Will there be a limited war between India and China?

The four thousand kilometers long ‘Line of Actual Control’ or famously termed as LAC between India and China post the war of 1962 is witness to border skirmishes for long. It is all the more evident in the areas of UT of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh (which China refers to as South Tibet). In the past, whenever a Chinese incursion happens, the Indian Armed Forces were asked to back off from their position under orders from Indian government of the times. But no more.

China was longing to challenge the gut of the incumbent Indian government. When the Modi government abrogated Article 370 from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and made them two separate union territories of J&K and Ladakh, the restlessness of its’ eastern and western neighbors was clearly visible. While Pakistan went red for removing special status of the state (which it didn’t recognized it anyway), the Chinese on the other hand anticipated the government’s motive behind bifurcating the state. They were intelligent enough to gauge the Modi government’s plan to build better infrastructure in Ladakh so that it could mobilize it’s Army quickly and efficiently to deter any Chinese incursions.

Surely, the BRO and other central agencies jumped in to make all weather roads and bridges all along the Indian border of LAC. The Communist Party of China first tried to deter India through diplomatic channel and then through its’ propaganda mouthpiece. But Indian media was not picking up the signals and the government seemed more determined to complete the infrastructure development within a year. India media was much too engaged with Pakistan (which was the intention of the Modi government) to know that amidst this media hyped tension between India and Pakistan, the Modi government silently completed building roads and bridges along the LAC which made troop deployment much much easier than before.

Chinese did not missed the beat. It rightly anticipated India’s move behind bifurcating the state. When the Indian government started connecting the advanced landing ground of the Indian Air Force in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector with Leh, the Indian intention became clear to the Chinese. Though majority of the Chinese population stays in the eastern half of the country, then western theater (as the Chinese called), though a barren highland, has geo-strategic importance to China.

Map of Asia (PC: mapsofworld.com)

If we look at the map of China, we notice that most big cities like Beijing or Shanghai lies in the eastern part of China, in the region of east or south China sea. All major Chinese trade routes are through these two waters. However, these two water ways are too prone to American dominance. USA’s Indo-Pacific command (formerly known as Asia-Pacific command) has a high presence in South and East China Sea. All sea trade routes are prone to US naval blockades.

Around 80% of China’s present sea trade goes through the narrow Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean. Here, India has the advantage, a giant floating aircraft carrier in the middle of Indian Ocean in the name of Andaman Nicobar Islands, to berth naval ships and aircraft just around three hundred kilometres from the Straits of Malacca. It can surely lay a naval blockade in the small Strait. Chinese Navy is not so developed (a raw nerve of the PLA) to fight in blue water so far from home. Also, it does not have the full confidence of the countries in that region, so it might not be able to berth in the times of a naval war.

Strait of Malacca (PC: UNAV.edu)

So China looked west. It started an ambitious project of Belt and Road Initiative linking China to various Asian and Western countries through road infrastructure. Among them parhaps the most important is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $45 billion infrastructure project starting through Karakoram Highway of Kashgar in Xinjian province of China to the port of Gwadar in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan. This 1100-kilometer-long road and railway infrastructure is totally made by China keeping in mind of its’ strategic values to China which it holds close to its’ chest.

Gwadar Port near Hormuz Strait

In the event of any naval blockade in the South China Sea or Straits of Malacca, the precious oil import to China from the Gulf would take place through Gwadar port of Pakistan all the way to mainland China. Though costly, it would be the only option should China be held hostage to naval blockade. The Gwadar port is situated very near to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz through which the petroleum carrying ships travel. Such convenient position would nullify any USA/Indian naval intervention in the South China or Indian Ocean. The Indian LAC in northern most area has an airstrip (from the WWII era) in Daulat Beg Oldi which laid vacant after the war of 1962 due to lack of proper infrastructure in the area. When the current government came to power, it re-jigged the advance landing ground. This raised eyebrows among the Chinese Army but due to lack of infrastructure in the area, the Chinese thought about the un-affordability of sustenance of the ALG even though the Indian Air Force landed heavy air carriers in DBO.

When the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and bifurcated the state was that when the Chinese sensed some intention of the Indian government. Very soon, their apprehension started materializing when the infrastructure wing of the Indian Army, the Border Roads Organization (BRO) started building Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road (DS-DBO Road) along the border of LAC. This 220 kilometre all-weather road connects Ladakh’s capital city Leh, via the villages of Darbuk and Shyok at southern Shyok Valley, with the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) post near the northern border reducing the travel time from Leh to DBO from 2 days to 6 hours.

DS-DBO Road to Daulat Beg Oldi (PC:dristiias.com)

Daulat Beg Oldi, lying over 16,600 feet (5065 meters) from sea level, is the highest airstrip in the world. It is situated at the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range. That is exactly where the road linking the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan which is just 8 kilometers from the airstrip. If India fully activates the airstrip, which seems the plan, the whole Karakoram Highway will come under India’s fold jeopardizing Chinese plans of building the strategic CPEC as secondary lifeline of China.

So, the Chinese Communist Party ordered to incur the strategic areas of eastern Ladakh to secure the Karakoram Highway from Indian reach. The orders arrived in the first week of April 2020 to the Chinese Western Theatre Command. They were carried out on April 5th, when the Chinese Army incurred some no-mans-land areas in Depsang, Pangong Tso and Galwan region. All along their tactic was to incur 5 kilometers then retreat 2 kilometers hence making an area gain of 3 kilometers stretch.

But that was not going to be all right for the current Indian government. As rounds of Brigadier General talks ensue, both sides agree to withdraw but this time India demanded a full withdraw from the incurred lands by Chinese Army. Indian Army would only move back when the Chinese troop withdrawal happens to their satisfaction. 

This was not what the Chinese had planned. The Commanding Officer of the Eastern Theatre observing the Indian resolve for the first time, deems this total withdrawal as an insult on the mighty Chinese Army. Seething with anger he vows to take the revenge.

He first removed the battalion that were posted that time in Galwan area. This has to be done as those men and officers have become friendly with the Indians who have regular dialog among them during patrolling. Next, they deployed a special forces battalion to carry of the task.

As per treaty of 1996, between India and China, neither countries were to carry patrolling with live ammunitions. The Chinese forces were given rods laced with nails and barb wires. The task was to carry out a swift non-lethal attack on the Indian troops so as to teach them a lesson. The motif behind the attack was to make India understand that China is not happy that Indians are building infrastructure in the region. This attack should make New Delhi halt the current work-in-progress and ask for some dialog.

On the evening of June 15th. while the Commanding Officer of the Indian Army Col. Suresh Babu of Bihar regiment, was on a routine petrol to see the progress of the withdrawal of the Chinese Army, a platoon of Chinese Army, armed with rods and sticks attacked the CO of the Indian Army. The sudden violent attack surprised the Indian contingent who were totally unarmed and unprepared for such hostilities. The attack on Col. Babu turned fatal with five others gravely injured.

When the news of their CO’s death due to Chinese attack reached the Indian Galwan post, some 50 odd men (some of them were from Ghatak platoon of the regiment) charged the Chinese with bare hands. The confrontation of that night or next day early morning was something that the Chinese Army would remember all along. Those 50 -55 Indian soldiers, literally pounced on the Chinese forces at the narrow stretch along Galwan river. The sheer ferocity of the Indian Army made the Chinese forces abandon their post and run for their lives. Sure, the Indian brave-hearts also suffered casualty. 20 army men were myrtered in the process but each of them successfully neutralized four or five Chinese with their bare hands.

When the news broke out in the Indian media, people were visibly frustrated at the Chinese Army. Sensing the nerve, the Indian government order for fully deployment and threat level orange all across the LAC. Divisions of cavalry are deployed along the heated areas of Pangong Tso, Depsan and Galwan valley. Rather then halting the work, the BRO sped up the process of connecting DBO airstrip to Leh before winter which then will connect straight to Siachen Glacier which is also a pressure point for both Chinese and Pakistanis as literally Indian Army posted at Siachen could spit on the Karakoram Highway.

