Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon


Political guidance for India’s strategic rudder is being tested by China’s Great Power ambitions. In Ladakh, disengagement and de-escalation remain on ice. An eyeball to eyeball confrontation continues, one that is pregnant with possibilities of sudden eruptions that could dwarf the Galwan incident in terms of force exchange and causalities.

The deployment of military forces at the highest state of alert over such extended periods is a recipe for the elements of the accidental, and the inadvertent coalescing in unimaginable ways due to miscommunication, misperception and misjudgement. The deep uncertainty, danger and stress experienced as situational awareness at the individual and collective levels could explode and cause catastrophes in the mountainous terrains of Ladakh. Political rationality on either side may not be able to control escalation that can easily spiral from a minor incident to a major exchange of fire power.

Eight rounds of military talks have probably kept the escalation of the confrontation in check. Both sides are now preparing for the long haul, this winter for sure and many more if required. India has experience in decades of eyeball to eyeball confrontation with Pakistan on the Line of Control and on the Siachen Glacier. Going ahead, China it would appear has a steep learning curve to follow in braving the Ladakh winter and sustaining military effectiveness in a prolonged confrontation. Mountains are unforgiving of weaknesses in physical and mental domains which cannot be easily compensated by China’s greater material resource capacities. Winter will no doubt inflict its share of causalities on both sides and could act to propel politico-diplomatic moves for a resolution.

The absence of focused and sustained politico-diplomatic talks despite the possible military escalation risks signifies the inability and the disinclination to seek a political resolution to the crisis. Both sides espouse that political guidance to the military is sufficient for disengagement and de-escalation. The approach seems to toe China’s line that the crisis created through military instruments may not have political parentage which in turn resulted in military measures undertaken in self-defence.

The pursuit of security, peace and stability is now riddled with unpleasant memories, broken agreements and the fear of treachery. The character of the conflict is about China’s attempts at coercing India into the acceptance of China’s political pre-eminence in the context of a broader power struggle to move up the world order and India’s resistance to it. China’s economic growth and a felt need to secure its trade links especially in the maritime domain have fuelled frictions with the USA and other powers including India. Militarily leveraging the border dispute to deny India’s strategic place in the broader global power equations would appear to offer the fundamental reason for China’s military aggression in Ladakh.

In the long run, China can be expected to keep the border dispute simmering and to continue arming Pakistan to draw down India’s limited resources towards the protection of its Northern and Western land borders. This is the overall geo-strategic aim of China’s strategy. For India, political guidance is mandatory to counter such strategy.

India’s national strategy must aim to defend the land borders while maximising the growth of its maritime power. Strengthening the defence of the land borders must be done by rebalancing from the West to the North. Due to legacy issues and doctrinally failing to recognise the impact of nuclear weapons on the utility of force application, the weight of India’s military power and in particular of its Army is presently Pakistan oriented, despite acknowledgement that, by far, China represents the larger threat.

Doctrinally again, the operational shift is about deterring Salami Slicing in the North by enhanced quid pro quo capacity. Air transportable and brigade-sized formations readily available to the Corps Commanders is the way forward. Against Pakistan, the main focus must be to maximise capability to strike without posturing. This will require long range fire power resources like aircraft, missiles, artillery and Special Forces. Importantly, there is the need to move away from the conventional notion of capturing large parts of Pakistan’s territory and instead embrace the capacity for shallow thrusts. Such a doctrinal shift, should free resources for deployment in the North and possibly provide resources for maximising maritime power.

Rebalancing can optimise resources but the need for enhancing the Defence budget is inescapable. But such enhancement is severely challenged by the impact of COVID-19 on the Indian economy. Prioritising allocation of fiscal resources at the national level is of paramount. National security has to be at the highest level and therefore budget allocation by the Ministry of Finance for Defence must be driven by strategic guidance provided through the National Security Council. It can no longer be a matter left to the mandarins handling the financial portfolio to decide based on incremental allocations based on the previous budget.

Maritime power is the costliest to develop and is not merely an issue of developing Naval power but there is also the need to develop inter alia the entire ecosystem of ports, inland connectivity, ship building capacity and access to ports of friendly countries.  With an economy under severe strain, there is also the greater need to seek security in the maritime domain through deepened cooperation. India’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific, the Quad groupings and mutual agreements for communications, intelligence and logistic support are strategic moves in the right direction.

Moving beyond intentions and operationalising the Indo-Pacific and Quad must not be shackled by India’s historic strategic weakness: the anxiety about annoying China. India’s resistance in the Himalayas must give it confidence that it can play its rightful role in global affairs, if it can strengthen cooperation especially with countries having to deal with an over-assertive China.

In the 2020s, Sino-Indian relations are likely to continue in the troubled waters of power shifts in the global system. India’s political perspective must take note of the big picture that goes beyond Ladakh and deal with countering China’s strategy and not merely its military exertions in the Himalayas. Political guidance to India’s strategic rudder must seek the tides of common interests even as it resists the  winds of coercive pressures applied on us by China. Efforts in cooperation must be contextual and therefore relations with China or for that matter any other country can range between cooperation and confrontation. Such duality should be the guide to India’s strategic moves.


Source: This article is based on an article published in the Deccan Herald.