India China Border Standoff-Expert’s View: Lieutenant General DS Hooda

Following are extracts from a discussion conducted as a public webinar by AIPC North Delhi chapter on 14 June, 2020. The complete webinar can be viewed on the AIPC Delhi Facebook page, in a post of the said date, and is also available on the Inspire! website.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda

Salman Soz: Thank you, AIPC Delhi and AIPC Delhi North for organizing a very important event. Greetings to General Hooda, one of the most enlightened voices from the military. Thank you for joining us at our platform. Thank you, Colonel Shailendra Singh for joining us. I look forward to this discussion. And of course, we have Wing Commander Anuma Acharya, who’s one of our office bearers as well. I think this is going to be a very interesting discussion. There’s much for all of us to learn. I will watch you General Hooda as a student in some ways, but also, I think, many people may not know, for us Kashmiris, you’ve always been a very friendly voice, and a reasonable voice, a kind of voice that really is needed for integration. So, I welcome you and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the current crisis with China. And ultimately, what are the kinds of options we have, what are the kinds of things we should be thinking about for the future, without any kind of political twist to it, just the basics that we should learn from. Thank you so much for coming.

Anuma Acharya: Let me take the privilege of introducing the highly revered Lieutenant General D S Hooda, Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yukt Seva Medal, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal & Bar, who has graciously accepted our invitation to discuss the recent standoff between India and China. General Hooda was the northern army commander during the surgical strike in September 2016. With a career spanning nearly 40 years he has served on both the northern and eastern borders of India. Sir has also served on the United Nations mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, for which he was awarded the UN MEE medal. We are extremely proud and privileged to have you with us, Sir, today. To moderate today’s discussion, we have Colonel Shailendra Singh with us…

Colonel Shailendra Singh: Sir, I really hope, Sir, meri country safe hae dono borders par (I hope my country is safe on both the borders)… from the point of view of war capabilities as well as capacities.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: Thank you very much, Shailendra; Salman, thank you very much. And, thank you all for inviting me. It’s a great pleasure for me to be here.Let me just straightaway jump in to your first question. And the short answer is, yes, we are safe. And I know it sounds strange coming at a time when we feel that there is a big crisis, which is happening in Ladakh between India and China with troops locked in a standoff.

But I think we can’t transpose this situation and look at our overall capability and get a sense that our overall military capability is weak or that we are not going to be able to defend our borders. I mean, that would that would be a completely wrong impression.

Crises on the border of the kind that we are seeing today and which have happened fairly regularly in the past, are completely different from when you talk about, you know, a war waging capability, for example, because that’s when your complete military potential, which includes your Army, the Air Force, the Navy, which is very strong in the Indian Ocean, all that comes into play.

Obviously, we would like, you know, the military capability to be enhanced. We are facing two fairly strong neighbours: Pakistan on one side has a reasonably strong military, although their economy may not be good. China, which is to our north, is almost a great power, and a great economy, their defence budget and their modernization is extremely, extremely impressive. So, obviously, we would like more and we would like our capability to grow. And I’ll talk about this a little later, how we should do it. But let’s not get a feel that today we are in such a situation that we are not going to be able to hold our own or the borders are porous and weak. And then the Indian military cannot hold it on its own.

Colonel Shailendra Singh: So I take it, Sir, from our respected army commander saying that our borders are safe. I’m very sure it has to be safe. My next question, Sir… Since 1947, have incursions from China never been there or have they always been there. Or has there been any incursion earlier, since our Independence? Have we ever lost real estate on the ground? And if at all we have lost, what could be the reason for it.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: I think the defining moment as far as our northern borders is concerned was the 1962 War. And in the 1962 War, major territorial loss took place in Ladakh. They did come into also across what we now call the line of actual control (LAC) in the eastern sector, but they went back. Back across the LAC.

So, what was the boundary came to be defined or known as the line of actual control, which basically meant which side has actually control over which territory and therefore, as far as the LAC is concerned, areas to the west, we considered in our area and areas to the east are considered in Chinese territory. Unfortunately, there was no agreement on the two sides, on ground or on maps to define this is how the LAC lies. And therefore there are differing perceptions in certain areas, we feel this area is under our control, they feel this area is under their control. But these, let me tell you, are very small pockets. Along the whole border, starting from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, there are about 20-23 places, small pockets, where disputes take place.

