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Calling out Pak’s nuclear bluff and the Chinese war bogey: Modi Govt’s two most significant, yet most underplayed, geo-strategic achievements

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As a kid growing up through the 80’s and 90’s of the previous century, twin threats of a Pak nuke attack and a bloody Sino-Indian war, with the Chinese pummeling us even more badly than 1962, were the staple ingredients of the geo-strategic “food for thought” fed to us by experts, both local and global. Even the top brass of Indian security and strategic planning apparatus were highly enamored of these perceived threats. 

Much of the Indian state’s response to Pak’s flagrant support to terror activities in J&K and other parts of India were shaped by the latent fear of a nuke war in case India retaliated too aggressively. Our response to repeated terror attacks were purely defensive in nature like calling the Pak envoy for a verbal dressing down or raising the heat at LOC (line of control) at best. In fact in most cases, our response did not go  beyond the perfunctory “kadi ninda”.

No wonder Pak backed terror outfits got bolder and bolder. Terror attacks, earlier concentrated in J&K, soon spread to other parts of India. Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Varanasi, Hyderabad saw a spate of terror attacks in which thousands of innocent civilians were killed. In fact, our security establishment was so hypnotized by this imaginary threat of a nuclear attack, that they did not retaliate even after the gruesome attacks on our parliament, the temple of our democracy, or the daring 26/11 attack in Mumbai, crippling India’s commercial capital. 

Pak, much smaller than India both geographically and economically, was well and truly bleeding us with a thousand cuts. Terror was paying handsome dividends for Pak globally too, as most of the western world also bought into their nuke bluff. Without coming even close to India economically or militarily, the nuke bluff offered them parity with their much bigger and richer neighbor in the international strategic discourses. Indians had almost accepted the regular terror attacks  as a fait accompli. In short, no punitive costs were imposed by the Indian state on the terror state because the enemy was operating under a perceived nuclear umbrella. 

Never did the top strategic brass, in successive Indian govts, ask themselves the question “are the Pakistanis immortals or not afraid of dying”. Because a nuke attack by Pak on India would have surely been met with swift and punitive retaliatory nuclear attacks by India. That is why a nuke war is often termed as a MAD war (mutually assured destruction). India with its geographical depth would have still survived in some form after a nuke attack by Pak, but Pak, lacking geographical depth, would have ceased to exist on the face of the earth after the retaliatory nuke attacks by India.

Never once did Indian state tried to push the counter offensive envelope to probe if the Pak establishment was really mad or just pretending to be so. Until the Modi govt did. First by the way of surgical strikes in Sep 2016, following the Uri terror attack, and again by the way of aerial bombings at Balakot, following the dastardly Pulwama terror attack. The much awaited nuke retaliation from Pak never happened. While one can argue about the details of the surgical attacks by India, some may even ask for “saboot”, there is no denying that their nuke bluff was called out. The demons of Pak’s nuke bluff were laid to rest for ever. This has opened up multiple avenues for India to respond both militarily and strategically to Pak’s terror shenanigans’ It has also forced Pak’s strategic planners to not push the terror envelope too much else India might respond with punitive strikes. No wonder that India could carry out abrogation of article 370 and reorganization of J&K state, without even a whimper of a protest from Pak. 

India shares around 3400km of border with its bigger northern neighbor, China. Much of it is ill defined and disputed, hence designated as LAC (Line of Actual control) and not IB (international border). Post independence, India did not share a direct border with China. Tibet being a effective buffer state historically between the two ancient giants, the dragon and the elephant. Tibet was in fact a protectorate under British India. The communists under Premier Mao, after seizing power in China, moved swiftly into Tibet. Tibet’s desperate calls for help were ignored by India, as our top leadership at that time was deeply enamored by the socialist/communist philosophy of China. China finally invaded Tibet in 1954.

Yet India, in an effort to mollycoddle them, agreed to supply rice to the occupying Chinese troops in Tibet. This continued for almost 4 years till first Chinese trucks ambled into China on freshly built Chinese roads. Had India just stopped supplying rice to the invading Chinese army, they could have been starved to defeat and retreat. Once China consolidated in Tibet, it started pushing India on the LAC with series of incursions which largely went unchallenged by the Indian govt of the day. In fact Indian leadership went out of its way to accommodate an increasingly belligerent China, hoping that being a good boy would stop the bully. China’s increasing belligerence and our pusillanimity in the face of it, led to Sino Indian war of 1962. A war which was forced on an ill prepared Indian army by our political leadership. No wonder China gave us a bloody nose in a short war despite an outnumbered Indian army putting up  valiant resistance at several fronts.

Most perplexing was Indian political leadership’s dogged reluctance to allow use of air power against Chinese ground forces even when staring at a humiliating defeat. Indian Air force back then, with Royal British Air Force legacy, was better trained than their Chinese counterparts. In fact, most Chinese planes were not able to even reach Tibet from Chinese mainland air bases, as China had no airbases in Tibet back then. Effectively Chinese air force was not even in the equation during the 1962 war. IAF’s intervention could have tilted the balance  of a lost battle. But again we tried to be good boys even when staring at a humiliating defeat. 

In contrast, when given a freer hand in 1967 at Nathu La & Cho La, a better prepared Indian army gave the Chinese a bloody nose in a swift war. So much so that the Chinese were forced to wave the white flag, begging for a cease fire. The brutal retribution in 1967 has ensured that bullets have not been fired at the LAC for a very long time. Yet successive Indian govts had carried on the Nehruvian policy of trying to appease the bully, weaving imaginary  fears of a repeat on 1962 in the minds of the Indian  security establishment.

This had progressively emboldened China to carry out repeated incursions, coming in more and more and when challenged, going back less. China never had it so good. Salami slicing Indian territory slowly without firing a bullet, with weak Indian govts not even protesting and a largely sold out Indian media drumming up the Chinese threat, raising the bogey of 1962 repeat. China kept on building infrastructure in the harsh Tibetan plateau while objecting to any infrastructure build up on the Indian side. And successive weak political leaderships on the Indian side happily obliged. Indian soldier was all the while itching to retaliate and avenge the humiliation of 1962 while the political leadership generally dithered. 

Things changed after Modi came to power. He realized the infrastructure asymmetry and tried to aggressively catch up. A spoilt China, which was having it so good so far, was suddenly spooked by  India exercising it right to build matching infrastructure on their own side so that our troops are not handicapped in case of any Chinese aggression. The dragon used to mollycoddling and facing no resistance from Indian side so far, suddenly started sabre rattling on the LAC.

It chose to create Doklam faceoff in June 2017, even when Premeir Xi was visiting India. Indian Govt kept its cool. It matched Chinese deployment man for man at Doklam, while maintaining diplomatic radio silence. The largely left leaning Indian media and the opposition, led by Congress, tried to drum up the bogey of a repeat of 1962 humiliation. But credit to Modi govt for having held on to its nerves. Slowly but surely the dragon got the message and backed off at Doklam. For the first time people of India realized that Chinese soldiers are not 10ft giants, that they were made out to be under the shadow of 1962 humiliation, and that the Indian soldiers are no dwarfs either.  

The Chinese tried to push the aggression envelope a little further, more to test the waters, against a better prepared Indian army in Galwan in June 2020. By now the Modi govt had realized the deceitful nature of China and had given a free hand to the Indian forces to respond as required to evolving situations on the ground. While India lost 20 braves, it  gave a bloody nose to the Chinese at Galwan. While the exact truth may never emerge from behind the Chinese iron curtain, different international  sources confirm that Chinese lost  several scores of men and many more were maimed for life. Mountain wars are a battle for the “heights”. Whoever holds the heights holds an edge.

In the ensuing faceoff post Galwan clashes, India jostled and captured strategic heights in the Kailash ranges and ensured mirror deployment against China on the LAC, man for man, machine for machine. There is an adage that “mountains eat men”. Any aggressor in the mountains should outnumber the defender in the ratio of 10:1 if it hopes to break thorough. Any Chinese aggression against a better prepared Indian side could at best result in a stalemate and at worst result in a humiliating defeat for the wannabe superpower, China. Both outcomes did not suit China strategically or geo-politically. While lions prefer to do a frontal charge at their adversary, a hyena which lacks the required dare to charge, often runs in circles around its adversary looking to take a bite at the weak spots. China, with all its economic might and projected military might, turned out to be a deceitful lakadbagga (hyena), trying to circle India through Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives and even Taliban, while lacking the courage to charge directly.

The fears of a repeat of 1962 have truly been overcome and India has begun to stare back at the dragon. The faceoffs might continue in the future till the border is properly discussed and demarcated between the two sides. But calling out of the bogey of a repeat of 1962 humiliation at the hands of the Chinese army, has singularly ensured that the elephant and the dragon sit on the negotiating table as equals. Though underplayed, this is a huge geo strategic shift in Sino Indian relationship and will have an important role in how the relationship plays out in the coming decades between the two emerging world powers. 

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