As India enters 2021, after perhaps the most testing year in recent history, it does so with a qualitatively new China challenge. The border aggression, troop build-up that continues through the brutal winters of Ladakh and clear signs of Sino-Pakistani collusion on the eastern and western fronts mean that India has little choice but to take the challenge head on. Here’s a look at the year gone by, what lies ahead and how India is preparing keeping the lessons of 2020 in mind.
In early May, as China’s intentions in Ladakh became clear, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a twin offensive – a steady build-up of force and a propaganda campaign to showcase military abilities. As multiple clashes erupted along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this propaganda machinery churned out videos and photos of new equipment being moved into Tibet, including T-15 light tanks rolling down black asphalt roads.
In terms of pure hardware and resource mobilisation, China has a significant advantage. Its annual defence spending is pegged around $261 billion while India’s is about $71 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2019 data.
A Ladakh-like crisis was only a matter of time, according to strategic planners. China’s larger plan was perhaps to bog India down as it rolled out its ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan, of which Pakistan is a key player, said former deputy national security adviser SD Pradhan. “The Chinese aim is to establish its supremacy in the world and it is pursuing an overall strategy keeping that objective in view. China is taking baby steps to acquire strategic points along the LAC to connect Xinjiang with Indian Ocean but does not wish to have a full-scale war that could upset the process of achieving its overall objective,” he said.
India scores much higher on soft power and backing from like-minded partners, as was evident from the support received when urgent requests for equipment and stores were placed. A self-dependent China, on the other hand, did not look outwards other than at Pakistan, which is believed to have provided vital help in intelligence assessment and communication interception.
India’s recent entry into the list of global arms suppliers indicates a shift in approach. It is willing to produce and export offensive weapons to friendly nations – a key gap exploited by China, which has India’s neighbourhood of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka as its primary weapons export market.
The deadly clash at Galwan and subsequent occupation of key heights in the Chushul sector was more than what China bargained for, said military planners. The June 15 clash, the first since 1979 when China lost soldiers in a border conflict, and the Chushul occupation, which could have easily escalated into a bloody skirmish, showed that India was willing to impose a deadly cost to territorial threats.
The buzz phrase in South Block in the past months has been “more bang for the buck”. With defence spending likely to remain constrained, innovative solutions and alternative technologies are being explored to take on the PLA might. One example of this is a low-cost air launch drone swarm system being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in partnership with start-ups that aims to take down complex and expensive PLA air defence systems.
The Navy is exploring low-cost enhancements to warships that can provide operational flexibility – like clip on mine detection systems. The Army is set to acquire loitering precise attack munitions that have proven to be effective in recent battles.
The Ladakh crisis is a turning point that has shifted focus firmly to the eastern front. “We need to build capabilities and carry out a strategic rebalance from west to east. We have to dominate and create deterrence in the Indian Ocean Region and bind with nations where there is a convergence and congruence of interests,” said Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia (Retd), former Director General of Military Operations.
With all border pacts of peace and tranquillity breached by China, the Indian response too has been unprecedented. Beyond military posturing, moves to keep a check on Chinese investments, barriers to exclude Chinese companies in 5G technology and the app ban are examples of the multipronged approach adopted. These are expected to increase with a focus on strengthening local players and replacing Chinese imports.
India’s response includes forging closer partnerships with like-minded nations. Key partners such as the US, France and Israel pitched in with intelligence and equipment as the Ladakh crisis unfolded.
Military pacts on intelligence sharing and logistics support were activated, giving a glimpse into the future of operations. Of particular significance is the new model at play. India leased two maritime surveillance drones from the US under a win-win pact. India is paying for logistics support and maintenance but has a significant capability to look at Chinese movements.
A partnership approach with nations such as Japan, Australia and the US is key to meeting the Chinese challenge but old ally Russia is in a tricky spot. With interlinkages with China, it has been compelled to take a cautious approach. The Russian government attempted at least twice to broker peace, but without success. Its position is crucial as Russia is still a primary supplier of weapons and defence technology to India.
The coming year will be crucial in deciding how hard an approach India takes on China, but there can be little doubt that the crisis has reaffirmed the critical importance of self-reliance and credible conventional and strategic deterrence.