China, emerging as one of the most powerful global players in recent years, is pursuing its geostrategic interests with enormous military and economic might.
Being in the immediate vicinity, India has to bear the brunt of its muscle-flexing over incursions and territorial claims, which occurs with a vexing regularity, besides erection of temporary structures on our soil.
China watchers, strategic experts and peaceniks have usually been counselling India to keep a low profile for fear of antagonizing the mighty neighbour. The common refrain is that India is no match militarily and would be worsted in any conflict, often against the backdrop of the humiliating defeat in 1962, almost 52 years to the day. But could one ignore ground realities in assessing potential threats and eventualities.
It may be true that well trained and heavily armed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) overran Indian positions in Ladakh and parts of what is now Arunachal Pradesh, formerly North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), in a bid to teach the country a “lesson”. In spite of the overwhelming Chinese superiority in numbers, equipment and logistics, scattered pockets of Indian soldiers, armed only with vintage Lee Enfield rifles, some sub-machine guns and mortars, held off the enemy as long as they could, fighting until the last round and the last man.
It speaks eloquently about the motivation and performance levels of our outnumbered infantrymen. Bereft of supplies, artillery or air support and let down by the political leadership of the day, they died defending their regimental pride and the nation’s honour, in sub-zero temperatures, with the odds being stacked heavily against them. The lessons were not lost on the army, which got its act together and proved its mettle in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
But as public memory is short, it needs to be jiggled to place matters in the correct perspective. The brief Sino-Indian border engagement of 1962 is not the only instance when the two armies clashed, though it has skewed our perception since. Five years later, in a virtual replay of the circumstances that sparked the border war at Nathu La, China questioned the legitimacy of the McMahon Line for the second time and took to sabre rattling to show its displeasure.
The military leadership, still smarting under the past humiliation and much better prepared this time, resolutely refused to back down in the face of repeated PLA provocations, a familiar tactic to unnerve potential enemies. Unlike the earlier Himalayan debacle, every act of firing or assault on Indian positions invited a befitting response. These border skirmishes escalated into a full scale battle at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim, that raged between Sep 7 and 13, 1967, including exchange of intense artillery fire.
The Indian side, for once, led by young subalterns and majors inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, killing as many as 300 of its troops and wounding 450 others, while sustaining a loss of only 88 men and 163 injured, according to an estimate. It shattered the myth of invincibility built around the PLA, and forced its retreat from Sikkim. The battle resonated with acts of individual courage and heroism on the part of the officers and men.
Compared to the Indian Army, which is arguably the world’s most battle hardened military, the PLA is relatively inexperienced, with limited exposure to wars over the last 50 years, save for the one with Vietnam in 1979, from where it retreated in ignominy, besides some border skirmishes with India. Indian Army’ professionalism and mastery of the entire spectrum of conflicts, ranging from decades of counter-insurgency and guerrilla style operations to four wars with Pakistan, including Kargil, in a diversity of terrains and climatic conditions, remains unsurpassed.
India has also ensured complete dominion of Siachen, the world’s highest and harshest battlefield, by developing cutting edge skills and standard operating procedures that help soldiers survive in extremely hostile conditions on the hotly disputed glacier. Indian outposts on those rarefied heights have beaten back a number of Pakistani assaults. However, periodic clamour for demilitarization of a vital strategic and military asset is fraught with unthinkable consequences for India.
The Sumdorong Chu episode in 1986, the third in a series of border skirmishes, demonstrates how firm action by the top brass literally saved the day. General K. Sundarji, the then army chief, responding to repeated acts of Chinese incursions and building a helipad in Sumdorong Chu valley, (Arunachal Pradesh), promptly despatched an entire brigade to “stare down the Chinese”. Sundarji stood his ground and even offered to resign, when then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, fearing a clash with the PLA, insisted on a pullback. But the Chinese withdrawal vindicated the general’s stance.
China also invaded Vietnam in February 1979, provoked by the latter’s intervention in Cambodia to end Pol Pot’s reign of brutality and genocide. Employing massive “human wave” tactics, backed by artillery support and armoured columns, the PLA advanced some 20 km into its territory. Far from diverting its Cambodia-based army regulars, Vietnam rallied its second rung yet battle-tested border guards and local militias.
These cadres, fresh from a prolonged conflict with the US, fought with a ferocity that inflicted heavy casualties on the PLA, stunning the world. The brutal war, lasting only a few weeks, left 20,000 Chinese dead and an equal number injured. The PLA’s overwhelming firepower and numbers crumbled in the face of the spirited Vietnamese counter-attack. Vietnam also suffered almost as many dead and some 100,000 civilian casualties. The Indian Army reportedly sent a team to Vietnam to study the operational tactics with which it repelled the aggressors.
As a last resort, India can deploy the Special Frontier Force (SFF). Raised in the aftermath of 1962 war, the formation is tailor made for hit-and-run guerrilla operations. Officered and manned by the Indian Army and Tibetan conscripts, it came into the limelight during Operation Bluestar. SFF bands operating behind enemy lines can tie up and neutralise entire PLA brigades and divisions. It would not be a simple walkover for China. 2014 is not 1962!