Adjutant General(Retd.) & GCTC Executive Board Member
Six months, and the external security environment of India has turned on its head! With burgeoning trade at the threshold of $100 billion and general bonhomie, China was spoken in India with bated breaths, if ever, under a broader enunciated policy of appeasement and restraint on the LAC. This was despite a confirmed belief that there was deliberation in China disallowing forward movement to reconciliation of the borders, and there was a growing chasm in all fronts with China. Pakistan was the perpetual adversary, and which is why major defence expenditure was towards that direction. Not too long ago, conventional wars of the territorial kind were considered passé. Two-front war was considered worst case scenario, and it was felt that armed forces do not get organised and equipped based on worst case scenarios – as these are cost prohibitive. Think-tanks and seminar circuit was seriously abuzz and concerned with the runaway military salary-pension.
That changed gradually since May 2020, and totally after 15 June 2020 incident at Galwan in Eastern Ladakh. This period has seen tensions on the LAC, which in early September 2020 on occupation of heights astride the Spanguur Gap (Chushul Sector) by Indian Army, had greatly escalated. Inconclusive debates since May 2020, have assigned rationale to China’s belligerence to geo-political ambitions and expansionism, linked to aggression in East and South China Seas and Taiwan, India’s status changing abrogation of Article 370 and infrastructure construction along the LAC, opposition to BRI and RCEP and growing linkages with the US and QUAD. Five months since then, two-front war has been seen as a feasible reality, from opposing directions of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Aksai Chin, against the immense topographical wedge of Saltoro Range/ Siachen Glacier and Sub Sector North (SSN) of Eastern Ladakh.
In the same period, in July 2020, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a virtual meeting with his counterparts of Nepal and Pakistan (and Afghanistan), to forge “four-party cooperation” to continue work on projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The stated focus was to obtain geographic advantages, strengthen exchanges and connections “…actively promote the construction of the CPEC and the trans-Himalayan three-dimensional interconnectivity network…” Contextually, hence the issue of China in GB and Nepal also needs deliberation.
Much has been written about CPEC, brandied as a ‘game changer’ in Pakistan. More than 400 kilometres of this CPEC route (N-35) passes through GB. The 175 kilometre road between Gilgit and Skardu is being upgraded to a 4-lane road at a cost of $475 million to provide direct access to Skardu from the N-35. China is mainly interested in GB’s large mineral deposits – metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious and dimension stones, and rocks of differing industrial value. Mining in GB is already dominated by corporations mainly from China or ghost companies operating on behalf of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan has illegally awarded more than 2000 leases in GB for the mining of gold, uranium and molybdenum (which is used in space technology) to China. Chinese companies and labour are everywhere in GB, especially in the Hunza-Nagar district, which is rich in uranium. Chinese has also leased areas in Astore district to extract high quality copper, and in Ghanche District (adjoining Saltoro Range) for uranium, gold, copper, marble and precious stones.
Additionally Moqpandass Heavy Industry SEZ, located 200km from Sust Dry Port enroute to Khunjerab Pass is planned 35km from Gilgit and 160km from Skardu. It is planned to have industries for granite/marble, iron ore processing, fruit processing, steel industry, mineral processing unit and leather industry. Co-located will also be Gilgit Hydropower station generating 100MW. GB hence is the fulcrum of Chinese greed for raw materials that have to be extracted and transported to China. There is a likelihood of a road connecting GB with Shaksgam Valley and on to Western Highway G219, across the Shimshal Pass on Karakoram Range, thereby bypassing the long loop through Kashgar.
China is simultaneously developing China-Nepal Economic Corridor (CNEC) with major infrastructural projects under the Nepal China Trans Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. The 72km Kerung-Kathmandu railway corridor will finally connect Kerung to Lumbini. There are motorable roads from the Chinese border to Hilsa, Korala, Rasuwa, Kodari, and many more are being added. The Sep 2018 Protocol of Transit Transport Agreement enables Nepal to access Chinese sea and land ports. China has allowed Nepal to use Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang open seaports and Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse dry ports for trading with third countries.
The geographic barrier of the Himalayan Mountains between Nepal and China, China and Pakistan is being changed by infrastructure – railways, roads and tunnels. In the battle between geography and technology, the Chinese will push its technology and deep pockets to ensure that this infrastructure will come through. The G219 is the link that comes live in this context, though it is a long and hard journey because of the harsh environment, in larger parts with regular rain or snow and temperatures remaining always sub-zero. There is also very limited habitation, like Shiquane (called Ali Town), Rutog and Xaidullah (called 30 Li Yingfang or Sanshili Yingfang). (As an aside, from Urumqi -capital of Xinjiang, to Lhasa the commonly used Routes are the Jingxin and Jingzang Expressways (G7 and G6) and not G219.) Through this route – G219, it seems Foreign Minister Wang Yi is intimating linkages between CPEC and CNEC, and change the character of the region around Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh!