There is also a feeling that, you know, over the last 30-40-50 years, the Chinese have been regularly transgressing across and slowly nibbling away at Indian Territory, and therefore, slowly territory is being lost to them. I think there are no facts to support it. Please look, after 1962 we had 1967 Nathu la incident where we did not permit them to come in at all. In 1986, we had the Sumdorong Chu incident where they tried to come in, and there was massive, massive deployment by the Indian military and the Indian Army, in an operation called Operation Falcon. So, therefore, we have been defending our borders strongly. There has been a little problem with regard to infrastructure because our road building; and roads in the forward areas were poor, and therefore we were not able to patrol up to every place that we want it to. That situation too has changed. And it is because of this situation that you have seen an increase in transgression in the last few years.

Our ability to check Chinese who are trying to come in into these pockets has improved. Our surveillance over our borders has improved. And it’s because of this that you find the number of transgressions that are being reported are increasing. What are these transgressions? These transgressions are when Chinese patrols come across what we consider our LAC and come into our area, we say it’s a transgression. Similarly, when we cross over the LAC that the Chinese consider as their LAC and go on their side, they say you are transgressing into our area. And therefore, these transgressions are happening in a few selected pockets, both in Ladakh area and also Sikkim, and in Arunachal Pradesh. But, you know, cutting it to the quick, let me say the whole story about that we have been constantly losing territory to the PLA and to the Chinese, and that we’ve been falling back on the borders, let me tell you, this is not true. The borders are being defended, being patrolled, and wherever we feel that there is an issue, you’ve seen Depsang, Chumar, Doklam, the army has responded strongly.

…transgressions are happening on both sides. It is not as if we are only reacting to the Chinese and not patrolling up to our limits … And most, I will say 99% times, it is peacefully done. Last year, and this was reported in the media, there were almost 650 transgressions by the Chinese. Which is, they come in and they go back; similarly, we do the same. Now 650 transgressions, did we hear even a single one which resulted in any crisis? No. There are border protocols for managing it. There is also an understanding on both sides that things should be peacefully resolved. Unfortunately, what is happening today is a complete variation from the way border management has been done in the past and how both Indian and Chinese troops have been interacting and behaving with each other...

Colonel Shailendra Singh: “Kyaa sahi mein, Sir, 80 km andar aa gayaa hae (Sir, have they really come 80km inside?)?” Is it really possible for China to come inside 80 kilometers?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: No, no, 80 kms and all is not possible. There is some incursion in the Pangong Tso areas, which is what we know. How much has been occupied, what they are doing, I mean, these are things which people on ground only know. So, I think, trying to put some kind of square kms and figures, I think, would be completely, sort of, incorrect. And from what we can make out, you see, the whole area which is on the north bank of Pangong Tso is again one of those areas where there has been a different perception of the LAC. And we all know now, Chinese used to patrol up to Finger 4, we used to work to Finger 8; that used to happen. It was the understanding on both sides that nobody will permanently occupy this area because both sides were laying claim to it. And therefore, to maintain peace and tranquility in the area, both sides would carry out patrolling, but not do a physical occupation of the area, which is what it appears to have happened this time. I hope the things get resolved peacefully and that the Chinese go back ….

Colonel Shailendra Singh: Now, Sir, since you are saying that we have a claimed LAC at Finger 8 and they have a claimed LAC at Finger 4 and there is a substantial distance between them. They have always been having their camp beyond Sirijap 1 and 2, where they made their road during Kargil war. How could it be that they came from Finger 8 to Finger 5, but we could only challenge them from Finger 4? Why could we not go to Finger 6 and Finger 7 to challenge them? Did we not notice the patrol? What could have been the reason? Does China have a strategic advantage in that region over us?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: So, Shailendra, it is very difficult at this stage to say what exactly happened, how did they come in… The fact is, if we want to go in in some specific areas, we plan for it, we quietly build up in depth areas, and then suddenly send in 500 people into some areas: we can also. So it’s not as if it’s a completely, you know, plain area, deserts that you can see for miles. It is mountainous terrain, and, therefore, any side which plans and wishes to do something can always, and has the ability to be able to do it. As I said, if we want to do it in some other areas, we can do it. And so, therefore, I think more than asking questions about how did it happen, were we surprised… I think we should be more concerned about what the Chinese intentions are, what their demands are, and what the steps are that will lead to a de-escalation in this area. I think that’s the more critical question.

