By Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd)
There is an urban legend regarding Chinese strategic thinking. It is said that while the rest of the world plays chess, the Chinese play Weiqi. They always think at least a generation in advance. As a result, their geopolitical moves have always been said to keep adversaries off balance. The Chinese incursions in India’s Eastern Ladakh starting in the month of April 2020 have been deemed as one such move. A number of reasons have been attributed to this sudden movement: abrogation of Article 370, building of infrastructure by India, closer relations between India and the US, India’s growing military prowess, even war practice for the PLA against a weaker adversary et al. However, what is clear is that this move has failed. Hence the now desperate attempt to bring in a land boundary law. The Chinese are now stuck in a making of their own. Despite their precocity, they never imagined a reciprocal deployment by India and cannot wriggle their way out of Eastern Ladakh without seeming to be weak. The land boundary law, to be operational wef 01 January 2022, provides PLA with a getaway mechanism: use Tibetan militia and locally recruited second line defence civilians and paramilitaries to counter the Indian military while the PLA remains untouched and therefore unsullied.
The Chinese misadventure along the LAC is not only limited to actions taken by the Peoples’ Armed Police (PAP) but include direct involvement of PLA as well. A counter move by India required the response that is currently underway. Amassing of troops by India on the LAC was a foregone conclusion as the only other alternative left was either kinetic actions or diplomatic horsetrading. Both didn’t seem to beget favorable outcomes for India. Consequently, the forward movement and deployment of a large number of PLA troops is being supported by matching combat and logistics elements in the depth as well and therefore Indian response did not have very many options apart from amassing troops and equipment on the LAC in a similar manner.
Costs have therefore been imposed on India. Financially, the cost of maintaining 30,000 troops along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh is to the tune of Rs 36,500 crores annually, as per an estimate published by news18.com. This assessment is more than a year old. Adding 10 percent escalation and factoring assessed troop levels on both sides, this expenditure may increase up to Rs 65,000 crores annually. If the cost of Rafales (These are not required against Pakistan as Pakistan is no more a threat due to asymmetry in comprehensive National Power), S-400 squadrons, Herons, Predators and other acquisitions is accounted for, the direct and indirect cost for the nation has increased to alarming proportions. There may be a difference of opinion about the numerical value of the expenditure and even in the outlook that national security is beyond the prism of the financial microscope, but this type of expenditure will continue to be incurred. Since the initiative to join the conflict is with China, it will continue to bleed us keeping us on tenterhooks. Besides, massive financial expenditure will continue to be incurred on a regular basis and critical funds required for development elsewhere will have to be diverted for making up shortfalls in defence equipment and capabilities. This will skew several budgets in the coming years.
Even if the situation along the LAC improves in the 14th Corps Commanders’ Conference likely to be scheduled in the near future, the Chinese Land Border Law, effective from 01 Jan 22, will continue promoting the concentration of civilian population and development close to the LAC, including and especially in the areas of differing perception. This means that we will not be in a position to withdraw our troops from these icy heights either in the near future or in a later time frame through some reduction can be contemplated if the relations improve owing to certain out-of-the-blue statesmanship from either side.
In case of proactive thinning of troops by us, China will effectively use the Land Boundary Law as part of its lawfare arsenal. With the discussion of realignments made redundant along the McMahon Line, the same may be affected here along the LAC. This issue requires our immediate attention, more so since the rising trade deficit with China and a shocking surge in our trade with China, despite such a hostile relationship and continued disruption due to Covid-19.
(The author is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is a visiting fellow of CLAWS and specialises on neighbouring countries with special focus on China. He tweets @chanakyaoracle Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).