A Legacy of Dispute
The territorial dispute in the Trans-Himalayan Region is a legacy of the eternal societal dispensation that prevailed over this vast swathe of high altitude desert when this land provided for sustenance to the tribes living on its periphery by way of cattle grazing, mining and transit infrastructure for trans-Himalayan trade. That was the state till the mid-19th Century, when commenced a ‘game’ of ‘power-projection’ to control the geographical properties of the regions of Tibet and East Turkmenistan, thus vitiating its pristine tranquility. British India and Russia were the ambitious participants in this power-play, with Tibet-China as the common denominator. It was therefore to be expected that given their cultural compulsions, there would be disputes amongst the contemporary regimes in Tibet, China and India.
The purpose of this paper is to argue that Sino-Indian military confrontation has a hint of inevitability, unless the cost of armed conflict is rendered unacceptable to the revisionist party. Further, it is reiterated that it could be possible for India, the weaker party, to deter aggression across the Indo-Tibet Border by adopting a strategy that is ingenious and free of fixated encumbrances.
A Triumvirate of Trouble
The first of the triumvirate, China, is culturally assertive of her ‘superior civilisation’ and an instinctive hegemony. This culture must invariably manifest in any strong regime in Beijing considering as her property ‘by right’, any territory that at any point of time was under any form of control of any of the empires that reigned from Chang’an, Nanking or Peking. China’s claim over Tibet, and by default over the Aksai Chin and the Tawang Tract, and by further extrapolation, over the entire Northern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh respectively, was, in hindsight, a foregone conclusion, which leaders of independent India may have failed to visualise.
Thus, with their institutional mastery over stratagems, the first step Communist China took within a year of seizing state-power was to annex Tibet. Next, in step with a steady military build up, China contested the Indo-Tibet Border, then confronted India’s so called ‘Forward Policy’ and finally in 1962, launched an offensive campaign across the McMahon Line and the Kun Lun Mountains. The following decades saw China continue with the build up of strategic infrastructure in Tibet and modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Confidence gained by progress of such ventures has, since past few years, caused Beijing, in a repeat of 1950’s, to intensify its so far subdued claims over the territories of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh more and more assertively. Emboldened assertiveness is also evident in the unilateral promulgation of her ‘sovereignty’ over the Aksai Chin, annexation of the Shaksgam Valley and PLA’s nonchalant march into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Expectedly, the charade of her protestations over the internal matters in Arunachal Pradesh continues, obviously with an intent to legitimise by incessant repetition, a claim which may be dismissed today but would become a casus belli some day. In some other politico-diplomatic issues too, China’s assertiveness, bordering at arrogance, is palpable. Indeed, there are seeds of trouble in the Sino-Indian relationship.
The role of the central party of the contention, Tibet, is no less significant. Traditionally, Tibet has been as aggressive in conduct of her policies as her military power has permitted, and she has not failed to chastise Chinese as well as Indian intransigence whenever she could. Therefore, it may be expected that Tibet too, if and when the opportune moment comes, may raise territorial questions. That is but a lesson of history.
We may thus observe that a confrontationist situation along the Indo-Tibet Border is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. As a corollary, Indian strategists must look to foster a situation which motivates Beijing to seek solutions to her ambitions through political rather than military means.
The Military Equation
There is no way India can hope to match China’s military power in the foreseeable future. Further, as evidenced by her past actions, China is unlikely to be dissuaded by the niceties of ‘soft power’ alone. The best India can hope to do therefore is to deter China from engaging in military aggression. And for that, the Indian armed forces have to conceive a strategy that would achieve that end within the means at hand, and organise accordingly.
The mandate is daunting. But taking cue from military history and teachings of great masters of military strategy, it might be possible for the Indian armed forces to devise effective measures to prevent China from achieving her objective of aggression. Indeed, history is replete with instances when the strong have given wide berth to the weaker adversary, and when yet engaged, the weak have triumphed over the strong1. Let us then see as to how can this mission might be accomplished in the Indian context.
We may begin with the most potent weapon of war-fighting: the ‘mind’ – that is a potent integration of intellect and ingenuity with strategic and tactical acumen which empowers military leaders to translate adversities into advantages.
