China and War in High Mountains

Sub Title : Difficult to predict how the current standoff will pan out

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2021

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer PVSM, AVSM

Page No. : 46

Category : Military Affairs

: September 30, 2021

It is difficult to predict how the current standoff will pan out in the future. However, what can be said with near certainty is that escalation by China  is unlikely but the horizon of conflict will be wider and the domains of manifestation more. The Chinese desire will be to ensure a favourable outcome

“There is however one aspect of Chinese culture that is little known outside the circle of professional historians. It is the aggressive imperialism that characterised the politics of China throughout the course of her history 3rd Century BC to today- 2200 years.” – – Professor, Dr RC Majumdar

It is a precipitous enterprise to write on China, today, since there is a plethora of opinions and facts swirling around the type and cyberspace. Having been a silent observer and conscientious reader, the one fact that has always amazed me is why, indeed why are we surprised by China. Why do we feel China should react and respond differently? A simple reading of Chinese thought, admissions, announcements, and above all the actions of the CCP, and the Chinese Leaders, should have left no doubt. Other nations can be given a margin of error but for India as a sovereign territorial entity, China’s intentions have been constant and unflinching. Equally astonishing is the large tribe of strategic thinkers, who have put forward the bizarre proposals centred on the premise of a rise of a peaceful and responsible China.

The smokescreen created by the Deng era, and economic linkages despite being imbalanced, added more smoke to the screen. For India I feel the smoke generated carried a little puff of ‘complimentary opium’. The resultant stupor actually had quarters believe that a peaceful coexistence and resolution of all issues would be the way ahead. But smoke is not corporeal. Some of us remain transfixed. Reality gallops on.

The end of WW1 and the peace of 1919 was a profound politico strategic moment. It set in motion a confection of arrangements and movements globally. For China, full of expectation, it was a rude rejection, since they were even denied a seat on the main table, and none of their demands and aspirations were met. This precipitated the May Fourth movement, in time gravitating to the Communist party and the eventual leadership of Mao Tse Tung. Mao’s early years were influenced by the Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao, and his mentor Kang Youwei. Consequent to the dishonour at Versailles, Liang said, “China’s only crime has been her weakness and her belief in international justice…” “The only one China could count on is herself”. Mao brought the CCP to the fore and established through war and the Revolution, Communist China. In 1949 he proclaimed, “The Chinese people comprising one quarter of humanity have now stood up”. Born out of conflict, armed intimidation is second nature, whether it is the South China Sea or our Himalayan Borders. True to the wisdom of Liang, China has no intention of ever being weak, or conforming to laws except of its own choosing.

The Chinese invasion, ‘Liberation’ of Tibet commenced on 07 October 1950, with PLA’s 2nd Army, commanded by Lui Bocheng, and with political control by Deng Xiaoping. Within a month of the fall of Chamdo, the PLA moved in strength opposite Walong in Arunachal Pradesh. In near simultaneity, the Chinese launched their first offensive in support of North Korea, on October 26th 1950. For Tibet 16000 troops were tasked and in Korea, 80,000 (reportedly) under Gen Peng Dehuai. This strategic selection of moment has remained Chinas forte.

The 1962 invasion of India was chosen at a time when the world was transfixed with the Cuban Missile Crises. The Chinese launched aggression consequent to prolonged and deliberate preparations, material, logistics, media and psychological. A Korean War veteran was assigned for overall command. Attacks were multidirectional and calculated to be delivered in overwhelming numbers. There was a clear supremacy in Operational and Tactical Intelligence. Infiltration and cutting off objectives was frequent. Media and psychological ops were integrated into the attack patterns. This was an Army that had retained its Guerrilla traditions, veterans of Korea and Tibet; it was used to a lean and frugal existence and was stoic in the face of deprivations.

The inadequacy, isolation and deleterious logistics of the Indian Army then, are well documented. Dystopian intelligence and apex politico military decision making paradigms have been analysed. It remains to draw some conclusions from the battlefield. For fighting units, vacating and withdrawal without battle, and standing and fighting against all odds, are two very separate eventualities. In the overall dismay, and psychological impact of a “debacle”, let’s not forget the outstanding soldering which was done. The majority of the points of attack by the Chinese, found them having to fight desperately, take large casualties, and only prevail where they did at great cost as well as under the strain of repeated assaults. Saluting our heroism and valour, several unsung soldiers and officers did what they were trained to do, fight a punishing defensive battle, to the last man. The Chinese were not ten feet tall nor did they like grim reapers walk over our supplicating soldiers. Where severe reverses took place is well known but this was not the norm. In 1967, the same PLA, precipitated clashes at and around Nathu La, on the Sikkim border and received such a bloody nose at the hands of the Indian Army that it had to huddle for years to study and analyse it.

