ByÂ Apurv Kumar Mishra:
In the middle of February, when the national media’s attention was oscillating between Arvind Kejriwal’s frown and Anushka Sharma’s lips, the parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence submitted a report on India’s military preparedness along its borders with China. The committee headed by Raj Babbar (only the UPA government can explain why he was the most suitable candidate to lead a committee on defence) made some scathing remarks on state of India’s border infrastructure: “What can be more disturbing than the fact that our nation is lagging behind in all areas of border connectivity, whether it be road, rail or air… The committee is baffled to learn that an issue so serious as providing border connectivity through rail in the north-east region and other strategic places is taking the rounds of bureaucratic tables.”Â
I shudder to imagine how bad the situation must be at our borders that even a loyal Congressman was forced to use such harsh words to describe the performance of his own government in the middle of the election season.
General Dalbir Suhag becomes the 26th Army chief of India at a time when China is once again flexing its military muscle in the neighbourhood and the asymmetry between our armies becomes more glaring by the day. Across all parameters- military spending, quality of equipment and state of infrastructure, the Chinese are ahead of us and this perception of strategic superiority translates into tactical adventurism along our borders under the guise of “active defence” doctrine of the Chinese military. On an average there are between 250-300 intrusions every year by the Chinese army. Over the years, as the disparity between our forces has increased, the incursions have become deeper and more frequent.
It was not a coincidence that on the day that India’s new army chief took over, Chinese defence ministry invited foreign journalists to its monthly press briefing for the first time in its history and publicly bragged about its wilful violation of the LAC in the Depsang Valley of Ladakh last year. In what was the biggest incursion in 25 years, the Chinese army entered 12 km into India’s territory and camped for 3 weeks, an incident that the then-external affairs minister Salman Khurshid had the temerity to describe as “just one little spot of acne on the otherwise beautiful face of the relationship.”
Even though our Finance-cum-Defence Minister increased the defence spending by 12.5% in this year’s budget to $38 billion, it is still less than one-third of China’s $132 billion military budget as declared in official reports (although experts estimate that it spends close to $170 billion). Slow procurement of equipment and the collapse of several defence deals over the last few years has only frustrated the military and deteriorated its relationship with the political establishment.
As General Suhag takes charge in the backdrop of a restive and expansionist China, the modernisation of infrastructure along the 4000 km long border and developing a credible deterrence against a possible Chinese incursion should be a priority for him.
Experts estimate that more than Rs. 26,000 crore will be required for the overall infrastructure development in the “northern borders” with China that includes construction of all-weather roads, tunnels and railway lines. For example, in Sikkim along the eastern sector of our Line of Actual Control (LAC), India struggles to construct motorable roads and does not have even a single railway station in the entire state. More than 6000 km of road stretches in the LAC are incomplete simply due to the lack of environmental clearances.
On the other hand, China has a 58,000 km road network in Tibet Autonomous Region and has further consolidated its authority around the LAC by extending the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the world’s highest railway, to the city of Xigaze less than 160 km from Sikkim border. China chose to inaugurate this strategic railway line on Friday, as India celebrated its 68th Independence Day. Further, in July, China unveiled plans to construct a new railway line linking Lhasa to Nyingchi on the Arunachal Pradesh border, to consolidate its stronghold in the area and give it more ammunition during border talks.
There are several statistics that highlight the dilapidated condition of our border infrastructure but the one that is most telling is this- Bumla in Arunachal Pradesh is the last border post of India. It takes almost 3 hours to reach Bumla from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh that is 40 km away. However, it takes merely 45 minutes to reach Bumla from Sonajung, located 37 km on the Chinese side.
What this gap in infrastructure means is that in times of war, China can mobilise its troops to outnumber the Indians by 3:1. It requires serious course-correction because India’s experience of the 1962 war suggests that China’s superior logistics capabilities and troop mobilization was instrumental in our humiliating defeat. Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
The Depsang incursion also highlighted the need to put more feet on the ground along the LAC to build offensive capability against China. The Indian Army is currently in the process of raising an offensive formation specifically against the Chinese threat- XVII Mountain Strike Corps- to be deployed across Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. A “Corp” is the largest fighting formation in the army. The XVII Mountain Strike Corps will have 90,000 soldiers backed by artillery, air and tank support. Until now, we had 13 Corps in the army out which only 3 Corps had offensive capability, all directed against Pakistan. A mountain strike corps ensures that we can counter-attack and take the war to Chinese territory in case of a Chinese invasion.
Improving border infrastructure and raising a new China-specific Corps are not just war-waging, but also war-avoiding measures. Apart from offering a credible deterrence against Chinese aggression, comparable military capacity gives the leverage for a favourable border dispute settlement.
In December last year India and China signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) of 2013 to “maintain peace, stability and tranquillity” on the borders. It was touted as a major breakthrough towards solving persistent military face-offs at the LAC. And yet, even as Prime Minister Modi was meeting the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, two incursions by the Chinese army were reported in the Demchok and Chumar regions of Ladakh on July 13. This was followed by another intrusion on July 22. On August 1, Arun Jaitley acknowledged in the Lok Sabha that there was a violation of the BDCA in June. Meanwhile, for the first time in 30 years, the Chinese army is distributing updated maps showing entire Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in support its irredentist claims.
At the heart of China’s actions is a Middle Kingdom mindset of civilization superiority. It will continue to tease India and test our patience at the borders to undermine our status as a regional power. In 1950, Patel wrote a letter to Nehru explaining China’s behaviour saying that “Chinese aggression and Communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the Western Powers. The former has the cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims.” The renewed engagement between the political classes of both countries since the Modi government was sworn in is an encouraging development but it must be complemented by strengthening our military capabilities along the borders if we want China to take us seriously.