China's latest territory-grabbing attempt raises fundamental questions for India
India’s narrative against China must be reviewed and reframed and the appropriate use of India’s military capability must get accepted by the political leadership.
On December 9, 2022, two and a half years after the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) May-June 2020 Ladakh aggression and misadventure in northern India, over 300 of its troops reportedly attempted to seize an Indian Army’s post in Arunachal Pradesh at Yangtse in northeastern India.
Yangtse, located about 25 km as the crow flies from Tawang, and along with Bum La axis forms one of the two approaches to access Tawang. It is a flat ground surrounded by hills on its northern, western, and eastern side. The northern hills are in China-occupied territory while on the southwest side lies Mago which is the entrance of the Yangtse plateau.
Yangtse is located at an altitude of 15000-15500 feet while the surrounding heights vary from 16000 to 17000 feet. Its northeastern approach terminates in China and since Yangtse is located at a height, it offers a clear view of Chinese posts across the LAC as well as their maintenance routes.
Towards the north, in the foothills of the Yangtse plateau, there are Chinese posts located in Cona County and a few kilometres away from the LAC opposite Yangtse, they have their important military base in Xiaokang, a logistics base en route to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Dokalam area that China has to dominate it at any cost. Every year PLA sends its troops to this area to try to validate its claim. However, this time they not only failed, according to Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, but got a thrashing by the Indian Army.
Not a routine transgression
While patrolling is done up to a platoon strength (36 personnel), about 300 troops, which are of almost two to three companies' strength, attempting to seize an Indian post at night, raises concerns as it cannot be considered a routine transgression attempt and was far more serious than being portrayed by the government and the Indian Army. Besides, patrolling on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is normally done during daytime as a confidence-building measure (CBM) because any surreptitious movement at night raises questions.
In any case, PLA made a mockery of CBMs and broke every single agreement on 'peace and tranquillity' by its actions in some locations in Eastern Ladakh in May and all the more so at Galwan in June 2020, and all this ironically not with bullets, but with medieval barbaric weapons. Of course, they paid heavily for killing 20 Indian Army personnel of the 14 Bihar Regiment including their Commanding Officer. In the revenge attack by Indian Army personnel, again ironically a bulletless clash, more than double the number of PLA troops were killed. The mockery of bulletless offensive action by the PLA has continued till the latest December 9, 2022 attempt to unilaterally try to change the status quo regarding the undemarcated LAC.
While Yangtse remains a bugbear to the PLA, Tawang is an even greater irritant to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA ever since 1951, when it came under Indian sovereignty.
Sometime in early January 1951, then Assam Governor Jairamdas Daulatram summoned Major Relengnao (Bob) Khating, Assistant Political Officer (APO), and instructed him to occupy Tawang and extend Indian administration up to that place. Khating, who served in the Assam Regiment and also in Assam Rifles, was one of the few officers selected for the short-lived Indian Frontier Administrative Service, where he was posted as the APO. He was to establish an advance administrative headquarters at Tawang and stay put there. Soon afterwards, on January 17, 1951, Khat\ing began his arduous journey from Charduar, Assam with Captain Hem Bahadur Limbu and a team of soldiers from 5 Assam Rifles, which was a pioneering expedition negotiating extremely inhospitable terrain in sub-zero temperatures. They reached Tawang on February 6, 1951. Khating then met and interacted with a number of ‘gaonbudhas’ (village headmen) and quickly and effectively established authority over Tawang and the Indian tricolour was hoisted on 9 February 1951. Indian administrative presence was thus established in this remote part of the country.
Beijing never forgets
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who came to know about this development later as he was not kept informed about it, was furious. It transpired that the orders were given by then Home Minister Sardar Patel to Governor Daulatram to undertake the operation of occupying Tawang without taking Nehru into confidence, as Sardar Patel did not want a repeat of the 1948 Kashmir fiasco.
The Chinese never forgot India’s smart move to annexe Tawang, nor did they forget 5 Assam Rifles, which escorted the Dalai Lama, then very young, in 1959 into India after his escape from Lhasa.
After the September–October 1967 skirmishes between the Indian Army and PLA at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim, in in which PLA lost almost 400 troops, CCP and PLA pressed very hard for no use of firearms against each other and to resolving all disputes/issues by dialogue only. They then made a mockery of this agreement by killing four riflemen of 5 Assam Rifles in October 1975 at Tulung La, Arunachal Pradesh, not with bullets but by torture.
Nehru’s warped politics and miserable handling of China and India’s civil-military relations have cost the Indian Army dearly by way of the blood of its troops and the nation’s security/integrity by way of territory loss to China since 1967. While Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was most assertive in her dealings with China (sanctioning use of artillery against PLA in Sikkim in 1967) and Pakistan (sanctioning war which cut off East Pakistan in 1971), Nehru's grandson’s wife Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi have allegedly been involved in secret deals with the Chinese during the UPA’s tenure that are believed to be quite detrimental to India’s security. Not only that, Rahul Gandhi has charged that Indian Army soldiers got bashed by their Chinese counterparts despite official claims to the contrary at the level of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
Need for policy review
As seen in 1967, CCP/PLA are very allergic to conventional warfare with firearms. They ensure a total hold on information and work hard at using disinformation. They declare ridiculously low figures of fatal casualties in military operations, and after reports emerged of the Covid virus emanating from the Wuhan Institute of Virology they have sought to suppress any leaks emanating from their scientific establishment.
While the Indian Army has been quite reticent in disclosing whatever happened during 2020 and onwards as compared to a fair amount of openness on operational occurrences in earlier years/decades, the government repeatedly stating since 2020 that no territory has been occupied by China amounts to giving China a clean chit. And Chinese efforts in grabbing territory to change the alignment of the LAC to their advantage are likely to continue. It remains to be seen for how long fisticuffs, nail-embedded sticks and stones will work in managing the LAC. India’s narrative against China must be reviewed and reframed and the appropriate use of India’s military capability must get accepted by the political leadership.
Also, the armed forces must be provided with all arms and equipment to get a semblance of military balance with China. The PLA excels in the ostentatious projection of its military arsenal with great parades, but it does not have a stomach for battle on the ground and is working hard at waging war against India by many other ways/means. After 55 years of not firing at each other and PLA relentlessly attempting its land-grabbing attempts and often succeeding only means that they are taking Indian forces for granted. It is high time that India reviews the LAC policy.
This writer, who was a Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson for ten years during the peak of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in the Northeast, cannot help but strongly recommend some measure of transparency. Because opaqueness, particularly in dealing with CCP-PLA combo’s constant lies, deceit, and propaganda through social media is counter-productive.
And in view of China’s anticipated plans and its lackey Pakistan parroting the nuclear threat and acquiring so-called tactical nukes, India perhaps needs to recalibrate its no-first-use nuclear policy.
(The author, a strategic analyst, is the author of China Bloodies Bulletless Borders (2022, Pentagon Press LLP). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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