Imposition of an Asymmetric War
We are aware that the concept of ‘asymmetry’ is as old as warfare itself. Military commanders down the ages have invested in manipulating the rules of armed engagement in a manner as to generate tactical advantages of their strengths while exploiting the adversary’s limitations. Obviously, it is usual to impose asymmetry upon the opponent by fielding greater numbers of troops and weaponry. However, history teaches us that there are other ingenuous ways – some tangible (quantitative, technological, logistic) and others intangible (qualitative, tactical, psychological) - to achieve that end2. The PLA too, faced with prospects of conflict with the all-powerful US military forces on the Taiwan issue, has been propagating her version of asymmetric warfare - she illustrates the idea by a dramatic description : “Assasin’s Mace”.
In view of the PLA’s overwhelming military superiority, the recourse adopted by the Indian armed forces must aim at finding strategic and tactical ingenuity to negate the advantages of such superiority. The point to ponder here is that can such a recourse be in the realm of possibility? The answer is offered by what one of our finest generals had to state. Writing for the ‘Seminar’ in early 1962, General Thimmayya stated :
“I cannot … envisage India taking on China in an open conflict on its own. China’s present strength … exceeds our resources a hundred fold, …we could not hope to match China in the foreseeable future… .The country is a mass of mountains right up to the highest ridges of the Himalayas. The passes are practically impossible for over six months except for the men and animals, and that too with difficulty. China is, therefore, deprived of the use of its overwhelming superiority … . This is where we should make full use of our manpower and light equipment … .
If the Chinese attack us with the intention of recovering territory which they believe to be theirs, we must meet them in those regions with commandos and highly equipped and fast moving infantry. If the Chinese penetrate the Himalayas … , we must be in a position to take advantage of our superior fire power and manoeuvrability to defeat them and at the same time continue to harass their lines of communications by the use of commandos and guerrillas …”.
Of course, the General was thinking of fighting a war that played mismatch to PLA’s tactical strengths while permitting exposure of its vulnerabilities3.
Let us then examine certain core aspects of strategic asymmetry in the Sino-Indian context. We may begin with the fundamental factor of war: terrain.
Leveraging the Terrain
We are aware of the much lamented ‘tactical advantages’ enjoyed by the PLA on the open Tibetan Plateau. But we are also conscious of the fact that every item of PLA’s war wherewithal on the Indo-Tibet frontline must be carted over 1500 kilometers from their logistic hubs at Lhasa and Kashgarh, which in turn must be stocked from central China, a further 2000 kilometers away. The entire logistic connectivity by road, rail, pipeline and air depends upon tenuous lines of communication and static staging yards, all situated over a terrain that is completely open, devoid of local resources and subject to such extreme conditions as it must obtain at 4300 meters of average altitude and sub-zero cold almost throughout the year. Even if China has engineered her transportation capacity to 24000 tons a day and therefore stated to be able to build up 30 divisions, including formations already in place, in 30 days, and sustain this force in war indefinitely, such theoretical calculations may be valid under ‘test conditions’, in practice this will invariably not be so. No doubt, the whole system of induction and sustenance for PLA’s field forces in war would be ripe for interdiction by air power and special operations.
On the Indian side, the terrain south of the 4300 to 5400 meter high Himalayan passes, constricted and snow-bound most of the year, is characterised by razor-sharp ridgelines, steep slopes and narrow, gorge-like valleys generally running North to South. The Indian logistic installations are between 350 to 400 kilometers in depth, and therefore, in terms of turn around time, comparable to that of the PLA in Tibet. Road axes connecting Indian foothills to the Indo-Tibet Border, being aligned more or less along the narrow valley floors, are extremely difficult to interdict by air or ground fire; these are targetable only in some stretches and even then require super-skills, high-technology and load of chance to score effective hits. Notably, scope exists to make such hits even more ineffective by means of modern methods of camouflage, deception and repair.
To undertake offensive operations in such terrain, PLA formations have to confine to constricted valleys that are hemmed-in by successive ridge lines, thus limiting the scope for tactical level lateral manoeuvre. At the operational level, axes of offensive have to remain isolated from each other, while envelopment and turning movement, besides inviting risks of entrapment, would entail such heavy logistic back up as to be prohibitive in terms of resources and time. Further, some distance down the Southern slopes into Indian territory, the terrain closes down to subsume the advantages that heavy weaponry and high-technology might bring to PLA’s offensive. Indeed, the ground is heavily biased towards defensive operations - if conducted with aggressive intent.
We have reasons to believe that mother earth has not been overly supportive of aggression from Tibetan Plateau across the Himalayan Passes into India. Indeed, any PLA offensive across the Indo-Tibet Border has to contend with an adverse terrain anomaly: its build-up and spring-board areas straddle a ground that exposes its war machine to disruption by inhospitable elements as well as air and ground attack, while its offensive across the watershed passes would be beleaguered by a ground that favours classically conducted defensive operations. Indeed, PLA’s offensive across the passes would have to fight ‘friction of terrain’ and ‘tension of logistics’ before engaging Indian forces - with “General Snow” ever ready to cut off its lifeline.
Therefore, even if the PLA commits overwhelming number of formations to its offensives, as to how many of these could actually be employable - along limited, narrow axes, and against successive lines of defences, remains a moot point to consider.
China’s declaration of unilateral ceasefire in 1962 may be seen in this light. Only if Indian leadership had not lost its nerve and continued the state of war, matters would have been different.
With superior weaponry, missile arsenal, airborne forces, reconnaissance, communication, navigational and logistic capabilities, all of which are under continuous modernisation, we are well aware of PLA’s overwhelming superiority over the Indian Armed Forces. Yet, the current state of Sino-India peace will be better fostered by factoring China’s innate vulnerabilities in order to devise an affordable military deterrence.
Firstly, the ‘hawks’ in the Chinese establishment do not seem to be able to hide their hegemonic instincts till completion of the last phase of her ‘four modernisations’, as Deng Xioaping had advised. They have already started repudiating international norms on diplomatic, territorial, proliferation, economic and human rights issues. Reinforced with her past record of inciting trouble in the neighbourhood, this development has caused China to be seen as a predatory threat by most of her neighbours. In fact, the undercurrent of wariness of China’s military build up is already evident by signs of emergence of common-cause groupings among the Austro-Asian nations - with US participation. Possibly therefore, India’s joint military exercises could gradually be elevated to the status of ‘military co-operation’ and bonded by a corresponding diplomatic understanding. The wise Chinaman certainly realises that in the contemporary international dispensation, such grouping among her target countries cannot be to her advantage. May be that consideration would curb her militaristic urge.
Secondly, build up and war logistics of the PLA could be vulnerable to severe disruptions in Tibet. If they can be rebellious even when under the grip of a ruthless state, the discontented Uyghurs in the North-West and Tibetans in the South-East could also play a highly debilitating role on PLA’s war-effort. Indian Army could leverage this vulnerability of the PLA by means of direct as well as indirect attacks on its rear echelons and thereby choking sustainability of its offensive across the watershed.
Thirdly, even as the modernisation programme imparts quantum empowerment to the PLA, there are intrinsic vulnerabilities too. Having propagated the doctrines of “Informationalisation” and “War Zone Campaign”, it has embarked upon adaptation of unfamiliar and complex concepts and practices of warfare. Therefore, its transition from a manpower intensive, low technology ‘people’s army’ to a modern army of high-technology, heavy weaponry and logistic-intensive formations cannot be free of complex glitches. The fact that its military leadership is relatively inexperienced and yet untested against spirited opposition, adds to the PLA’s burden. These vulnerabilities could afford opportunities to topple PLA’s apple cart in the fog of war.
Fourthly, China is at a stage of ‘wannabe superpower’, when she is precariously open to losing her way by even stray developments, internal or external. Therefore, a conflict that fails to conclude with clear victory within a specified time frame will entail a serious setback to China’s standing. Then there is the tactical vulnerability of the Chumbi Valley as well as across the passes in North Sikkim, Kailash Range and Aksai Chin, which present opportunities of potent riposte. Even if limited, such reverses can besmirch PLA’s success elsewhere. Therefore, in a period when people’s perceptions count, China may be wary of adopting military recourse against a resilient adversary. The complex concoction of time, terrain, counter-tactics and perceptions would not be easy for the PLA to tame in her adventure across the Indo-Tibet Border.
