CHANDIGARH, India – After the deadliest clashes in half a century with China, the Indian military has taken emergency measures to reinforce a 500-mile stretch of the border high in the Himalayas.
Last year, the number of troops in the troubled eastern Ladakh region tripled to more than 50,000. He has raced to stock up on food and equipment for freezing temperatures and altitudes of 15,000 feet before the region is cut off for much of the winter. He has announced that an entire strike force, an offensive force of tens of thousands more, would be redirected towards the increasingly troubled 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 mired in a two-front conflict with hostile neighbors, and all three have nuclear weapons.
And it comes as India finds itself increasingly isolated in its wider neighborhood, as part of the global security context for President Biden’s discussions on Friday with India, Australia and Japan, the group known as Quad.
China has made investments and inroads from Sri Lanka to Nepal. The victory in Afghanistan of the Taliban, a nurturing and Pakistani-based movement that has growing ties to China, has essentially excluded India from a country it viewed as a natural ally in the regional balance.
Even if all-out war on its borders is unlikely, the sustained stance will surely bleed India financially. With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating an economic slowdown, a force already depleted of resources and struggling to modernize finds itself in what current and former officials describe as a constant and difficult juggling act.
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 have not led to a de-escalation. Both nations are likely to remain on the warpath, even if they never go to war.
China may have the upper hand.
While India is adept at high-altitude combat, it faces a Chinese military that is much better funded and equipped. China, with an economy five times the size of India, is also investing heavily in the region, countering Indian influence.
China and Pakistan already share deep ties. Any collaboration that caused problems would put the Indian military reserves to the test.
General Ved Prakash Malik, the former chief of the Indian army, said the fighting in the Galwan Valley last year, which left at least 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers dead, had fundamentally changed India’s estimate.
“Galwan carried another message: that China was not respecting the agreements it had signed,” General Malik said. “The biggest casualty in Galwan, in my opinion, was not that we lost 20 men, but that trust was shattered.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is trying to accelerate stalled reforms in the military to optimize resources. His government sent additional emergency funds to the army last year after the border clashes.
But India’s limitations from the slowdown in the economy were made clear in the message of Modi’s new defense budget: The military simply cannot expect a significant increase in spending. Although the budget allocated more money for the purchase of equipment, the total amount allocated for defense continued to decline, as a percentage of gross domestic product and total public spending.
Maintaining such a troop presence in the Himalayan region is a gigantic logistical task, albeit one with which the Indian military has experience.
Rising costs are meant to further reduce investments in modernizing a deeply antiquated force. Borders simply cannot be protected with troops rushed to cover all vulnerabilities.
The Indian Army has long lacked resources. About 75 percent of defense spending goes to routine costs such as pensions, salaries and maintenance of the force. In 2020, India spent around $ 73 billion on the military, compared to $ 252 billion for China.
“The fact is that additional budget support is unlikely to come in the next few years,” said DS Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who led the North India command, which partly covers the border with China. “You need better surveillance. You need a lot better intelligence on the other side. We cannot continue to be surprised every time. “
Since a great war in 1962, India and China have largely contained disputes through talks and treaties. The outbursts happen because, unlike Pakistan, where the boundary is clearly defined on maps, India and China have not been able to agree on the specific demarcation of the 2,100-mile border known as the Royal Line of Control. Indian officials say their Chinese counterparts have been reluctant, preferring to keep the uncertainties of the border a “pressure tactic.”
Last year’s clashes were a severe blow to Modi, who has 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 the country, but would also prevent resources from being sucked into the threat of conflict.
Since Modi took office, the leaders of the two countries have met nearly 20 times, not allowing even a 73-day standoff in 2017 to derail their efforts.
During Xi Jinping’s three visits to India, Modi shared a swing with him and served him fresh coconut. On one of Modi’s five trips to China, Xi welcomed him with a Chinese ensemble playing a Bollywood soundtrack from the 1970s as the prime minister clapped and smiled. “You, you are the one the heart has called its own,” reads the original lyrics of the song.
The Indian military establishment has remained more cautious than Modi, and its warnings against a resurgent China date back to the mid-2000s. The military was particularly vulnerable in eastern Ladakh, where China has an advantage on the ground (the plateau Tibetan facilitates troop movement) and better infrastructure on its side of the border.
For more than a decade starting in 2006, the Indian government took steps to improve its position. He approved the construction of thousands of kilometers of roads closer to the border, raised new divisions of army troops and even ordered the creation of a mountain attack corps dedicated to the border with China.
But in each case, ambitious plans on paper met the reality of scarce resources. Some of the road projects remain incomplete. Despite cuts and depletion of reserves, construction of the Mountain Strike Corps halted midway, not because the threat had changed, but because the money was not there.
Despite the limitations, the Chinese threat could accelerate some of the ongoing modernization. Modi has already stepped up work to integrate the skills of his army, navy and air force through a process known as theaterization that can help reduce overlaps and costs. The growing threat in eastern Ladakh has redirected work on some of the unfinished roads and tunnels.
“It is not something that happened suddenly,” said Major General Birender Singh Dhanoa, who previously attended the Indian Army War College and participated in studies on the transformation of Indian forces. “The Chinese action essentially forced a more rapid completion of some of the activities that had been going on.”
One factor in India’s favor is that its troops are experienced in the kind of high-altitude combat that would take place along the border.
For decades, the Indian Army has been conducting huge logistical operations in the mountains. It transports hundreds of tons of material every day to not only sustain 75,000 soldiers protecting against Pakistan and China, but also to stock up during six winter months when many of the roads close. On the Siachen Glacier, known as the battlefield on the roof of the world, Indian forces have been fighting Pakistan for more than three decades.
During the fighting last year, India benefited from an element of luck, as tensions escalated during the warmer weather.
“If this had happened sometime in September, we would have to send troops. That was the only option, because the passes have ice on them – 40 feet of ice, “said AP Singh, a retired major general who led logistics operations in Ladakh.
But India will struggle to maintain its growing presence on two fronts.
A sudden rush of tens of thousands of additional troops meant shifting personnel and resources not only from reserves, but also from units on the Pakistani front.
Deployment at higher altitudes greatly increases transportation costs. It also requires about 48 specialized items of equipment, 18 of which, such as snow gear, snow boots, alpine sleeping bags, ice axes, are critical, General Singh said. The cost of building outposts is five times higher in eastern Ladakh than on the plains.
“When the guys moved in, it wasn’t like ‘I’m going to patrol for 15 days, and I’m back, and I’m going to carry my arctic tent on my back.’ Everyone realized that if something happened, you were going to go in forever, ”General Singh said. “It has cost the country economically.”
Keith bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing.