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India, China and the LAC dynamics – II; LAC standoffs, China’s internal issues and implications for India

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

This is the second of the series on Comprehending the LAC Dynamics. The first part ‘Grasping the Line Of Actual Control (LAC) Dynamics: Tactical Events with Geo-Strategic Implications’, covered the differences between the LAC and the Line of Control (LC) with Pakistan, and how the Chinese use the LAC as a pressure point against India for geo-political and geo-strategic gains. For Part -I Click here.

The unfolding spectacle in the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh has claimed the first casualties on the LAC, since the Tulung La incident in Arunachal Pradesh way back in 1975. On the face of it, peace along India’s Northern borders appears to have been disrupted for the moment and it remains to be seen how the future course of actions pan out. This paper attempts to draw attention to the impact of the internal strands within China that seem to be playing out on the LAC. While earlier external geo-political and geo-economic issues had been used by China to pressure India, this time China’s internal issues appear to be playing a greater part along the LAC, which needs to be factored in the larger perspective and assess the implications for India.

Impact of Internal Strands in China

Within China there are apparent internal fissures that seem to weaken Xi’s hold on the CCP. The poor handling of the Wuhan COVID-19 pandemic within China, which is again raising its head in Wuhan (the epicentre), Jilin and Beijing, the imploding economy due to trade war and the pandemic, global anti-China sentiments, stalled BRI and the backlash due to ‘Wolf Diplomacy’ has led to voices being raised against Xi Jinping and his clique.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

For the first time in many decades, Li Keqiang spoke of China as a developing country, in his opening address to the 13th NPC (National People’s Conference); since Xi Jinping’s Presidency China has spoken of ‘Great Power’ relations between USA and itself. Can a developing economy be a great power? Further, in his press conference at the end of the two sessions (barely 1,000 RMB yuan NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) he mentioned that there are still some 600 million people earning a monthly income. In the same conference, he had earlier mentioned that China has a work force of 900 million; it is very revealing that bulk of China’s work force is barely eking out a living. Further, in his vision to revive the economy, Li Keqiang had proposed a revival of street vendor economy, something that has been an anathema to Xi and his clique as it runs contrary to Xi’s narrative of untrammelled economic success, something that he wanted to spread along the BRI corridors. The opening up of Chinese economy, in late 70s early 80s, was done by Deng Xiaoping through the same manner – street vendors, even as he reached out to the West for external stimulus. With Li going down the same path, but now without any external stimuli, indicates a major economic dilemma for China and a need to push the reset button.

xi jinping

Further, in his presumptuousness of China’s CNP, Xi has opened multiple fronts at the same time. Unlike Mao Tse-tung, in Korea, Taiwan, India or Deng Xiaoping against Vietnam, who opened only one front, he has spread himself thin from Japan, Taiwan, South China Sea, LAC, ‘Wolf Diplomacy’ and is facing backlash for the spread of the Wuhan Pandemic. Or, has the LAC gone out of his control?

It seems that Li, who had the support of Hu Jintao earlier, now has the support of Jiang Zemin as well. A clear divide is emerging within the CCP between Xi Jinping on one side, and Li, with the support of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, on the other. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were hurting from their proteges being targeted and sent to prison on ‘corruption charges’ by Xi. With Xi now facing immense pressure for mishandling the pandemic and resultant geo-political backlash, and the economic slowdown it seems that the party elders have joined hands and are keen to trim his sails. As such, the August meeting at Beidaihe Sea Resort could result in some very far-reaching policy decisions, especially, Xi’s tenure and the future of the sixth-generation leaders (who Xi had pushed to the background).

To offset this, there are murmurs that Xi may expand the Central Military Commission (CMC – the most powerful central decision making HQ of PLA) to include select Theatre Commanders, to have the PLA on his side in case of an internal showdown. Has Gen Zhao Zongqi, Commander Western Theatre Command, precipitated the LAC issue for his own case to join this expanded CMC? He would draw his lesson from the rise of Xi himself, when in 2012 he successfully oversaw and executed the Scarborough Shoals dispute with the Philippines that saw him beat Li Keqiang to the post despite Li being the favourite. Zhao would have considered that both the Eastern and Southern Theatre Commanders were drawing much attention with their actions against Taiwan and in South China Sea. Was he feeling left out?

The appointment of the new PLA Ground Force (GF) Commander for the Western Theatre Commander, Lt Gen Xu Qiling, on 05 June, amidst the LAC the stand-offs, may have a message. The previous Ground Force Commander, Gen He Weidong moved as the Commander Eastern Theatre Command last year and Xu was side-stepped from being the Eastern Theatre Command GF Commander to the Western Theatre Command. Xu is considered a rising star in the PLA, along with Gen He Weidong, but has no service on the Western Front. He is more an Eastern Front / Amphibious Operations specialist (Operations against Taiwan) having served for most of his career in the erstwhile Jinan Military Region, Central & Northern Theatres (as Group Army Commander) and Eastern Theatre Command.

Is his appointment a signal to Zhao to curb his ambition or to limit China’s over-stretch, time will tell. But it does seem that Xi realises the need to be careful, considering that USA has 3 Carrier Battle Groups patrolling the South China Sea. He would perceive that any escalation with India could result in a disastrous two-front scenario for China, with USA standing on its Eastern seaboard. Hence the mellow statements emanating from China on the need to maintain peace along the LAC.

