CHANDIGARH, India – After the deadliest clashes in half a century with China, the Indian military has taken emergency action to reinforce a 500-mile stretch of border in the Himalayas.
Over the past year, he has tripled the number of troops in the controversial region of eastern Ladakh to over 50,000. He has rushed to stock up on food and equipment for the freezing temperatures and elevations of 15,000 feet before the area was largely cut off for much of the winter. He announced that an entire strike corps, an offensive force of tens of thousands more troops, would be redirected to the increasingly controversial border with China from the long and volatile border with Pakistan.
India’s military is now grappling with a reality the country has feared for nearly two decades: It is stuck in a two-pronged conflict with hostile neighbors – and all three are nuclear-weaponized.
And it comes as India finds itself increasingly isolated in its wider neighborhood, amid the global security framework of President Biden’s talks on Friday with India, Australia and Japan, the group known as Quad.
China has made investments and forays from Sri Lanka into Nepal. The victory in Afghanistan of the Taliban, a movement nurtured and hosted in Pakistan that has growing ties to China, essentially excluded India from a country it saw as a natural ally in regional balance.
Even though all-out war at its borders is unlikely, a sustained position is sure to bleed India financially. With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating an economic downturn, a force that was already strapped for resources and struggling to modernize finds itself in what current and former officials describe as a constant and difficult act of juggling.
The breakdown in trust between neighboring giants is such that a dozen rounds of talks since last year’s deadly clashes have contained tensions, but they have not resulted in a de-escalation. Both nations are likely to remain on a war footing, even if they never go to war.
China can have the advantage.
While India is adept at high altitude combat, it faces a much better funded and equipped Chinese army. China, with an economy five times that of India, is also investing heavily in the region, thwarting Indian influence.
China and Pakistan already share deep ties. Any collaboration to stir up trouble would test the Indian military reserves.
Former Indian Army chief General Ved Prakash Malik said clashes in the Galwan Valley last year, which left at least 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers dead, fundamentally changed the math from India.
“Galwan carried another message: that China was not respecting the agreements it had signed,” General Malik said. “The biggest loss in Galwan, in my opinion, is not that we lost 20 men, but the trust was shattered.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to speed up stagnant army reforms to optimize resources. His government dispatched additional emergency funds to the military last year after border clashes.
But India’s constraints due to the slowing economy were clear in Mr. Modi’s new defense budget message: the military simply cannot expect a significant increase in spending. While the budget provided more money for the purchase of equipment, the overall amount allocated to defense continued to decline, as a proportion of gross domestic product and total government expenditure.
Maintaining such a troop presence in the Himalayan region is a colossal logistical task, even though the Indian army is experienced.
Rising costs are sure to further slow down investment in modernizing a deeply archaic force. Borders simply cannot be protected by dispatching troops to fill every vulnerability.
The Indian army has long lacked resources. About 75 percent of defense spending goes to running costs such as pensions, salaries, and force maintenance. In 2020, India spent around $ 73 billion on the military, compared to $ 252 billion for China.
“The point is that additional budget support is unlikely to come in the next few years,” said DS Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who headed the North Indian Command, which partly covers the Chinese border. “You need better monitoring. You need a lot better intelligence on the other side. We cannot continue to be surprised every time.
Since a major war in 1962, India and China have largely contained disputes through talks and treaties. Outbreaks are occurring because unlike 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 called the line. real control. Indian officials said their Chinese counterparts were reluctant, preferring to keep 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 country, but would also prevent resources from being swallowed up by the threat of conflict.
Since Mr Modi took office, leaders of the two countries have met nearly 20 times, not even allowing a 73-day standoff in 2017 to derail his efforts.
During Xi Jinping’s three visits to India, Mr. Modi shared a swing with him and served him fresh coconut. On one of Mr. Modi’s five trips to China, Mr. Xi greeted him with a Chinese ensemble playing a 1970s Bollywood soundtrack as the prime minister clapped and smiled. “You, you are the one whose heart called its own,” read the song’s original lyrics.
The Indian military establishment has remained more cautious than Mr. Modi, its warnings against a resurgent China dating back to the mid-2000s. The military was particularly vulnerable in eastern Ladakh, where China has a home advantage – the Tibetan plateau facilitates the movement of troops – and better infrastructure on its side of the border.
More than a decade from 2006, the Indian government took steps to improve its position. He approved the construction of thousands of miles of roads closer to the border, raised new divisions of army troops, and even ordered the creation of a dedicated mountain strike corps on the border with China.
But in each case, ambitious plans on paper clashed with the reality of limited resources. Some road projects remain unfinished. Despite the shortcuts and the depletion of reserves, construction of the Mountain Attack Corps was halted halfway – not because the threat had changed, but because the money was not there.
Despite the constraints, the Chinese threat could accelerate some of the continued modernization. Mr. Modi has already stepped up work on integrating the capabilities of his army, navy and air force through a process known as theatricalization that can help reduce duplication and costs. The increased threat in eastern Ladakh has refocused work on some of the unfinished roads and tunnels.
“It was not something that happened all of a sudden,” said Major General Birender Singh Dhanoa, a former member of the Indian Army’s War College and involved in force transformation studies. Indian. “The Chinese action essentially forced a faster completion of some of the activities that were taking place.”
One factor in India’s favor is that its troops have experience of the type of high altitude fighting that would take place along the border.
For decades, the Indian army has carried out huge logistical operations in the mountains. It transports hundreds of tons of supplies every day not only to support 75,000 troops on guard against Pakistan and China, but also to stock up for six winter months when many roads are closed. On the Siachen Glacier, known as the Top of the World Battlefield, Indian forces have confronted Pakistan for more than three decades.
In last year’s clashes, India benefited from an element of luck, as tensions escalated in the hot weather.
“If this had happened in September, we should have sent troops. That was the only option, because the passes are covered in ice – 40 feet of ice, ”said AP Singh, a retired major general who led logistics operations in Ladakh.
But India will struggle to maintain its increased presence on two fronts.
A sudden influx of tens of thousands of additional troops displaced personnel and resources not only from reserves but also units on the Pakistani front.
Deployment at higher altitudes significantly increases transport costs. It also requires around 48 items of specialized equipment, of which 18 – such as snow clothes, snow boots, alpine sleeping bags, ice axes – are essential, General Singh said. The cost of building outposts is five times higher in eastern Ladakh than in the plains.
“When the boys moved in, it wasn’t like ‘I’m going to patrol for 15 days, and I’m back, and I’ll carry my arctic tent on my back.’ Everyone has realized that if something happens, you go for good, ”General Singh said. “It costs the country economically. “
Keith bradsher contributed to Beijing reporting.