Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confronting the Dragon in Ladakh

The last post “Dragon's presence in the Indian Ocean” highlighted the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Many Indian experts on China were of the opinion that a change of guard in Beijing may bring about a change of policy on bilateral relations and in particular bring about an amicable and just resolution of the border dispute between the two countries. Just as these views were being expressed, People’s Liberation Army upped the ante and carried out a well-planned incursion into Indian territory.

A Platoon-strength contingent of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) intruded ten kilometres inside the Indian territory in Burthe in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector, which is at an altitude of about 16,568 feet (5050 metres), on the night of April 15, 2013 and established a tented post there. A Chinese Army Platoon usually consists of around 50 men. The troops were provided logistical support by two helicopters to enable them to set up a camp on Indian territory. Within two days of the Chinese putting up a camp in Daulat Beg, the Indian Army dispatched the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts which set up its own camp barely 500 metres away from the Chinese camp.

When the Indian foreign minister was asked about the incursion, he said that India and China were holding flag meetings to address the issue of incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh. "We are addressing this issue in an appropriate manner. We just do not want any departure from proportionality. I do not think we should allow this to get beyond the immediate area and we should retain at that level and not allow it to escape that level," Khurshid said. The Defence Minister A. K. Antony said that India would take "every step" to protect its interests to resolve the situation arising out of deep incursion by Chinese troops into Indian territory in eastern Ladakh. 

It is relevant to point out that Daulat Beg Oldi lies at the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range in a cold desert region in the far north of India in Kashmir, just 8 km south of the Chinese border and 9 km northwest of the Aksai Chin Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The base was established during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. It was operated with American-supplied Fairchild Packets from 1962 to 1966. It was closed down after an earthquake which caused loosening of the surface soil, making it unsuitable for fixed wing aircraft. The base was re-opened in May 2008 in response to Chinese activities in the Aksai Chin region. The decision to reactivate this advance landing ground in the Aksai Chin was announced in the third week of April 2008.

According to Prashant Dikshit, former director of Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS)[1], a 50-strong contingent of Chinese soldiers had been spotted building a road in the vicinity of DBO, back in 1999. There have been reports since that "China made 24 attempts to take hold of the DBO air base during the last India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil." They were thwarted, albeit, through persuasion. Analysts have painstakingly recorded that China, as of 2008 was pursuing 13 different projects to build infrastructure in the region with a view to enable speedy movement of military wherewithal to the area. This has been going on for a very long time on the Chinese side but the Indian side has woken up "very late," according to one experienced analyst. 

Firstly, how confident is India of resolving this incursion? For in the past Chinese troops have never camped inside Indian territory for a long time. Secondly, the timing of the incursion is baffling. Thirdly, why has China chosen to intrude close to a strategic Advanced Landing Ground? While the answers to these questions are not easy, one can only speculate that the PLA contingent has probably been assigned to test Indian will and defence preparedness.

China rejected reports of intrusion by its troops in Ladakh, saying the People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers patrolled the Chinese side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) without "trespassing" into it.

Presenting China's stand, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also called for resolution of the issue through talks.

"China's frontier troops have been abiding by the agreement between the two countries and abiding by the LAC agreed by the two countries.

"Our frontier troops have been patrolling on the China's side of LAC", Hua said at a media briefing here, responding to a spate of questions.

"Our troops are patrolling on the Chinese side of the LAC and have never trespassed the line", she said.

China having denied the intrusion, what are India’s options? India should, without much fanfare firstly determine the intention behind this border violation and thereafter with the minimal use of force evict the enemy platoon from the area. While carrying out this exercise, India must be prepared to counter any form of Chinese retaliatory action. In other words, it is necessary to convey a strong message to the enemy that intrusions and encamping on the Indian side would not be tolerated. Anything short of this will convey a lack of political will and timidity on the part of New Delhi. This blog has often called for qualitative and quantitative improvement of Indian naval and air assets; in the event of any hostile Chinese action in the high Himalayas, India must be prepared to choke the Chinese at sea.  