With Xu, his protégé within the Western Theatre Command, Xi may be able to curb Zhao’s ambition. The current escalation in the Galwan Valley could also have been a messaging from Zhao to Xi; would he too be removed just before the August meeting, like Gen Fang Fenghui (Head of Joint Staff Department) before the 19th CPC? Will Xi revamp the PLA and CMC again to fill it with his proteges? That would be an indicator of inner party tensions.

But why does Zhao (or Xi) feel he can use the LAC ad voluntatem for such messaging is the question that the Indian policy makers need to answer. If India is an emerging power, then there needs to be a net credible deterrence in military and other domains to inhibit China and other nations from taking actions to either pressure India or to push their own ambitions.

Implications for India

China has the CMC as the most powerful central decision-making body for the PLA. Post the restructuring and reorganisation of the PLA by Xi since December 2015, not only did he gain full control on the CMC but the five Theatre Commands created from the seven Military regions ensured ‘Unity of Command’ for prosecuting an Integrated Military Operations (War Zone Campaign) within respective Areas of Responsibilities (AoR). The Western Theatre Command has the largest AoR and is the single HQ that is responsible for actions against India. The operational command flows from CMC to the Theatre Commands and onwards to the Group Armies (Corps in India parlance).

One the Indian side, however there is a multiplicity of structures, apart from the multiple Military Commands that oversee India’s Northern Borders,

First is the China Study Group (consisting of Raksha Mantri, Foreign Minister, Cabinet Secretary – since replaced by National Security Adviser, Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, the Service Chiefs and respective Director Generals of Operations as deemed necessary) set up after the Tulung La incident of 1975, set patrolling limits that India would stick to assert its LAC alignment. Most of it is still being adhered to and needs urgent review, including the charter of the group.
Second, post the Kargil War, the Group of Ministers (GoM) recommended the principle of one-border-one-force in 2002 that was implemented thereafter; as per them “Multiplicity of forces on the same borders has inevitably led to the lack of accountability as well as problems of command and control.” Along unsettled borders, the LC and LAC, it is the military that is responsible for ensuring its sanctity. While the BSF along the LC has come under the operational control of the Army, the MHA has refused to place the ITBP along the LAC under the Army’s operational control. Since the ITBP is not under the operational control of the Army, it has its own command and control channels leading to lack of coordination and accountability along the LAC, defeating the very concept of the one force one border as enunciated by the GoM.
Third, coupled with above are the multiplicity of forces and agencies whose efforts are needed to be coordinated to manage these borders – MoD, MHA, MEA, Finance Ministry (Customs and Excise), the NSA, the China Study Group, and the various Intelligence Agencies. When the situation becomes challenging, like at present, tomes of papers are published some blaming the Army for the issue, like Bharat Karnad who terms it ‘An out and out Army fiasco’, to some arm-chair strategists in the media pushing India towards an escalation to war. Who is accountable in this scenario?
Fourth, India lacks a structure akin to the CMC as a central decision-making body for its the defence and security. Concurrently, it also needs appropriate structures to prosecute an integrated military operation, across each front, keeping in mind the need for ‘Unity of Command’.

India today is not the India of 1962. The Army as responded with elan in 1967, 1987-88 and in the various stand-offs, including the present one. However, the morass created in the command and control structure needs to be unravelled and ensure that the military serves as a credible deterrence. It is then that it can go for other Chinese pressure points without escalating. For this there needs to be adequate financing to ensure capacity building.

Towards this end the policymakers need to review the following,

  • The process to bring the multiple agencies involved in border management under one central decision-making body;
  • The role and charter of the China Study Group;
  • The decision of not placing the ITBP under the operational control of the Army;
  • Provide the military with increased financing to ensure such pressure points can be effectively responded through a ‘quid-pro-quo’ and yet retain control of the escalatory matrix. This would inhibit China from looking at the LAC as a geo-political or geo-strategic pressure point, or for internal dynamics.
  • Judiciously create Integrated structures for the military, with Indian Structures, keeping in mind the key factor of ‘unity of command’ to be able to effectively counter threats across its land, maritime, aerospace, and other domains.

There is a need for a multi-dimensional coordinated approach in countering a belligerent China in the neighbourhood. That any action in one domain (pressure on China in WHO) will result in China responding in a different domain (like the LAC), is a given trend. The policy makers should factor such strategic behaviour and pre-empt it with proactive actions in domains where China is vulnerable – along the LAC, geo-economic squeeze, trade etc.

Further, henceforth it would not be business as usual for India with China, and it should expect heating up of the LAC gradually by China across its entire length in the near term. To effectively counter it need a central decision-making body and integrated military structures and increased financing for its capacity building and force modernisation. Employ a multi-domain strategy to checkmate China’s proclivity to raise tensions along the LAC. It does not confirm good behaviour from China but would force it to hit a pause button against India for such actions.

Therein lies the first step of morphing India from an Elephant to a Tiger.

About the author

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is the Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI of India. His areas of interest include China, South and Central Asia, Indo-Pacific Region, Future World Order, Regional Multilateralism, and Force Structuring. He has spoken on these topics in many seminars and round table discussions both in India and abroad. He has a vast number of articles, monograph and papers published in Indian Journals and magazines (including web editions) and has curated and edited three books.

Article first published by USI of India on 18 June 2020

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