Waiting for the long haul may irreversibly compromise Indian Security Interests
It is amazing that while a potentially strategic vulnerability is being created with each passing day on the DBO front in Ladakh and possibly elsewhere as well the Foreign Minister of India in his wisdom chooses to call it a minor blip, an acne that will soon disappear.
Disappear it will not and by the time the Foreign Minister returns from Beijing an element of irreversibility and potential future untenability of positions in Siachen could conceivably have been created. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that every hour that a well-thought out military response by top commanders on the ground is delayed the situation becomes more and more difficult.
In the process the government through its vacillation is leaving everybody confused. Leaving senior military commanders tasked with the defence of Ladakh or for that matter any other sector bereft of initiative is an invitation to disaster; minute-to-minute micro-management from the top not being the answer.
That the present incursion does not fall into the category of routine Chinese incursions is clear to all military commanders and defence analysts. It is a given that Chinese incursions have been increasing, sometime on a daily basis, in direct proportion to the government’s response of playing them down or denying that they have taken place.
Lack of condemnation and allowing even minimal freedom of action to military commanders only emboldens the other side who have taken the full measure of the government and its functioning. It is nobody’s contention that an asymetrically enfeebled army should not exercise extreme caution; the army commanders being more than aware of their vulnerability due to gaps in infrastructure and the delay in critical military acquisitions that should have been in place by now or even the lack of a riposte capability that should have been in place ages ago.
More importantly, what the government and its strategic planners do not appreciate is the impression that is being made on the rest of the world by its flip-flop policies in the face of continued Chinese aggravations.
They have seen that India has already ceded control on its periphery on the subcontinent in several countries of SAARC. A few years earlier under pressure from the US and the West it had jeopardised its most advantageous relationship with Iran by unnecessarily and unprovokedly voting against it in Vienna. Other decisions that indicated to the world that the government may not be in control of its foreign policy followed.
Having ceded strategic space to China on its West, what exactly is the government’s response to the latest provocation by China indicating to its strategic partners in East Asia; with whom strategic defence agreements should have been taken to much greater heights by now.
A policy of keeping all options open simply means that when the crunch comes no option is available to be exercised. Specifically, Japan, Vietnam and several other potential strategic partners to India’s east are watching and waiting; wondering whether it has the resolve to protect its own interest in the first instance, before calculating its ability to come to their assistance should the need arise.
From day one instead of dithering and hamstringing military commanders on the ground the incursion in DBO to a depth of 19 kms demanded an immediate and robust response. It is akin to fire fighting. A blaze can be put out by the effort of a single man or few people in the first few minutes; after more than 10 to 15 minutes it would require far greater fire fighting resources to get it under control; and after about thirty minutes or so it can often become completely uncontrollable.
The government cannot be pardoned for disallowing the immediate fire fighting actions to remove the Chinese incursion. Instead of leaving it to the military commanders to deal with the situation it took it upon itself to show its diplomatic consummate-ness.
It will send its foreign minister who has actually pushed off in the reverse direction for the time being to Beijing after another 10 or 12 days, thereby allowing the ingressors time to consolidate their incursion and dig in deeper. Meanwhile asking the army to take up positions opposite them in its own territory and do nothing to evict them while it would be possible to do so with minimal force.
To the armed forces, to the people of India, and to the world the foreign minister of India is not going to the Chinese capital to demand a pull-back. He is seen to be going to Beijing as a supplicant. As in the days of yore the imperial power may graciously oblige its vassal.
The country will not know as to what concessions the minister would have been authorised to concede that would further undermine India’s capability in the future. Flowing from it, it could be well on the cards that during the Chinese Prime Minister’s visit some public pronouncements that the country can live with would be made. Nobody would be deceived that once again India would have been humiliated.
India still has a range of options to make China see reason without losing face. It hardly matters that India loses face, the country having been inured to it, used to it and reconciled to it by now. If these options are not exercised early enough – timing always being of the essence - India’s humiliation would have been compounded and its military position further degraded. What is worse the status quo might conceivably turn out to be freezing of positions as obtaining on the date of the agreement; meaning thereby the new LAC on the DBO sector would be 19 kms within Indian Territory.
Major General Vinod Saighal (Retd) is the author of Revitalising Indian Democracy, Restructuring Pakistan and Third Millenium Equipoise. This article first appeared in The Statesman of Apr 28.