Ever since the border tension between India and China intensified, Indian service chiefs have had a gripping nightmare - the possibility of fighting a two-front war against Pakistan and the Chinese. With the ongoing tension at the Pangong Lake with the Chinese troops, the ordeal of having these fears realized seems nearer than ever.
The Galwan Valley clash in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), on June 15, which led to the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers, was only a part of the ongoing 2020 skirmishes between Indian soldiers and Chinese troops. Against this bloody backdrop, a fresh clash between the Indian soldiers and Chinese troops ensued on the intervening night of 29 August and 30 August on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh, thus breaking the uneasy calm that had persisted following the deadly Galwan Valley clash. While pre-emptive action was taken by the Indian soldiers against China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), this exacerbated the military standoff between India and China. Core commander level talks are in the running, but the tension bubbling beneath the surface between Indian and Chinese troops is evident.
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat had categorically declared on August 24 that "India's military options, with regard to dealing with the PLA in eastern Ladakh, were available if diplomatic and military talks failed to resolve the impasse." Following this, on August 26, Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reiterated how the border tension was aggravated along the LAC, saying that the scene hadn't been this serious ever since 1962 when India and China fought over the unresolved frontier dispute in which India came off worse. In an interview, he said that "after 45 years, we have had military casualties on this border," further going on to add that the quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides of the LAC was also unprecedented.
One would think that after these disengagement talks with the Chinese troops, the strain in the ties between the two Nations would be calmed down. However, little has been yielded in relieving the PLA's (People’s Liberation Army) siege.
PLA refusing to back off from Indian territory
While the PLA went on to claim that the disengagement and pullback from Indian territory has been completed, it continued to stay put in the Pangong Tso lake area. To add to this defiance, military sources who have been closely observing the dragon, say that the Chinese troops pull back from other regions around the LAC over the past few weeks has been 'desultory'. While Chinese troops have pulled back from the Galwan Valley and the Hot Springs-Gogra sector, it continues to maintain a firm stand on Finger4-Finger 8 mountain spur areas thus blocking the Indian Army from negotiating patrols in these areas. These obstinate actions are in no way keeping with what was determined in the core commander-level talks. The dragon has asserted its position in the Indian territory and is unlikely to budge.
Food crisis, the reason behind the war?
When one spots the underlining similarities between the India China war of 1962 and the present-day tension at the border, a food crisis seems to be the common bone of contention. China is at the hands of industrial chaos, and this became evident from the actions of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been campaigning for increasing domestic consumption and has gone on to launch a 'clean plate drive'.
With the Chinese economy on a downward spiral, reports suggest that average per capita consumption in China has shrunk by around six per cent. This coupled with the anti-China mood that plagues the world, puts China in a tough situation.
Take for instance the 1962 scenario. In the years leading up to the India China war of 1962, 4-5 crore people were estimated to have died of hunger. Now, reports suggest that the Chinese are taking to social media platforms to express their concerns over the food crisis. The Chinese Government has conveniently termed these as 'fake news', but the social media posts refer to state media reports in which officials have been quoted as saying that China is ready to import food required for its population.
Against the background of food shortage and a hunger crisis, Xi Jinping, in May, asked the Chinese military to prepare for war. Though it was not mentioned which country this would be against, it was around this time that the Chinese troops had already made transgressions in eastern Ladakh.
Warning of a two-front war
While General Bipin Rawat as army chief, till end 2019, had warned India to be prepared for a simultaneous 'two-front' war against China and Pakistan, there were no preparations made to thwart such an attack. He had gone on to state that despite all three countries possessing nuclear arms, 'warfare lies within the realm of reality' along India's northern and western borders with China and Pakistan.
At another instance, the Army Chief stated after the 73-day standoff between the Indian Army and the PLA in the Doklam/Dong Lang tri-junction area on the Bhutanese border, that "China is a country India has to be wary about and remain prepared for situations that could develop into conflicts". Going on to express that India did not see any scope for reconciliation with Pakistan, the Nation could swing into action to take advantage of India's preoccupation with China.
While the General emphasized on the 'myth' that nuclear-armed neighbours like India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other do not go to war, he said: "Credible (nuclear) deterrence does not take away the threat of (conventional) war." The supremacy and primacy of the Indian army were highlighted in the matter of wars. While the machismo of the Indian Army has been displayed countless times over the past 15 years, Indian armed forces are confident that this display of bravado will be used in times of a dual conflict, or a two-front war.
