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Author: Palepu Ravi Shankar
Publication: Gunners Speak
Date: October 15, 2020
URL:      https://www.gunnersspeak.com/2020/10/the-chinese-attempt-at-brinkmanship-by.html

For the sixth month running, the Indo-China confrontation in East Ladakh is keeping the nation on tenterhooks in the midst of an increasingly difficult COVID-19 situation and feeble national economic revival reports. While the jury is still out on what exactly impelled the Chinese to undertake the Ladakh adventure and what they wanted to achieve by it, most agree that they have not been successful in their endeavours despite best efforts. However, certain aspects of the ongoing confrontation stand out, which we would do well to remember for the future.

Perhaps the most important takeaway in dealing with China for the last 30 years has been a peep into their efforts at perfecting the art of brinkmanship. Short of going to war, it is the ability to so pressurize an adversary by use of threats of undisclosed consequences that he either is coerced to give in or be prepared to face the consequences. If he blinks, the battle is won without firing a shot. That would be in line with Sun Tzu’s famous teaching. However, if he does not blink, the ability to step back without losing face or initiative would amount to good brinkmanship.

Prior to Second World War, Germany tried it successfully to subjugate some of its smaller neighbours. Until Wilt Chamberlain and company kept conceding to Hitler’s demands. The allies were pushed to the wall by an expansionist Germany. However, when Winston Churchill came on the scene and stood firm against Hitler’s bullying, brinkmanship gave way to war which the Germans ultimately lost. During the Cuban Missile crisis, the Russians deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba to threaten the US but were forced to blink and withdraw their missiles when the US warned of an all out nuclear war.

In the past, the Chinese have at the operational level, indulged in brinkmanship along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh and succeeded at times. However, whenever the Indian side has firmly opposed them, they have stepped back. In 2013 in Depsang, 2014 at Chumar and 2017 at Doklam, they blinked and withdrew when India stood firm and insisted on their withdrawal to restore the status quo.

Even at the international level, in attempting to legitimize the Nine Dash Line in South China Sea (SCS), there is a design by the Chinese to indulge in brinkmanship in consonance with their expansionist philosophy. As their power grows, their aggressive stance manifests itself in pushing the boundaries of brinkmanship. Conversion of rocky outcrops in SCS into full-fledged military bases by reclaiming land from the sea and unilateral declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) are manifestations of indulgence in brinkmanship. Likewise, violation of Taiwanese air space and territorial waters of Japanese Senkaku Islands are other clear examples.

Getting back to India-China faceoff in Ladakh, it is a well documented fact that the Chinese have been spending approximately three and half times more than India on their defence forces for over two decades now. This has created a capability gap between the two sides, which though recognized by the strategic community, is not fully appreciated by the public at large as well as a section of the Indian media. Thus, while the strategic community resorts to abundant and at times excessive caution in dealing with China militarily and diplomatically, the nationalistic media stirs up public passion baying for revenge and blood. A solution lies between these two extremes and needs to be pursued in the interest of national security for ultimate resolution.

It is to be noted that all the areas in Ladakh wherein the Chinese have intruded and occupied positions were vacant till the end of April 2020. These areas were predominantly in the zone of differing perceptions and the PLA went ahead and occupied them in the beginning of May 2020 without having to fight for any of them. The understanding of non-use of kinetic weapons along the LAC between the two sides was thus exploited by them to create illegal possession without incurring casualties. Obviously, to achieve annexation they would ultimately use this possession as the basis. In international parlance, possession is nine tenths of the annexation.

Even though the current Chinese aggression is top driven with elaborate military preparations, the likelihood of its total success even by using brinkmanship is in doubt due to a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Chinese actions have clearly proved that they are not trustworthy. They have shown total disregard for previous agreements and understandings in pursuing their expansionist agenda. Even when they have agreed to some action at the negotiating table, it needs to be checked and verified for appropriate implementation. This very lack of trust reduces the credibility of brinkmanship.

Secondly, there are only a finite number of troops that are deployable along an approach in mountains. Any further increase would prove counterproductive. On one hand, it would not increase chances of success, and on the other, it would result in the probability of greater casualties. Thus, the Chinese advantage of greater numbers, even if physically achieved, would not alter the outcome.

Thirdly, an attacker needs at least a nine to one superiority of numbers to succeed in mountains in addition to all the superior firepower at his disposal. In a situation like the present one in East Ladakh, with both sides having almost equal number of troops, the chances of a large-scale success by either side are rather low.

Fourthly, the last conventional battle fought by the Chinese troops was in 1979 against Vietnam, where they received a bloody nose. It is worth noting that the PLA is a conscript army wherein 35% of the soldiers are enlisted for just two years service including the training period. Thereafter, they go back to civilian occupations. It is inconceivable that they can be a match to professional Indian soldiers who join voluntarily and serve in varied terrain, including high altitude areas, for a minimum of 18 years. Thus, while the Chinese may boast of superior advanced weaponry, the man behind the weapon has a crucial role to play in determining the outcome of a serious confrontation. This particularly holds true in super high altitude areas of East Ladakh.

Since the events of 29-30 August south of Pangong Tso, when the Indian troops pre-empted the Chinese and occupied the dominating ridgeline covering the Spanggur Gap, the Chinese are feeling somewhat out maneuvered. This has led to use of psychological war tactics by the Chinese media for the past few months by resorting to daily threats of Indian capitulation a-la-1962. Physical attempts at dislodging the Indian Army soldiers by use of spears, machetes or firing of warning shots in the air have not worked either. The Chinese even resorted to parading of mechanized columns including tanks close to Spanggur gap to threaten our troops. Perhaps they did not realize that such threats do not scare a professional soldier! The ‘Three Warfare’ tactics have little effect on hardened soldiers.

To make matters worse for the Chinese, occupation of dominating heights above Fingers 3 and 4 on the North bank by the Indian Army has increased their vulnerability at Fingers 5 to 8. Expectedly, this has resulted in raising the shrillness of their rhetoric against India. Notwithstanding Chinese protestations, it has considerably enhanced India’s bargaining power in future discussions while undertaking diplomatic and military negotiations to restore the status quo as existing prior to May 2020.

It would thus be fair to conclude that brinkmanship, unless consistently backed by a credible threat capability would have little chance of success while dealing with a professionally capable opposition. If the Chinese had any designs of bulldozing India through with it, they should by now have realized the futility of trying it. While it may work with smaller countries in South China Sea, perhaps it was a mistake to look at India through the same prism.

I hope that this realization would sink in the Chinese mind during the ongoing military and diplomatic discussions to resolve the imbroglio. Otherwise, both sides would have to be prepared to brave out the formidable winter and sub zero temperatures of Ladakh region, a price the Chinese never thought they would have to pay while practicing brinkmanship! Of course, their ability to sustain through the harsh Himalayan winter without too many casualties will indeed be fully tested in the coming months.


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