It is necessary to preface the article on the recent incursion in Ladakh with a paragraph from the author's book Restructuring South Asian Security*, with special refernce to the chapter Dealing with China in the 21st Century
Whenever writing of India-China relations it is useful to look at the growth patterns adopted by the two countries since regaining their freedom after the Second World War. China fought its way to freedom. India having taken recourse to Gandhian pacifism had freedom delivered to it in a relatively peaceful manner, not withstanding the partition holocaust. That is to say except for Subash Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauj, India did not fight for freedom as the Chinese did. There was an enormous price tag attached to the pacific route to freedom–the violent partition of the country. After establishment of Chinese unity through the bloody route the Chinese leaders understood, more comprehensively than anyone else, the power in the ultimate analysis did flow from the barrel of a gun, they never had any illusion on this score. Having understood the currency of power they went on to occupy Tibet before India was able to consolidate after the trauma of partition. India’s leaders, on the other hand, never having learned from history – in spite of writing magnificent books on it – were not able to grasp the global reality of that period. They tried to re-build India on the platform of idealism; an idealism more relevant to the days of Emperor Ashoka and possibly the coming decades rather than to twentieth century reality. They made way for the Chinese ever since – and for the rest of the world. A humiliating military defeat never really taught them any lessons. India paid a price for its lack of realism and will continue to pay the price – with graver consequences in the next century. Unquote.
Hardly a month has passed since the Chinese incursion in March – April 2013 in the Depsang bulge in Ladakh; now almost forgotten by the public at large. When the incursion occurred a prolonged discussion took place in the media, the strategic community and even within the government as to whether the incursion was the initiative of a local commander or enjoyed the sanction of the highest levels in Beijing. The fog should have cleared much sooner than it did. Local commanders, even of star rank can almost never take the initiative to go up to a depth of 19km and then stay put, thereby allowing the so-called limited action to escalate into a major national level confrontation. Even senior government figures put out statements that prevented a correct assessment to be made in real time. It is a lesson to be learned for the future.
Once it sank in at the decision making level in New Delhi that the incursion could not have taken place without the concurrence of Beijing, the mechanism that existed or should exist at national decision making levels did not give the impression of operating at peak efficiency. Had they been sure of themselves they would have realized early enough that the Chinese had clearly overplayed their hand. In fact, they should have surmised that the other side had inadvertently laid a trap for itself, conditioned as the Chinese were by India’s response pattern for decades. What then should India’s response have been to the extreme provocation?
First and foremost the government had to convey the impression to all concerned including an over-excited independent media that it was fully in control of the situation, that it was neither agonizing nor floundering. Even if it has become the habit to curb the initiative of highest level operational commanders on the ground, they could have given the freedom to the concerned commanders to take up position on the flanks of the incursion and if restrained from getting behind the Chinese troops that had ingressed, they could have made an incursion on the Chinese side based on their knowledge of the terrain across the LAC up to whatever depth the commanders felt was prudent to do so. No firing was to be initiated by the Indian side. It was up to the Chinese to pull back, let the situation continue in the same state or go in for further escalation.
The dilemma for the Beijing leadership would have become very real. Whatever the outcome of the escalation; very probably in favor of the Chinese, being better prepared and having the advantage of the attacker the damage to China’s regional and international standing would have been out of proportion to the tactical advantage that they may have gained. Clearly in trying to teach India a lesson or warn India in any other manner the Chinese had blundered. India had simply to wait it out by making clear that the visit of the Chinese premier was off. In all probability, it would have been their foreign minister who would have visited Delhi. India did not even have to play the bigger cards that it held, like the Tibet card or the India-China trade card.
That the Chinese game plan had misfired would have become evident to them. Whatever the reticence India had in strengthening its relation with its natural allies in East Asia were removed. It has resulted in the multi-faceted deepened agreement with Japan that had been on the backburner for years. There are lessons to be drawn from the Ladakh misadventure by both sides. For India the clearest lesson as far as the border question on the Himalayan frontier goes would be that without a credible riposte capability that can be launched into Tibet the Chinese will always retain the option for deep incursions. Next time they will make sure that they play their cards in a more sophisticated manner. For India the Depsang incursion was a wake up call in the manner of Kargil with the difference that this time India did not have to pay too heavy a price.
31st May 31, 2013
* Restructuring South Asian Security (MANAS Publications New Delhi. First published 2000).
Published in The Statesman (Wednesday May 5, 2013 - Page 9). .