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Modi can repeat 1971 and ensure a 1962 in reverse

The difference an alliance makes to outcomes is clear from a readout of the 1962 conflict with China and the 1971 ending of the Pakistan army genocide in Bangladesh. From 1947 onwards, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru focused obsessively on foreign policy, moulding it to his liking. India becoming the leader of the non-aligned movement was regarded by Nehru as a historic achievement. Fifteen years later, Marshal Lin Biao got the nod from Chairman Mao and ordered PLA soldiers to pour across the Tibetan border with India.

There was no “non-aligned” country willing to come out in support of India and against China during the conflict. Even countries that had been courted avidly by the Prime Minister, such as Yugoslavia, Egypt and Sri Lanka, avoided giving offence to the People’s Republic of China. As for the US and the USSR, the only countries that could have made a difference in a conflict involving China, the first intervened too late and too insubstantially to alter the outcome, while Moscow adopted the same stance as is being taken by that capital now, which was to avoid taking sides while giving signals of friendship separately to both sides.

Not just Congress, but BJP governments have protected the mistakes made in the past from entering the public domain, and even secretive Beijing has released more documents about past policies than has New Delhi. There has, therefore, been little discussion of the frantic cries for help from the leader of the non-aligned movement to the US once Chinese troops began crossing across the border in multiple points and in strength. General P.N. Thapar and Lt Gen B.M. Kaul had fashioned their military strategies on the border on the basis that anything other than dribbles and feints by the PLA was out of the question. Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon took that assumption as an article of faith, exactly as Marshal Stalin had in 1941 when reports began to pour in that the German army was about to launch a blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union.


At the precise moment when Hitler’s troops crossed into the USSR in force at 3 am on 22 June 1941, they came across a train loaded with grain from the USSR that was making its way on a bridge across the Bug river. The train was chugging on its way to Germany even as troops from that country had launched an invasion of the USSR. Fast forward to October 1962 and the refusal of key policymakers to understand what was soon coming India’s way across the border with China, despite more than a decade of incessant intrusions, and since the 1959 relocation of the Dalai Lama to India, increasingly bad-tempered commentary on the world’s most populous democracy from the world’s most populous authoritarian state. As in those days, in 2020 as well voices abound who believe that the next summit meeting, the next telephone call, the next expertly-drafted statement, will result in the Sino-Indian border situation moving away from the shadow of impending conflict.

WEAK INDIA IS CHINA’S AIM

Not that accurate information has been lacking, and not merely to those in the inner recesses of the Government of India but to those much lower down the food chain, including private citizens. On 13 April 2020, even this analyst got to know of PLA troops concentrating across the Line of Actual Control. Subsequently, information reached that the number of soldiers had increased sharply, and had reached the levels needed for a major offensive. On 5 May this analyst was informed by sources of established credibility in a distant location that PLA troops massed across the boundary line had entered Indian territory and were moving at speed across terrain that was being guarded not by the military but by paramilitary formations.

What ought to have happened on 13 April took place on 13 May, which was the entry into the theatre of the military, and a consequent halt to the onward progress of the other side. Subsequently, multiple conversations (including at the elevated level of the Special Representatives of the two countries) took place, and it seems to have been assumed by some policymakers in India that the Chinese side had decided to call it a day as a consequence of such conversations. Soon after this comforting thought, the Galwan clashes took place. Now the Moscow talks between the Chinese and Indian Foreign and Defence Ministers have been taken as an indication that the situation has at last been defused. This is unlikely.

From the start of his taking over as Chinese Communist Party General Secretary in 2012, Xi Jinping has been taking an assertive stance on PRC claims, adding new ones to the many already enumerated in the past. It is not possible to believe that the movement of PLA forces into Ladakh that began on 4-5 May took place without a nod from the Central Military Commission, the unchallenged head of which is President Xi. Or that the move was not part of a strategy to gain territory in Ladakh so as to consolidate positions held by GHQ Rawalpindi and the PLA in the vicinity. Next year is the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and a military victory is needed to burnish the record of the CCP under its new leader. Beijing intends to take control of the entirety of the Himalayan massif, the South China Sea and Taiwan. There needs to be a military victory as in 1962, not a stalemate as in Vietnam in 1979.

The South China Seas are crawling with naval craft of multiple countries, including India, and is at present therefore a difficult location to score a swift triumph. As for Taiwan, from almost the start of her first term in office, President Tsai Ing-wen has focused on linking her country to the US defence supply chain. Over the past four years, ties between Taipei and Washington have grown closer than at any time since President Richard M. Nixon threw Taiwan to the wolves in order to recruit Beijing in his campaign to weaken Moscow. It seems only a matter of time before Taipei enters into a formal security alliance with the US in the manner of Seoul and Tokyo. Ideally, such an alliance would be with the Quadrilateral Alliance, should that group of four countries graduate from a talking shop to a genuine security construct. Given the strategic essentiality of Taiwan remaining outside the grasp of China, it is certain that any attack on the island by the PLA would lead to countermoves by Japan and the US.

The latter would, unless in a Biden Presidency the “kompromat” on Hunter Biden is radioactive, escalate the confrontation into other theatres, given the kinetic escalation dominance that the US armed forces enjoy over their counterpart in the PLA. Despite the chokehold that the PRC has over Russia at the present time, the Kremlin (especially under the geopolitical Grand Master Vladimir Putin) would be delighted to see the President of the US intensify moves against China. The farther apart Washington and Beijing are, the more room to breathe that Moscow has. As for India, in the absence of a clear understanding between India and the US about mutual security, the Himalayan massif seems to be the option offering a higher chance of a PLA success in 2021 than clearing the South China Sea of foreign navies by the PLA Navy or an attempted takeover or even blockade of Taiwan.

