PLA In The Last 50 Years: Just How Strong Is The Dragon?

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China’s threat that India would suffer a fate worse than the defeat of 1962 is laughable. For the Chinese have conveniently forgotten that since that conflict nearly 50 years ago, it is Beijing that has suffered defeats – at the hands of India, Russia and Vietnam in that order. In fact, the last time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) faced off against the Indian Army, it had to endure the ignominy of a humiliating climb down.

But first, a reality check. The 1962 defeat happened because of two reasons. One, the Indian Army wasn’t given the weapons and divisions it had been wanting since the mid-1950s for the defence of the Himalayas. When the Chinese invaded, an entire Indian brigade (of at least 2,000 troops) was equipped with just 100 rounds of ammunition and no grenades. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his arrogant protégé, defence minister V K Krishna Menon, kept up the pretence that China would not attack.

Second, India’s armed forces were not allowed to fight to their full potential. Ignoring India’s commanders, Nehru conferred with American ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, who advised the prime minister not to use the Indian Air Force against the Chinese intruders. Before the war, the Nehru-Menon duopoly had ended the career of Korean War hero General Thimayya – who saw the Chinese as a threat to India early. They later promoted Lt General B M Kaul and General Pran Nath Thapar. These officers did not know where the border was.

However, with the exit of both Nehru and Menon, the era of the neglect of the defence forces ended to some extent. The impressive showing of the Indian Army in the 1965 War with Pakistan restored some pride. Russian and American military supplies boosted military strength.

While evaluating the Chinese threat, the thing to note is that the India of 2017 is not the same as the India of 1962. Besides, the Chinese are not exactly known for their fighting skills. The PLA may be the world’s largest army, but it has performed atrociously in a series of major conflicts.. This article examines four of China’s post-1962 conflicts and how the PLA fared against well-armed and professional armies.

Year: 1967

Opponent: India

Conflict: Nathu La and Cho La

Result: Chinese defeat

Casualties: PLA 340, Indian Army 65

On 7 September 1967, a PLA commissar asked the soldiers of 18 Rajput to stop fencing the border at Nathu La – a border pass in Sikkim, which back then was an Indian protectorate. When the soldiers refused, the Chinese launched an artillery attack. Unlike in 1962, the Indian Army was prepared. It had placed howitzers at strategic locations aimed at Chinese military positions. The Indian guns launched a withering counter-attack that stopped only after three days. Indian gunners scored several direct hits on enemy bunkers, including a command post from where the Chinese operations were being directed.

On 13 September, India announced a unilateral ceasefire – a fitting reply to China’s offer almost to the week.

Smarting under their humiliation, the Chinese attacked a second time on 1 October at the nearby Cho La pass. This time it was the men of the Gorkha regiment who engaged in close-quarter combat, killing 40 elite Chinese commandos, resulting in a massive PLA rout. However, the Indian Army withheld fire on their retreating enemy. The defeated Chinese left Sikkim and withdrew three kilometres from the border. Since then, Nathu La and Cho La have been under Indian control, and China has never claimed these passes.

Year: 1969

Opponent: Russia

Conflict: Ussuri river clash

Result: Chinese defeat

Casualties: PLA 800, Soviet Army 61

At 4,380km, the Russia-China land border is the world’s longest. But since Tsarist times, it had been poorly demarcated, with both countries having overlapping claims over it. In the 1960s, following the ideological split between the two Communist allies, the border became a flash point with 658,000 Soviet soldiers facing a million PLA troops. In March 1969, 61 Soviet soldiers died in a Chinese ambush, and their corpses were mutilated. The Russians hit back so hard that, in the words of Robert Gates, Central Intelligence Agency director at the time, from American satellite pictures, the Chinese side of the river bank was pockmarked like a moonscape. The Chinese death toll: over 800, with thousands more injured.

The Chinese stab in the back made the Russians so angry that they seriously considered launching a nuclear attack. Washington secretly wanted someone to eliminate the Chinese for them but decided that a hostile China on Russia’s border would be good to keep Moscow on edge.

