Given the lack of combat experience of the PLA, it is difficult to judge the level of proficiency of soldiers in the PLA when faced with actual combat. What has been seen in recent Himalayan combat is not flattering to them.
There was a movie, possibly Indiana Jones, where a martial arts warrior entered to do battle with the cowboy. After watching him prance around and utter threatening shouts, Jones took out his revolver and very calmly shot the martial arts practitioner dead before the latter had time to land a blow. Or consider the Maori war dance, when fighters shout out fearsome chants in order to overawe their opponents. In the case of New Zealand and its European settlers, the guns that they used with deadly effect on the Maoris did not seem disconcerted in the slightest by the war chants that they witnessed before battle was joined. Instead, the weapons pumped fire on the Maoris and over the course of the campaign, overcame their courageous but futile defence. Some of the writings in PRC media, including English-language publications meant for international audiences, resemble the prancing of the martial arts practitioner and the cries of Maori warriors seeking to stun their opponents into inaction. Since General Secretary Xi Jinping took office in 2012 at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), state media have been in overdrive seeking to do what some US publications together with Hollywood have sought to accomplish over the decades, which is to give an impression of invincibility concerning the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Especially striking were the lengthy programs in state media of General Secretary Xi reviewing troops on parade somewhere in Inner Mongolia. Xi would utter a short, sharp command to each formation, all of whom would respond back with equal fervour. In PRC movies and on television, PLA soldiers are either pretty (if female) or handsome (when male). It would appear that they have been recruited less for their fighting abilities than for their looks, given that some of the best soldiers in history were not great lookers, quite the reverse, in fact. The building of myths is standard in the polity of numerous countries, especially those ruled by “strong” leaders. The problem comes when the myth gets believed by the mythmaker, or when reality intrudes into the idyll and real life supersedes reel life. The CCP leadership may believe that the trillions of RMB that have been lavished on the PLA will ensure success in battle. They need to look at the historical record, including the failed campaigns against the Taliban by NATO in Afghanistan or against Bashar Assad in Syria. Now President Donald Trump has got signed what is essentially a surrender document to the Taliban, throwing to those wolves the credulous moderates in Afghanistan who believed in US promises. As for Syria and other wars conducted by NATO, what took place as a consequence has been a flood of migrants into Europe that will make the domestic situation in some of the countries there deeply problematic before long.
There is a difference, and this is not small, between battle exercises and actual combat. Given the lack of combat experience of the PLA (excepting recent moves against the Indian Army across the Line of Actual Control), it is difficult to judge the level of proficiency of soldiers in the PLA when faced with actual combat. What has been seen in recent Himalayan combat is not flattering to them. It is obvious that what the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing is worried about is not that Delhi and Washington are too close to each other, for they are not anywhere near a level as would ensure operational certainty and viability. The fear in Beijing is that India and the US may in the near future become as close as what they are alleged by Beijing to be. Preventing that is among the top priorities of the trio of Moscow, Rawalpindi and Beijing and their dupes in Washington and Delhi. Despite its advantages in materiel, the PLA has reason to worry about the capabilities of the armed forces of India in actual combat. If not constrained by timid civilians and if assisted through focused diplomacy and accurate policy priorities, the military in India is a tested weapon of war. The armed forces of the world’s most populous democracy have faced conflict with courage and fortitude, and will have no hesitation doing so again against the PLA, should such an eventuality arise in future. They are unlikely to take seriously the war cries and martial arts movements of the media warriors of the PRC. They know their mettle and are unafraid of battle. Modi 2.0 needs to throw off the self-imposed shackles of the bureaucracy and embark on a phased program of giving training to 40 million young persons in the arts and techniques of war. This would be an NCC-plus program and would include field visits to the best trainees. These trips would be designed to showcase the unique qualities of the civilisation of India. Such a program of training the youth in military and para-military service would be far preferable to leaving this vast pool of potential heroes and heroines to their own devices, thereby risking their getting involved in caste or religious or other conflict. The risk of such misdirection is particularly acute in a situation where the policies followed thus far by North Block and the RBI have kept growth rates low and indeed sharply negative in recent times.
What is equally needed during Modi 2.0 is to establish an Indo-Pacific alliance structure designed to ensure a steady flow of equipment and intelligence such as would deter and where necessary overcome any effort to grab more territory. Rather than merely seek to defend the Line of Actual Control as defined (and constantly expanded) by the PRC, what is called for is an expansion of potential soldier strength added to allies providing backup and logistics.This would enable India to take control of a new Line of Actual Control that would better meet the security and other needs of this country’s 1.3 billion people than the present LAC, which anyway is constantly being shifted against India by the PLA. Whether it be the giving away of military gains at Tashkent in 1965 (or the refusal of the COAS at the time to surround Lahore and Sialkot during the brief war or Prime Minister Shastri’s unwillingness to hold on at Tashkent to the ground positions held by the Army in the conflict), it has been a constant in the history of free India that gains or existing advantages have been surrendered by the civilian establishment at the negotiating table, including at Shimla in 1972 and in other instances too numerous to mention. This is a form of masochism by the politico-administrative elite that needs to be ended not just in words but in deed. This will not be the case unless history books reflect the truth about past mistakes rather than pretend that every decision taken in the past (beginning with the blind support to the obscurantist Ali brothers by the trustful Mahatma during 1917-20) was correct and that the results were spectacular. Freedom of speech and freedom to think must be protected by the courts, should the government of the day refuse to actualise this essentiality of a democracy. The lessons of history rescued from colonial untruth need to be disseminated to the young during Modi 2.0. The young in India have to be taught their history in hues reflecting the national motto “Satyameva Jayate” rather than falsehoods peddled as facts presented in “Cover Up” mode.
What counts in battle is not just the mathematics of equipment and resources but the chemistry of combat. What ensures victory is the will and determination of the soldier in battle, and the confidence and courage of the political establishment in backing rather than constraining the military. Nervous hoots from the PRC state media will not affect either of these harbingers of victory.