12 February 2023

India Needs to Rethink its China Strategy at LAC

A confidential research paper presented during a mid-January conference of the top police leadership in India has suggested that skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China will ‘get frequent’. The paper analyzed ‘the pattern of skirmishes and tensions’ to note that ‘the intensity has increased since 2013-2014 with an interval of every 2-3 years’.

That the nature and scale of Chinese transgressions along the LAC has changed since 2013 has been pointed out before, but given the incompleteness of data on the transgressions in the public domain — figures are only released episodically by the Union government — the identification of a pattern in the intensity by a government agency is significant.

Just as significant is the paper’s reference specifically to China’s ‘domestic compulsions’ and its ‘economic interests in the region’ when stating that ‘the PLA would continue to build up its military infrastructure’. Again, scholars of China have long pointed out that Beijing’s foreign and security policies are more often than not driven by the ruling Communist Party of China’s (CPC) domestic interests — regime survival at all costs. To this end, foreign adventurism in order to distract from internal problems is natural — there is a school of thought that China’s 1962 attack on India was itself launched to distract from the failure of the Great Leap Forward, and to deflect criticism of Chinese leader Mao Zedong within the CPC.

This is not to say that China does not also take advantage of shortcomings in Indian preparation when opportunities present themselves. For instance, the 2020 Chinese incursions across the LAC and occupation of Indian territory were at least partly the result of delays in Indian military mobilisation owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Chinese have been, of late, making the claim that the situation on the LAC has returned to normal, their actions on the ground indicate the opposite. For their part, the Indians are making no similar claims even if the statements following the corps commanders’ meetings between the two sides attempt to paint a picture of progress in talks.

The conference paper’s contention is that ‘skirmishes and tensions’ are likely to increase also because of the heavy build-up of Chinese infrastructure and the possibility that both armies will test ‘each other’s reaction, strength of artillery infantry mobilization time’.

The question then is — what is the Indian government’s strategy to manage this situation on the LAC?

While there are multiple issues that need attention, given that the conference in the news was organised under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), an issue that has long been hanging fire is of the Indian Army’s frequent calls to the MHA to hand over full operational control of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along the LAC. It is perhaps not a coincidence that it was pointed out at the conference that India had lost access to 26 out of 65 Patrolling Points in eastern Ladakh and the Army itself was criticised for its ‘play safe’ approach.

The MHA has long justified retaining control over the ITBP on the ground that the force could manage its responsibilities in peacetime. The question is whether the situation on the LAC now can be characterised as ‘peaceful’. Further, large numbers of ITBP personnel are also tied down in internal security duties elsewhere in the country affecting their specialised training as well as their rest and recuperation. While the number of border outposts of the ITBP is increasing and access to them has improved considerably with rapidly improving physical infrastructure, there is also the poor competence of the ITBP in the languages of the region it is supposed to specialise in — Chinese and Tibetan, as well those of the various minority ethnic groups on both sides of the LAC.

It is worth remembering that the ITBP had been formed within days of the beginning of the 1962 conflict with the objective of ‘reorganizing the frontier intelligence and security set up along the Indo-Tibetan border’ and to serve as ‘guerrilla-cum-fighting Force’ that was supposed to be ‘self-contained in supplies, communication and intelligence collection’. By 1978, however, it would become ‘a conventional border guarding force’. Had the original goals remained in place, the ITBP would surely have been better equipped to assess ‘domestic compulsions’ in China, and to garner intelligence on the PLA’s intentions along the LAC.

Given the report at the MHA conference, it is surely time for the government to rethink once again the ITBP’s role and character. If the MHA is serious about its own analyses, then reforms in the ITBP — and no doubt in others among its agencies — need to scale up in both quality and pace.

Originally published in Deccan Herald on 08 Feb 2023