Let’s shift focus to 1969, Sino – Soviet border, Ussuri River. With a long history of the boundary dispute, and more recent Mao – Khrushchev rivalry, Mao sought to teach Moscow a ‘Bitter Lesson’. The PLA attacked on 02 March 1969, at Zenbao/Damansky Island in the frozen Ussuri River. It was a fatal mistake. Not only did it lead to a six month war where Moscow retaliated, with T-62 tanks, APCs and Grad BM21 rockets, but led to putting Mao to panic. Riding a successful psychological war and media campaign, together with excellent body language, Moscow conveyed the message of Nuclear Attacks. On 27 August CIA Director Helms, stated Moscow had approached foreign governments, for their reactions to nuclear attacks. Mao fled from Beijing and placed the 2nd Artillery Nuclear forces on full alert. China’s nuclear force was in its infancy, so when Moscow again proposed negotiations, it jumped at the offer.

In Feb 1979, China attacked Viet Nam. The month long conflict claimed a huge number of lives and left behind a wake of destruction in Northern Vietnam. The Vietnamese fought with their Militia and preserved their Regulars. The Chinese suffered heavy casualties and called off the conflict, having achieved none of their war aims. Sumdurong Chu 1986, Arunachal – Tibet border. While enhancement of the deployment along the Border had commenced since 1983-84, in June 1986 the Indian Army found the Chinese establishing a permanent post on the Sumdurong Chu at Thandrong Pasture in Tawang. The Chinese built a Helipad by August. In September, the Indian Government offered to diffuse the situation, if the Chinese withdrew. With no change on the ground, the Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, in October warned that India will have to be taught a lesson. The Indian Army Chief launched operation Chequer Board, and heavy forward deployments facilitated by the IAF were orchestrated. The Government also did not blink and in February 1987 declared Arunachal a full-fledged state. Both sides continued to build up and there was no military climb down. Finally, the Chinese agreed to a Flag meeting on 05 August at Bum La, to discuss “freezing of the situation”. While it took 9 more years to be resolved, the resolution was equitable.

War in high mountains is a domain which very few countries in the world have experience in. The Alps have a mean height of 12 -13000 ft and are not in the league we are talking about. The Chilean Andes come closest to our High Mountain borders. The Chilean – Argentine wars have given them experience in High Altitude Warfare, but the scale of forces in those wars is nowhere near our opposing numbers with Pakistan and China. So, what is the proven fact in these high mountains? First, disproportionate advantage to small numbers holding commanding ground, and most significantly, to prevail, manoeuvre is the life blood. Manoeuvre is that precious element of war that calls out to us, over centuries of warfare. Superior manoeuvre at the critical time and place in a conflict unnerves the structured and formal opponent no matter how learned or sophisticated. Some examples are mind boggling.

An unexpected manoeuvre by Alexander at Gaugamela, in 331 BCE, put Darius to rout and led to the collapse of the most well trained and structured army of the time, giving Alexander the Persian Empire. There was nothing that could compete and contest with the asymmetric methods of the Mongol Armies. Their in-battle and wider manoeuvres made all formed up battle lines irrelevant. They prevailed over far more educated and evolved societies. There is the amazing contest between the victorious and ascendant Turkish Armies that had defeated all contestants in Eastern Europe and was besieging Constantinople and the Mongols.  In the battle that ensued at Angora in 1402, the Turkish Sultan Bayazid and the Grand Turkish Army which had excellent fighting systems and components capitulated. They were unable to deal with the highly mobile and unforgiving assaults by the Horse Archers and the fluid unpredictable manoeuvre of the Mongol Mounted Armies under Taimur. Compare the murderous battles of World War I, in Europe, with incompetent military and political leadership that only pursued attrition, with the bold operational manoeuvre from the sea which manifested in the Normandy Landings and subsequent wide manoeuvres through France, in WWII. Despite a plethora of other factors, the 1971 Bangladesh War rode on the back of Strategic and Operational Manoeuvre, as the Indian Army concept of a Raging Torrent paralysed Pakistani Armed Forces.

But let’s return to China. Born out of war and revolution, the PLA, was a tough, motivated and resilient force that had matured into a formidable fighting entity. Its DNA was shaped by its Guerrilla heritage, the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese, wars in Tibet, Korea, and teaching of a lesson to India in 1962. Commencing with the setback at Nathu La 1967, the conflicts with Russia and Vietnam however do not reflect that heritage. Their periodic incursions on our borders also reveal a highly structured approach. To begin with, the PLA along our borders lives in permanent structures, with a well developed network of communications to support its logistic requirements. A far cry from the hardened manpower that fought without regular food. Most incursions have been preceded by preparation, patrolling, and forward deployment of reserves and then the event is precipitated. Little scope for anything to go wrong since loss of face is unacceptable. The Chinese Military has set its eyes on the US Model and seeks to overtake it. This has resulted in even greater centralisation; under the CMC and the recent reorganisation reflects this. They have adopted the US Model without any of the attendant institutional US qualities, of individual excellence, initiative, thinking on the feet, autonomy of thought and action. The military reorganisation and professed method of war fighting hence seems anachronistic in the highly centralised Chinese environment. Especially in the Xi regime, that seeks to control and micromanage every aspect of the country. The Chinese capability or its culture of Manoeuvre Warfare seems an open question as yet.