China survived, but it was so traumatised by the disproportionate Russian military response that it immediately started looking for a strategic alliance with the United States. The bottom line: the Russia-China border has remained peaceful ever since.

Year: 1979

Opponent: Vietnam

Conflict: Full-scale Chinese invasion

Result: Chinese defeat

Casualties: PLA up to 63,000, Vietnamese army 26,000

In 1978, the battle-hardened Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) – which had only three years ago defeated the mighty Americans – launched an invasion on Cambodia. The invasion ended the genocide being committed by the US and China-backed Pol Pot regime, which had murdered two million of the country’s eight million population.

In order to “teach Hanoi a lesson”, the following year, a 200,000-strong Chinese force invaded Vietnam. (Interestingly, the invasion took place when India’s foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was visiting Beijing.) In the 29-day war that ensued, the highly trained VAPN defeated the PLA, killing up to 63,000 Chinese soldiers and capturing hundreds more.

In his 1985 book, Defending China, Gerald Segal writes that China’s 1979 war against Vietnam was a complete failure: “China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.”

After years of unsuccessful negotiations, a border pact was finally signed between the two countries in 1999.

Year: 1986-87

Opponent: India

Conflict: Sumdorong Chu standoff

Result: Chinese pullback

Dead: No casualties

The last time the India-China border came live was in 1986-87, when the cunning Chinese did a Kargil on India in Arunachal Pradesh. In 1984 and 1985, the Indian Army had set up camps in the border areas in summer and returned to the foothills in winter. When they went back in 1986, they found the PLA had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and set up a military camp in the pasture on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu river in Tawang district. Incidentally, this was close to the Thag La ridge, where the two armies had fought a bloody battle in 1962.

With the Chinese refusing to move back and “supreme leader” Deng Xiaoping declaring his intention to teach India “another lesson”, army chief General Krishnaswami Sundarji launched Operation Falcon, airlifting T-72 tanks and BMP-armoured personnel carriers to the area, occupying the high ridges overlooking the Chinese positions. It was the exact opposite of the 1962 situation when the Chinese had the higher ground. Both armies were eyeball to eyeball for seven years when in August 1995 the Chinese finally blinked. The Chinese knew if the two armies clashed, 1962 would be reversed.

Lonesome dragon

For decades, Beijing has pursued a strategy of boxing up India in South Asia so that New Delhi is unable to compete with it globally. According to strategist Subhash Kapila, “China is a compulsive destabiliser of South Asian regional stability and security, with the end aim of keeping India off-balance.”

China cannot attack India because India’s military is modern, large and highly professional. Plus, a war would kill the market for Chinese goods in India. Beijing will therefore continue to use Pakistan to keep India down. New Delhi’s prime objective therefore should be to weaken Pakistan by supporting independence movements in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakthunkhwa.

That, more than anything else, would demoralise the Chinese.

The Original Himalayan Blunder

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“No armies with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land so thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the source of waters that keep the fields and people of Pakistan green.” – David Lilienthal, former chief of the Tennessee Valley Authority, US

The ‘Aqua Bomb’ is truly India’s most powerful weapon against Pakistan. As the upper riparian state, India can control the flow of the seven rivers that flow into the Indus Basin. And yet, in the last 69 years, only once has it exercised this great power – and not very well.

On 1 April, 1948, with India and Pakistan battling for control of Jammu & Kashmir, engineers in Indian Punjab shut off water supplies from the Ferozepur headworks to the Depalpur Canal and Lahore. Around 8 per cent of the cultivable command area in Pakistan was impacted during the critical kharif sowing season. The city of Lahore was deprived of the main sources of municipal water, and the supply of electricity from the Mandi hydroelectric scheme was also cut off. Water rationing was introduced in Pakistan’s second largest city.

When India had its foot on Pakistan’s parched throat, when a little more pressure would have forced Islamabad to behave, and when Indian soldiers were fighting – and dying – to liberate Indian territory, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru committed his first Himalayan blunder by relaxing India’s chokehold on Pakistan.

