THE YEAR 2012 is not 1962. That is a fact. Subtract the former from the latter and you get a neat 50 years that mark the anniversary of a watershed event in Indian history — the Sino-Indian war that resulted in a humiliating defeat for India. The defeat brought the Nehru era to a sad end and the years that followed saw the turbulent transition to the Indira Gandhi era, following yet another war, this time with Pakistan in 1965.
Since 2007, relations between India and China have not been even. Talks on resolving the border dispute have stalled, there are reports of increased Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control, and Chinese activity in the Northern Areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has increased. The continuing Chinese military build-up, the growth of its infrastructure in Tibet and the nationalistic rhetoric coming out of China has raised the spectre of another Sino-Indian clash.
But 2012 is not 1962. According to Ravi Rikhye, editor of orbat.com, a specialist website tracking troop deployments, “All the Chinese have done with their poking, prodding and insulting is to finally wake the Indian elephant from its perpetual comatose state.” He says that the Indians are now reacting with a build-up that will create a “serious Indian offensive threat” to the Chinese in Tibet.
Major-General (Retd.) Sheru Thapliyal, who has commanded a division in Ladakh and served in the eastern sector, says that India today is better prepared “by way of knowledge of Chinese strategy, tactics, and weapon systems”. In his view the key to the Indian success will be the armed forces that have “gotten over the trauma of the 1962 War and will stand and fight.”
The big worry is that Indian modernisation programmes still remain in prospect. As of today all three services say that the current phase of modernisation will be completed by 2022. That is one full decade, and ten years can be a long time in international politics. And as Thapliyal points out, there is still a great deal to be done on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to create an effective infrastructure for the military to conduct its operations.
But while Chinese assertiveness, or some unforeseen accident, could trigger a war, there are also good reasons that militate against such a development. In great measure, the 1962 war was a consequence of Mao’s need to reassert his control over the party after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward and to score off the Soviet Union. In some measure it was also, according to John Garver, a China expert at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, a misreading of India’s intentions on Tibet and New Delhi’s confrontational “forward policy”. These factors are missing today.
While the dispute remains, and both sides claim significant chunks of the other’s territory, they actually hold and control what they really need — China has Aksai Chin through which its important Xinjiang-Tibet road runs, and India has Arunachal Pradesh. The two sides also have a slew of structured dialogues and official-level talks, in addition to agreements that are aimed at preventing any untoward incidents on the LAC.
Another factor is that China, and Tibet, are far more open than they were in 1962. The higher decision-making in Beijing is still opaque, but the Internet Revolution has created a generation of bloggers who give India a better idea of the public opinion in China.
Linked to this is the availability of intelligence. The Chinese system may be as closed as it ever was, but through what are called ‘National Technical Means’ — satellites, specialised aircraft, electronic intelligence gathering systems — New Delhi now has access to a great deal of information about Chinese capabilities, and there would be no question of the kind of surprise that the Chinese were able to use to good effect in 1962.
Finally, if good intentions and diplomacy fail, there is always the question of deterrence. In 1962, notes Thapliyal, “we were ill-prepared, ill-equipped and deployed in areas of Chinese domination and given the lack of any logistic support and infrastructure, defeat was a foregone conclusion.”
Today it would be fair to say that despite much smaller forces and a smaller economy, India has managed to create effective parity in the border areas.
There are gaps, especially in terms of infrastructure, but these are being rapidly filled. One metric is in the latest fighter aircraft — India today has over 150 Sukhoi-30MKIs, whereas China has 76 Sukhoi-30MKKs. Of course, the Chinese air force is much larger, but it is also deployed farther afield compared to the IAF, which is, in any case, deployed largely in an arc from Jorhat to Jodhpur. In 1962, for reasons that are not clear, the IAF was not used in a combat role.
Chinese infrastructure in Tibet may be excellent, but its single rail line, various roads and bridges also present an easy target. These are substantial forces and Rikhye also points to the larger reorganisation that will enable India to fight a two-front war. As he notes, “For the first time India has declared an open offensive posture against China and is creating the means to follow through.” If war is a continuation of politics by other means, so, too, is peace-making. Both countries are at a critical phase in their national reconstruction. China may be way ahead of India, but it still remains relatively poor. Then there is the iron law of war: It is easy to start one, but difficult to control its consequences, leave alone predict its outcome.
Even a cursory look at the order of battle should tell Beijing that 2012 is not 1962, and that a border skirmish could swirl into a larger war with unforeseen consequences. This perhaps is the best guarantee against any new adventurism on the part of China.
Mail Today October 14, 2012