Tensions with China and Pak stretch a cash-starved military, while the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban removes a potential ally
Chennai: After the deadliest clashes in a half-century with China, India’s military has taken emergency measures to reinforce a 500-mile stretch of the border high in the Himalayas. In the past year, it has tripled the number of troops in the contentious eastern Ladakh region to more than 50,000. It has raced to stock up on food and gear for freezing temperatures and 15,000-foot altitudes before the region is largely cut off for much of the winter. It has announced that an entire strike corps, an offensive force of an additional tens of thousands of soldiers, would be reoriented to the increasingly contentious frontier with China from the long, volatile border with Pakistan. India’s military is now grappling with a reality that the country has feared for nearly two decades: It is stuck in a two-front conflict with hostile neighbours — and all three are nuclear-armed. And it comes as India increasingly finds itself isolated in its broader neighbourhood, part of the global security backdrop to President Joe Biden’s discussions Friday with India, Australia and Japan, the group known as the Quad.
China has made investments and inroads from Sri Lanka to Nepal. The victory in Afghanistan by the Taliban, a movement nurtured and harboured in Pakistan that has increasing ties to China, has essentially shut out India from a country it saw as a natural ally in the regional balance. Even if all-out war on its borders is unlikely, the sustained posture is sure to bleed India financially. With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating an economic slowdown, a force that was already stretched on resources and struggling to modernise finds itself in what current and former officials describe as a constant and difficult juggling act. The breakdown of trust between the giant neighbours is such that a dozen rounds of talks since the deadly clashes last year have contained the tensions but have not resulted in de-escalation. Both nations are likely to remain on war footing, even if they never go to war. China may have the advantage. While India is adept at high-altitude combat, it is up against a Chinese military that is far better funded and equipped. China, with an economy five times the size of India’s, is also investing heavily in the region, countering Indian influence.
China and Pakistan already share deep ties. Any collaboration to stir trouble would test the Indian military reserves. Gen. Ved Prakash Malik, a former chief of the Indian army, said the clashes in the Galwan Valley last year, which left at least 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers dead, had fundamentally changed India’s calculation.
“Galwan carried another message: that China was not respecting the agreements it had signed,” Malik said. “The biggest casualty in Galwan, to my mind, was not that we lost 20 men, but the trust was shattered.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is trying to expedite stagnant reforms in the military to optimise resources. His government rushed additional emergency funds to the army last year, after the border clashes.
But India’s constraints from the slowing economy were clear by the message in Modi’s new defence budget: The military simply cannot expect a significant increase in spending. While the budget earmarked more money for equipment purchases, the overall amount allocated for defence continued to decline as a share of gross domestic product and total government expenditures. Sustaining such troop presence in the Himalayan region is a mammoth logistical task, albeit one with which India’s military has experience. The increased costs are bound to further slow investments in modernising a deeply antiquated force. The borders simply cannot be protected by rushing troops to fill every vulnerability. India’s military has long lacked resources. About 75% of defence expenditure goes to routine costs such as pensions, salaries and sustainment of force. In 2020, India spent about $73 billion on the military, compared with China’s $252 billion.
“The fact is that additional budgetary support is unlikely to come in the next few years,” said DS Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who led India’s northern command, which partly covers the Chinese border. “You need better surveillance. You need much better intelligence on the other side. We can’t keep getting surprised every time.” Since a major war in 1962, India and China have largely contained disputes through talks and treaties. Flare-ups happen because unlike with Pakistan, where the boundary is clearly defined on maps, India and China have not been able to agree on the specific demarcation of the 2,100-mile frontier referred to as the Line of Actual Control. Indian officials say their Chinese counterparts have been reluctant, preferring to keep the border’s uncertainties as a “pressure tactic.”
The clashes last year were a blow to Modi, who has focused on developing a formula of mutual prosperity with China. A cooperative relationship would not only help Modi’s goal of economic development at home, but it would also avoid resources being swallowed by the threat of conflict.
The Indian military establishment has remained more cautious than Modi, its warnings against a resurgent China going back to the mid-2000s. The military was particularly vulnerable in eastern Ladakh, where China has terrain advantage — the Tibetan plateau makes moving troops easier — and better infrastructure on its side of the border. Over a decade starting in 2006, the Indian government took steps to improve its position. It approved thousands of miles of roads to be built closer to the border, raised new divisions of army troops and even ordered the creation of a mountain strike corps dedicated to the frontier with China. But in each case, ambitious plans on paper were met with the reality of scarce resources. Some of the road projects remain incomplete. Despite cutting corners and draining reserves, the building of the mountain strike corps was stopped halfway — not because the threat had changed but because the money was not there.
One factor in India’s favour is that its troops have experience in the type of high-altitude fighting that would play out along the border. For decades, the Indian military has been carrying out huge logistical operations in the mountains. It transports hundreds of tons of materiel every day to not only sustain 75,000 troops guarding against Pakistan and China but also to stock up for six months of winter when many of the roads close. At the Siachen Glacier — referred to as the battleground on the roof of the world — Indian forces have maintained a faceoff with Pakistan for more than three decades.
During last year’s clashes, India benefited from an element of luck, since the tensions escalated during warmer weather. “Had this happened sometime in September, we would have to fly in troops. That was the only option, because the passes have ice over it — 40 foot of ice,” said AP Singh, a retired major general who led logistics operations in Ladakh. But India will have a hard time sustaining its increased presence on two fronts. A sudden rush of tens of thousands of additional troops meant shifting personnel and resources not only from the reserves but also from the units at the Pakistani front. Deployment in the highest of altitudes tremendously increases transportation costs. It also requires about 48 items of specialised gear, 18 of which — such as snow clothing, snow boots, alpine sleeping bags, ice axes — are critical, Singh said. The cost of building outposts is five times higher in eastern Ladakh than in the plains.