As the shock and grief from the events of the intervening night of June 15 and 16 make way for a hard-headed reflection on the road ahead for the India-China relationship, it needs to be kept in mind that all options for India ahead come with their own benefits and limitations. As policymakers contemplate them, it is a democratic imperative that the Indian public, clamouring for action, are aware of both.
Limited Military Action
While the readout from the foreign minister’s phone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on June 17 accurately reflects the public mood — it called the attack on Indian soldiers at the Galwan Valley “pre-meditated and planned action” — it also indicated that diplomacy is still on the cards. That said, it is quite likely that behind closed doors, the establishment is carefully contemplating a limited military retaliation.
Since the events of June 15/16, China has laid claim to the entire Galwan Valley where India assumed that its perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) matched that of China’s. It is likely that this hardened stance would present a considerable obstacle to further diplomatic negotiations.
What could India’s military response look like? The army could launch co-ordinated surprise infantry or special-forces attacks on each of the occupied positions, with artillery and armour support in the rear as a deterrent against escalation. In effect, this would be a large-scale sub-conventional operation.
Deployment of air power is likely to pose problems familiar from the Kargil War: escalation control would demand that Indian jets operate in a very narrow band and difficult geography. Close proximity to Indian soldiers and cluttered operating environment would complicate air-to-ground attack plans.
Should India go down this path, it needs to do so keeping in mind that such an action could lead to high casualties. It also needs to prepare for escalation both in terms of how the Chinese could respond locally as well as across the entire LAC.
In the run-up to the recently-concluded India-Australia Summit, sources had indicated that the India-China tensions could make way for Australia to be included in the annual Malabar Exercise between India, American and Japanese navies. This will be a key step towards a naval quad, converting the informal dialogue forum into a military coalition directed at China.
In extremis, India could also surprise the world by announcing a much closer relationship with the United States. (In the run-up to the 1971 Bangladesh war, India decided on a similar measure, to keep the emerging Pakistan-China-US axis, in check by signing the ‘Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ in August that year.)
In many ways, this would be a bold move warning Beijing that should it choose to escalate its conflicts with India going forward, it runs the risk of drawing the US in. New Delhi could also strengthen its naval arrangements with Washington, including military co-operation in the Andaman Seas which would allow both navies to hold Chinese ships around the crucial Malacca Strait at risk.
The problems with this option are simple. First, it is unclear how and if they help India solve its immediate problem with China, namely getting them off Indian territory in Ladakh or even the larger issue of how such an arrangement helps deter Chinese salami-slicing tactics. Second, given the uncertain political mood in the US right now, it is unlikely that the Trump administration would like to be drawn into an India-China conflict, commitments to an anti-China Indo-Pacific strategy aside. Finally, India would have to prepare to scale down its military ties with Russia, as part of a likely quid pro quo.
Finally, India could engage in covert action against Chinese interests in Pakistan through local malcontents or, going forward, develop a Central Asian network of local assets that could target Beijing’s infrastructure projects there. Xi Jinping’s China is stretched thin in terms of its geographical interests; this presents a vulnerability New Delhi could profitably exploit. India could also allow a forward presence of operatives from other powers with an interest in making Chinese life in Xinjiang and Tibet miserable.
The costs of exercising this option are clear. China, in turn, could actively seek to re-establish ties with secessionists in the Northeast, something it has weaned itself away from for some time now. Any action in Pakistan, through Balochi nationalists against Chinese interests there, also opens the possibility of heightened terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as risks to Indian presence in Afghanistan.
As New Delhi contemplates each of the above possibilities and more, it will note that all of them present significant challenges. However, China would be mistaken in thinking that those challenges will serve as an absolute self-deterrent for India.Abhijnan Rej is a New Delhi-based defence analyst. Views are personal.