Firefight-phobic PLA purchases advanced maces. How much longer will India manage disputed borders ‘bulletlessly’?
The CPC-PLA combo’s very smart use of bullet-less border management agreements, incursions/transgressions, and building villages along the LAC is continuing because the Indian Army is following bullet-less methods initiated by the Chinese even after losing 20 soldiers including a colonel by PLA’s brutal and barbaric attack in June 2020.
China reportedly purchased a weapon called combined mace in February 2023, which is an improved version of the crude medieval weapons used by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during its second aggression in Eastern Ladakh in May-June 2020. On 14-15 June 2020, in Galwan Valley, 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, were killed by the PLA using these crude weapons because Indian Army has been scrupulously following an agreement, for which China pressed very hard, after the border skirmishes at Nathu La-Cho La, Sikkim in 1967, that both Indian and Chinese forces would not use firearms against each other.
The combined mace is a mace that has been repurposed for combat by adding spikes and sharp edges and, according to news reports,.is a metal rod, 1.8 metres long, with pointed metal thorns attached to it. Reliable reports about China purchasing around 2600 such maces in February can only mean that it has plans of using these again against Indian troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
PLA’s shock of confronting the Indian Army in skirmishes at Nathu La and Cho La, in Sikkim, in 1967, ending with the loss of almost 400 of its soldiers, a convoy of vehicles and many bunkers destroyed resulted in the PLA pressing very hard for a 'no firing at each other' agreement. In October 1975, when PLA ambushed an Assam Rifles patrol at Tulung La, Arunachal Pradesh, it killed four riflemen not by bullets, but allegedly by torture.
In fact, after the skirmishes mentioned, Chinese troops continued intrusions across the LAC on a regular/almost daily basis but very smartly included the clause of not using firearms in the second and third agreements on “peace and tranquility” along the disputed LAC out of the five agreements that were signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2014.
'Bullet-less border management'
For over 53 years after 1967, PLA continued its attempts to claim and/or occupy Indian territory by ‘bulletless’ means, which involved pushing/pulling/grappling and, at worst, fisticuffs till May-June 2020, when for the first time and during the Covid pandemic, it resorted to using medieval barbaric weapons, killing 20 Indian Army personnel on 15-16 June 2020 and injuring many more earlier in May 2020.
In June 2020, PLA did not expect an immediate pushback by Indian Army troops that eventually killed many more than the 43 PLA troops, as initially reported by the media, and without using firearms. One young Indian soldier reportedly killed at least 14 Chinese soldiers, bare-handed by throwing them into the freezing water of the Galwan river and sacrificing his life in the process.
After the 1967 skirmishes, the PLA steadily continued its intrusions/transgressions/incursions, but resorted mainly to “bullet-less border management.” These inevitably ended in resolution by dialogue at the border itself or also through diplomatic discussion between New Delhi and Beijing.
Bullet-less border management may be a good strategic option but it is not easy to implement for prolonged periods, particularly, when an adversary like China constantly transgresses the disputed border or objects to Indian troops entering an area perceived by China as its own. This method requires much restraint, which the Indian Army has maintained for 56 years so far. How much longer can this strategy last?
LAC dispute remains unresolved
The resolution of the Doklam standoff in September 2017 after much grappling/wrestling was eventually resolved by dialogue, but it was later reneged upon by PLA. While Indian Army’s 1967 response may have been etched in PLA’s collective memory, the hegemonic tendency of the Communist Party of China (CPC)/PLA has always compelled it to grab whatever territory wherever, whenever and howsoever it can across the long perception-based LAC, without the use of firearms.
The LAC remains unresolved so far only because CPC-PLA have been playing their typical game of lies and deceit. This cannot be resolved without China declaring its claim lines, which it does not seem to be interested in doing. Till 2014 it had managed to carry on with its diplomatic bullying which worked with previous governments. Keeping in view the economic aims and interests of both India and China, it makes a lot of sense for resolving the LAC soon rather than letting this process take a few more decades. But China, which has never been interested in border peace, began an aggressive push in 2020 to consolidate and expand its territory as per its perceived strategic sovereignty. This plan is not new, but China thought it was ideal to implement during the pandemic. It involved grabbing many tracts of territory including commanding heights and tri-junctions on the Indian side of the LAC. And then there is also a focused aim of control over India’s sweet-water rivers for making microprocessors.
While the Indian Army’s actions on June 15-16, 2020 and August 29-30, 2020 of occupying the Kailash Range frustrated and inhibited PLA to implement its ambitious plans during the Covid pandemic and later along the LAC, it has to be dealt with appropriately. On December 9, 2022, two and a half years after PLA’s May-June 2020 second aggression and misadventure, over 300 of its troops, attempting to seize an Indian Army post at Yangtse, in Arunachal Pradesh, were chased back by Indian Army soldiers.
PLA cannot be trusted
While in May-June 2020, the PLA broke all agreements on peace and tranquillity, its purchase of advanced maces in 2023 only reinforces the fact that 16 rounds of talks held since 2020 are also meaningless exercises.
New Delhi must note that the CPC-PLA combo’s history of chronic hegemony, lies, deceit and salami-slicing tactics cannot be overcome by rhetoric with weak/conciliatory politico-diplomatic responses, which have included withdrawal from/vacation of Kailash Range and no action on the PLA allegedly grabbing at least 1000 sq km of Indian territory during 2020.
The CPC-PLA combo’s very smart use of bullet-less border management agreements, incursions/transgressions, and building villages along the LAC is continuing because the Indian Army is following bullet-less methods initiated by the Chinese even after losing 20 soldiers including a colonel by PLA’s brutal and barbaric attack in June 2020. And all this is because - as exposed in Sikkim in 1967- the PLA is firearms-phobic, bullet-shy, and allergic to body bags!
It must also be borne in mind that the Indian Army’s meticulously planned precision attacks in 2016, called "surgical strikes", the Indian Air Force’s deadly accurate Balakot air attack in 2019, or the Indian Army’s occupation of Kailash Range in 2020 must not be treated merely as technology/capability demonstrators. What can be more detrimental to a country’s security than to have the military capability and yet not use it when it should be used?
(The author is an Indian Army veteran who has written the book China Bloodies Bulletless Borders. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)