Interview with General Asthana (ret.): Ladakh and Doklam-„Both are manifestations of Chinese expansionism and ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy“

Interview with General Asthana (ret.): Ladakh and Doklam-„Both are manifestations of Chinese expansionism and ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy“

Global Review had the pleasure to have another interview with General (ret.) Asthana about the Indo-Chinese border conflict and China`s new expansionism and assertvivness.

Maj Gen S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)

Chief Instructor,United Service Institution of India Council, Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE) Security Council, International Organization for Educational Development (IOED) International Police Commission, (IPC, India)United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA) Internet TV Media News Network (ITVMNN) Advisory Board, Swedish Armed Forces International Center – SWEDINTExpert Group, Challenges Forum for International Peace, Sweden.

Global Review: General Asthana, China thinks that India´s new nationalism and its rapprochement with the USA, the hope that it can replace China as global factory, would now mirror in the military sphere. The Global Times writes:

„An economy-crippling lockdown doesn’t seem to have deterred India from daring to dream big as its ambition to replace China’s role in the global industrial chain expands. 

India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh is forming an economic task force to attract companies eyeing a manufacturing shift from China, according to media reports. However, despite such efforts, it is still delusional to expect economic pressure facing China amid the COVID-19 pandemic will allow India to become the world’s next factory. Radical voices saying that India is on track to replace China reflect nothing but nationalistic hubris.

And such conceit has gone beyond economic issues to reach the military level, which has led some to mistakenly believe they can now confront China with border issues. Such thinking is undoubtedly dangerous and misguided. Thus far, Chinese border defense troops have bolstered border control measures and made necessary moves in response to New Delhi’s recent attempt to unilaterally change the border control situation in the Galwan Valley region.

Western media outlets have been enthusiastic in touting India’s competitiveness by comparing its market potential to China’s, which has given some Indians a false impression of the actual situation. It would be unrealistic to think that there is any chance India could take China’s place at the current time. Tensions between China and the US are not an opportunity for India to attract relocating industrial chains, because the South Asian country is not prepared to receive such a manufacturing shift given its poor infrastructure, lack of skilled labour and stringent foreign investment restrictions.“ Do you think the rise of India is accompanied with a new Indian assertiveness as China claims?

Major General S B Asthana

Global Times is a mouthpiece of CCP, part of Chinese ‘Three Warfare Strategy” and propaganda machinery. Its credibility as media is extremely poor, globally. It is part of Chinese strategy of blaming the adversary, after unwarranted adventurism as part of its expansionist design exhibited in maritime and continual domain, taking unfair advantage of the world grappling with COVID19, a disease, which allegedly originated in China. Its adventurism in Ladakh is part of overall strategy of Incremental Encroachment exhibited in South and East China Sea, and internally in Hong Kong. It will be naïve for anyone to believe a fake news that India, which is still battling with COVID19 and yet to reach the peak will think of launching offensive on China, which claims to have conquered the pandemic.

China made an unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, trying to grab territory which does not belong to it, presuming that India will not be able to react and it will make territorial gains without fighting. China miscalculated Indian resolve to defend its territory and got a befitting reply to an extent that it is still shy of declaring its casualties and giving them honourable last rites. All the statements given in the question are lame excuses for face saving, by playing a victim card after trying to test Indian resolve.

China was converted into a global factory by US and the West. After China was accused of unfairly profiteering out of pandemic, the world is realising that it is better to diversify investments and manufacturing, although decoupling will take fair amount of time. It is also a fact that China has lost global trust in pandemic era and faces global anger, although some countries are not expressing it, not to disrupt their medical supply chain amidst the pandemic. China is aware of this diversification of its manufacturing power and India happens to be one of such options; hence it choses to blame India. US and India are suffering due to the pandemic and unfair treatment from China.

India, in my opinion, is looking at peaceful inclusive growth, and has no desire for any assertiveness, however it will leave no stone unturned to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The economic task force to attract FDI is part of inclusive growth and development initiatives of India and has nothing to do with Ladakh or the pandemic. 

Global Review: The Indo-Chinese border conflict at Ladakh has different explanations: China makes India responsible for a new assertiveness, infrastructure building in this region in order to fix new borders, the Trump-Modi meeting, the new Indian Hindu nationalism which by the Jammu/ Kashmir abrogation law also influences the Line of Control, etc. India on the other side claims that there is a new Chinese assertiveness, that it is the first time that China claims that the Galwan valley as part of China and also points to other aggressive actions of China like in the South China Sea which was the model for Chinese encroachment step by step. What were in your opinion the reasons for the Ladakh incident?