Later, it was to be under his leadership that India inked the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), giving away 82 per cent of the total water to Pakistan. Niranjan D. Gulhati, India’s chief negotiator, exemplified India’s muddled thinking: “We had to keep in view the interests of the other side: they must live; we must live. They must have water; we must have water.”

In his book Indus Waters Treaty: An Exercise in International Media, Gulhati narrates Nehru’s reaction to the stoppage of the waters: “Officially, the provincial government had acted without the federal government’s prior approval, and were to elicit little sympathy from some sections of the Indian central government. In fact, Nehru is thought to have castigated the East Punjab government and their engineers, in September 1949, for having taken matters into their own hands.”

Engineers in Indian Punjab had a valid reason for stopping the water to Pakistani Punjab. While the borders of India and Pakistan were demarcated haphazardly by British officials panicking in the backdrop of mutinies by India’s defence forces, the distribution of water resources was not discussed at all. Therefore, as a stopgap measure, India and Pakistan signed the Standstill Agreement on December 20, 1947, which maintained the status quo till March 31, 1948.

In the absence of any formal agreement, according to the engineers, had East Punjab had not closed the water temporarily, it might have led to West Punjab acquiring legal rights to the canal waters in that area. In effect, East Punjab was concerned about allowing a precedent to arise that would prove detrimental to it at a later stage.

On 24 April, 1948 Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan asked for the “immediate restoration of the water supply”. Nehru replied on 30 April that he had instructed East Punjab to restore supplies to Lahore and Dipalpur. He also agreed to the Pakistani proposal for a conference to settle the dispute.

Delhi Agreement: Pakistan wriggles out

With Lahore screaming for water, Pakistan signed the May 1948 Delhi Agreement, which restored the water supply – but at a cost. Firstly, Pakistan was to pay for the transport of water through India. Secondly, India was to be allowed gradually to diminish this supply to Pakistan. India’s contention was that colonial rulers had built the irrigation system in West Punjab but neglected East Punjab completely. Such a state of neglect could not continue after independence, and therefore it would need to draw some water that flowed into West Punjab.

The ink had barely dried on the Delhi Agreement when Pakistan started to dig a channel from the River Sutlej in order to circumvent the Ferozepur headworks. It justified its decision to dig as a precautionary measure against India closing down the water supply in the future. India warned that it would take retaliatory action, and dig a channel further upstream of Pakistan’s channel.

Pakistan said the Delhi Agreement had been signed under duress, and gave notice of its expiry, in a note to the Indian government on 23 August, 1950. With both countries embarking upon competing – and conflicting – river diversion projects, Nehru wrote to Liaquat Ali Khan, proposing a joint declaration that their countries would not go to war over any dispute between them.

And typical of how Nehru had always acted – and would do so over and over again to the detriment of India’s interests – he proposed that both countries would seek peaceful means to resolve their differences, including third party intervention in the form of mediation, agencies especially set up to resolve the matter, or an international body recognised by both countries. This was like free money for Pakistan – Liaquat Ali Khan agreed.

Enter the World Bank

While India favoured a water sharing tribunal with an equal number of experts from each side, Pakistan kept demanding foreign mediation, preferably the International Court of Justice. It was even prepared to take the dispute before the UN Security Council. However, it was the World Bank – in reality an American bank – that waded into the dispute.

While Pakistan was happy with the outcome, there were many in India who doubted the World Bank’s intentions. One of these sceptics was President Rajendra Prasad. However, Prasad was softened up by Nehru’s nephew B.K. Nehru who was the Indian Executive Director of the World Bank. In early 1952, he allayed the President’s fears of falling into a debt trap by telling him that “international debts were never meant to be repaid”.

The World Bank also hinted that funding for the Bhakra-Nangal project, which was to usher in India’s Green Revolution, depended on the successful settlement of river disputes. A country on the brink of war would hardly be regarded by the World Bank’s bond investors to be a good investment opportunity, the bank’s representative pointed out.

The pressure worked. India agreed to World Bank mediation, surrendering all its advantages as the upper riparian state. Incredibly, Nehru refused to link the Indus river dispute to the settlement of the Kashmir issue. In a letter to the World Bank, the Prime Minister made it clear: “The canal waters dispute between India and Pakistan has nothing to do with the Kashmir issue; it started with and has been confined to the irrigation systems of East and West Punjab.”