Colonel Shailendra Singh: What has been the traditional way to resolve such transgressions that it never reached a stage the way it reached Doklam or for that matter now Pangong Tso. Why couldn’t we resolve these in those ways?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: See, as I said, last year there were more than 600 transgressions, all of them went off peacefully. So there are protocols for border management between both sides. And these protocols stress that whenever say two patrols come face to face with each other, and this happens very often in areas where I said there is differing perception… sometimes two patrols will come face to face, there are protocols which say both sides at that time will peacefully disengage, go back to your own side. There will be no tailing of patrols. There should be no violence that is done between the two sides. If there are any issues that arise, that can be sorted out in what we call border personnel meeting, when military commanders are both sides meet, and then resolve these issues.

I think we should be more concerned about what the Chinese intentions are, what their demands are, and what the steps are that will lead to a de-escalation in this area.

This is the normal procedures and protocol that happens. So why has it not happened this time? It’s because the Chinese have come in with some aims and intentions. This is not a normal patrol, that there is a normal patrol, which resulted in some clash and therefore, then, you know, boiled over into something. This is premeditated: the number of areas in which they have come in, the strength with which they have come in. So, it’s a premeditated thing, and therefore, I think, that’s why I’m sort of stressing the fact that we need to sit down talk to them, see what their intentions are, see what they want. What is it that will take it for both countries to de-escalate? I think we are clear on our side that they must go back and we talk about restoration of status quo ante, which is, if you crossed into our area, the way to resolve it is that you go back. How soon that will happen? Again, I don’t think it is something that this time we are going to see be sorted out in a quick timeframe. It will take some hard negotiation.

Anuma Acharya: The talks on 6 June of the lieutenant general level was much hyped and it also went on very long. But despite that, it was inconclusive. So, basically what I want to know is that both sides know the issue before the talks, then how do they proceed? How do they build up that talk?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: Oh, so Anuma, what happens is, again, you know, this, this current situation is a little different from the past. So, if you look at the past incidents, at Chumar, at Doklam, Depsang: they were localized. And we knew on both sides, what our demands are. We knew what the red lines on both sides are. Let’s take Chumar for example in 2014: they were trying to construct a road, we said you can’t construct the road. Same thing happened in Doklam. They were trying to extend the road in the Dolam plateau. The Indian Army objected, they stopped the road construction. 2013 at Depsang: again, these people came and parked their tents there, we said you have to go back. These were local incidents and red lines on both sides were clear. What has happened this time is I think the Chinese intentions are not very clear. And that’s why there is a lot of speculation going on as to why have they done it….why have they done it at this particular time… Is it linked to a local situation on the LAC? Is it linked to a regional level? Is it linked to Article 370? Is it linked to the greater super power rivalry, etc? So, I think, there is not too much clarity as to why they have done it. And that’s why my sense is, what is their intent? What do they want? What will it take for us to step back …is not going to be so easily negotiated.

And that is why I’m sure… you see, we don’t know exactly what happened in the Corps commanders’ meeting. But it does appear as is being brought out by the government, and the Chief said a certain amount of disengagement has started taking place. He said, starting from the north, some disengagement of groups is taking place, which is good. I think the sticking point probably will be around Pangong Tso Lake because that’s an area that has a certain level of dispute, which exists from the past.

