CHANDIGARH, India – After the deadliest clashes with China in half a century, India’s military has taken emergency action to reinforce an 800-mile section of the border high in the Himalayas.
Last year it tripled the number of soldiers in the disputed region of East Ladakh to over 50,000. It rushed to stock up on food and equipment for freezing temperatures and 15,000-foot altitudes before the region is largely cut off for much of the winter. It has announced that an entire strike corps, an offensive by tens of thousands more soldiers, is to be reoriented from the long, unstable border with Pakistan to the increasingly controversial border with China.
India’s military is now grappling with a reality the country has feared for almost two decades: It is in a two-front conflict with hostile neighbors – and all three are nuclear armed.
And it comes as India finds itself increasingly isolated in its wider neighborhood, part of the global security backdrop for President Biden’s discussions on Friday with India, Australia and Japan, the group known as the Quad.
China has made investments and forays into Nepal from Sri Lanka. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a movement nurtured and sustained in Pakistan with ever stronger ties to China, has essentially excluded India from a country it saw as a natural ally in regional equilibrium.
While total war on its borders is unlikely, the ongoing stance India is sure to bleed financially. As the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates an economic slowdown, a force already drained and struggling to modernize finds itself in what current and former officials describe as a constant and difficult act of juggling.
So great is the loss of trust between the giant neighbors that a dozen rounds of talks since last year’s fatal clashes have contained tensions but not de-escalated them. Both nations are likely to remain on a war basis even if they never go to war.
China could have an advantage.
While India is adept at high altitude combat, it faces a Chinese military that is far better funded and equipped. China, with an economy five times the size of India, is also investing heavily in the region to counter Indian influence.
China and Pakistan already share deep ties. Any cooperation to create unrest would test the Indian military reserves.
General Ved Prakash Malik, a former chief of the Indian army, said the clashes in the Galwan Valley last year, in which at least 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers died, fundamentally changed India’s calculations.
“Galwan conveyed another message: that China is not respecting the agreements he has signed,” said General Malik. “In my opinion, the biggest loss in Galwan was not that we lost 20 men, but confidence was shaken.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to press ahead with stagnant reforms in the military to optimize resources. His government rushed to provide the army with additional aid after the border collisions last year.
But India’s constraints from the slowing economy were made clear by the message in Mr Modi’s new defense budget: The military simply cannot expect a significant increase in spending. While the budget allocated more money to equipment purchases, the total amount allocated to defense continued to decline as a share of gross domestic product and total government spending.
Maintaining such a troop presence in the Himalayan region is a mammoth logistical task, but one of the Indian military’s experience.
The increased costs will inevitably result in further slowing investment in modernizing a deeply antiquated force. The borders simply cannot be protected by rushing troops to fill every weak spot.
India’s military has a long history lack of resources. About 75 percent of defense spending goes into routine costs such as pensions, salaries and maintaining the armed forces. In 2020 India gave approx. $ 73 billion on the military, compared to China’s $ 252 billion.
“The fact is that there is unlikely to be any additional domestic help in the next few years,” said DS Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who led India’s northern command, which partially covers the Chinese border. “You need better surveillance. On the other hand, you need much better intelligence. We can’t let ourselves be surprised again and again. “
Since a major war in 1962, India and China have largely contained disputes through talks and treaties. There is a flare-up because, unlike in Pakistan, where the border is clearly defined on maps, India and China have not been able to agree on the specific demarcation of the 2,100-mile border, which is known as the actual control line. Indian officials say their Chinese counterparts have been reluctant and preferred to maintain border uncertainties as a “pressure tactic”.
Last year’s clashes were a blow to Mr. Modi, who focused on developing a formula for mutual prosperity with China.
A cooperative relationship would not only help Mr. Modi’s goal of economic development in his own country, but also prevent resources from being devoured by impending conflict.
Since Mr Modi took office, the heads of state and government of the two countries have met almost 20 times, so not even a 73-day stalemate in 2017 could undo his efforts.
During Xi Jinping’s three visits to India, Mr. Modi rocked him and served him fresh coconut. On one of Mr. Modi’s five trips to China, Mr. Xi greeted him with a Chinese ensemble play a Bollywood soundtrack from the 1970s when the prime minister clapped and grinned. “You, you are the one that the heart calls its own,” says the original lyrics of the song.
The Indian military establishment has been more cautious than Mr. Modi, with warnings of a resurgent China going back to the mid-2000s. The military was particularly vulnerable in east Ladakh, where China has a terrain advantage – the Tibetan plateau makes troop transport easier – and better infrastructure on its side of the border.
Over a decade, beginning in 2006, the Indian government took steps to improve its position. It approved thousands of kilometers of roads to be built closer to the border, created new divisions of army troops, and even ordered the creation of a mountain strike corps dedicated to the border with China.
But in any case, ambitious plans on paper have been met with the reality of scarce resources. Some of the road projects remain incomplete. Despite cuts and depletion of reserves, the construction of the mountain strike corps was stopped halfway – not because the threat had changed, but because the money was not there.
Despite restrictions, the Chinese threat could accelerate part of the ongoing modernization. Mr. Modi has already stepped up work on integrating his Army, Navy and Air Force capabilities through a process known as theatricalization that can help reduce overlap and costs. The increasing threat in East Ladakh has realigned work on some of the unfinished roads and tunnels.
“It didn’t happen suddenly,” said Maj. Gen. Birender Singh Dhanoa, who previously worked at the Indian Army’s War College and was involved in studies on the transformation of the Indian armed forces. “The Chinese action essentially forced a faster completion of some of the activities that had already taken place.”
One factor for India is that its troops have experience of the kind of high altitude fighting that would take place along the border.
The Indian military has been conducting huge logistical operations in the mountains for decades. It transports hundreds of tons of material every day not only to supply 75,000 soldiers in defense against Pakistan and China, but also to stock up for six months in winter when many roads are closed. On the Siachen Glacier, which is known as the battlefield on the roof of the world, the Indian armed forces have been confronting Pakistan for more than three decades.
In the clashes last year, India benefited from a lucky moment as tensions escalated in warmer weather.
“If that had happened sometime in September, we would have to fly in troops. It was the only option because the passes are covered in ice – 40 feet of ice, ”said AP Singh, a retired major general who oversaw logistics operations in Ladakh.
But India will have a hard time maintaining its heightened presence on two fronts.
A sudden rush of tens of thousands of additional troops meant the relocation of personnel and resources not only from the reserves, but also from units on the Pakistani front.
Use at the highest altitudes increases transport costs enormously. It also requires about 48 specialized pieces of equipment, 18 of which – such as snow gear, snowshoes, alpine sleeping bags, ice ax – are vital, General Singh said. The cost of building outposts in East Ladakh is five times higher than in the plains.
“When the boys moved in, it wasn’t like I was on patrol for 15 days and then came back with my polar tent on my back. Everyone realized that if something happens, you will stand up forever, ”said General Singh. “That costs the country economically.”
Keith Bradsher Reporting from Beijing contributed.