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Year after Galwan, India remains apprehensive of Chinese military intent

Indian planners have realised China can only be deterred by 'offensive' posturing

Chinese army tibet (File) Vehicles of China's People's Liberation Army being deployed on an exercise in the Tibet Autonomous Region | China's Ministry of National Defense

Exactly a year ago, around 7pm on June 15, colonel B. Santosh Babu, the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar regiment, along with 35 men including two majors, had a heated argument with Chinese troops over dismantling of a PLA observation post at Patrolling Point 14 in Galwan valley.

The fiery argument shortly turned into a bloody clash, but colonel Babu's team stood firm against the numerically superior Chinese force. While India had acknowledged and honoured 20 soldiers killed in the seven-hour-long clash, China reluctantly admitted to only four fatal casualties. However, multiple sources have confirmed killing of at least 40 Chinese soldiers in the clash. The Galwan clash was the first in four decades on the hotly contested India-China border (3,488km), which is also known as the Line of Actual Control.

And, the 'trust' was the biggest casualty between the two neighbours (in Galwan clash), which took decades to regain after the 1962 war, as per military planners.

In last one year, there has been massive deployment of troops on both sides, despite multiple rounds of military and diplomatic negotiations. While the Indian military continues to strengthen its defences by building roads and infrastructure in the Ladakh sector by reorienting its force levels, the Chinese side has built additional accommodation in the depth areas with an intention for a long haul. And to counter Chinese aggression, the Indian military now has two strike corps looking after China border along with several reserves units dedicated on northern and eastern sectors.

Eleven rounds of military talks at the corps commander level to find a resolution have taken place between the two sides. Except partial disengagement on both sides of Pangong Tso, talks have not yielded much. However, military negotiations have managed to control the temper of both forces and have been able to prevent a repeat of a Galwan-type clash.

"Trust deficit between the two sides is the biggest hurdle to the complete disengagement process. Thinning of troops has not happened in Ladakh sector. Instead, PLA has strengthened itself on other areas on eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim) and middle sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh), though Indian Army has also done the mirror deployment to counter any belligerence of Chinese military," said a senior official based in South Block, which houses the ministry of defence.

Army Chief General M.M. Naravane has recently said India will continue to press on its demand to have the status quo ante of April 2020 restored. While both sides of Pangong Tso are demilitarised, the other friction areas like Hot Springs, Gogra and the 900 sq.km Depsang plains are yet to be resolved.

The spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs recently said the process of disengagement along the LAC “remains unfinished” and an early completion of disengagement could lead to de-escalation of forces, which would “hopefully” lead to full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and enable overall progress in the bilateral relationship.

Besides the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force deployed its frontline fighters including newly inducted Rafale jets from France in the Ladakh sector. And the Indian military believes swift deployment of Air Force strike assets has somehow deterred the aggressive Chinese military. Newly inducted Chinnok and Apache helicopters along with omni-role Rafale jets changed the dynamics on the icy heights of Himalayan frontiers, as these air assets were for the first time deployed in extreme-high-altitude areas.

But, with the onset of summer season, which is also considered as the camping season for both militaries, the Indian side is apprehensive of Chinese military intent.

"We are getting inputs of massive mobilisation of troops and artillery and armoured movements on the depth areas of the Chinese side. People's Liberation Army (PLA) is desperate to achieve what it could not get last year. But, we are also equally prepared," said a commanding officer, who is posted on the LAC. He also hinted towards the centenary year of the formation of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which controls the PLA.

Indian military observers claim that on July 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, will preside over a grand ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

According to Indian military planners, they have realised that Chinese PLA can only be deterred by 'offensive' posturing. It was evident from Indian Army's Operation Snow Leopard, launched in last August to capture the dominating heights of Rezang La and Rechin La (south of Pangong Tso) on the Kailash range. In February, Indian forces eventually vacated these heights after the ninth corps commander-level meeting. However, some military experts believe that giving away of the dominant heights on Kailash range was a mistake as it was Chinese military's prime objective. Since then, Chinese military is not keen to resolve other friction points.

While asking about the military strategy to deal with an aggressive China, retired major general Shashi Asthana, a veteran infantry general with 40 years’ experience in international fields and UN, said that India needs to adopt a multipronged strategy to include military, economic, diplomatic and soft power.

"Preparing for ‘two-front war’ for India is not a choice, but a compulsion, although it may/may not happen. The only way to avoid ‘two-front war’ for India is to convince the potential adversaries that it is capable of fighting successfully and posing multiple fronts for the Chinese. This convincing has to be backed by building capability to do so,” Asthana argued.

He added that India seems to be working on it, fast-tracking procurements and boosting indigenous production of necessary equipment through ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, besides a tough stance by the forces on borders.

"India needs to be prepared to pose a threat to Chinese vulnerabilities in maritime domain in collaboration with Quad and other friendly navies. The overall strategic approach has to be proactive at tactical, operational as well as strategic level," said Asthana , who is also a globally acknowledged strategic and military analyst and is currently the chief instructor of USI of India, the oldest think-tank in India.

Simultaneously, to address the political fallout of Galwan, the Narendra Modi government’s action plan was to hit China economically. As the government banned imports and several mobile phone apps, the focus was cast on swift action. This meant, politically, the Galwan issue gained little traction in subsequent elections. Even the opposition parties could not make it into an issue that could embarrass the government as the ruling dispensation called for unity in voices for national security. A year down the line, Galwan has cast its shadow strategically, than politically.

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