Major General S B Asthana

It will be naïve for anyone to think that India will go aggressive on borders when it is peaking in coronavirus cases with over 25000 infections per day. The Chinese propaganda without logical reasoning is unlikely to sell. Jammu and Kashmir is internal matter of India. Meeting of President Trump with PM Modi has nothing to do with borders. India is a secular state hence Hindutva is a propaganda subject, perpetuated by media inimical to secular fabric of India. 

China got over the pandemic cycle of Novel Coronavirus earlier than other major countries including India, which were still busy combating COVID-19. China has unfairly used it as an opportunity to assert itself on multiple fronts, including India China borders. This is a sequel to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific at multiple places in South and East China sea with greater assertion against other claimants like Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. Besides coercion of Taiwan, it has also taken away the autonomy of Hong Kong. The rationale of China being over assertive at the time of pandemic comes from Sun Tzu’s thoughts of ‘Strike adversary when it’s weak and preserve yourself when it is strong’. China is therefore speeding up its Incremental Encroachment Strategy in South China Sea as well as LAC.     

 China has developed its infrastructure up to its perception of LAC and wants to deny the same to India; hence has chosen this time to assert to block Indian progress of infrastructure development along the borders. In the current standoff in Ladakh, Chinese seem to have carefully selected pandemic as the time of assertion, and Galwan area, which it did not claim after 1962.  The intent seems to be to deter/prevent Indian infrastructure development getting closer to LAC in the region from where the Karakoram highway and route to CPEC is relatively closer. Claims and counterclaims notwithstanding, if you compare the satellite imagery of Ladakh, available all over the world between early April and July 2020, it will clearly bring out that China is the aggressor and has moved into areas, where it was not supposed to be, as per the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).

Global Review: If you compare the Ladakh crisis with previous crisis and the Doklam crisis, are there any differences or something new about the Ladakh crisis or is it just another border conflict due to the fact that the Chinese never accepted the British treaties and that there is no agreement on delineation, demarcation and demilitarization?

Major General S B Asthana

The standoff at Ladakh and Doklam have some similarities and many differences. Both are manifestations of Chinese expansionism and ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’. In both cases Chinese aggression was evident and responded firmly by India. In both cases Chinese tried to twist history in their favour. China does not recognise any treaty on border issue signed prior to its illegal annexation of Tibet, or signed between British India and Tibet, but its hypocrisy is evident from the fact that in Doklam issue, it chose to refer to 1890 Treaty, as it felt that was advantageous to China.

In absence of any border treaty between PRC and India post-independence, both countries have own perception of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and in certain areas these perception overlap. The LAC has not been delineated, delimited and demarcated.  Both sides patrol areas up to own perception of LAC; hence in overlapping areas, it is termed as transgression by opposite side. In most transgressions troops patrol and go back to their bases. In case the troops do not go back and make arrangements for longer stay in particular areas claiming to be its own it leads to standoff, as the opposing side is also under compulsion to do the same, which is the case in Pongong Tso. In case of Galwan valley, it’s a case of Chinese moving into an area never claimed by them after 1962, with massive force, hoping that India may not be able to react due to COVID19 crisis, which turned out to be a miscalculation as Indian troops also reacted with similar build up leading to face-off.

Doklam was a trilateral issue and Ladakh is a bilateral issue. In case of Ladakh China intruded at multiple points with large number of troops, with much more preparations, pitched tents and made some bunkers. Beijing’s current overdrive along China-India borders can be speculated to be due to many other reasons in addition to denying India to build infrastructure near LAC, having built it on its side. Firstly putting indirect pressure on India to distance itself from South China Sea and Taiwan issues; secondly avoid being critical of China as international investigation, scrutiny and interrogation progresses related to Covid-19 pandemic under Indian chairmanship of WHA;  thirdly reminding India not to side US as our hips are joint by unsettled borders unlike other Quad members; fourthly reduce threat to China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC), provide depth to Western Highway.  

Global Review: Lobsang Sangay, President of the Central Tibet Administration, explained that Beijing’s recent actions on the Line of Actual Control with India can be seen as following the ‘Five Fingers of Tibet strategy’ as was laid down by People’s Republic of China’s founding father Mao Zedong.

“When Tibet was occupied, Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders said, ‘Tibet is the palm which we must occupy, then we will go after the five fingers’. The first finger is Ladakh. The other four are Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh,” he said. Do you think that the long term goal of the CPC is to seize the five fingers or is Mao´s strategic vision outdated?

