India’s hour of disgrace
Time for pro-active diplomacy & strengthening military
by G. Parthasarathy
What followed was a disastrous “forward policy” of deploying poorly equipped troops in forward positions to contest Chinese claims despite logistical and operational reservations expressed by then Army Chief General Thimayya and other senior operational commanders. This policy sought to give credibility to a claim in Parliament that “not an inch of Indian territory” would be left undefended. Having raised expectations publicly, the Prime Minister put himself in an untenable position of not being able to negotiate on suggestions by Chinese Prime Minister Chou en Lai, involving Chinese acceptance of the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh (then called NEFA), in return for China diluting its claims in the western sector (Ladakh). Taking any Chinese suggestion on its border claims at face value could, however, have been hazardous, as China’s claims continued to change repeatedly, as they do, even to this day.
Compounding the diplomatic bungling and the incredible naiveté in believing that China would never attack India was the erratic and arrogant behaviour of the then Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. The Defence Minister made it a habit of speaking disparagingly to senior military officials, who dared to disagree with him. He was also given to acting arbitrarily and whimsically on issues like the appointment of Lt.-General B.M. Kaul, an officer of the Army Supply Corps, with no combat experience, as the Corps Commander of the newly established IV Corps in Tezpur, to “throw the Chinese out” in the eastern sector. Not only was the formal chain of command bypassed, but Kaul was allowed to continue commanding active operations from his sick bed in New Delhi. After initial setbacks near the McMahon Line India’s defences collapsed totally on November 19, with the elite 4th Infantry Division beating an ignominious retreat.
India’s hour of shame was, however, not over. As Indian defences in the Eastern Sector collapsed on November 19, panic-stricken Prime Minister Nehru wrote to President Kennedy seeking American air support by 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters, with radar cover, all operated by US pilots. India’s proud claims to nonalignment lay in tatters. The Chinese had, however, planned their diplomacy and military operations brilliantly. A few months before the conflict commenced, the Chinese Ambassador had learnt in secret negotiations in Warsaw with the Americans that in the event of border tensions with India, the United States would not get directly involved.
With the Sino-Indian conflict coinciding with the Cuban missile crisis, the Chinese compelled the Soviet Union to initially remain neutral. It soon became clear that rather than helping out, the Americans and the British were demanding that India should resolve differences over Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan. It was the Soviet Union that moved meaningfully to help India bolster its defences. The Chinese, however, learned following incursions in 1967 in Nathu La in the Sikkim sector and in Wangdung in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986 that India was prepared militarily and diplomatically to respond to challenges they posed to its security.
In half a century since 1962, China has significantly bolstered its defences on Tibet’s borders with India. Apart from developing impressive road and rail communications, China has deployed 2,20,000 troops in the Lanzhou military region bordering Ladakh, including airborne and motorised divisions. Another 1,80,000 troops are deployed in the Chengdu military region facing our north-eastern states. Beijing has also been augmenting capabilities and training for high altitude warfare. Frontline J 10 aircraft (an Israeli designed variant of the F 16) have been carrying out exercises over high Himalayan peaks. Militarily, the main lesson of 1962 is the need for Indian conventional capabilities along our borders with China which persuade the Chinese that future conflicts will not remain confined to the Indian side of the border. It remains to be seen if the faint-hearted in South Block will endorse such a strategy.
China has vastly expanded its “comprehensive national power” since the 1962 conflict; it has the second largest economy in the world and has made remarkable strides in areas ranging from space to cyber warfare. But it faces serious internal tensions caused by the inherent contradictions of having a relatively free market economy on the one hand and a closed one-party political system, which is becoming increasingly corrupt, on the other. The Han Chinese have historically been extremely chauvinist. The political and military leadership is now pandering to such chauvinism, by stridently asserting maritime boundary claims on virtually all its neighbours and enhancing claims on the land border with India. China is continuing nuclear weapons, missile and defence collaboration with Pakistan and its efforts to enhance its role in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It has persistently moved to undermine India’s “Look East” policy by efforts like seeking to block India’s entry into the East Asia Summit. It has behaved none too subtly in attempting to prevent the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) from giving India a waiver on nuclear cooperation. Its ambivalence on India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council continues. These are all an integral part of a policy of “strategic containment” of India.
There is virtually no awareness of the security implications of China’s growing role in key sectors of India’s economy like power and communications and of the dangers posed by the domination in these sectors by Chinese companies like Huawei or ZTE. India has, therefore, to combine pro-active diplomacy and build up its offensive military capabilities along its borders with China by also formulating and implementing measures to achieve substantial indigenisation in key sectors like power and communications. Moreover, if the present policies continue, our imports of electronic and communication equipment will exceed our imports of oil and natural gas by 2020. A serious effort has to be made to enable our public and private sectors to develop capabilities comparable to those developed by the Chinese in these strategic sectors of the economy.