In retrospect, India's military has oftentimes placed undue confidence in the fact that the LAC situation has been managed ostensibly for decades by previous governments, and thus this does not pose a military threat. A former army officer said that "Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP government, Beijing has effectively coaxed its predecessors into believing that advancing bilateral commercial, economic, political and diplomatic ties took precedence over resolving the LAC."
How will India handle a two-front war?
Army chief, General M.M. Naravane admitted that threat of collusivity between China and Pakistan is 'maximum' in the Siachen glacier. He went on to state "We must not lose sight from where collusion between China and Pakistan can take place. We need to hold it. Though it can take place at any level, Siachen and Shaksgam Valley are the places where the territory of these two countries meet. The threat of collusivity is maximum in the strategically important glacier which forces us to keep our possession."
The Army Chief emphasized the need to give the western (border with Pakistan) and northern (border with China) equal importance. He said "Siachen Glacier is the land boundary where China and Pakistan could pose a joint threat. For years, we have been focusing on the western border on the basis of threats. Now, we have to rebalance our deployment towards the northern sector. Northern front with China is being given importance by moving modern weaponry. Making roads, facilitating habitats and storage of modern equipment are aimed towards capacity building in the region."
On Army's strategy to handle two front war with China and Pakistan, Army Chief General Naravane admitted that they are conscious of the possibility of threats both on the western and northern side. "Our armed forces will be concentrated on the primary front and we will adopt more deterrent posture on the secondary front so that we are not found wanting. Most of of our aggression will be concentrated on the primary front and we will adopt more deterrent posturing on secondary front. We have formations which can quickly be moved from the east to west or vice-versa."
The way ahead
Diplomats believe that the crisis is far from over, and this may just be the beginning. With military build-up increasing every second day, contracting politico-military and diplomatic space for compromise, the two Nations are marching towards an impending conflict, which may result in an India China war. If nothing, then an angry outburst from the armed forces on either side could lead to the next set of shots being fired at the LAC. Thus it is imperative to take cognizance of this before the matter escalates and moves out of hand.
While the Indian Army has been criticised for limited military action along the LAC, and lack of delivering a stronger message to the dragon, the problem lies in the fact that one side alone cannot decide whether the conflict will be limited or escalated. To initiate a limited action on the basis of assumption, could eventually prove disastrous.
For instance, in 1965, when Pakistan initiated a limited operation in Jammu and Kashmir, without expecting India to open another front in Punjab, it backfired. In contrast to this, their 1999 calculation proved correct, when India kept its conflict limited to Kargil. However, the Pakistanis paid a very heavy price because they never factored in the fire and fury with which India reacted. Therefore, before any limited action is contemplated, it is critical to factor in and prepare for the eventuality of the conflict escalating into a wider war.
India must prepare for a two-front war
While India calculates the possibility of conflict in the Eastern front, the Western front stands a chance to also becoming active. Given the strategic collusion between China and Pakistan, it is a virtual no-brainer that if a shooting match starts between India and China, the Chinese troops will direct the Pakistanis to jump into the fray. The Pakistanis who aren't pleased with the constitutional changes made in Jammu and Kashmir will use this opportunity to settle scores with India. The country's best hope is to catch India in a pincer - China on one side, they on the other, and India should be prepared to fight this two-front war.
Some analysts believe that Pakistan won't be so foolish as to jump into this war. But considering the current economic scene, the Pakistan economy is broke and has foreign exchange reserves of only $10 billion (all of it borrowed money), and this will not dissuade it. Given the spate of meetings being held in Pakistan over the India-China stand-off, the noises being made by the Pakistan army high command and the escalation in exchange of firing across the LoC on the Western front, India should expect some action from the Pakistani side.
Indian military officials have maintained that the country is prepared for a two-front contingency and in the recent turn of events, the moment of truth is around the corner. Even if the situation between India and China is resolved, the two Nations are closer to a hot war than they were in nearly half a century. When the time comes, India will have to be prepared to fight the two-front war. The peace-loving Nation needs to change its war doctrines, including its nuclear doctrine, to deter the enemies.