Major General S B Asthana

You have rightly pointed out. China had expansionist design and continues to have the same. CPC/Mao Zedang’s strategic vision is not outdated and is being demonstrated not only in Ladakh but elsewhere. China annexed Tibet and got the palm. China now tried to get into Ladakh which is one of the finger but got a push back. China has been able to manipulate Nepal PM Oli, suffering from political insecurity, to gain influence through financial and digital offensive and force him to take such actions which secure his chair besides getting Nepal in Chinese strategic orbit. China has been trying the same with Bhutan also, but has not been successful so far. Its attempt in Sikkim, costed them loss of face with heavy casualties in 1967, which later became part of India in 1975. It remained in its limit during Doklam crisis. Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are part of India and will be defended by India at all cost. This resolve is well known to China, but it will keep trying for encroachment, whenever it finds an opportunity unless the LAC is demarcated.   

Global Review:   Beyond encroaching the Galwan valley and other disputed areas, China is now planning huge water reservoirs in Tibet using the so-called Heaven Channel for the diversion of water resources to Beijing and Shanghai in order to satisfy China’s water shortage. At the same time, however, this would mean that water volumes belonging to India and Southeast Asia would be lacking, which can have ecological and profound economic consequences. There is increasing hope among parts of the Tibetans that Tibetan independence may be promoted through a water conflict between India and China and the border conflicts. The Tibetan Rangzen Alliance expressed this most clearly and hope for a Sino-Indian conflict which will bring the independence of Tibet. In a statement in the late 90s they write:

“The possibility of anarchy and chaos breaking out is very real. Should it get there, there would surely be a chance to achieve Tibet’s independence. Of course, we have to use those moments with determination and force. The Chinese, however weak and disoriented, will certainly not surrender Tibet peacefully or voluntarily. At the same time, it must be emphasized that ranking is not achieved by simply waiting for China to destroy itself. The Tibetans can promote the process by destabilizing Tibet from the inside and organizing international economic actions against China. (…) Even if China should not ultimately break up, but is only weakened by today’s difficulties, the Tibetans still exist the possibility of creating or promoting a situation in which China ’s resources are underutilized and the Beijing leadership is forced to consider whether it is wise to sacrifice China‘ s own stability and integrity peripheral colonies. (…)

 (Chinese geo-strategist)Wang also does not overlook India’s role in the matter and surprisingly admits that the Tibetans are much closer to India mentally, culturally and even physically than China. He describes how Chinese Qing and Kuomintang officials often travelled to Lhasa via India because it was much more convenient. Wang sees a great danger in this proximity of the two nations because he knows that India’s military capabilities have improved tremendously since 1962 and that Indian defense spending rose almost twice as fast as Chinese in the 1980s and is even higher today, although China has also increased its spending significantly. He appeals to foreign military experts who „believe that India today has the best mountain troops in the world, the toughest, the best equipped and capable of successfully warding off any Chinese attack.“

Do you think such a scenario is realistic? 

Major General S B Asthana 

Currently China and India are in the process of disengaging in phases. India never had any intention of getting into any conflict and after the push back received by China, even they don’t seem to be keen for any conflict. Indian expectation is that Chinese must go back to pre-standoff positions, however there is a trust deficit due to Chinese actions in Galwan on night 15/16 June 2020; hence it is being monitored. It will be premature to predict anything till disengagement is completed at all points and troops move back to pre-standoff positions.The scenario painted by you/Tibet strategist is too premature to comment, as China has so far not stopped water flow to India, although some water projects on River Tsang Po are of concern to lower riparian countries. Chinese efforts to link/divert water flow to water starved areas in China is an environmental concern, as Tibet is the water reservoir of Asia and such engineering will certainly affect ecological balance. Water is also a global common, hence its diversion will affect South Asia. The problem so far has not been grave enough to trigger a conflict.

Global Review: China hawks in India already propose much more new Indian assertive actions and criticize Modi for not posturing resolute enough and let China step by step make ist gradual encroachment of Indian territory. Therefore even the threat of an Indian-Chinese border war was an idea as Indian geo-strategist Bharat Karnad proposes:

India’s squeamish attitude towards China is a liability, the army should implement more violent rules of engagement and prepare for limited war

 Is such a limited war feasible and likely? Will we face a new 1962 border war or even something worse? 

