Don’t Give the Army Total Freedom | Opinion – analysis
The violent skirmishes between India and China in eastern Ladakh have been disturbing. Some of the reactions from Indian leaders have also been disturbing. In a civil democracy, where the armed forces operate under the leadership of the political leadership, announcing as the prime minister and the defense minister have done that “the forces have been given complete freedom to take the necessary measures” is an abdication of the political responsibility. and it opens the door to future crises in India-China relations and other possible conflict situations.
Nor is it fair to transfer this responsibility to the armed forces. Issues related to war and peace are for the political leadership to decide. Yes, once the leadership has decided that a military response is required to counter a serious threat to the nation’s security, the military must have discretion in operational matters. They must act to defend our borders, but while actions at the local level and of limited scale and duration can be managed and resolved by them, any incident that exceeds a certain threshold, with greater political and security implications, should be subject to careful evaluation within the national security system and political leadership before considering a military response.
The possibility of escalation is not just a military matter. It could have much broader ramifications, particularly if the adversary is a nuclear state like India. Such serious incidents cannot be handled only at the local military level on site. The diplomatic machinery must be activated without delay and, in serious cases, such as the Doklam confrontation in 2017, even intervention at the summit level may be necessary.
We have up to four bilateral agreements with China to maintain peace and tranquility on the India-China border. These were concluded in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013, over a period of 20 years. These are valuable agreements with important provisions to ensure peace and tranquility, and should not be unilaterally scrapped or altered in an angry reaction to what happened in the Galwan Valley. Overall, they have maintained peace on the borders of India for the past few decades. That is an important achievement that should not be minimized.
The use of weapons by Indian forces when interacting with their Chinese counterparts will inevitably lead to similar actions by the latter. If we give the country’s security forces the discretion to use firearms in an angry encounter, it could lead to a much worse bloodbath than the one in Galwan. The consequences of such an incident would not be just military. It would reverberate in the national political and diplomatic space. India’s effort should be to ensure that China remains committed to these important agreements and to see how they can be strengthened.
Even in the present case, it is not clear why the skirmishes that took place at various points did not rise to the highest diplomatic and political level. The series of multi-point incidents and previous violence witnessed in the Pangong Lake area should have been a sufficient warning that the country was dealing with a new situation on the border. As a result of the violence in some of these encounters, we should have been aware of the intense emotions and anger among the Indian forces and also among the Chinese. The possibility that such anger would lead to more violent fighting and diplomatic engagement should have been anticipated. He should have been elevated to the level of the national security adviser and the minister of foreign affairs. This would also have been useful for reading Chinese calculations. If this was done, then it has not been put into the public domain.
The agreements reached in 1996 and 2005 committed the two parties to participate in a clarification of the Current Line of Control (ALC). We know where LAC is located and India’s activities are limited to the area within LAC. China contests this alignment in some places, but we do not know how China perceives LAC in its entirety. Both parties have agreed to clarify that LAC is essential to guarantee peace and tranquility on the border, pending the resolution of the border issue. The Galwan incident offers us the opportunity to engage China in this agreed exercise and to implement it quickly. China’s reaction will also demonstrate whether it is genuinely interested in maintaining peace on the border or whether it prefers to keep it ambiguous so that it can unilaterally advance its territorial claims at the points and time of its choice. This will allow us to draw the necessary conclusions and respond accordingly.
There is no doubt that India’s relations with China have become more adverse. The series of incidents at the border is a symptom of that, as is the growing evidence of Chinese activism in the subcontinental neighborhood of India. The Indian government’s response must be a careful combination of political, diplomatic, economic and military measures. The engagement with China must continue, but its terms must reflect the changed context. Now, more than ever, we must step back and reconsider our national strategy in all its dimensions. India has left it on the shelf for far too long.
Shyam Saran is a former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and a senior member of CPR
The opinions expressed are personal.