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The Tawang incident is not the last The Excelsior 21 Dec 2022
The attempted incursion at Yangtse in Tawang was neither the first nor would it be the last of Chinese attempts to grab Indian territory. The term ‘changing status quo’ as used by the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, in his statement in both houses of parliament, are mild as compared to what was attempted and force levels employed. Standoff’s at Yangtse have been a regular feature as it remains one of the accepted disputed regions as also provides observation into China’s Nagdoh bowl. Clashes occurred in 2016, while in Oct last year there was a standoff which was resolved.
What was unique this time was the timing and strength of troops employed. A normal Chinese patrol has upto a maximum of 100 personnel, whereas this time the strength was around 350 or could possibly be higher. In winters, Indian troop strength in the Yangtse post is reduced, which is what the Chinese attempted to exploit. Further, China sought to take advantage of poor visibility conditions, however, Indian forces were well prepared and foiled their attempt.
As in Ladakh, sanction for the operation, involving a large force, would have flowed from the very top, which is the CMC (Central Military Commission) in Beijing, headed by Xi Jinping himself and packed with his cronies. The intent appeared to be to embarrass India and the ruling dispensation as also project Chinese superiority. They had presumed that the surprise element, which worked for them in Galwan, could be replicated.
Hence Chinese troops came with drones to video graph the complete operation and subsequently project it on media platforms, winning the informational war and embarrassing India. The preparedness and ferocity of Indian troops surprised them, compelling them to retreat. It left them licking their wounds. There is no doubt that there is likely to be another incursion attempt to regain ascendency, albeit in another region.
The Chinese strategy has been perfected since Ladakh. It is to intrude in large numbers employing stealth and surprise to grab territory. If compelled, withdraw in regions where they are at a disadvantage as it happened post the Indian offensive of occupying the Kailash Ridge, compelling de-escalation in Pangong Tso. Engage in slow dialogue, delay by placing unacceptable terms, build infrastructure and ultimately reorient the LAC, especially where it provides depth to critical areas as happening in Eastern Ladakh. All the while keeping dialogue channels open. The recovery of sleeping bags dropped by fleeing Chinese troops indicates they intended to retain Yangtse for a prolonged duration.
The Chinese government remained silent over the incident until news of it broke in Indian media. The Chinese were hoping that India would desist from broadcasting it. After Galwan, China regularly released videos and photographs (largely doctored) to display Indian forces in poor light. The brief statement by the defence minister including covering the nature of injuries compelled China to respond.
As expected, China blamed India and downplayed the incident, aware that it would face internal social media backlash. Its Western Theatre Command spokesperson only mentioned, ‘PLA dealt with the situation with professional, standard and powerful measures.’ For China, its soldiers retreating was a humiliation which it was forced to swallow.
Chinese media worked towards a coverup, while accusing India as being responsible. The Chinese mouthpiece, The Global Times, quoted Lin Minwang, a professor at the Fudan University, amongst others, who stated, ‘What is worth noting is that historically, conflicts on the India-China border rarely occur in winter. It is possible that India has chosen this timing to start a conflict in an attempt to release a certain message.’ Chinese citizens abroad, aware of the truth, criticized the PLA as a force only capable of suppressing unarmed Chinese protestors.
What is surprising is the Indian government’s actions. The news was broken by a private media operative and not the government. Inputs of a clash of this level would have reached the defence minister and the PM within hours of it occurring. Why was there silence? The Galwan incident, where we had casualties, was announced as soon as it happened. Was the deliberate delay an attempt to downplay tensions or a face-saver for the Chinese or to cool down diplomatic and military temperatures. In any case, it does not bode well for a government which projects bravado.
It is possible that similar incidents of our troops pushing back the Chinese have been suppressed from the public in the past. Unless China is put in place through timely release of information and videos, it would only be emboldened. The defence minister meeting service chiefs three days post Yangtse is another mystery, as inputs were already with him. Was this meeting a showpiece for the press? If so, it failed. The reason why the government hesitates for a parliament discussion is because it would be questioned on its silence for three days.
India must learn to counter China in the info domain. We should release inputs including visual images immediately on occurrence. An embarrassed China released a new video on Galwan in retaliation to its humiliation in Yangtze. The Chinese only respect force and strength, and this must be displayed. Senior ministers mentioning the government’s intent to regain POK or Aksai China in public rallies to garner votes is not bravado but releasing timely inputs on successful military action against an adversary is.
Both nations are attempting to adhere to some elements of previous agreements including no employment of firearms along the LAC. However, using medical weapons is also against accepted agreements. The former army chief, General Naravane, had stated post Galwan that troops have been given full authority to respond to ‘extraordinary situations’ using all resources at their disposal including firearms. This statement would have been made after approval of the government. If so, why are troops still being forced to counter the Chinese with lathi’s.
The message must be sent that India will respond with equal vigour. Unless India responds proactively, China will continue determining location and levels of escalation. It is time for India to display its intent and project firmness in dealing with China. If we don’t, then intrusion attempts will become the new normal.