It may be noteworthy that the nuclear angle does not figure in the preceding discussion. This is deliberate. Firstly, because the nuclear doctrine espoused by both China and India - that of ‘No First Use’ - precludes any nuclear exchange. Secondly, should China circumvent her stated position, there is little India can do about it besides retaliation in kind to the extent of her arsenal; and then the script would be different. Lastly, beyond committing soldiers to conduct nuclear drills, Indian policy-makers have not mandated the military institution to nuclear warfare. Therefore, the Indian military hierarchy may not concern itself with what has been deliberately kept out of its orbit as a matter of higher policy of the government.
The preceding discussion leads to the observation that if not diverted from the verve of military preparations, it should be possible for India to build up credible deterrence against military attack by China to settle the contentious border issue. The question, however, is that how may that goal be secured?
The Burden of Indian Armed Forces
It needs no emphasis that China factors military power as a pillar of her politico-diplomatic goals. Accordingly, the PLA enjoys the blessings of China’s visionary leadership and full range of support from the state, mandate in fact, to institute what restructuring and modernisation is necessary to maintain itself at the best state of operational and logistic efficiency. In contrast, in the Indian dispensation, the state apparatus arrogates military-specific policy making even if remaining innocent of what it takes to fight a war. It is under these conditions that the Indian armed forces are expected to deter the PLA, and in the event that China chooses to teach India another ‘lesson’ by recourse to military aggression, defeat that aggression. This is a popular mandate, even if the state may fail to find matching resources to gear up its military institution accordingly. Indian armed forces, therefore, have to devise appropriate strategies within the systemic limitations to strike at the PLA’s vulnerabilities.
Certain indicators to such a possibility may be discussed next.
Taking up on Sun Tsu’s Cue
It may be interesting to fall back upon teachings of the great masters of strategy, including the PLA’s mentor, Sun Tsu:
“Being unconquerable lies with yourself”, Sun Tsu states. Therefore, we may resolve not to accept ‘defeat’ even if military engagements do not go our way. We could be prepared to remain in a state of hostility for months and years till PLA’s great power is assailed, taking in our stride the death and destruction that might befall us. Taking heart from the historical fact that those who refuse to accept defeat, cannot really be defeated, the nation may refuse to conclude the struggle unless it is on its terms. Our expertise in cyber and psychological warfare strategy could add to the aggressor’s misery, and India may thus refuse him the satisfaction of claiming ‘victory’. That could suffice to bust her awe in the neighbourhood, strengthen internal dissent and affect her political and economic ambitions. Propagation of such a recourse may, in fact, deter military aggression; falling into a quagmire of never ending military engagement is not an enticing prospect to any power in today’s world. China is no exception.
Robert Greene’s prophesises that, “strategy is not a question of learning a series of moves and follow like a recipe, creative strategists stand out because they are able to drop preconceived notions and focus intensely on present”. To ‘turn the table’ on a stronger adversary, Indian military leaders have to devise asymmetric strategies to garner advantages from blending of the terrain and tactics, mix of sophisticated and rudimentary technology and a venomous concoction of cunning, expediency and audacity. A potent combination of regular and irregular forces could be organised, equipped and trained to resist PLA’s offensive from point elements to bases and beyond in depth, on the flanks, in simultaneity. Campaigning season being a limiting factor, India may continue the struggle in varying tempo and intensity to keep the aggressor bleeding till “General Snow” intervenes.
Indian armed forces may take cue from England’s motto during the Anglo-Spanish War (1510): “Aim at their weakness; make war expensive for them and cheap for you, outlast the most powerful foe. Hit their “Achilles’ Heel”; size can be a weakness in the end”. The tactics of resisting aggression may be devised in a manner as to cover India’s military limitations while diluting the PLA’s strengths. Indeed, if politically endorsed, resistance to PLA’s presence at Lhasa and Xinjian may be built up, like it happened with the ‘Mukti Bahini’4. This would tie up the PLA in rear areas and have severe effects on its logistics. Logistic sustenance being the premier deciding factor in any war along the Indo-Tibet Border, an unstable Tibet would restrain PLA operations in a substantial manner; indeed, it could be a deciding factor in a long drawn war.
