Till two years ago, China loved to state that if India did not behave as expected (by Beijing), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could repeat the 1962 border war.
At the end of October 2017, as an offshoot of the Doklam episode, Sina.com published an album of photos showing ill-equipped and unprepared Indian troops who ‘dared to attack the superiorly-trained Chinese troops of Gen Zhang Guohua. According to Beijing, this gave Chairman Mao no option but to ‘counterattack’ and kill thousands of Indian jawans and officers.
Already in 2017, the PLA had the first hint that the present Indian Army was not that of the 1960s and as importantly, today’s political leadership is not wishfully dreaming of a Hindi-Chini brotherhood.
When Beijing undertook to change the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh in May 2020, a further message was sent to the Communist leadership in the Middle Kingdom; today India is ready to fight back if attacked.
Can China repeat 1962?
This is the question asked by many commentators.
Amit Bhandari, a Senior Fellow at Indian Council on Global Relations writes: “A weaker, more belligerent China?” He observes: “All doesn’t seem to be well with the mandate of heaven. China’s economy seems to be facing several issues with trouble in the key real estate, banking and technology industries. This could explain China’s sabre-rattling over US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. With the economy a mess, ‘protecting core interests’ offers the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a way to look good to its domestic audience, and divert attention from pressing problems at home.”
Beijing might become belligerent but the Indian Army in 2022 is fully geared to counter any eventuality from the North; this was demonstrated during the last two years in Ladakh. Therefore, Beijing should think twice before threatening India with a 1962 repeat.
A stronger diplomatic position
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has repeatedly said that the state of the border will determine the state of the India-China relationship, adding that for ties to return to a positive trajectory and remain sustainable, they must be based on the three mutuals — mutual sensitivity, mutual respect, and mutual interest: “We can reasonably expect Asia to continue rising because the economic and demographic trends point in that direction. How divided it would be depends on how well or badly its fissures are managed. And this, in turn, would demand adherence to laws, norms and rules. For a start, sovereignty and territorial integrity will have to be respected. Initiatives that impact the region must be consultative, not unilateral.”
This type of statement, more than a hypothetical meeting with Xi Jinping in Samarkand (which in any case did not happen) has probably forced China to accept a partial disengagement at Patrol Point (PP15), in the vicinity of the Gogra-Hotsprings area. The Indian and Chinese troops’ disengagement “is conducive to the peace and tranquility in the border areas,” asserted a joint communiqué issued in Delhi and Beijing.
But while Beijing welcomed the disengagement at PP15 as “a positive development”, it reiterated that it would not accept India’s demand to restore the status quo prior to China’s transgressions, saying “the status quo of April 2020… was created by India’s illegal crossing of the Line of Actual Control [LAC]”; an obvious lie.
Can there be another conflict?
A first question: Where could China attack India?
Certainly not in Ladakh which is slowly stabilising, but it is worth looking at Arunachal Pradesh where a few traditional ‘disputed places’ exist: Khenzimane, Yangtse in the Tawang sector; Tsari/Subansiri area, the Fish Tails and the Dichu ridge in Anjaw district.
Among these, only the Fish Tails area, south of the border on the map, due to a cartographical error at the beginning of the 20th century, remains difficult to access (and defend) for India.
According to India Today, “Residents of Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district have recorded videos showing China’s PLA personnel and machinery carrying out construction work near Hadigara-Delta 6 in Chaglagam.” It generally takes four days for an individual to reach Chaglagam, the last administrative post in the district near LAC in the vicinity of Fish Tail II.
The Indian Army is nevertheless taking measures to defend the nation’s territory.
Press Trust of India recently noted that the Army has started ‘reorienting’ and ‘re-balancing’ its forces along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh sector: “The measures being taken by the Army to boost its overall combat readiness come amid the over two-year long military standoff with China in eastern Ladakh.”
The agency said that “from construction of roads, bridges, ammunition depots to bolstering its air assets and surveillance apparatus, the army is also ramping up military infrastructure on a war footing for quicker mobilisation of troops in the strategically sensitive RALP (Rest of Arunachal Pradesh) region.”
The General-Officer-Commanding (GOC) of the 2 Mountain Division, Maj Gen MS Bains explained that the focus of the Army “has been fully shifted towards the frontier with China and that almost all the counter-insurgency operations previously involving the force are now being carried out by the Assam Rifles in the region”; at the same time as many as 990 villages in five districts of Arunachal Pradesh have been identified under the vibrant village programme. This should definitively cool down the Chinese ardours, if any.
The intensive infrastructure development
It is another factor which should deter the PLA to ‘try their luck’.
In a few months, the Sela tunnel project will allow faster deployment of troops and weapons to forward areas in the Tawang sector; it is expected to be completed by the year-end at the cost of Rs 700 crore.
The area witnessed the famous Battle of Nuranang during which Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat from the 4 Garhwal Rifles beat back two PLA charges on 17 November, 1962. During a third intrusion, a Chinese medium machine gun (MMG) had come close to the Indian defences, Rawat, along with Lance Naik Trilok Singh Negi and Rifleman Gopal Singh Gusain volunteered to subdue the MMG.
Though seriously injured, Rawat managed to return with the captured weapon; the battle resulted in 300 Chinese casualties; he was later killed. He was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second highest bravery award. The point to remember is that the Indian soldier remains a top-class fighter.
The Sela tunnel, announced by the government in 2018, will be the longest twin-lane tunnel above 13,000 feet in the world, and will cut down travel time to Tawang by more than one hour and more importantly provide all-weather connectivity.
The Army’s Eastern Command based in Kolkata recently flagged off a series of civil-military adventure activities along the India-China border from Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh; a total of 20 activities covering mountaineering, cycling, rafting and trekking are planned over 78 days from August to December are spread along the northern borders.
According to Eastern Command’s press release, it entails a mountaineering expedition from Mt Jongsong on the western tip of Sikkim to a trekking expedition to Doma via Jachep La on the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar. Generally, this type of exercises helps create a greater symbiosis between civilians and the army, a must in case of a conflict.
Tourism promotion in border areas is also one of the objectives of the adventure activities.
A New Airport
Arunachal Pradesh is set to have a new airport soon; the new Hollongi greenfield airport is located in Itanagar, the state’s capital. On a 4,100 sqm area, it will accommodate 200 passengers during peak hours. The runway for the new airport is 2,300 m and works well for a Boeing 747 aircraft. developed by the AAI at an estimated cost of Rs 645 crore, it will be energy-efficient. Presently, the nearest airport to Arunachal Pradesh is the Lilabari airport in Assam.
Incidentally, since 2021, a DO-228 aircraft connects remote locations of Mechuka, Tuting, Vijaynagar, Ziro, Pasighat and Tezu.
Perhaps more than these new developments which are important, is the high level of preparedness and professionalism of the Indian officers and troops that this columnist recently witnessed during a visit to Tawang sector.
Nobody is today ready to tolerate Chinese adventurism and like their colleagues in eastern Ladakh, the Indian Army and Air Force are fully geared to repel any Chinese attack in the North East; 1962 is far behind today.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.