Playing With Fire

The announcement of new ‘rules of engagement’ on the LAC can complicate matters

Pravin Sawhney

By its ill-considered announcement that ‘rules of engagement’ have been changed for the Indian Army after the brutalization of its 20 soldiers, the Modi government altered the management of the 27-year-old Line of Actual Control (LAC), premised upon no use of weapons, to People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) advantage. While not officially clarified, it meant that the army soldiers when face-to-face with the PLA would be armed with orders to fire in self-defence. It is not realised that escalation, once initiated, is controlled by the militarily stronger side, in this case, the PLA.

An armed Indian soldier on the national highway to Ladakh

Within hours of the announcement, the PLA, as defensive counter measure, reportedly moved about 30 per cent of additional forces including tanks and artillery forward to the LAC. Not stopping at that, it also immediately laid claim to the entire Galwan valley and made deep brazen ingress into the Depsang plains. China’s official mouthpiece Global Times warned India on the consequences of firing the first shot. Meanwhile, China’s envoy in India, Sun Weidong, put the onus on New Delhi to ease tensions and not complicate the situation.

The ‘rules of engagement’ statement was largely meant to assuage the dejected domestic audience, who felt short-changed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stunning declaration of June 19, in which he asserted that ‘Nobody has intruded into our border, neither is anybody there now, nor have our posts been captured.’ While subsequently the government insisted that the statement did not mean that India had silently accepted PLA’s grab of its territory, it was difficult to shake off this perception. Consequently, in a bid to show that it retains the initiative, new ‘rules of engagement’ were announced. This led to two unintended consequences.

One, it has exposed Modi government’s tendency of passing off perception as reality. This is the game it had successfully played with Pakistan in the 2016 surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot attacks. But PLA is not Pakistan military, and China is not Pakistan; especially when the war preparedness of both sides is not hidden. Barely had India shown its bravado, came the news that defence minister Rajnath Singh was in Moscow seeking fast-tracking of spares for tanks, aircrafts, guns and platforms in the pipeline for delivery to the Indian armed forces. Without war materiel realistic combat training in intended war theatre is not possible. The army also lacks habitat and ecosystem for operational logistics for large additional numbers at altitudes of over 10,000 feet.

The PLA has all that Indian army lacks. And more. It has been doing combat training since early 2018 including firings, both for recalibration of its long-range weapons including anti-tank missiles for high altitude warfare; and combined arms training to include employment of non-kinetic electronic warfare and management of the electromagnetic spectrum. After the 2017 Doklam crisis, the PLA has amassed nearly 200,000 combatants in Tibet Autonomous Region facing India at 16,000 feet complete with habitat and storage of war materiel.

Two, there is a tacit admission that LAC management in the form of dragon’s appeasement, which worked thus far, has been rendered irrelevant owing to increased level of PLA threat. Since India has no idea of how to deal with an escalation, the field is now wide open for more PLA incursions easily blameable on India. Worse, continued impasse, which looks likely, would work to China’s military and strategic advantage.

In my 2000 book, ‘The Defence Makeover: Ten Myths That Shape India’s Image’ I had argued that given PLA’s (then) improved border management, the signing of the 1993 agreement on peace and tranquillity with China where the border was renamed LAC (military line), without agreed mutual and equal security, was a blunder. Analysts, however, said that the LAC, while not agreed on maps and ground, had helped ensure peace, since no shot had been fired. What was collectively underplayed was the appeasement of China. India consistently maintained that owing to ‘differing perceptions’, the reported LAC transgressions were by both sides. This was a lie.

In its first ever admission the external affairs ministry, on June 11, said that the LAC was well known on the ground by both sides. The Indian army, it asserted, does not cross the LAC. Left unsaid was that all agreements with China, namely, in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 gave more to China that what India got in return. Thus, the volatile border was managed by a dual approach. The army, by downgrading its role from border guarding to border policing, joined the paramilitary ITBP in preventing the PLA border guards from entering Indian side of the LAC. Heavy manpower, including elements of the so-called army’s 17 mountain strike corps, have been employed for this task which amounts to psychological defeat of the soldier trained to kill.

Ironically, despite the downgrading of army’s role on the ground, the army leadership continued to dabble in the fantasy of fighting a two-front war. Meanwhile, the diplomats operated in their silo working out appeasement agreements, euphemistically called ‘modus vivendi’, with China each time the PLA sauntered across the LAC.

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