The action on the ground is totally contrary to what Chinese leaders talk. Less than a month ago, China’s new leader Xi Jinping during his meeting in Durban on the sidelines of the just concluded BRICS Summit with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for India and China to boost military contact and deepen trust. On the border issue, he said “China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of special representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible,” Xinhua said. 

He also called on both sides to “continue to safeguard peace in their border areas and prevent the issue from affecting bilateral relations.” 

The author has been of the firm opinion that China and its leadership cannot be trusted. Chinese actions on the ground have never matched with their utterances. China has always talked of a peaceful solution to the boundary problem while its troops have intruded across the Line of Actual Control on numerous occasions. According to Indian government sources, there have been more than 600 intrusions or border violations since 2010. And the Indian response has been far from satisfactory. This is probably the reason why China has gone a step further and started encampment on the Indian side. The last time such an incident had taken place was in 1986 at Wangdung in the Sumdorung Chu area in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian Army chief General Krishnaswami Sundarji responded swiftly to air-lift an entire infantry brigade under Operation Falcon to Zimithang, a makeshift landing area close to Sumdorong Chu, to counter Chinese moves in the region. Troop reinforcements from both sides continued till about mid-1987 when diplomatic engagement finally led to cooling down of the stand-off, with even a pact to move back some border outposts of either side.

While continuing to engage China diplomatically, India must continue to develop and upgrade its military capabilities and be ever-prepared to thwart Chinese territorial ambitions.

[1]Daulat Beg Oldi: Taking Wing Again http://www.ipcs.org/article_details.php?articleNo=2595

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dragon’s presence in the Indian Ocean

Michael Cole wrote in The Diplomat recently about Chinese Navy’s attack submarines operating in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and the possibility of it posing a serious threat to Indian interests. The IOR stretches from the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Straits and southwards to the West coast of Australia. His article was based on a report titled “Indian Navy: Perceived Threats to Subsurface Deterrent Capability and Preparedness” prepared by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) of India’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). The report warned that the “implicit focus” of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) appeared to be undermining Indian navy’s ability to control the highly sensitive sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the region.

Citing subsurface contact data shared by US forces, the document stated that at least 22 contacts were recorded with vessels suspected to be Chinese attack submarines patrolling well outside Chinese territorial waters. The document cites one contact with a suspected Chinese submarine took place 90 km from Indian soil in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while six took place northwest of the Straits of Malacca, 13 south of Sri Lanka and two in the Arabian Sea. The submarines were believed to be from the South Sea Fleet based at Sanya on Hainan Island, off China’s southern coast. According to the MOD document these extended patrols may overlap with the Indian Navy’s area of operation.

The number of confirmed contacts mentioned in the report represented a marked increase from four year ago, when U.S. intelligence reportedly revealed that China’s fleet of more than 50 submarines had carried out 12 “extended patrols” outside its territorial waters in 2008, up from six the previous year. Reports then did not indicate where the extended patrols were said to have taken place, though it can be assumed that some occurred near or within the IOR. 

The report also stated that the Chinese Navy appeared to be building “expeditionary maritime capabilities” in the form of nuclear powered submarines and area denial weapons such as DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles to counter and threaten India in the IOR.

In May 2012, China had declared that it could deploy Jin Class (Type 094) nuclear submarines at Yulin Naval base at Sanya as part of its long-term strategy in the South China Sea. The SSBNs are likely to be armed with JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). 

This report must be read in the backdrop of China having set up a network of ports/facilities in Bangladesh (Chittagong), Myanmar (Sittwe and Coco Island), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Pakistan (Gwadar) and has also secured docking rights in Seychelles, in what is described as the culmination of the ‘String-of-Pearls’ strategy.

The document has warned that the Gwadar port would “facilitate enormous command and control capability for prospective Chinese presence in the IOR”.

While some strategic experts in India think the strategy is overrated and will not dilute India's influence in the region.

"Converting a port or token port facilities into a naval base is a huge leap. I don't think China can do that," said strategic affairs expert Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon. "Also, any country that allows China to do that will risk India's enmity."