The Pakistanis couldn’t believe their luck. Liaquat Ali concurred with this opinion, stating that the parties should “refrain from using the negotiations in one dispute to delay progress in solving any other”. How convenient.

Generous to a fault

After nearly three years of negotiations, in 1953 India and Pakistan presented their respective proposals. Again, typical of Nehru’s misplaced magnanimity, India was more generous than Pakistan was towards India. India was willing to give Pakistan 76 per cent of all the waters of the three eastern rivers, whereas Pakistan was allocating a meagre 13 per cent to India. Even the Indian claim to 7 per cent of the western rivers was drawn from the River Chenab flowing through Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir.

Keeping in view how much each side was willing to yield, and sensing Nehru’s soft side, the World Bank Plan allocated 82 per cent to Pakistan and a mere 18 per cent to India. Nehru gave the thumbs up to the plan.

The Indian negotiators believed there was enough water within the entire Indus Basin to meet India’s requirements. Nehru stated: “We are convinced that there is more than enough water in the Indus Basin to satisfy the needs of both India and Pakistan, provided it is properly exploited.”

China on his mind

There was another critical factor that contributed to the undue haste with which Nehru gifted the Indus Basin to Pakistan. In the early 1950s, China had began its incursions, first into Tibet, and then into the Indian border regions themselves. For years, Nehru had dismissed the Chinese threat, sidelining and even rebuking loyal army officers who pointed out the fallacy of his China policy. He had even declined a permanent seat in the Security Council, saying that it belonged to Beijing. With Chinese troops making provocative incursions across the McMahon Line, Nehru realised he now had more than the Pakistani boundary to defend. He believed he could buy peace with water.

Pakistan’s mindset

The treaty provides a peek into the Pakistani way of thinking. For Pakistan, anything that involves India is the unfinished business of Partition, which was essentially the Islamist vision to establish a beachhead from where it could launch jihad or “holy war” on India. Islamabad’s constant cribbing is in keeping with that mindset. From Pakistan’s perspective allocation of “only” 82 per cent of water as against 90 per cent of irrigated land violated the principle of “appreciable harm”, writes Moin Ansari in the book India’s Aqua Bomb.

Western involvement

For many Indians it’s a mystery why the West rushes to Pakistan’s defence every time it gets into trouble. Well, it’s not such a mystery. Pakistan was midwifed by Britain and the United States as a bulwark against Russia. There was no way they would have allowed it to fail.

In all its wars against India, Pakistan was rescued by its patrons in the West before it was destroyed as an entity by India. The IWT was backed by the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, the US, West Germany and the World Bank itself. It is clear the Anglo nations did not want their future satellite to fail or be absorbed by India.

Pakistan is today the Ivy League of terror but the West isn’t ditching its baby yet. The Anglo countries continue to describe the IWT as the “treaty that has survived four wars”. These are the same words the leftist media and Lutyens crowd use, urging India not to abrogate the treaty.

The IWT should have been abrogated in 1965 when Pakistan launched a war in Kashmir. But many liberal Indians continue to believe India is Pakistan’s older brother and reckon that being generous towards Pakistan will buy peace. Well, that theory has been proved wrong hundreds of times – most lately in Uri – by Pakistan. At any rate, after Uri, the treaty is past its use by date.

If India walks out of the treaty, Pakistan is in big trouble. Even with the plentiful waters of the Indus Basin, it remains a semi-arid country where drought has parched many parts. Its water table is falling rapidly. Pakistani Punjab, which has the largest canal density in the world, is getting waterlogged. Its vast reservoirs – that were built to offset the loss of the three eastern rivers to India – are silting up. India, which never quite stopped building dams and hydro-power projects in Kashmir in keeping with the spirit and letter of the IWT, is ideally placed to divert water to its own parched cities.

The impact of the Aqua Bomb will indeed be greater than being imagined now. India should use it wisely to make Pakistan wind up its terror industry and give up its anti-India policy.