It has been a year since the incident at Galwan, eastern Ladakh where 20 Indian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, by laying down their lives, to protect India’s territorial integrity. This searing memory brought forcefully to the consciousness of the people of India the seriousness of China’s aggressive moving of several divisions of troops along with armour and artillery to this geography in end April-early May 2020.
A cold, calculated and rational analysis of this movement of troops and weapons leads to the conclusion that it was a methodically planned, flawlessly timed and reasonably well-executed military manoeuvre aimed at ensuring that Chinese ground positions are more or less aligned with her conception of where the LAC lies. Additionally, the measure also denied area access to Indian troops to some of their habitual patrolling routes and points.
There can also be little doubt now that the People’s Liberation Army did catch India by surprise. However, the Indian Army was able to quickly and efficiently mobilise matching numbers of troops, thereby perhaps, preventing the PLA from achieving all the military objectives it had set for itself. Once mobilised in equal strength the Indian Armed Forces have given a stellar account of themselves.
We in India must also be clear that China’s aggressive military measures in eastern Ladakh were aimed at bringing home to India and the world at large that China’s economic, military, technological and comprehensive national power far exceeded that of India. In other words, China was also messaging that she was the pre-eminent power in Asia and that other nations including India must realise, accept and acknowledge this fact.
India must comprehend that the military coercion being employed on our northern borders by China was possible only due to the huge power differential and asymmetry which exists between our countries. This necessary condition was met in the summer of 2020 enabling the PLA to undertake the kind of deployment it did in Ladakh.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: What does India have to do both in the short term as well as in the longer term to protect its territorial integrity and promote its national interest vis-à-vis China? Looked at from this angle, we quickly realise that the shenanigans in eastern Ladakh are not merely a military affair. It is a much larger issue of India lagging China in economic size and growth, technological prowess, military might, comprehensive national power and even on indices such as literacy and life expectancy.
One metric which captures this vast and growing asymmetry between India and China is GDP, with China at $14 trillion in 2019 and India at $2.9 trillion. We quickly come to the realisation that in the longer term it is this asymmetry that India has to tackle and reduce. In other words, in order to protect ourselves from Chinese nibbling at our territory on our northern borders India needs to ensure sustained, fast-paced economic growth over a 25-year period. We have to ensure adequate investment in our economy to enable us to regain the 8% GDP growth trajectory that we had achieved in the past.
The bigger puzzle is what does India do in the short to medium term when this asymmetry continues to exist? What does India need to do in the next five to six years to ensure its territorial integrity? The answer is simple and straightforward: We have to build balancing or countervailing coalitions with other nations which will support us in international forums as well as continue to sell us the modern weapons, platforms and technologies that we will need. Such coalitions will enable us to maintain our strategic autonomy from the political and military coercion China is applying in Ladakh.
There are three groups of nations or countries we can consider for building such coalitions. The first is the major democracies of the world. Examples of such countries are the US, France, UK, Japan and Australia. The Quad is one example of such a balancing coalition. This is why the Quad has developed quickly over the past few months in crystallising as a power centre in the Indo-Pacific, even as Chinese aggression has grown and its threat to India become more apparent. The second group of countries are those in China’s periphery and here both Russia and Vietnam come to mind. Third, are nations in India’s neighbourhood such as Bangladesh. We can consider one or a group of coalitions with these countries.
Building such balancing coalitions is not something India has done in the past and is perhaps a phenomenon we are not completely comfortable with. The deep partnerships this requires, go well beyond mere political strategic ties and leadership level visits. They imply building strong and interlocking economic contacts and interests, large scale and deep people-to-people ties and long lasting inter-institutional linkages. In order to do this, India may have to adjust some of its domestic policies, which is something we have not done in the past.
This national effort will need to be led by our diplomats who will have to rise to the occasion and give an excellent account of themselves. While this represents a brave new world not traversed before, Indian diplomacy is indeed up to this task. The rest of India, which is all of us, will also need to raise our game since this is what is required if India is to rise to the China challenge.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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