Major General S B Asthana 

War is not in the interest of China or India, but if it is forced upon India, its defence forces are prepared to take on any such challenge and give a befitting reply to the adversary. As of now the disengagement is in process and Chinese have not said that they will not go back; hence there is no reason to up the ante. The Chinese however cannot be believed; hence India will need to be ready for all contingencies. 

It needs to be noted that in escalation dynamics, it is not possible for one side to keep the war limited. The strategists without combat experience find it difficult to conceive that commencing a war means readiness by both parties to climb many steps in escalation ladder, more so, when Chinese aggressiveness is part of larger design, timed with other frontiers. The dimensions of warfare has changed. We are already witnessing economic, digital, cyber and information warfare along with posturing. The so called limited war, as author proposes may not remain restricted to Ladakh, but may well trigger actions in other fronts and domains.   Global Review:   A contribution by Indian strategist Samir Tata also proposed an US- Indo alliance not only in the Indo-Pacific but also in the Himalaya with US boots on the ground and the scenario that Indian and US forces attacked Tibet and cut off China in Tibet and Xinjiang from its New Silkroad, gas and oil pipelines and water resources. In the US Army War College Quarterly Vol.48, No.1 2018 Samir Tata published a programmatic article „US Land power and an Indo-American Alliance“ ( page 95 ff.). Samir Tata questions former Secretary of Defense Gate´s programmatic assumption, that in future US wars boots on the ground were not essential and that Navy and Airforce were the main contributors for such a war. Accordingly, the US Army should get prepared to fight Himalaya and land wars against China together with India. The question is if the author means his article serious or if it is just a desperate move of the US Army to find a new place and role within the US military branches which are enlarged by a Cybercommand and maybe a new Space force. However, the article addresses the problem that China is getting more independent from sea routes by its New Silkroad initiative, that Offshore Control and Air-sea battle might not work anymore and that the USA has to find a solution to cut off China from its silk roads in the event of a war. But precision-guided missiles on pipelines and trucks might substitute boots on the ground in the Himalaya. Do you think this is empty talk or could in the mid or long term there not only be a cooperation like the Quad for the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea, but also an Indo-American military cooperation on land?

Major General S B Asthana 

I haven’t read the complete article of Samir Tata in US Army War College Quarterly Vol.48, No.1 2018; hence it may not be appropriate to comment on his article. To answer your question, I do see the possibility of Indo-US co-operation in Indo-Pacific, Quad, capacity building, training, defence technology and many such related fields. Regarding Ladakh I do see scope for cooperation in intelligence sharing and capability development in military hardware. It will be too premature to talk about US role in continental domain in this region, as yet. 

Global Review: The Chinese military strategist Chen Guodong comments Samir Tata`s article for Global Review as follows: 

„What is the strategic motivation of Indian scholar Samir Tata? I can’t see it in this report. If Britain does not deliberately delineate a controversial borderline in the South Asian subcontinent, there will be no contradiction between China and India, and there will be no contradiction between India and Pakistan. In fact, there have been three wars between India and Pakistan, and a large-scale border war between India and China.

India’s national strength and national interests do not support India’s political ambitions. India should work to reduce conflicts with its neighbours. This report suggests that India is involved in an unknown conflict, which is not in India’s interest.

From a military perspective, the cost of long-range strikes is high, which is a disadvantage of India. The border between China and India is very close to major cities and industrial centres in India. China can use the tactical ballistic missiles and the J-20 stealth attack aircraft to hit the core area of ​​India. India lacks conventional attacks on China’s core regions.

China’s energy import routes are diversified. China’s huge investment in wind power, solar power, nuclear power and electric vehicles will greatly reduce its dependence on imported oil. Even on the Indian Ocean route, the range and hit accuracy of China’s second-generation anti-ship ballistic missile Dongfeng-26 can effectively protect Chinese merchant ships sailing in the Indian Ocean.

The strategic motivation of Indian scholar Samir Tata is chaotic.“ Do you agree with this statement?

Major General S B Asthana

I haven’t read the complete article of Samir Tata, but I do not agree with Chinese military strategist Chen Guodong. Unlike China, India has no expansionist design or political ambition. India’s national interest is peaceful inclusive growth and India has enough national strength to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. No one can dictate India’s strategic choices. Chinese description of its muscle power given above, does not impress a nuclear power like India, which has much more experienced troops in comparison to PLA who have not seen combat in last four decades. It is incorrect for a professional like me to start describing vulnerabilities of China, but sufficient to say that arrogance mixed with overambition has led to disaster for most powerful countries in history and China is no exception.   Global Review: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been conducting intensive military exercises of multiple dimensions, including high altitude tank and anti-tank drills in Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, large-scale, the long-distance manoeuvre of an army brigade to Northwest China, and night time group parachute infiltration, following the fatal clash between China and India in the border region.