In Sun Tsu’s words, “To fight in a defensive manner is not a sign of weakness; it is the height of strategic wisdom, a powerful style of waging war, luring an aggressive enemy into imprudent attack and then waiting patiently for his moment of exhaustion to launch vicious counter-attacks, leveraging your weakness and limitations into power and victory”. Indian forces could thus refuse to give classical battle till the PLA forces are stretched well south of the passes, canalised into narrow valleys and hemmed-in by strongly held defensive features. All the while, the Army could deploy numerous ‘strike teams’ on man-pack, mule-pack, vehicle mounted or air-supported mode to strike at the flanks and rear of the advancing forces - skirmishing, hitting, feinting, retreating, baiting and overwhelming various elements of the attacking formations. Similarly, Air Force could bring devastation upon command and control centres, supply convoys, staging camps, logistic dumps and base areas that would invariably be sited all along the 2000 km stretch of the frontline and all the way back to the Sutlej Valley and the Western as well as the Eastern Highways - and thus impose strain and exhaustion upon the adversary.
Sun Tsu goes on to describe the idea of “pre-eminent position” of a force that allows the defender the advantage of far-reaching tactical strength. He elaborates that these are positions that have intrinsic “energy” - like a stretched bow-string - rendering force-multiplying effects to own advantageous options while constraining that of the enemy’s. In current military lexicon, we may consider these positions as the ‘vital grounds’ which would act as the fulcrum of own defensive operations that would be fought with ruthless aggression both in regular and irregular mode. Indian Army could master the vast high-altitude border belt like the back of its hands to identify access trails, gullies, catches’, hides, crossings, tactical traps and dominating positions, and from these pivotal positions, attract PLA’s repeated assaults, withdrawing, absorbing and recoiling as opportunities arise, and thus inducing the aggressor to commit more and more to gain less and less.
“By manoeuvring (the enemy) into precarious positions, by inducing feeling of frustration and confusion, a strategist can get the other side to breakdown”, goes on Sun Tsu5. Indian armed forces could therefore operate according to a well articulated tempo and varying intensity. It could potion offensive manoeuvre with positional resistance on the front, flanks and deep rear, and interspersed with periods of dormancy, keep the aggressor on the hop. The Indian Army could exploit its experience in high-altitude warfare, continuing resistance even during the non-campaigning seasons, without respite. Then, at an opportune moment, she could deliver a series of coup de main to decimate the aggression.
Following the Napoleonic dictum in the aftermath of the Battle of Austerlitz, that, “if you hold back, waiting for the right moment to launch unexpected counter-attacks, weakness can become strength”, Indian armed forces could strike back at a suitable juncture, holding the aggressor on ground of its own choosing and counter-attacking relentlessly his stretched forces. Then it might choose suitable sectors for offensive action across the border to balance out loss of ground elsewhere.
In the spirit of the Churchillan motto, Indians could proclaim to “fight day and night, season after season, year after year; to fight in valleys, on peaks and passes, on land and in air, North and South of the watershed”, and in their own terms – regardless – and deny victory to the mighty PLA.
India could thus dissuade the ‘Great Dragon’ from breathing fire and trying to teach her another lesson – by preparing for it; as Sun Tsu states: “don’t depend on the enemy not coming; depend rather on being ready for him”.
Making Our Destiny
It will not be easy to convince a great power like China to desist from exercising her military strength in redeeming her aspirations of territorial expansion. Since most military disasters have resulted out of frigid strategies that proved to be irrelevant in the end, dealing with such an adversary would require the Indian armed forces to maximise its resources at hand by ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ recourses. We may also aver that limitations of tangible assets of war may, to good extent, be compensated by military intellect. The effort therefore has to be free of systemic inertia and deliberate.
