How Secure will India be in 2021?

Sharing with friends my analysis regarding How secure India will be in 2021? covering most facets of security. It was published in three parts in The Daily Guardian over three days. I am sharing the updated version of entire analysis together as many readers found it difficult to connect all the parts in the sequence. Some Highlights- Chinese strategic aim in 2021 will demand to hold on to maximum of its gains and get Indian troops out of Kailash Range in exchange of PLA pulling back from some lesser important areas. Indian aim should be not to concede unilateral shift of LAC as LAC-2020 on Chinese terms, be prepared for all contingencies including ‘Two Front War’ as a worst case scenario, and continue capacity building accordingly. Even if the present standoff does get resolved, so long the LAC is not demarcated, these standoffs will continue to occur, whenever any Indian action is uncomfortable to Chinese or its in the interest of CCP to do so.


National Security is a subject having a very wide ambit and needs to cover much wider period for any meaningful analysis. As Ladakh standoff, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, rolled over to 2021, extrapolating some of the immediate trends, under the existing realities can help anticipating some strategic and security challenges about future security dynamics of the country. Year 2020 ended with India facing some ongoing, unprecedented challenges like Ladakh standoff, COVID19 pandemic and economic slowdown, besides adding ‘Health Security’, Data security, digital and economic encroachment, as a new dimensions to existing threats to National Security, relevant in 2021 as well.

China-India Standoff in Ladakh: Reality in January 2021   

China, having marched in areas, where it was not supposed to be, junking all CBMs, as part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’, to unilaterally alter the status quo along Line of Actual Control LAC in its favor, exploiting first mover advantage over India, making unfair use of its engagement in combating COVID-19 pandemic. It’s expectation that India will accept nominal disengagement, while Chinese troops will continue occupation of Depsang, Finger 8 to Finger 4 and some other areas, was a miscalculation. Indian quick response, and national resolve amidst COVID19 pandemic, combined with proactive posturing for occupation of some heights on Kailash Range ahead of Chushul, in areas South of Pangong Tso and some heights North of Finger 4, wasn’t expected by China.

China found itself entering 2021 with major concern of Indian forces digging heals at existing positions in the standoff, prepared for all contingencies, with Chinese positions/garrison South of Pangong Tso becoming vulnerable to Indian occupation of some additional heights on Kailash range. With the level of trust deficit between two countries, Chinese were also concerned that any pull back, without a mutual agreement can lead to Indians occupying some important features vacated by them, which can turn out to be a political disaster for CCP; hence it endured sitting in these positions in harsh winters, so far.

The sustenance issues and the realisation that prolonging the standoff is not leading to any major gain by either side, led to an Agreement between China and India to commence disengagement process since 10 Feb 2021, commencing from Pangong Tso area, to be followed by other areas of standoff in Eastern Ladakh. The Indian concerns include extra kilometrage with China in Depsang, Finger 4 to 8 (Till fully vacated and infrastructure removed) and some other areas, restrictions on patrolling, vulnerability of DS-DBO road; hence in case of Chinese backing out of Disengagement Agreement, post vacation Pangong Tso North and South, it will de facto alter LAC somewhat similar to 1959/1960 claim line of Chinese, necessitating some Indian action.

What are China and India Aiming for in Ladakh?

Chinese political aim has always been to have China-centric Asia, and forcing Indian subordination a necessity to achieve it. The loss of face in Doklam in 2017, and infrastructure push by India to bridge infrastructure asymmetry created by Chinese crystalised this intent. This aim could not be achieved by adventurism in Ladakh so far, but will remain unchanged in 2021, as well.