Witnessing the hullabaloo in India and deployment of Indian Armed forces in the region, the Chinese also ordered for larger deployment. It tried to easy the tension by offering talks both at Army as well as diplomatic level. On the one hand they blame India for the rise in border tension and also prepare for full deployment on the other. Tank regiment, mechanized infantries marched both sides of the border region of Ladakh and Aksai Chin.

Seizing the opportunity, the United States jumped into the bandwagon. For long it was looking for an opportunity to bash China militarily. The Sino-Indian tension just gave them the opportunity. It promptly dispatched two super-carrier groups in the South China sea to help its’ friend India. It even started giving specialized tech to Indian Army and Airforce to counter China in the region. As a member of the newly formed quad (USA, Japan, Australia and India), it offered joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean region.

The other countries were not left behind. Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and many others sided with India. France pledged to supply the Rafael aircrafts faster than schedule, it even said to help India with French Army should India need them. Even the smaller ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia or Myanmar stood with India and offer help.

When China witnessed the global sentiments rise against China, it understood that a war with India would mean a greater war with NATO forces. In that event, it had to fight in the east and south China along with its western front. In the event of any defeat, it might have to push its’ N trigger which will surely invite retaliation. A lose lose scenario all along. Also, China would be pushed a century behind economically which would result of breaking down the whole Peoples Republic of China altogether. The Chinese thoroughly read and analyzed the fall of Soviet Union and they just don’t want a repeat.

Analyzing the scenario, the Chinese turned towards their neighbor and mutual friend Russia. Now when all these war cries were going on, the Russians were keeping tightlipped and a close eye of the developments that are happening. Though traditionally, India was non-aligned country but actually the Indian Armed Forces are mostly armed with Russian made weapons. Same is with the Chinese. If a war occurs between its’ two friends, Russia is the one who tends to lose the most. Already showing telltale signs, India would definitely fall along with America. Russia would lose multi-billion dollar defense contracts from India which would straight away goes to the United States. With China slowly becoming self-sufficient in defense armament, losing India is something that Russia can ill afford.

So, when the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Moscow, the Russians took the opportune moment to meet the Indian and Chinese counterparts at the sidelines to negotiate some ways which would be no-lose situation for both the countries. At foreign minister level talks held in Moscow, both the Indian and Chinese ministers came out with a five point agreement of tension reduction at the border. These are

  • The 1993 ‘Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility Agreement’ forms the basis of all follow-up agreements.
  • 1996 ‘Confidence Building Measures’ denounced the use of force
  • 2005 ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ and patrolling modalities.
  • 2012 ‘Process of Consultation and Cooperation’
  • 2013 ‘Border Cooperation Agreement’, signed as a sequel to Depsang intrusion by PLA

Though the Chinese are famous for ‘talking and fighting simultaneously’ (Mandarin: yi bian dan-yi bian da), it seems that with Russian mediating in between might just have some water to hold. However, this time India has seen enough of Chinese nonsense and it would not reduce any troops at the border before they see some action to their talks on ground. The USA on the other hand will tend to lose the opportunity to teach the Chinese some lesson and all its’ redeployment at the South China Sea will go waste. Also, India has some plans of its’ own. To rightly predict Modi, Amit Shah and Ajit Doval trio is the next best impossible job. It has been seen so many times in the past.

All in all, the next few months are interesting. After the winter fully sets in, it would be a herculean task to fight (a) the weather and then (b) the enemy in whichever side. Till that time, it will be like walking on a tightrope with blindfolded. A slight provocation from either side might invite a larger firefight. As a common citizen, its’ thrilling to hear about heroics of your forces but actually no one wins a war. War always bring misery, death and destruction (unless you are fighting away from your own land) of all sides. Moreover, economy take a heavy toll and pushes you back by twenty years. So war is something which shall be avoided at all cost. But, do your enemy cares about the result? Probably China never took India seriously to know its’ military might? So, India should never fire the first bullet but should correctly fires the last one.

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