Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement at the All-Party Meeting (APM) on the ongoing India-China crisis has created a storm. By denying any ongoing intrusion into Indian territory – his opponents are arguing – India has effectively acquiesced to Chinese claims in eastern Ladakh. The relatively educated among them have also compared Modi’s actions to the appeasement of Hitler by former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in the run-up to World War-II.
Modi’s Statement Does Not Rule Out the Military Option
This fiery rhetoric, while morally satisfying and perhaps also politically expedient, is misplaced on two counts. First, contrary to some readings, his statement does not foreclose the military option. Second, while use of force may be the only, albeit extremely unsavoury, option to deal with the immediate situation in eastern Ladakh, in the long term, the choices in front of India in similar situations will become even starker.
A subsequent clarification of Modi’s speech at the APM from his office – which suggested that he was simply referring to the situation in the Galwan Valley after the 15 June clashes – made matters marginally clearer.
However, neither was willing to touch on the broader issue of intrusions across other areas of eastern Ladakh, including the contentious Pangong Lake area where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has effectively pushed back against India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
This suggests a careful tightrope walk between managing domestic expectations and planning an appropriate response.
What We Must Understand About India’s ‘Military Moves’: Offence Thrives on Deception
Let us start with the following counterfactual to understand both imperatives. Assume that Modi had indeed accepted that the PLA has intruded into territory that India has traditionally considered its own, present or past. It is a near certainty that there would have been enormous pressure on the government to act immediately. (Especially after China laid claim to the Galwan Valley in its entirety following the 15 June clashes – which presents a fresh claim – action can only mean the use of military force to push the Chinese back.)
Given that the crisis is close to its third month, the PLA has most likely consolidated its ground position, as well as strengthened its rear, with the net effect that the element of surprise is not with the Indian Army.
Therefore, any military action would have to be necessarily predicated on regaining initiative. Offence thrives on deception, and carefully cloaking the attacker’s intent.
In order to cloak intent, the Indian forces on ground will also have to be re-arrayed, including that of the positions of offensive elements like heavy artillery and armour. Forward deployment of both air and naval assets will also have to be reconfigured into seemingly defensive positions.
All of this requires time, which the prime minister could be buying by effectively disowning the urgency of a military response.
It is also important to keep in mind that if China keeps its own offensive weapons forward, deployed along the LAC, with PLA personnel on contested territory, Indian military pre-emption in the face of the threat they pose can be justified.
BJP Is Unlikely to Antagonise Army Personnel, A Vital Support Base
Electoral calculus also suggests that the probability of Indian military action along the LAC is not small, the prime minister’s apparent appeasement notwithstanding. Since Modi came to power for the first time in 2014, the military in general – and the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in particular – has emerged as a key ally.
If the private outcry over the perceived bungling across the LAC from army personnel and their families (especially since the 15 June clashes) is any gauge of their mood, it is unlikely that the BJP – especially as it looks ahead to key regional elections this year and the next – will antagonise a vital support base.
As in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, the electoral benefits of seemingly decisive military action will loom large over Modi’s calculus.
This will be more so now, given the criticism of his treatment of migrant labourers during the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Option to Evict Chinese Army By Force Needs Careful Cost-Benefit Calculation
If the prime minister’s speech (and the government’s continuing ambiguous position on the ground reality of the crisis, in general) is by design, can Beijing be deceived?
Assuming even if it can’t be, keep in mind that any military action, now or later, will come at a significant cost, in terms of lives lost and potential escalation across the LAC.
Therefore, exercising the option to evict the PLA by force will require careful and unhurried cost-benefit calculation, while preparing adequate war-wastage reserves. Parenthetically, that it has taken yet another crisis for India to be forced into taking a hard look at its combat capabilities, tells you all you need to know about the extant deterrent potential of the Indian military.
Border Conflict: What Are India’s Options?
The window for a potential retaliatory tit-for-tat in some other sector of the LAC is now closed.
It is reasonable to assume that China has already enforced its positions elsewhere, anticipating this precise possibility. Even if this was not the case, heavy rains in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh will complicate logistics around a retaliatory landgrab there to force status quo ante in Ladakh.
The remaining choices for India right now are stark: either keep negotiating with the Chinese from a position of military weakness, or risk war using force, however limited to begin with.
Those who believe that there are good economic instruments in front of India to push China out of territory it has occupied in the past few months, fail to realise the meagreness of options available to New Delhi – raising tariffs on Chinese imports (which make for a measly three percent of China’s total exports), or disallowing 5G trials by Chinese firms, for example.
If anything, in the recent years, India has depended more on China or China-led institutions when it came to economics and trade than the other way around.
How Can India Prevent Similar Actions By An Adversary In the Future?
But what about deterring similar actions in the future? Deterrence, by its very nature, works through threat of use of force, either by promising to deny the adversary gains, or by committing to punish it disproportionately for future bad behaviour. The former requires substantial investments in sealing gaps in territorial defence; the latter the ability to credibly generate the risk of full-blown war for the enemy.
When the territorial stakes at hand are very small, as in the current case, the costs involved – especially to credibly raise the stakes – are incommensurate to the strategic objective at hand, which is to prevent fiascos of the kind India finds itself now. This calculation, in turn, can embolden the enemy to make similar changes on the ground in the future.
It is time for New Delhi’s strategists to take on this unpleasant fact of life creatively.
(Abhijnan Rej is a New Delhi-based defence analyst. He tweets @AbhijnanRej. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)