Chinese strategic aim to control Eastern Ladakh was to provide depth to its National Highway G-219, Karakoram Pass and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), redraw Line of Actual Control (LAC) as per its perception and negotiate border on their terms thereafter. China can claim to have partially achieved this aim by occupation of extra kilometrage in standoff areas in Eastern Ladakh, however it finds itself handicapped by Indian reaction, resistance and resolve, with proactive actions resulting newly created vulnerabilities for China, South of Pangong Tso. China will continue to be uncomfortable with Indian dispositions in India’s Sub Sector North including DBO, infrastructure development including DSDBO road, as a perceived threat to crucial Tibet-Xinjiang-Pakistan connectivity. Chinese aim of preventing Indian infrastructure development hasn’t been achieved, as both sides continue development of infrastructure in areas they perceive to be theirs. It will continue to remain a bone of contention between two countries in 2021 as well, because no-one is likely to give up infrastructure development.

China is hoping to achieve the tactical aim in 2021 to make Indians pull back from Kailash range in exchange of PLA pulling back slightly from lesser important areas. It may well happen during implementation of the Disengagement agreement, but if it gets disrupted, a military action post winters to evict Indian Army from Kailash Range by China cannot be ruled out, but the option is marred with a major risk of loss of face for Xi Jinping, as a military defeat is last thing which he would like to face in chasing China’s dream, that too in centenary of formulation of CCP. PLA’s centre of gravity of military operations will continue to be Eastern Ladakh and infrastructure build up/encroachment along rest of LAC will be to strengthen its bargaining position. China will continue to try encroaching Bhutanese land to create more space in Chumbi Valley, to threaten to Siliguri Corridor.

From Indian point of view, given the track record of China, it may go through this agreement temporarily and later follow it up by a military action, post winters to reoccupy same/other areas after getting Kailash Range vacated from Indians, due to its faster mobilisation advantage, because of its better infrastructure. Indian aim should be not to concede unilateral shift of LAC as LAC-2020, be prepared for ‘Two Front War’ as a worst case scenario, and continue capacity building accordingly. The talks and disengagement should continue as per the statements issued by Government of India, but by past credentials of China and strategic calculations, I do not see China conceding to Indian official demand of pulling back to pre-May 2020 positions in all areas through talks alone. With such operational compulsions, commencement of some tactical probing actions, and resultant patrol clashes are likely, along with talks, in later part of 2021. In light of no major breakthrough in 22nd round of China-India border talks, I do not expect any worthwhile development on delineation, delimitation for demarcation of LAC, which, otherwise is necessary to prevent a repeat standoffs, even if the present one sees some resolution.

US-China- Russia Factor and Strategic Balancing by India

The recent public disclosures about US policy of accelerating India’s rise through diplomatic, military and intelligence support to contain China indicates that the US-China strategic competition will continue in 2021, along with the trade war, as a long term policy, with Joe Biden’s Administration as well. It is understandable that uniting America and fighting pandemic will be highest on the priority list of new President, but his office bearers have given enough hints to work with allies and strategic partners as essential part of US strategy against China, having recognised it as a competitor and vice versa.

China despite internal pressures like protests in Hong Kong and some jolts in economic and infrastructure ventures, has been posing a brave front. It has been able to gravitate Russia and Iran towards it and is in the process of colonising Pakistan. This leaves India in a state of doing strategic balancing between US, Russia and Iran to get the best out of such strategic scenario. The diplomatic task of doing so is becoming increasingly difficult as Putin indicates possible alliance with China (perhaps to put caution on New US Administration),  Iran signs $ 400 billion deal with China and India struggling to maintain strategic autonomy, under pressure of CAATSA threat on S-400 deal, post sanctioning of Turkey and heavy dependence of military hardware and spares on Russia.  