Similarly, defence analyst Commodore (retd) Uday Bhaskar said, "The suggestion that China is strangulating India with a 'String of Pearls' is an exaggeration."

With due respect to the views of the experts, one cannot ignore the fact that China has in the past few years embarked on an ambitious program to strengthen its navy, and has been conducting long range anti-piracy missions around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. Also, China is heavily dependent on oil and energy resources from Africa and the Gulf making the waters of IOR extremely important to China. India's relations with its neighbours is far from satisfactory.

Michael Cole’s article does not make any reference to India’s depleting submarine force levels. While China is scaling up its underwater capabilities, the Indian Navy's submarine force levels will be the lowest in its history by 2015.

The navy will be left with merely six to seven submarines, including India's first and only nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant, as it begins phasing out the Russian Kilo class and German HDW Type 209 submarines next year. 

The report warned India had "never before been poised in such a vulnerable situation" and the undersea force levels were "at a highly precarious state".

The navy currently operates 14 submarines, including a nuclear-powered attack submarine leased from Russia. However, the "viable strength" of its submarine arm is much less, factoring in the operational availability of the boats.

In contrast, China operates close to 45 submarines, including two ballistic missile submarines. "China may plan to construct 15 additional Yuan-class attack submarines, based on German diesel engine purchases," the report said. It said the Yuan-class boats could be equipped with air-independent propulsion systems to recharge their batteries without having to surface for more than three weeks, a capability currently unavailable with the Indian Navy.

The size of India's submarine fleet will roughly be the same as that of the Pakistani Navy in two years. "As this critical (undersea) capability is eroded, there is an inverse increase in both capability and strength of the Chinese and Pakistani navies," the report stated.
The report of the Integrated Defence Staff highlighting the threats posed by PLAN has come a bit too late. The reason is that the Chinese Navy has been undergoing a gradual transformation from being a pre-dominantly brown water navy to a blue water navy owing largely to a change in strategic priorities and to back up its belligerent claim over the South China Sea and prepare for a possible conflict with the US-Japan-South Korea alliance. 

Indian Navy has been aware of China’s modernization plans as well as its strategic objectives. For instance, way back in 2008, Indian Navy was aware of the deployment of China’s Jin Class (Type 094) nuclear submarines at Sanya, a base in close proximity of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

A report in The Daily Telegraph in May 2008 said that satellite imagery indicated that a substantial harbour had been built that could house nuclear submarines and a host of aircraft carriers. 

One photograph showed China's latest nuclear submarine at the base just a few hundred miles from its neighbours; another shows warships moored at long jetties and a network of tunnels at the Sanya base on the southern tip of Hainan island. One of the issues of concern according to the news report was the immense tunnel entrances — 11 of which had been spotted — estimated to be 60 ft high, carved into the hill-side around the base. These tunnels could lead to caverns capable of concealing up to 20 nuclear submarines from spy satellites. This was seen as a major development to enable China project its sea power into the Pacific Ocean and IOR.

The location of the base off Hainan would also give the submarines access to very deep water — exceeding 15,000 feet — within a few miles, making them even harder to detect. Two 1,000-yard piers and three smaller ones could accommodate two carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships. 

According to the Indian Express report of May 2008, the deployment of the Jin class submarine at Hainan may motivate India to speed up its indigenous nuclear submarine project that had been in the making for the past decade. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believe that while the deployment of Jin-class submarines may help in sustaining India’s own SSBN program, for China to sail an SSBN into the India Ocean and operate it there in a meaningful way, however, will be very difficult and dangerous in a crisis and hence they are more likely to stay close to Chinese waters.

The moot question now is, why are alarm bells being rung in Delhi and not when in fact China had embarked on naval modernization several years back? Should not have India countered China’s string of pearls policy? These are uncomfortable questions for which answers are not readily available.  India, in fact, failed to thwart Chinese encirclement as well as lagged behind in upgrading its naval assets. While India’s indigenous projects may take time to fructify, it must speed up its procurement of the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (Gorshkov) and other Principal Surface Combatants (PSCs) as well as upgrade its underwater capabilities to counter PLAN in the IOR.