Lt Gen Hooda: Don’t expect quick breakthroughs in Indo-China impasse on LAC

Protocols and agreements that guided the conduct of soldiers of the Indian Army and the PLA have broken down. This could result in accidental flareups at the local level, which can then escalate

 Lt Gen (Rtd) DS Hooda  (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Lt Gen (Rtd) DS Hooda (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
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Ashlin Mathew

The former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Indian Army’s Northern Command LT GEN (RTD) DS HOODA feels it is premature to says India and China are heading towards a war and to start counting our losses along the LAC. He tells ASHLIN MATHEW that, importantly, the India-China rivalry is now out in the open and will continue to cast a shadow on national security and strategy. Excerpts from the interview:

Is this the first time after the 1962 War that shots have been fired? Does that mean the situation on the ground is escalating? What should we be prepared for?

Not after 1962, but the first time since 1975. And this conveys the seriousness of the current situation. There is a great deal of mistrust on both sides and the protocols and agreements that guided the conduct of soldiers of the two armies have broken down. Such a situation can result in a flare-up at a local level which can escalate. This is a real possibility we have to be prepared for.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. What do you make of this?

I hope it does not end in a deadlock. If high-level political contacts between the two countries do not lead to some forward movement in the disengagement process, we may see a rise in military activity on the ground. If China is serious about peace along the borders, they must review the extremely stubborn stance that they have adopted till now.

What is the strategic importance of Pangong Tso to the Chinese, in addition to its proximity to Tibet?

Frankly, there is little strategic importance of the Pangong Tso lake. Its value lies in the fact that both sides have differing perceptions of how the LAC runs in this area and therefore it is more a matter of territorial control. And in matters of territories, countries are quite inflexible about their positions.

It’s a tense situation at the border. Rajnath Singh met his counterpart but there was no breakthrough. What do you think India should be doing?

The situation along the border is certainly tense and the recent incident on the south bank of the Pangong Tso is a reflection of how these tensions are playing out on the ground and could result in a local military incident. Seeing the Chinese attitude with regard to disengagement and de-escalation, I think we should not expect quick breakthroughs. India should be looking to apply further economic and diplomatic pressure on China, while keeping the military ready for extended deployment along the LAC. It should also be clearly communicated to China that their actions along the border will adversely impact the whole range of India-China ties.

Are we headed towards war? Is India militarily prepared?

I think it would be premature to declare that we are headed for a war as both countries appear unwilling to go down this path. However, with thousands of soldiers facing off along the border, there is always the risk of a local incident triggering a bigger conflict. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Indian military is quite capable of handling any threat that emerges along the India-China border.

Chinese violations have restricted areas which Indian jawans used to patrol for years. Will China go back to a pre-April situation on ground?

The Chinese ingress has certainly restricted our traditional patrolling along the LAC in a few areas. Judging by China’s obdurate attitude on the disengagement process, some tough negotiations will be required before they agree to go back. We must maintain a firm stance on our demand for restoration of status quo ante that existed in April.

What do you think of India’s response until now? Have they been assertive or have they not handled this incursion well? The Modi government’s statements on the incursions have not been consistent. In some cases, they have even repeated what the PLA has been saying.

It is not my place to comment on the performance of the government or the statements made. Let history judge that.

While India tackles China along LAC, do you think Pakistan will step up aggression along LOC? Gen. Bipin Rawat just warned Pakistan not to take advantage. Will we have to battle concerted efforts from Pakistan and China?

Observing Pakistan’s actions in the last few months, it does not appear that there is any attempt to significantly step up aggression, although ceasefire violations and infiltration continues, as has been happening in the past. With the pressure from FATF and their dire financial state, Pakistan would be happy to let China build pressure on India without getting directly involved in any military adventurism against India. However, we must be conscious of enduring hostility from Pakistan and be prepared to counter a concerted, two-front threat if the situation worsens.

China has crossed the LAC and has started to build fortifications on top of Helmet Mountain. They have stated that we have crossed into their territory. The Indian Army has said that Indian troops pre-empted the PLA activity and derailed their plans. What do you think has actually happened?

There is a lot of speculation on what exactly happened. I think we should trust our own official version put out by the defence spokesperson. The Army reacted proactively to Chinese moves and has occupied additional defensive positions along the LAC. This has put them in dominating positions to counter any Chinese attempt to transgress into our area. Chinese allegations of Indian soldiers crossing the LAC should be dismissed as their version of the LAC keeps changing and is extremely opaque.

Has the situation now moved to become advantageous for China?

It depends on how broadly you define advantageous. The PLA has definitely occupied some territory that we consider to be on our side of the LAC. However, witnessing the international condemnation that they are facing, the risks of damage to bilateral ties, and the strong military posture on the Indian side, it is doubtful that China can claim to have achieved an advantageous position. It is better to view these aspects from a long-term perspective.

Do you think disengagement has happened on several of the buffer zones on LAC? Is there a new LAC now?

The classic definition of the LAC is the line that separates areas of physical control by both sides. In that sense, with the Chinese transgressions, the LAC has certainly shifted westward in areas like Pangong Tso and Depsang. In my view, buffer zones were necessary to ensure a separation of forces and avoid a repeat of incidents like the Galwan clash of 15 June.

Why did the Chinese begin moving into Galwan valley when Depsang, in North Ladakh, could be their actual target? Why does Depsang matter to them?

Among all the areas that the Chinese have transgressed, Depsang has the maximum tactical value. It provides depth and safety to their critical G 219 highway, contains the important DBO airstrip, and provides a link towards Siachen. However, that does not mean that Galwan has no importance. Any entry by China into the Galwan valley could threaten our vital road connectivity to North Ladakh. It is good for us that the PLA has pulled back in this area.

Why do you think the Chinese decided to act aggressively at this point of time?

There are many theories on why the Chinese have chosen this time to mount an aggression against India. These range from the larger global geopolitical tensions, to China’s growing assertiveness in the Asian region, the events following the abrogation of Article 370 and India’s preoccupation with the COVID crisis. In my view there is an element of all these factors in the Chinese decision. I think the important consideration before us is that the India-China strategic rivalry is now out in the open and this has enormous implications for our national security strategy over the next decade.

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