In 1976 China attacked Vietnam at the province of Lang Son; the NVA withdrew about twenty kilometers inside. The PLA poured into the breach and were crowing about their quick victory, when Vietnamese military commander General Van Tien Dung closed the trap and battered the PLA with deadly artillery fire.
Incidentally, then Indian Foreign Minister who was visiting Beijing had to hurriedly return home. If he stayed back for a few days he would have absorbed an important lesson from the Vietnamese, that is to let the military decide its strategy and battlefield tactics. The tactical sacrifice of territory to inflict a painful damage to the enemy is more important.
Unfortunately in India, we are obsessed with territory. Even after the Galwan and Pangong Tso incidents what our commentators and politicians mostly point to is “loss of territory”. We seem unconcerned about the military tenability of ‘Lines of Actual’ or imagined control.
Has anybody considered the military viability of the “fingers” territory on the north bank of the Pangong? Will a general be allowed to marshal his resources at a place of his choosing, like Van Tien Dung did at Lang Son?
The question we need to ponder over is are we ready for a bigger conflict with China?
Let’s take the Galwan situation. The PLA was seeking to establish dominance over the vital Darbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) road, our only link with what we call Sub-Sector North (SSN). This is a long road of over 230 kms and goes alongside the Shyok river, which in turn flows southward alongside a spur of the Karakorum, till it bends along the Chip Chap river to end at DBO.
The Depsang Plains lie inside the crook of this elbow. The PLA effectively dominates Depsang which is just south of Aksai Chin, now with China. The road effectively ends at DBO, unless you want to go via the Karakorum Pass a few kilometers ahead and then to Yarkand in Xinjiang.
To my mind the disputed Fingers 4-8 area north of the Pangong Tso is a side show.
This does not have the strategic significance of the Darbuk-DBO road. The PLA is now at its closest ever to this road and can even bring it under mortar and machine gun fire. By interdicting this road the PLA will effectively cut off SSN from Ladakh. India literally has its back to the wall here, with a spur of the Karakorum range on the left and the LAC on the right.
In the outbreak of a larger conflict what is the survivability of this road? Do we invest huge forces to defend this area or do we learn from Lang Son?
To really beat back the PLA India needs to bring the IAF into play early. If the PLA has the upper hand on the land, the IAF has dominance in the second dimension. Its major bases are nearby on the plains and it can launch its fighter-bombers with full fuel and weapons loads.
The PLAAF on the other hand operating from high altitude airfields has limitations on fuel and weapons loads. The dominance of the battlefield depends on how much force one can bring to bear on it. Here India has the advantage. But first we must stop equating military success with territory lost or gained.
If the second dimension comes into play, it won’t be long before the third dimension- the sea is put into play. With 70% of its oil on sea-lanes running about 300-500 kms from its shore, India can effectively interdict Chinese foreign trade with the region. The PLAAN will be loath to engage the Indian Navy in an area where the leading Indian Ocean power, the US Navy also dominates.
War between nuclear powers will not be without consequences to the ever increasingly inter-dependent world and hence international pressure to terminate conflicts before they expand and/or spiral out of control is only to be expected. How many nuclear weapons a country has does not matter, as for the world outside even the use of one will not be without huge collateral consequences.
Thus, while China will be interested in keeping any conflict limited and restricted to one dimension, it will be in India’s interest that it quickly escalate to the other two dimensions where it can bring its superior disruptive power into play.
The time window for such a conflict, if there is one, will be very narrow.
Thus, at best the two countries can fight a very limited war that does not cause irremediable loss of face to either one. It will be very important for both countries to have their nations believe that they have not emerged worse-off in the conflict.
Face then becomes everything. The national mood, not territory, is what the next conflict should be about. This kind of a conflict requires quick escalation to high kinetic levels before the conflict is forced to a halt by outside powers. The illusion of victory has to be created in this very limited space.
Victory will be a matter of perception. There will be no time and place for strategic victories. The sum of tactical victories will be the ultimate perception of victory. We have seen how soon air power came to be deployed over Kargil.
The terrain and array of forces on both sides of the India-China border suggests that air power come into play fairly early to score the wins that will influence perceptions.
India’s arms build-up and preparations make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Xinjiang and Tibetan plateaus and the Indian Ocean.
It will be logical for India to extend a Himalayan war to the Indian Ocean, particularly as India’s geographical location puts it astride the sea-lanes that carry over two thirds of China’s oil imports. To pay for this oil, 41% of China’s exports are now to the MENA region.
Asia is now the most dynamic economic region in the world. Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing major economies in the coming decade (including China and India) will be Asian countries. India has so far been careful about not semaphoring its capability too overtly, but it is sometimes useful to overtly convey this.
But there is an old Chinese saying that to scare away the monkeys, you sometimes have to skin a cat.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)