Why 2017 is not 1962
When Chinese editorials of its controlled media were baying for Indian blood and suggesting that Indians should ‘not forget history lessons’ of 1962, the sharp rebuttal from defence minister Arun Jaitley that ‘the situation in 1962 was different, the India of today is different’, was not a political tit-for-tat but a cold reality that needs to be reiterated, stripped of any hyper-nationalistic import. The defence forces of India are specially guarded and weigh each word thoroughly through the prism of hard facts, as opposed to any political posturing. Herein, the underpinning calculus of the Indian Army Chief’s stoic comment that ‘India was ready for a two-and-a-half-front-war’ this was a further confirmation of the Indian preparedness towards any eventuality. This is a fact, despite the numerical and material superiority that China has maintained over India since the 1962 war, and even during the 1967 border conflict at Nathu La and Cho La, as indeed now in 2017. It is equally true that China’s military investments are approximately thrice that of India’s ($151 billion as opposed to $51 billion for India in 2017), and that its standing Army is nearly twice that of India’s (2.3 million to 1.3 million), or even that its estimated nuclear warheads are more than twice that of India’s (260 to 110).
However, none of these statistics count in a restricted war in an isolated theatre. Intrinsically and perversely, the reality of nuclear warheads at the disposal of both the Chinese and Indian regimes fundamentally alter the dynamics as compared to 1962. It acts as a deterrent against escalation to a full-scale war — no two nucleararmed countries have ever gone to a full-scale war. Principles of ‘calculated ambiguity’ and ‘second-strike capability’ in nuclear doctrines militates against any unilateral approach to undertake one decisive strike, using both conventional and nuclear arms. So, in essence, the equanimity afforded by the joint nuclear status constrains conflicts between warring nations to be restricted to a limited theatre, like Doklam. Excerpts from the leaked Henderson Brooks report, which studied the debacle of 1962 in detail, plot the morass that afflicted the Indian preparedness in 1962 at various levels, like organisational, policy, planning and overall preparedness. From blatant political interference in key command positions, lack of quality intelligence by the agencies, amateurish ‘forward policy’ (overruling professional military concerns from the field commanders) and an overall lack of investment and equipment was reversed and corrected as soon as 1965. For those who state that the 1965 war was an India-Pak war and therefore cannot be equated with the Sino-Indian war dynamics, the following 1967 conflicts at Nathu La and Cho La entailed the Sino-Indian dynamics and the Indian forces came up victorious fair and square in the ‘restricted’ theatre. The high point of Indian military’s professionalism was in 1971 and reiterated in ‘Kargil’ in 1999. So 1962 was a forgotten chapter by 1965 itself, let alone 2017.
The ongoing steely stare down that is playing out in Doklam sector today, involving 6,000 foot soldiers, has more in common with a similar standoff in 1967, when a People’s Liberation Army attack on Nathu La was successfully repulsed, leading to a bloody nose for the PLA. No amount of numerical ‘paper strength’ mattered for much in the eventual outcome that led to a humiliating fatality count of 400 PLA soldiers and an estimated 70 fatal casualties for the Indian infantry battalions. Significantly, the Chinese are not oblivious to the professionalism of the Indian soldier when they state in their columns, “India’s military has more experience in mountain combat”. Localised logjams like Doklam have their own dynamics and operational imperatives that are bereft of the ‘paper strengths’ of hypothetical fullscale wars. Structurally also, the independent PLA is a potential threat to its own regime of the Communist Party of China. Hence, the PLA swears its allegiance to the CPC and not to the country! So the ‘party Army’ necessitates that all company-level PLA officers are also CPC members, and they have ‘political officers’ as apparatchiks to ensure control. The non-military advisory CPC committee members have major say on military matters as opposed to the PLA itself. Amidst all this, ‘political work’ is a significant part of the PLA training that entails wasteful propagandist indoctrination of the CPC’s, civilian sensibilities.
Unlike the Indian armed forces, who have been frequently involved in cross-border wars and insurgencies since 1962, the Chinese have had no major combat experiences. Its famed technological prowess is ‘reverse engineering’ at best with unproven efficacy, whereas the bulk of Indian defence equipment and composition has either been bloodied in combat or is of a credible Western technological origin with proven capabilities. Never mind India, China’s perennial bug bear Taiwan has defied all Chinese belligerence and military bullying, three waves of ‘Taiwan Strait Crisis’ have not altered Taipei’s resilience or sovereignty. With all its numerical strength, supposed ‘blue water’ Navy capabilities, cutting-edge military platforms like the fifth generation Chengdu J-20, burgeoning nuclear weaponry, world’s largest army of cyber warriors and hackers, second largest fleet of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, Chinese remain unsuccessful in their quest to wrest Taiwan, which is hardly 100 nautical miles from their mainland, equipped at a fraction of China, but with just about enough to give the Chinese a bloody nose!
It is in this context and realm of holding ground approach of the Indian narrative as opposed to the ‘expansionist’ instincts of the Chinese that the Doklam standoff needs to be evaluated and appreciated. The Chinese are past masters of both muscle-flexing and impressive posturing. However, it is with the careful analysis of the PLA track record, evolution of the emerging global dynamics (India-US angularity) and the inherent battle preparedness of the Indian armed forces that the statements made by the Indian defence minister and the Chief of Army Staff need to be decoded. Like the last Sino-Indian skirmish in 1987 in the Sumdorong Chu Valley, it is expected that the thaw will soon ensue and diplomacy will take over to de-escalate tensions. However, history also suggests that the same happens with the Chinese only when the opposing nation has reciprocated the bullying and expansionist tendencies, like in Doklam.