China will continue to assert more on South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and Eastern seaboard. In Indo-Pacific region, India will stand for freedom of navigation and flights, rule based order, use of global commons in international waters, but any showdown with China is unlikely, because Quad, despite its upgradation to Foreign Ministers level, is still not a military alliance to threaten China. The ideas of Quad plus or grouping of democracies (D10) is yet to take any shape. South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will continue to witness aggressive military posturing, just short of a confrontation, as the redlines of Taiwan going nuclear or China attacking Taiwan have not been crossed. It gives room for US strategy of ambiguity of not formally junking One China Policy, strengthening various agreements with Taiwan, selling state of the art equipment and continuing FON missions in Taiwan Strait. The invitation to Taiwanese envoy to Oath taking ceremony in Capitol Hill indicates no change in US stance from earlier administration. This gets further confirmed as U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entering the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas” on the same day, when Taiwan reported a large incursion of Chinese bombers and fighter jets into its air defence identification zone in the vicinity of the Pratas Islands.

PLA will continue to improve its maritime and other capabilities for expeditionary roles in Indo-Pacific and beyond, to support its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and protect its SLOC.  India in conjunction with other Navies will have to increase stakes for PLA Navy in Indian Ocean, besides continuing with own capability development. China is aware of its vulnerabilities in Indian Ocean and will avoid being drawn into any confrontation in this region, except visits of Chinese submarines to their potential bases/surveillance missions and some more build up on the bases acquired by them through ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. India will have to join other friendly navies as mentioned above, to make best use of Chinese vulnerability in maritime domain in Indo-Pacific region.

Sino- Pakistan Nexus and Two Front War     

The ongoing standoff at LAC, Chinese compulsion of pushing BRI/CPEC through, has further increased the strategic relevance of Pakistan for China. A major side effect of abrogation of Article 370 and internal reorganisation of J & K into two UTs, has been the strengthening of Sino-Pak collusion in military and non-military affairs, which led to China taking up the Kashmir agenda to UNSC twice and  elections in Gilgit Baltistan. China has increased its efforts to develop military capability of Pakistan, use of its Army and its terror potential.China will ignore state sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, as it indirectly contains India’s growth and reduces its impact in South Asia; hence has managed to stop India from heading al-Qaeda sanction Committee in UNSC.

The terror industry and hybrid war by Pakistan will continue in 2021, notwithstanding their economic difficulties.  Whenever Pakistan is on the verge of sinking, some country will bail it out, to foster its own interest through Pakistan, because of their strategic location/terror potential. As Year 2021 finds US troops reduced to 2500, Taliban may be in driving seat in Afghanistan, with conglomeration of many terror groups like ISKP, al-Qaeda, AQIS, Haqqani network and others, which may develop capability to strike US mainland and India, if not checked. Ceding that strategic space to China and Pakistan is against security interest of India and US. The recent statements of Secretary of Defence of US in Biden’s Administration indicates recognition of role of Pakistan in dealing with Afghanistan as before, has a cost, because now Pakistan’s autonomy is hostage to China, which wasn’t the case when Democrats were in power last time. India will continue to be apprehensive of Biden’s reliance on Pakistan, which will have to be factored by Pentagon, if China is the competitor.   

It may be interesting to note that Pakistan’s terror industry is mainly sustained by parallel economy involving drug trade, extortion and assistance from ISI, with material and operational support from Pakistan Army. The efforts of FATF and IMF may show some check on terror funding by formal economic resources, but not on the parallel terror economy, as the linkage between the two is not as tight as it is made out to be. Pakistan is unlikely to get blacklisted by FATF even in 2021, because it will be able to find three countries to oppose such move, which is adequate to avoid blacklisting, however it might continue to be in grey list, despite its best efforts to hoodwink FATF by sham arrests of some key terrorists prior to its meeting in Feb 21. Pakistan seems to have done well for itself in information warfare, initiating false propaganda against India, which has mitigated its criticism amongst domestic as well as global audience. Pakistan will continue to operate and plan terror operations against India in 2021, as in past, with greater effort to destabilise Kashmir to undo Indian effort for inclusive growth of the Jammu and Kashmir.