Colonel Shailendra Singh: What could have been happening in the military talks, that it went inconclusive? Which people are calling inconclusive? I’m very sure you will personally agree with me that they were never inconclusive. If we are having four more meetings, if they are having a withdrawal plan, all this is part of being conclusive. Yes, we didn’t come out with a word that yes, this is happening, but it is all happening. So does a talk at that level become inconclusive?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: I am glad you asked me this question. So, what happens in military to military talks, and we’ve had a very large number of them: if there are minor incidents, we are able to resolve it quickly. And a number of such incidents have happened. When I think it reaches and goes beyond a particular level and particularly where territory is involved on both sides, and we feel that they have come into our area, the Chinese feel no this is our area: when territories are involved, typically, militaries are not going to retreat on their own or disengage on their own. So, what happens in military level talks is that you talk to each other and say, “Let’s maintain calm on the Line of Control, line of actual control.” If you maintain calm and tensions go down on the borders, that actually somehow sets the stage for talks at the diplomatic level to become successful.

Just imagine, if, you know, there was still some tension going on between both the armies and there was violence and injuries happening on both sides, that then, you know, completely muddies the diplomacy and how talks can go forward. So, military-level engagements will set the stage, will ensure that there is calmness on the LAC, If required, people will go down, as is happening, to areas on ground where tensions are taking place and have military to military engagements at those areas, which is again what is happening: the local commanders are now meeting at the places exactly where the standoff is happening. So, I think, it’s good that military commanders are talking, making sure that the LAC remains quiet and peaceful, troops do not start, you know, firing, hitting, indulging in violence against each other.

If you maintain calm and tensions go down on the borders, that actually somehow sets the stage for talks at the diplomatic level to become successful.

But when tensions have reached the stage, I think the final, sort of, solutions will lie in diplomacy. And where… if diplomacy is also, sort of, not coming to a final resolution, then at the political level, between political leaders of both sides. That’s where, I think, it will get resolved...

SS: What could be the possible way out available militarily, and of course, for resolving the whole issue?

Today, you don’t have to go to war. What people are doing is exploiting divisions in society, creating echo chambers, exploiting any fissures that we have.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: So, Shailendra, I think you know, there are many options even militarily. A quid pro quo happening in some other areas, if they have come in somewhere, you can always go in some other area. If push comes to shove, then a physical eviction of the Chinese is also possible. It isn’t as if the Indian Army is, you know, not capable of doing this. But I think these are, these military options are something that should be right now, you know, off the table. If we can resolve this by diplomatic and military contacts and political engagement, and the Chinese go back, step back across to where they were as on 3rd-4th May, before they started coming into our area, I think, that would be the ideal solution and situation for both sides. Because once an escalation takes place, as they say, it’s not easy, you know, to control how it spirals from then on. And once, as they say, you climb the escalation ladder, you know, climbing down is more difficult than climbing up. And so, therefore, I think, let’s keep the military options for now completely off the table. Unless, you know, things just are not happening on both sides. But I don’t think we’ll reach that situation if you actually see statements from both sides, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China and our own Ministry of External Affairs: they don’t seem to, sort of, indicate that anybody wants this situation to be resolved other than peacefully. Both sides are saying, you know, let’s resolve it peacefully. So let’s see. But as I said, it’s not something that we should expect quick results. It’s going to take some tough dealing on both sides...

Salman Soz: If I may take advantage of my position to ask, General Sahab, one question that has not been posed, and which is very much on my mind, I’m sure it’s on the minds of many people. General Sahab, to what extent is social cohesion within India important, a sense of unity of purpose important, to ward off strategic thinkers in other countries, like China, say Pakistan. Because, you know, sometimes I worry personally that when others see India from outside, and if they see divisions, perhaps that gives them some degree of opportunity to fish in troubled waters. So, to what extent is India’s social cohesion important in projecting strength abroad?

Lieutenant General DS Hooda: Salman, what you said is completely right. So, social cohesion is extremely important. Today, you don’t have to go to war. What people are doing is exploiting divisions in society, creating echo chambers, exploiting any fissures that we have. And that in itself is something where…and particularly countries like China, who have… who keep information as a centre point of their strategy, and who believe in things like propaganda, and how information dominates all aspects of strategy…So, I think for us social cohesion is extremely important, not only…obviously, it is going to be exploited by inimical countries…I think even the way social media is, sort of, driving, you know, our thought and our processes, again, if there is…if social cohesion within the country is weak, I see it creating more and more issues, you know, as far as the country and its internal stability is concerned.

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