These PLA drills not only showed that its forces stationed in border regions have high combat capability, but that troops from across China will also come to their aid, and the PLA can crush any aggression with land-air integrated joint operations, Chinese military experts said. Are these normal routine drills or is China preparing for an enemy´s attack or even a greater border war with India? Has India similar drills on its side?

Major General S B Asthana

The videos of PLA drills and exercises do not impress professionals like Indian Defence Forces. It is part of Chinese psychological warfare aiming to win without fighting as per teachings of Sun Tzu. Professional defence forces do not advertise such drills, exercises and capabilities and do not believe in dramatics.

Global Review: How realistic is it that a border agreement could be reached in the midterm? What compromises are necessary? Would this be a bilateral Indo-Chinese agreement or have other regional states to be involved in a solution? Can the USA or Russia be  a mediator in the solution of the conflict?

Major General S B Asthana 

The complexity of the border issue between the two countries is evident from the fact that 22 rounds of talks have taken place and the resolution of the border issue is nowhere in sight. LAC irrespective of differing perceptions continues to be a compromise formula, pending the border resolution, which has its own pitfalls in bringing peace and tranquility, because perceptions can be repeatedly stretched beyond limits, if the intentions change, as has been the case with Chinese so many times. The idea of managing peace and tranquility through agreements and CBMs has not been found effective enough, after 15th June deadly scuffle by premeditated ambush of Indian troops by Chinese, junking existing CBMs, using barbaric methods like nail pinned rods to cause casualties, resulting in hand to hand fights, strong response by Indians, ending up with even more casualties on their side, and embarrassment to avoid declaring them.  

It is often mentioned that it has resolved its border dispute with 12 out of 14 countries, however Chinese argue that it was done on give and take principle. In China-India equation giving anything has a heavy political cost, as both sides have dug their heels to their respective positions, which is unlikely to change easily.

Galwan/ Pangong Tso is neither the first or nor the last standoff, which will continue to happen, unless the LAC is demarcated. The demarcation of LAC is doable, provided both sides “Agree to Agree”. Chinese, however, continue to drag their feet in doing so because, having developed their infrastructure up to LAC earlier than India, China does not want to let go this comparative strategic advantage by denying similar infrastructure development by India. In my opinion, the delimitation and demarcation of LAC will happen only, when the political/strategic cost of not doing so will increase for China, in comparison to doing so.

Sino- Indian border issue is a bilateral issue and I do not visualise any mediation by anyone in this issue.

Global Review: China and Pakistan, as of today, fought separate wars against India. Nonetheless, lacking a problem’s resolution, it doesn’t seem that absurd for a possible joint two front attack against India to occur, also in view of a Chinese support in the Indian Ocean. Is India prepared for such a two front war scenario?

Major General S B Asthana

Any professional force has to be ready with all kind of contingency planning. The scenario depicted by you is not new and has been widely discussed in open domain. Such a contingency cannot be seen in isolation. If in escalation dynamics such a contingency arises, the maritime front will also be active and besides India facing two front situation, China/Pakistan might face multi front situation as well. It is difficult to predict such scenario, but as per past experience, China did not intervene in any India-Pakistan conflict and vice versa, because every country acts as per its own national aim and strategic interest. This historical fact cannot be taken for granted for future; hence I am confident that India must have catered for such scenario. The number of strategic partnerships, especially in maritime domain indicate towards it, along with its force structuring pattern and size of its defence forces. 

It may also be noted that the next war cannot be like the last war. The dimensions and instruments have changed and two physical boundaries are not the only fronts; hence every conflict will have multiple front including economics, diplomatic, information warfare, alliances and strategic partnerships etc. I am slightly surprised because as of now India and China are talking disengagement, both have said that no-one wants war, yet some strategists are hypothetically stretching it to two front war, leading to all out war, if imagined further.  An all out war scenario is far fetched imagination, because it will result in mutually assured destruction as all three countries are nuclear powers. It is absurd to think that the entire world will let three nuclear countries fight, as mute spectators.

Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who also retains the copyright). He can be reached at Facebook and LinkedIn, as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, on personnel site email  LinkedIn   Youtube link

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