The progress on CPEC is likely to continue despite Indian opposition and some domestic opposition inside Pakistan, although, BRI will continue to face many roadblocks globally. CPEC will fully make Pakistan a colony of China, which is already  into a client- Patron relationship, where strategic choices of Pakistan are hostage to China. This brings out a long term threat to India in terms of ‘Two-front war’ for which India has to be compulsorily be prepared for. India’s intention to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) will need shaping of international environment, affected population and waiting for appropriate time, giving higher priority to Ladakh standoff first.

Other Neighbours    

India does not have any direct threat from other neighbouring countries, but has to remain cautious of developments by adversaries trying to maximize their influence. Irritants like border issue with Nepal like Kalapani will have to be dealt with patience, as there could be some mid-course correction indigenously. India will have to continue ‘neighbours first’ policy to prevent them slipping away into Chinese orbit. In 2021 we can expect closer ties with Maldives and Bhutan, who will continue to get assistance from India. A smart diplomacy will be required in dealing with Bangladesh, as it is in India’s interest to support Sheikh Hasina and collectively find solutions to mutual concerns (including Rohingyas and water dispute) affecting both countries.  Similarly in case of Myanmar the issue of Rohingyas and better connectivity will have to be worked out with proactive diplomacy, highlighting Chinese assertiveness and interference in their internal affairs versus co-operative model offered by India. Connectivity projects like Trilateral Highway to countries in Southeast Asia will need greater push, in collaboration with Japan and US.

Internal Security Challenges     

Kashmir       The success of recent local body elections, post abrogation of Article 370 and 35a, and relatively lesser frequency of terror activities are positive indicators, but there is no room for complacency as Pakistan will redouble its efforts to ignite violence in Kashmir Valley, by some major terror attack, which needs to be prevented. Incidentally Jammu, Ladakh and some part of Kashmir will continue to be peaceful and only a handful of districts, sympathetic to militants may be prone to terror actions. In 2021 it is expected that terrorists supported by Pakistan will make few more attempts to derail inclusive growth and development process, till the new UTs are mentally accepted by adversely affected politicians and interest groups as a reality and new normal to progress forward. Legally, convictions of separatists must happen, because temporary arrests do not matter to them. Unless visible effects of  inclusive growth and better governance appear under the reorganised system, the security forces will have to continue fighting terrorists (Foreign as well local) because terror industry will continue to be a lucrative industry. The challenges of security forces in terror operations, will continue to be stone palters (to a reduced degree), false allegations and some segments of human right organizations, legal fraternity, politicians using it to their advantage.

North Eastern India      In case of prolonged standoff and adversarial relations with China, there is a possibility of Chinese trying to re-ignite insurgency in Northeast Region (NER), although it may not be as easy, as it was a few decades back.With improvement in efforts of inclusive growth in NER, India can hope for some crucial agreements, improvement of infrastructure with implementation of many projects and decline in insurgency. Except for some parts Manipur and adjoining areas, the region is showing keenness to grow. With friendly governments in power in adjoining countries, North East may not pose a major security concern. It may face a temporary law and order problem due to some internal reforms, resulting aggressive politics, but these would be surmountable from security point of view.

Red Corridor/Naxalites     The problem in these areas relates to poor governance and its intensity will increase/decrease depending upon the quality of governance provided. There have been changes in Government in some affected states. Depending upon the governance provided by them and lessons learnt by security forces operating there from past incidences, the magnitude of the problem can be expected to vary in either direction in 2021. The police forces dealing with it need to have modern equipment, training including leadership training at grass root level.

New Dimensions of Security       Health security has become a major security challenge with outbreak of COVID19 pandemic, as the control measures affect the economy, livelihood and lifestyle adversely, besides threat of loss to human life. Considering the population density of India, it has done well to get over it. With largest vaccination program in the world commencing, India can hope to prevent the second wave. Last one year also exposed democracies of the world, vulnerable to possibility of politicisation of peaceful protests, wrong use of right of speech and hijacking of protests by anti-national elements. India, like other democracies will have to struggle to contain it, with India specific solutions. The digital and economic encroachment by China and some technological giants is also posing a new security threat including data security. It is understandable that the economic and digital decoupling cannot be done abruptly and Indian dependence on Chinese supply chain restrict some Indian options, but the speedy process to get out of this handicap will have to be adopted. India needs to formulate strict policies and laws, and see through their implementation to counter digital and economic threat, besides ongoing efforts on self-reliance.