The experience of Joint India China exercises as well as their performance in the international tank competitions, if anything, reveals a highly structured and controlled Army, obsessed with recording, looking for directions, unable to exercise initiatives at lower level, unable to stomach failure. There has been a definite tendency to look down upon the Indian Army, as lesser mortals. In the recent Ladakh standoff events speak for themselves. The occupation of the Kailash Range by the Indian Army, as well as the move in of troops and Armour into Eastern Ladakh was unexpected. The Chinese did not anticipate this manoeuvre. As a consequence, they never covered their vulnerabilities. To not expect responsive manoeuvre, reveals an inability to appreciate manoeuvre, especially when China initiated the transgression. This cannot be hidden. Execution of Manoeuvre requires a mind set. It requires initiative and innovation to be permitted and fostered. It requires the spirit to dare and risk. The Chinese don’t seem to have displayed this talent recently. Even the South China Sea reveals that the Chinese are masters of setting up infrastructure, changing facts on the ground, and mass movements. Their intimidation at sea and in the region, is crude, precipitous, and backed with threat of mass response. There are no subtleties.

There is no need to analyse the Indian military ethic and manoeuvre mind set. When called to the task, Manoeuvre has been executed the most recent examples are evident for all to see. The most amazing example is the tactical manoeuvre on vertical ice faces, at extreme high altitudes, in excess of 17000 ft. It would do the readers well to read Lt Gen Mohinder Puri’s book on the 1999 Kargil war to understand warfare in this domain, written with first hand knowledge. I might add that it was his Division and his fighting Infantry Battalions that gave the Nation victory, while others have rushed to claim it. It is the responsibility of our military system, to keep all the ingredients that facilitate a manoeuvre mind set alive and well. I have no doubt that like generations of military leadership before us, the generations after will preserve this precious capability. After all we are the only Army that trains for manoeuvre in all terrain and environments.

Let us not leave this writing with the impression, that the Chinese PLA, is inferior and their total capability, is less than assessed. They are a very large well equipped and highly dangerous as well as unpredictable foe. They seek to control all dimensions of War, from sea to space and cyber. They only recognise and respect Force or the credible threat of it. If they choose Nuclear War, then we are in a domain that is completely unpredictable. If, however their supercilious approach of ‘teaching a lesson’, or the threat of conventional conflict loom, their ability for worthwhile manoeuvre is what the question is. The fact is that in High Mountains a lot of the weapons of support as well as air, perform sub optimally. Invariably it manifests as a conflict, where the human will to win, skill at arms and ability to unnerve the enemy with manoeuvre will carry the day. Unpredictability in the battle space also pays rich dividends. Whether it was Tanks at Zoji La in 1948, or Armour in Eastern Ladakh in 2020, the outcome are disproportionately favourable.

There is a long journey towards our capability development, as a Nation, to meet our existential threats. We do however have some infinite advantages, embedded in our military systems, their psyche and heritage from 1947 onwards. The fact that they emerge when pushed is an indicator of their longevity. Together with our impressive experience in extreme high altitudes, our capability to think and execute manoeuvre, is a gift that must never be allowed to be diluted. The present Chinese trajectory seems to give primacy to a bullying posture, mass deployments, and confrontation in numbers. An overall approach to overawe and paralyse. This is unlikely to succeed.

Consequently, along our borders with China what may manifest? Given the present Chinese trajectory, the regime of Xi Xinping, and the extent to which China has played it cards against us, a comprehensive negotiated solution, is distant. If the Chinese persist with the “teaching of a lesson” methodology, their modus operandi will need review. At present they are pumping a lot of air into their strategic balloon. Apart from body language, there is a lot of physical manifestation from the Western Pacific, to the Indian Ocean, as well as, overland handshakes with Russia, Pakistan and now an extended grasping hand to Afghan Taliban. There may be a view that they have overreached, but there is no acknowledgement of this in the Chinese calculus. At an appropriate time Xi will be under pressure to reassert on our Border.

Unless the desire is escalation, the technique of tactical materialization will change. The horizon will be wider; domains of manifestation will be more. The politico diplomatic construct sharper, with the intention of denying space for response. The desire will be to ensure that the set up ensures a favourable outcome. Outright escalation is a dangerous option, since in the 21st Century control and orchestration of escalation, perilously unpredictable. The Chinese leadership. Through its purges, its appointment of loyalists, its witch hunting of those perceived lacking patriotism, has created a Jingoistic internal environment. It has to appear to succeed every time in all its endeavours. An unfavourable out come in Eastern Ladakh, has not served its purpose. We must be prepared for an innovative set of circumstances to be set in motion in the next manifestation.