That brings in contemplation of the tense situation on the LAC. Likely steps to break the impasse and appreciation of LOC-isation of LAC are not being re-examined. This contemplation is endeavoured in six pathways:
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wengbin’s belligerent statement on 27 Sep 2020 “…China-India border LAC is obvious, that is the LAC on November 7, 1959. China announced it in the 1950s, and the international community, including India, is also clear about it”, is instructive. India, promptly and stoically rejected this statement, “…India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 LAC. This position has been consistent and well known, including the Chinese.” The reference to 07 Nov 1959 LAC by China indicates, in part, rationale for the incursions of May 2020, as is evident in Pangong Tso North Bank and Depsang Plateau. The Chinese statement has two clear pointers. One, having undertaken incursions towards the 1959 LAC, China is unlikely to relent on disengagement or return to status quo ante. Two, there are many similar areas of the ‘1959 LAC’, which are not in PLA’s control, like in Demchok and even in Depsang. This mandates a caution in appreciation of future operations of PLA, attempting to further ingress.
The current posturing along the LAC and preparations of Indian Armed Forces provide immense confidence. The defensive lines (and their planned offensive content) occupied by the Army along the LOC-AGPL and LAC are strong, and cumulated with IAF potency are strongly deterring. A two-front war, with Pakistan as a Chinese client state, can also be deemed to be defensively secured, which includes LOC-AGPL. However, there may be need to rebalance forces, between the Western and Northern Fronts, to cater for reserves and for offensives. In this context, with the increased Chinese presence and the importance of GB for them, the threat to Kupwara Sector, Western Ladakh and Saltoro Range also stands fairly enhanced.
PLA’s example of use of medieval weapons and later unmilitary-like massed armour followed by infantry must not lull us into complacency. The adversary will retain some trumps up his sleeve; PLA is but a technologically fairly advanced and modern military, albeit inexperienced in territorial warfare. PLA’s current dominant mode of warfare is confrontation between “information-based systems-of-systems.”
Warfare itself is in transition. As witnessed even in Nagorno-Karabakh recently, the efficacy of armed drones (of Turkish origin) by Azerbaijani military against tanks was telling. Our contemplated acquisitions of the last five months give an impression of being reactive and even hasty, with some not even in Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP). It is an optimal necessity to examine prosecution of warfare in all its manifestations, plan integrated capability building and stagger the acquisitions. The Armed Forces in general, and the Army in particular in territorial domain, have to undertake modern warfare integratedly, and any lopsided capability building will be counter-productive. While legacy systems do require replacement or upgradation, with finite defence budget, state of the national economy, and the ongoing vagaries of COVID19, priority must be on acquisition of modern force multipliers, like armed drones and anti drone systems. Most essential is clear prioritisation of acquisitions based upon trends in future warfare.
CPEC from Gwadar to POK/GB and onwards to Nepal along G219, will be a major transition in proximity to Ladakh, and Uttrakhand-Tibet border. As an aside it must be categorically stated that the endpoints of the CNEC and Trans Himalayan Connectivity Projects will touch the boundaries of the Gangetic plains. Since exploitation of GB and the CPEC are China’s flagship projects, this region will remain tense, in near perpetuity. There is internal turmoil in GB, including against the Chinese ham-handed methods in exploitation of the region. This needs to be strongly supported.
Though the subject of a futuristic appreciation in the light of an amended paradigm of two adversaries simultaneous belligerence, the nuclear doctrine requires a revisit, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. It may be time to lay down punitive caveats to No First Use against Pakistan, catering for such a scenario.
In sum, 15 Jun 2020 at Galwan River has galvanised the nation, and spurred the polity and the armed forces in planning and preparing for the looming threat of an increasingly aggressive and belligerent China. It is a long haul, but as the events of the past five months clearly indicate, the Indian Armed Forces are prepared for the territorial challenge. India needs to take long-term view on this emerging national security issues.
 Lt Gen DS Hooda and Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma, How to Break the Impasse, India Today, 26 Sep 2020,, accessed at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20201005-how-to-break-the-impasse-1725695-2020-09-26
 Rakesh Sharma, LOC-isation of LAC, Pragmatic Appreciation, 25 Sep 2020, Indian Defence Review, New Delhi, New Delhi, accessed at http://www.indiandefencereview.com/author/ltgenrakeshsharma/
 Rakesh Sharma, Ideating Structural Rebalancing, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi 25 Aug 2020, accessed at https://www.claws.in/ideating-structural-rebalancing/