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India can’t afford to lower the guard at LAC

Source : Tribune India

India can’t afford to lower the guard at LAC
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The 14th round of the India-China corps commander-level meeting was held on January 12 at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. Despite a “frank and in-depth” exchange of views, the talks failed to make any headway in the 18 month-long military standoff between the two armies. The LAC stalemate has settled into a new normal and the state elections in India have taken centre stage in the national discourse. In New Delhi, there is a feeling that the Indian Army is now better prepared to handle the PLA with emergency purchase of military hardware and faster execution of long-pending infrastructure upgrade, having improved the Army’s combat potential.

What has perhaps not been fully appreciated are two unconnected events in distant Europe and Beijing that might have serious repercussions on the LAC. In Europe, long simmering tensions with Russia because of NATO’s expansion plans have now come to a head with the Russian military mobilised on the Ukraine border and the West ratcheting up both diplomatic and military signals. There is a possibility that the situation could spiral out of control, resulting in the focus of the United States shifting from the Indo-Pacific to Europe.

In Beijing, multiple subtle signals indicate that the power struggle between Xi and rival CCP factions has intensified. An article in the December 2021 issue of the China Discipline and Supervision journal talked of “self-righteous cadres…who openly express views contrary to the dangzhongyang (central party authorities)” while “others even harbour inordinate ambitions and act contrary to the dangzhongyang, either openly or surreptitiously”. Dangzhongyang is a term that is synonymous with Xi Jinping. The competing factions are the Shanghai faction led by ex-president Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League faction led by ex-president Hu Jintao, both of whom oppose Xi’s bid for additional terms in office at the 20th Party Congress scheduled later this year. All the factions are using the ‘anti-corruption card’ to target each other.

Members of the Xi Jinping group, mostly from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, have also suffered setbacks. The most notable example is the former party secretary of Zhejiang’s provincial capital Hangzhou, Zhou Jiangyong, who was placed under investigation last August. Apart from accepting huge bribes, Zhou was being investigated for “collusion” with a handful of private entrepreneurs in the province (Xinhua, August 21). Another member is Xu Liyi from Zhejiang, who was reprimanded for his poor handling of severe flooding in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province.

These political setbacks, along with the Chinese property sector crisis sparked by the financial difficulties of the Evergrande Group and the crackdown on Chinese tech companies, provide a now or never opportunity for rival factions to challenge Xi’s bid for continued grip on power. To come out a victor in this power struggle, Xi could turn towards the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi has consolidated his hold on the military with the rapid promotion of 38 officers to the rank of General since 2019. A Jamestown Foundation report by Willy Wo-Lap Lam points out that this is “extraordinary in that it breaches long-standing military convention”, like a minimum period of 24 months service as Lieutenant General and only one promotion board per year.

The case for a military solution as Xi faces growing economic and political headwinds is strong. With the US focused on Russia, there is an increasing possibility that Xi would rely on the PLA to help him in his continued bid for power by a quick military victory that can raise his stature as a great leader on the lines of Mao and Deng. An analysis of the options for use of military force indicates that retaking of Taiwan, despite the historic rhetoric for reunification, is presently beyond the PLA’s capability. This leaves only the disputed LAC, where the current military build-up gives Xi an option that could be exercised at an opportune time.

The easiest opportunity for a military victory at minimal cost is in RALP (Rest of Arunachal Pradesh). In this area, the lack of communication infrastructure on the Indian side gives the PLA a very clear tactical advantage. Although not as strategic as eastern Ladakh or as politically sensitive as Tawang, RALP guarantees a high-visibility occupation of some territory that will help cement the rallying of the Chinese population and the CCP. The recent land border law that came into effect on January 1 is an enabling provision that can easily be weaponised to justify a limited military action. According to Chinese claims, complete Arunachal Pradesh is part of Southern Tibet, and hence, Chinese territory. China has recently renamed parts of Arunachal Pradesh and the new law makes China’s borders “sacred and inviolable”. The passing of the law in the midst of the ongoing standoff signals a hardening of Chinese stance with regard to the settlement of the border disputes.

It is not entirely certain that a major India-China conflict would erupt, and multiple factors could deter its course. However, to be unprepared for this contingency could have serious consequences. Recent media reports indicate that the Army has spent approximately 40% of its capital budget for the ongoing financial year, while the Indian Air Force has spent around 70%. This shows that the military bureaucracy is not fully awakened to the Chinese threat.

In 1962, Mao seized the opportunity of the Cuban Missile crisis to teach Nehru a lesson and establish China’s military superiority. With the US and Europe distracted by Ukraine, Xi may see this as a time to cement his place in history and also consolidate his political fortunes. Any military victory against India could also lead to the political weakening of Prime Minister Modi and affect his image as a leader who picked up the gauntlet that Xi threw down in Ladakh.

Even a small tactical victory by China would have an immense strategic and geopolitical impact. Both the political and military leadership must be cognisant of the risks and work to minimise them.

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