What Should be Indian Response to counter these Security Challenges?

With prolonged ongoing standoff with China, the clouds of ‘Two Front War’ are hanging over India, and preparing for it is not a choice, but a compulsion, although it may/may not happen in 2021. The only way to avoid a ‘Two Front War’ for India is to convince the potential adversaries that India is capable of fighting it successfully. This convincing has to be backed by building/proving capability to do so, and India seems to be working on it with unprecedented speed fast tracking procurements and boosting indigenous production of necessary equipment through ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’, besides a tough stance by Forces on borders.  

The hopes of reaching any agreement on disengagement and de-escalation based on mutual and equal security does not give much promise after failure multiple rounds of talks diplomatic and military commanders talks. There is no guarantee that any agreement, even if arrived at will be implemented by China based on recent track record. Most importantly, so long the LAC is not demarcated. A temporary solution will only postpone the next standoff and may lead to LOCization of LAC. It may be prudent, not to run into any quick fix solution, but endure to create conditions for a long lasting strategic solution. The standoff can re-occur, whenever India does anything like infrastructure development on borders, which does not suit Chinese interest or China needs to increase domestic support by generating spirit of  nationalism amidst growing dissent to CCP. India, therefore, needs to increase the cost of war for China and Pakistan by multi-pronged strategy. Smart diplomacy is needed to collaborate with democracies and groupings for collective security, synergising Indian interests with others, facing the heat of Chinese expansionism. 

India needs to pose a threat to Chinese vulnerabilities in maritime domain in collaboration with other friendly navies. Strategies will have to be to draw out PLA Navy out of its comfort zone in South/East China Sea to Indian Ocean where it’s Sea lines of Communications (SLOC) face maximum vulnerability. Aggressive military posturing should continue to match Chinese aggression in Indo-Pacific to ensure that its military assets are distributed in defending every military installation/base it has created everywhere. It will also be in Indian interest, to be in sync with stance of global democracies to withstand Chinese expansionism in Indo-Pacific Region, where Chinese sea lanes of communications are vulnerable, rather than be seen to be compromising with China on bilateral basis, thus reducing its global pressure by dropping one friction point to China’s advantage, too soon.      

India needs to realize that defence capabilities take decades of consistent effort, more-so if it does not have strong manufacturing base. ‘Make in India’ and self-reliance is essential, but time consuming; hence it must continue simultaneously with new procurements with transfer of technology. The defence budget allocation made in 2020 will have to substantially increase in 2021 in the interest of national security. Chanakya, Clauswitz, and Sun Tzu, have said one thing in common that no nation can expect to become great and secure, unless it has powerful Military, which can deter potential adversary. Unless Pakistan is deterred, the proxy war will continue; hence India needs to improve capability to exercise its ‘Proactive’ intent. If capability exists then intentions can change overnight, which makes the adversary jittery.

We also need to deal with domestic enemies firmly. The recent aggressive protests over some of the reforms have grabbed media headlines, are more of law and order issues, but the issue of illegal immigrants/infiltrators who are security risk will continue to be of grave security concern and needs to be checked. The challenges of digital and economic encroachment will have to be met by robust rules and policies governing them and their effective implementation. We need to remodel the Security Strategy to meet these challenges, if we want “Peaceful inclusive Growth” with minimum security related distractions. We can thus hope for a stronger and secure India in 2021.

Attaching URLs of three parts published in The Daily Guardian


Major General S B Asthana

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn link

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