We were en route to Ramvan from Chakrata, the broken-down hill road shrouded in silence. Suddenly, we heard a scream. We moved forward to find a number of soldiers in military attire near a cave on a hilltop. A rope stretched from the cave down to the road. An instructor was training them to descend from the top using the rope. Before beginning the descent, the soldiers had to utter a loud cry.
We stopped. While they took a break, I asked the instructor the name of the unit. He replied that this was the Special Frontier Force (SFF), and said most of the soldiers in his force were Tibetans. During the ensuing conversation, I found that they were angry with China and were waiting to take on any aggression by that country. More than three decades have passed, but the incident has stayed with me.
Today, when there is tension on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, the spotlight is on SFF. This force was relatively unknown. It was strategically kept in the background during the 1971 Bangladesh War on the Chittagong Hill; in 1984 during the hoisting of the Tricolour at Siachen; and in the Kargil War in 1999. The Army has not made any official statements about this, but it is no secret that SFF soldiers have captured inaccessible peaks on the southern banks of Pangong Tso. The force which occupies the highest peak in a war gets an automatic tactical edge.
This is the first time that India has taken such action on the China border. Earlier, through Balakot and the surgical strikes, the Narendra Modi government sent a message to not just Pakistan but others across the border. It was decided that any incursion on the Line of Control (LoC) would be answered decisively and in kind. We have been trying to resolve both Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and Chinese incursions at the diplomatic level until now. Now, the army will respond to the action and the diplomatic establishment will convey our position to our adversaries and others through dialogue. But unfortunately, Chinese president Xi Jinping seem to have failed to grasp the implications of this strategy.
In this light, defence minister’s Rajnath Singh visiting Moscow twice in the last three months is not surprising. Last week, he went there for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting. China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, was also there. Talks were not scheduled between them, but Wei took the initiative with Russia pushing for it as well. This is the first high-level dialogue amid the tensions at the border. A government statement said that Singh asked China to respect LAC while China sought to blame India for the border tensions. However, Wei also suggested that both sides maintain communications at all levels. We cannot let down our guard. China rarely lives up to its promises — the deaths of Indian soldiers from Rezang La to Galwan is proof of that.
The Rajnath visit is important in the light of our dependence on Russia for essential military supplies and the historic ties between the two countries. Russia has always supported India during the wars with Pakistan, but now things have changed. Hence, the need to renew the bond.
It is said that decisions on war are made on the negotiating table. This means that if negotiations are done first, war can be avoided. And now, foreign minister, S Jaishankar, will meet Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10. Is Moscow going to add a new chapter in India’s strategic history after Tashkent?
Even if China had not encroached into our territory, India had to still acquire the power to deal with it. The Pentagon revealed, in a report this week, that China is looking to double its nuclear stockpile in ten years. It has ambitions to build military bases in the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Angola, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. China claims that it has the largest navy in the world. While we have made some gains through diplomacy in the neighbourhood and held the Chinese back, the challenge will persist.
It is said of World War II that if Hitler had been prevented from advancing from Munich, the war would not have taken place. The fear of another great war can be allayed if the world makes a serious effort to stop Xi Jinping’s expansionism. Perhaps this is why the United States (US) has increased the deployment of ships and warplanes in Diego Garcia and the South China Sea. The manner in which the Chinese foreign ministry has conducted itself recently is telling. Earlier this week, when the Czech Republic criticised it, Beijing sent out a warning that Prague would regret this. Australia has also been threatened in the same manner. Chinese spokespersons even signalled that China could make things worse for India than in 1962. This overconfidence is dangerous for China. It should know that India has changed a lot between 1962 and 2020. The peaks of southern Pangong bear witness to this. Beijing cannot be unaware of these realities.
Shashi Shekhar is the editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal