the closest point of ‘collusivity’ between China and Pakistan. And Chinese troops continue to block Indian Army patrols in the Depsang Plains. How detrimental would a setback in Depsang mean and will Siachen now be a bigger flashpoint?
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda: When we talk of Siachen, we are talking of the Saltoro ridge with heights ranging from 18,000 ft to more than 20,000 ft. This is a geographical barrier that is not going to be easy to breach. We should not look at ‘collusivity’ of China and Pakistan purely in geographic terms but in strategic terms. Siachen is important but geographically it is very difficult to carry out major military operations there. Depsang is strategically important to us not just because it gives access to Siachen, but because it’s an area where we have the DS-DBO road which is a vital link to the northern areas of Ladakh and to the DBO airfield. The terrain in Depsang lends itself to fairly large mechanised manoeuvres. It’s an area where an attacking force has an advantage. When we are looking at resolving the current crisis and the focus is on the North and South Bank of Pangong Tso, strategically Depsang is more important. Therefore, it must be a part of our disengagement process.
Also read | We won’t leave Siachen: Army Chief
A few days ago, Pakistan accused India of supporting terror attacks on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Will the CPEC emerge as a major point of friction with Pakistan and China?
Harsh V. Pant: Yes, it has already emerged as a major variable in terms of how we define our relationship with both Pakistan and China. We always knew that China and Pakistan were getting closer, but with CPEC, a new dimension has been added to that relationship. And the more China feels vulnerable in the CPEC, the more open and explicit its policies have become vis-à-vis India. This has also allowed India to be more open about its policies with China. So, it’s not all negative. And if the CPEC is the fulcrum around which a China-Pakistan collusion is emerging or will emerge in the future, then India knows the challenge is emanating from a particular pressure point and needs to have countervailing mechanisms in place. But the larger idea at one point that many in India had — that it is possible to disentangle China from Pakistan — that should now be put to rest because India doesn’t have instrumentalities to make it possible. In Indian foreign policy and policymaking circles, we do see Pakistan as part of a larger China problem.
Also read | IAF well-positioned to take on China: Air Chief
In the evolving security and diplomatic architecture in the Indo-Pacific, how will the geopolitics of the three play out?
Harsh V. Pant: China is now a very important player in the global matrix. So, India will have to take that factor into account. However, we are also seeing that China is facing an intense backlash across the world post COVID-19, post the kind of aggressive postures it has adopted. So, there are opportunities there as well for India to build relationships with countries, which perhaps look at the world through a similar prism. That seems to be happening: Quad has been revived, the Australians have been invited to Malabar, the U.S.-India relationship has achieved a new dynamic with all the foundation agreements now being signed. So, we are looking at global geopolitics evolving in a certain direction because Chinese actions have made it virtually impossible for several major powers to have a normal relationship with China. Now that is a challenge that not only India faces, but also countries like Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Europe. So clearly, the Indo-Pacific seems to be becoming very contested. Ultimately, India will have to fight its own battles. But if you have partners that are out there to support you, that always is a value add. Chinese actions, interestingly, have played a very, very important role. Where in the past, India was hesitant in articulating some policies, it is less hesitant today. Now that India is coming out very vocally about where it stands on a number of these issues, perhaps we will see a greater degree of alignment among major powers.
Comment | The challenges of walking the Indo-Pacific talk
Do measures like increased military cooperation, exercises, logistic agreements have a bearing on the ground situation or dissuade China from doing something more aggressive?
Harsh V. Pant: The attempt from the Indian side diplomatically was to have these bilateral engagements and agreements with major powers it felt very comfortable with, partly because India has been reluctant to join any alliance framework. Unlike in the past, where relationships were seen as constraining India’s strategic autonomy, now the argument is that these relationships enhance India’s space to manoeuvre vis-a-vis China in particular. I don’t think the challenge of China and how it needs to be managed is going to go away soon. So, we are looking at some of these partnerships that India had now getting operationalised in real time. That will have a bearing on how China views the world. The Chinese have been very sensitive about the Quad and Indo-Pacific. They were insistent that Indo-Pacific as a narrative should not really catch up. Now they have lost that battle, because the Indo-Pacific is widely accepted as a framework through which you look at the region and at the maritime dynamic. And Chinese behaviour itself is a major driver of the challenge.
Also read | China’s Foreign Minister says U.S. using Quad to build ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’
There is now a new dynamic and a new normal on the LAC. How is it going to go forward once this stand-off is over?
Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda: Even if the current crisis is resolved peacefully, I don’t think we are getting back to the status quo as it existed. We are going to see greater militarisation along the LAC, if I may use the word. The old protocols and agreements that guided the conduct of soldiers on both sides have all broken down. So, greater distrust is going to now be the new normal for the next few years, at least until such time, if at all, we can put in place new protocols, new agreements, get a degree of trust again between the two militaries. Not only in Ladakh, we will see it all along the LAC in Sikkim and even Arunachal Pradesh. At the larger level, we were conscious that at some stage China will emerge as the greater military threat, as far as India is concerned. And that moment seems to have sort of come now. We also must be conscious of the fact that the power differential between India and China is only set to grow in the future. At the strategic level, there needs to be greater dialogue between the civil and military leaderships to see how this can be bridged. Unfortunately, our state of civil-military relationship and the structures that are in place don’t really encourage an open dialogue between the military leadership and the political leadership. That’s something the government needs to look at and see how it can be changed. Even our strategic and doctrinal thinking of how we are going to handle a two-front threat if it comes requires very extensive debate between the political leadership and military leadership. The size of the defence budget is decreasing, which is also a challenge.
Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies at the Observer Research Foundation and Professor of International Relations, King’s College London; Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda (retd.) is a former Northern Army Commander
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