Indian armed forces could group professionals who are unbound by mind sets and empower them to foster effective reorientation in the contemporary military thought and practice. Resources must be found by the nation to develop operational and logistic infrastructure, and breaking off from long drawn inertia, modernise field formations and strengthen air power. The recent raising of two divisions and positioning of some aircraft in the East would not be enough, more is needed to reap necessary operational advantages. Simultaneously, military diplomacy has to be promoted by means of joint training, logistic support and arms sales so that friendly neighbours may not have to look towards China. Of course, efficient intelligence set up has to be put in place to propagate deliberate deceptions by ‘turning’ the PLA’s surveillance network. Above all, top class junior leadership has to be found to handle complex tactical challenges. And then, as Xenophon stated, “for what leaders are; that as a rule, will the men below them be”; the Indian armed forces would be prepared to take up the cudgel.
The trek is uphill. But given due political mandate, Indian military leaders have risen to the demands of the day before; they would do so again.
- Phyrrhus’ war on Romans (279 BC), Anglo–Spanish War (1570), Shivaji’s Deccan War (1650-1700), Anglo-Indian Wars of 18th Century, Austerlitz ( 1805), Afghan Wars of 19th Century, to quote just a few. More recently, Gallipoli (1915), Indo-China (1945-53), Vietnam(1965-74), Afghanistan(1980-89) - the list is endless. In a recent study, it is found that in the past century, as many as fifty percent wars have been won by forces inferior.
- It was so that Babur created asymmetry in his favour by introducing field guns to rout the numerically much superior Lodi army in the First Battle of Panipat. Similarly, the Marathas adapted to the tactics of mobile warfare with light cavalry upon the vastly superior Mughal army in the Deccan; contrarily, they also invited disaster by adopting symmetrical tactics that suited the Afghan army in the Third Battle of Panipat.
- Of course no one paid heed to General Thimmayya. Diverted from military sense by naïve` politicians who propagated that the Chinese ‘would never attack’, ‘it was not the job of the military commander to suggest as to who pose threat to the nation’, and that all one had to do to stop the Chinese was to establish military ‘posts’ at locations decided by the Intelligence Bureau, the Army occupied defensive positions sans the paraphernalia of classical defensive battle, and when surrounded, cut off or assaulted according to a brilliant offensive plan devised by the Chinese General Staff, either got killed, maimed or captured, or broke up in flight.
- Physically emancipated, psychologically devastated, tactically naïve and sparingly equipped, but mentally resilient, ‘Mukti Bahini’s “never say die” attitude was a major factor in Pakistan Army’s defeat in Bangladesh War, 1971.
- The strategy adopted by Czar Alexander I to defeat the overwhelmingly superior French Grande` Armee during Napoleon’s Russian Campaign ( 1812) comes close as an example. With his characteristic genius, Napoleon had prepared for a perfect campaign with his 4,50,000 strong Army and provided for every conceivable contingency, particularly logistic preparations down to the minutest details. Yet, continuously impeded by raiding Cossack Horsemen, undeveloped terrain and “General Winter”, and in face of the Russia’s refusal to give battle till the Grande` Armee was stretched up to the village of Borodino – mere 150 km from Moscow – Napoleon had to resort to an ignominious retreat. Only 25,000 troops finally made it home!
- “Chinese View of Future Warfare”, Michael Pillsbury, Lancer Publications, New Delhi, 2007.
- “Military Capability and Risk of War”, Ed Eric Arnett, Sipri, Oxford University Press, London, 1997.
- “China’s Military: The PLA in Transition”, S Kondapalli,, Knowledge World, New Delhi, 1999.
- “The 33 Strategies of War”, Robert Greene, Joost Elfers, Viva Books, New Delhi, 2006.
- “The Art of War”, Sun Tsu, Translated by Ralph D Sawyer, Perseus Books, London, 1994.
- India’s National Security, “Military Power of People’s Republic of China”, 2003.
- The Pinnacle, “The Elephant Dragon Tango”, Gautam Bnaerjee, 2010.
- Strategic Analysis, “China’s Strategic Thinking on Tibet & Himalyan Region”, Dawa Norbu, 2008.