U.S. AS FORCE MULTIPLIER

Should the Indian Army be assured of replenishment by the US of lethal armaments as well as other platforms such as fighter and transport aircraft, any move by the PLA to duplicate its 1962 ingress into Indian territory could be met by a countermove by the armed forces of India that would push the Line of Actual Control substantially outwards from the Indian side. This would result in a humiliation for the PLA that would have significant consequences on the prestige and credibility of the CCP, just as a kinetic setback on the boundary would have immediate consequences for the political establishment in office in India.

Much of the difference between what took place in 1962 and what happened in 1971 was the result of the Indo-Soviet Treaty that was the brainchild of former Ambassador to the USSR, Durga Prasad Dhar. The treaty ensured the entry of the USSR into any conflict involving India and a hostile force, and this was sufficient to keep China out of the ring despite plaintive cries from both Yahya Khan and Henry Kissinger for Beijing to send in its troops now that India had committed so many of its forces to the ongoing conflict with Pakistan. For population-reducing moves such as the bombing of Cambodia and backing of the genocide in Bangladesh, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Bangladesh liberation war undertaken jointly by the Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini, Nixon sought to tempt Chairman Mao to intervene on the side of the genocidal Pakistan army by sending in the Seventh Fleet. Treaty ally of India Leonid I. Brezhnev sent in the Sixth Fleet and the Seventh Fleet, not liking the company, made an exit from the seas nearby the conflict.

The Indo-Soviet Treaty ensured the absence of China from the 1971 conflict, just as a Quadrilateral Mutual Security Alliance would almost certainly restrain the PLA from using its new firepower on India. Given the risks to the CCP leadership in case there is a military setback (as would be the case were India to get logistical, tactical and intelligence support from other Quad members in the event of PLA aggression), it is unlikely that the Himalayan massif will be chosen as the next theatre for PRC expansionism were the 1971 precedent of a defensive treaty alliance to be followed by India, this time not with Moscow but with Washington and hopefully Tokyo and Canberra as well, besides in time Hanoi, Manila, Singapore, Jakarta and Muscat.

BEIJING’S ASK TO MOSCOW

The not insubstantial task given to Moscow by Beijing is to ensure that New Delhi does not enter into a security pact that involves the United States, whether this be a bilateral treaty or as part of a newly formalised Quadrilateral Alliance. In the absence of such a treaty, it would be problematic for Washington to ensure the degree of logistical support that would be needed for the Indian armed forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) to take the battle into the territory of the attacker and humiliate the latter. Conversely, should there be such a pact, the odds are high that the friskiness that the PLA has been showing since 2005 (soon after the self-effacing Manmohan Singh was appointed Prime Minister by Congress president Sonia Gandhi) would diminish substantially.

Should it not, from the viewpoint of the Quadrilateral Alliance, any lunge towards hostilities by the PLA would create an opportunity for a newly strengthened India to push outwards in order to gain control over the Himalayan chain and using the opportunity to clear the South China Sea of artificial islands and fortifications set up by the PRC. Given the high probability of the resumption of 1962-scale hostilities by the PLA in 2021, it is a matter of surprise that till now, no effort seems to have been made to formalise the structure of the Quadrilateral Alliance into a mutual defence treaty. What is needed is for India to indicate clearly what is needed for victory in the event of an attack by China, and to work out what needs to be done to formalise a structure that assures such assistance. In 1962, India had neither a security treaty with Moscow nor with Washington.

The same situation should not be allowed to prevail in the present. Thus far, Russia seems to have succeeded in its mission of keeping India from entering into a mutual security pact that involves the US. Besides helping China by such abstinence on the part of India, persuading Delhi to remain wedded to non-alignment works to the benefit of Moscow, in that a security treaty involving the US would give an advantage to that country’s weapons systems over the offerings of Russia in a market crucial to the health of the armaments industry in that giant country. There are leaders who play a strong hand poorly. Vladimir Putin plays a weak hand with spectacular success.

TIME OVERDUE TO FORMALISE QUAD

Rather than luxuriate in visions of the dragon becoming a vegetarian from its normal existence as a carnivore, what is needed is for India to push a door that is already open. This would be the formalisation of an alliance mechanism involving the Quadrilateral Alliance. This would assure the entry of other partners in any attack on a member of the Quad. What is needed is to work on what would be needed for the armed forces of the Union of India to push substantially outwards the Line of Actual Control in the event of likely PLA aggression. Given the events of the past several years, this is no longer a case of “whether” but “when”.

Hence the need to secure an alliance mechanism. In 1971 as well, sceptics within the bureaucracy and the commentariat abounded in the matter of a pact with the USSR. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went ahead with D.P. Dhar’s suggestion and in the process, changed both history as well as geography. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to study the history of the 1962 and 1971 conflicts. Beijing and Rawalpindi look forward to a repeat of 1962. Instead, what they should be served is a repeat of 1971, this time with the Line of Actual Control getting extended substantially across the western side, and fortified in strength on the eastern side. The Himalayan massif is the patrimony of the Indian subcontinent and smart policy based on reality rather than hope anchored to illusions can ensure that this come true once again.

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