Editor’s note: This article was written by Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch (retired), a former Special Operations officer in the Indian Army, and originally published on Mission Victory India. It offers an original perspective on the border clash between Indian and Chinese troops earlier this week. Lt Gen Katoch’s article is of particular interest to those looking to study the tactical and strategic moves of the Chinese military. 

The horrible manner in which at least 20 Indian soldiers, including a Colonel, and at least one JCO [junior commissioned officer] were clubbed to death by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Galwan on the night of June 15/16 is without parallel; number of injured reportedly was 17.

Any soldier would willingly die for the motherland facing bullets, not in this dastardly manner. This was perhaps waiting to happen and more of this is likely because China is testing the redlines of Indian policymakers.

The clash took place during the night and hence casualty figures on the enemy side remain ambiguous though the Indian media is claiming 43 PLA casualties. No doubt our boys too would have fought back but were they carrying iron rods and wooden clubs with iron spikes like the PLA? Would the PLA not have opened fire if they suffered 43 casualties?

From day one of intrusions in Eastern Ladakh, China is blaming India for aggression. For the recent clash, China has also blamed our troops for crossing the LAC twice.

Conversely, when have we held China responsible for the intrusions before today? Did we blame China for intrusions into our territory before today? The Defence Minister’s first statement on June 2, a month after the intrusions, only mentioned that the PLA had come in sizeable numbers “along” the LAC. How would China read this? Did we appreciate that this was not a picnic at LAC and something very serious was to follow?

What was the apprehension in admitting that intrusions had taken place and an appropriate response was being planned? It would have not brought the government down. Intrusions are inevitable where gaps are covered by patrolling and the enemy has the initiative. Isn’t that what happened in Kargil?

Keeping aside three American aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and Beijing wanting to deflect attention from the Wuhan Virus [COVID-19], we need to get down to mother earth. China annexed Aksai Chin for providing depth to their Western Highway. Pakistan made Kargil intrusions to cut off the Srinagar-Leh Highway to choke Siachen to tackle it subsequently. So it was but natural for the PLA to capture higher ground in Galwan to monitor the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Road from where interdiction by fire was possible. It also provides a launchpad for further operations towards the DBO.

Map depicting the contested area (BBC).

Information on Chinese border infrastructure mostly comes to us from foreign media. But we indulge in publicizing the inauguration of bridges and roads. The media even reports roads under construction. All this is good for vote-bank politics but needlessly alerts the enemy.

We should have occupied the areas in Galwan that PLA has now intruded into before we went public on the DSDBO road and the Chewang Rinchen Darbuk-DBO Bridge. This should have happened 2-3 years back – perhaps when the current CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) was the Army Chief.

Why did we hesitate when we claim Aksai Chin? Would China have done so if they were in our shoes – most certainly yes? China built a road in Doklam to the Zomphiri Ridge defying agreement with Bhutan not to alter the status quo. And just two months after disengaging the standoff with India, satellite imagery showed a brigade-sized PLA deployed with heavy equipment north of Yadong – poised for quick move forward.

Our media focus somehow remained on the Fingers area of Pangong Tso. For other areas, the narrative was that both sides are dug in one kilometer apart. Media kept reporting that in Galwan the PLA is on their side of the LAC. If that was the case, why did this clash happen in the night? Were we trying to evict the PLA from “their” side of LAC? Were we so naïve to believe that talks will work and the PLA will vacate ground held in Galwan?

Recall the strategic China-Pakistan conspiracy to make India vacate the Saltoro Range for enabling a China-Pakistan link up along the Shyok River giving all areas north of Shyok to China. This is what China will keep on trying and we may see more surprise actions by the PLA.

Significantly, the statement issued by China’s Western Theatre Command reads, “On the evening of June 15, in the Galwan River Valley ….. Indian troops crossed the LAC again and conducted illegal activity and deliberately launched provocative attacks, triggering violent physical conflicts … resulting in casualties. The sovereignty of Galwan valley has always been ours…. The Indian troops went back on their word, seriously violating their agreement on border issues …. We demand India should …. immediately stop all violations and provocations.”

This is a slap for us who believed talks with rogue China can work. Take it for certain China will not withdraw from Galwan and possibly some other intrusion areas too. Expect PLA intrusions elsewhere along the LAC to distract us from Ladakh and ensure our response keeps getting delayed.

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It is often heard India cannot react “at this point in time” because China is militarily and economically stronger. Will this equation change in the foreseeable future? The answer is no. If we can’t stand up for our strategic interests, we will be pushed more.

The last time we had a Colonel ‘injured’ in enemy firing (Colonel Rai Singh later became Brigadier) and some of our boys killed at Nathu La in 1967, we killed hundreds of PLA. No PLA soldier was visible for the next seven days. Why are we tying the hands of our soldiers and getting them killed in this horrible fashion? Are we not fully mobilized? Are we so scared of escalation that Delhi will get nuked?

Forget mudslinging amidst political parties, the fact is China finds India a soft target. The PLA has now claimed the entire Galwan Valley – next will be DBO. China is testing out redlines. How long will we remain colour blind?

The earlier we stand up militarily in the overall matrix of national response, the better because the costs of inaction will be far greater than taking action. The more we delay the response more Galwans will happen, keeping us on the back foot.

Finally, how about some homage to those who laid down their lives?

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