On 3 July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Nimu, Ladakh. Nimu, on the banks of the Indus River, is about 30 kms west of Leh, the headquarters of the Indian Army’s 14 Corps.
Later, the PM moved to the HQ of 14 Corps, where he was briefed on the remaining issues, and also addressed the troops in a rousing speech.
This surprise visit of Prime Minister Modi to Ladakh is quite reminiscent of the way former US President Obama visited Afghanistan to meet US troops embroiled in the fight there.
It also needs to be seen in light of the adage – that wars, started by politicians and fought by soldiers, are sustained by public opinion. In a democracy and volunteer armed forces, public opinion is particularly vital – soldiers, who must fight till the very end, need moral assurances, ethical justification and motivation, that their cause is just and worthy – and that their country-people and government backs them fully.
Modi’s visit, therefore, sends out a clear ‘message’ – that the apex leadership understands the seriousness of the situation and stands with the armed forces. His mingling with the troops on the ground strengthens their resolve. That said, at the strategic level, the PM’s visit merits examination from three aspects, namely, diplomacy, internal messaging, and external messaging.
‘True Diplomacy Is Conducted Quietly’
China’s Western Highway (G-219 and G-3012), from Lhasa to Kashgar, passes through Aksai Chin. For China, this entire highway is a crucial link between Yunnan-Tibet and it’s outlying, restive region of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). From Kashgar, the highway continues to Khunjerab Pass (on the Northern Areas/POK-China border), after which it becomes the Karakoram Highway, an indispensable component of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
From Lhasa, the G-219 Highway runs almost parallel to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) including in Aksai Chin.
It does, therefore, seem that China construed the re-classification of J&K and Ladakh, India’s completion of the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road (which improved our access to Sub-Sector North), and Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament in 2019 (laying claim to the whole of Aksai Chin) as direct threats – to the G-219 Highway, China’s access to XUAR, and to the CPEC corridor.
The PM, on the other hand, has maintained a nuanced, dignified silence on the issue, thereby giving an opportunity to diplomats and military officials to try and resolve the issue without escalating to a shooting match. True diplomacy, as opposed to ‘gun-boat diplomacy’, is best conducted quietly, and away from the public and media glare.
- Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh’s statement, that the “PM’s visit to Ladakh … has certainly boosted the morale of the forces”, misses the true resolute character and inner strength of the Indian Armed Forces.
- In reality, the PM’s visit is aimed, internally, at raising the morale of the citizenry.
- It does seem that Chinese moves in Pangong Tso-Hot Springs-Galwan-Depsang (south to north) had two strategic aims and one political objective in mind.
- The PM’s visit to Leh was intended to signal India’s resolve to the international community.
- While that aim stands achieved, it is unlikely to have any impact on China.
- Its two strategic aims are: to give depth and security to its G-219 Highway, and to ‘cut India down to size’.
Modi’s Visit Was More to Boost Morale Of Citizenry
Contrary to what many in the media are saying, the visit perhaps has nothing to do with the morale of the armed forces. In established, professional armed forces, morale generally remains steady – and is not like a yo-yo, up one minute with one small action and down the next at some setback. The Indian Armed Forces, with a long history of warfare stretching back to World War-I, and constantly trained to wage war, are unlikely to be fazed by the events and deaths of 15 June.
In fact, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh’s statement, that the “PM’s visit to Ladakh … has certainly boosted the morale of the forces”, misses the true resolute character and inner strength of the Indian Armed Forces, who remain steadfast, stoic and motivated.
In reality, the PM’s visit is aimed, internally, at raising the morale of the citizenry. This is a laudable step, given that public opinion matters, and the fact that much of our populace perceive war as a variation of Battlefield-I or Call of Duty or PUBG – or even a cricket match – as also that it is a very gentlemanly affair, with a referee ensuring fair play with minimal violence. It is on account of such perceptions that a small victory leads to national euphoria, while any death or a setback leads to despair, as was evident after the air strike at Balakot – and the downing of IAF’s MiG-21 fighter aircraft and capture of its pilot.
Will Modi’s Visit To Leh Have An Impact On China?
The PM’s visit to Leh was intended to signal India’s resolve to the international community. While that aim stands achieved, it is unlikely to have any impact on China.
It does seem that Chinese moves in Pangong Tso-Hot Springs-Galwan-Depsang (south to north) had two strategic aims and one political objective in mind.
Its two strategic aims are:
- To give depth and security to its G-219 Highway
- To ‘cut India down to size’.
A number of recent commentaries by Chinese and Pakistani analysts state that India has been making ‘false projections’ and ‘trying to punch far above its weight’, and consequently, there’s a need to ‘crush this propaganda’.
To this end, they cite the example of Doklam, adding that although the Chinese troops are firmly entrenched in great numbers at the point where they were stopped, the Indian leadership has been claiming ‘victory’. China’s political objective therefore is to re-size the Indian leadership. The brazen, brutal mechanics of the 15 June assault are emblematic of that objective – it came with a hidden message – that India, although competing for leadership of Asia, is neither a competitor regionally nor globally to China.
And it doesn’t seem that the Chinese are going to back off till that objective is met.
A Long Haul Will Impose Costs On India – What’s The Way Forward?
For China, the prize is Depsang and Galwan Valley, from where it can dominate the DSDBO Road and the DBO airstrip; its advances in Pangong Tso do not provide any strategic advantage, and are a diversion, a bargaining chip. Hence, it may, eventually, agree to pull back from Pangong Tso – but will remain entrenched at the former two places.
India, therefore, is digging in for a long haul. A long haul will impose costs on us.
SSN is a harsh, cold zone, access to which becomes more difficult in winters. The Chinese have good road access almost up to their positions, and the associated ability for logistics support.
We have just this DSDBO road – and as long as the Chinese PLA remains at Depsang-Galwan, the Indian Army will have to maintain parity to negate the PLA’s threat to move in further and threaten the DSDBO Road.
To conclude – the Indian leadership perhaps needs to re-visit President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”. He went on to clarify his style of foreign policy as “the exercise of intelligent forethought, and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” Unfortunately, we have been hobbling along carrying a small stick.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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