India’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) released its Year End Review for 2020 on January 1, 2021. Compared to the previous review, there is an understandable emphasis on India’s confrontation with China, given the Ladakh confrontation. The 2019 review, conversely, was very positive about China, including highlighting the Indian Navy’s participation in the International Fleet Review held in China’s Qingdao harbor in April 2019 commemorating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
That it so explicitly discusses China is the first noteworthy element in the 2020 report. This is noteworthy because Indian officials have generally been reluctant to name or blame China while discussing the confrontation in Ladakh. Just a few months ago, MoD put out a report explicitly mentioning China, but as soon as the media reported on it, the ministry withdrew not only that report but all its monthly reports since 2017. The explicit discussion of China should also be seen in the context of Indian leaders’ reluctance to name China even when talking about the confrontation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unwillingness to name China has been evident right from the beginning, something that has received a lot of domestic criticism. Even Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has been reluctant to talk about China explicitly. This unwillingness has been inexplicable, but probably the result of a belief that naming China might escalate matters and prevent a diplomatic solution. It is unclear whether the 2020 MoD review represents a new willingness to more openly acknowledge what China has done.
It is possible that the report names China also because of the consequence of India’s growing disappointment at the fact that several rounds of military and diplomatic discussions have taken place without any positive results. China has shown no willingness to move out from areas that it has come to occupy since April 2020. Indian officials have also refused to acknowledge the loss of Indian territory due to China’s actions. Admittedly, even the recent report does not talk about loss of territory.
The report does talk about the use of “unorthodox” weapons, but it is not clear what precisely is meant. This could have been simply a reference to the nailed sticks and clubs that were used on the night of June 15 when 20 Indian Army personnel were killed, which clearly were unorthodox. But there have been reports about China’s use of microwave weapons in Ladakh, although the Indian Ministry of Defense has dismissed them. These do appear fantastical. Oddly, there have been increasing references to such weapons, especially claims that these kinds of weapons were used against American and Canadian diplomats in Havana and in China. These reports were initially dismissed but in December 2020, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences reported that the symptoms of the victims were “consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.” Nevertheless, until more evidence emerges, the reports of such weapons being used in Ladakh must be discounted.
Particularly noteworthy in the 2020 MoD review is the infrastructure development that the Indian government has undertaken in the border areas. Indian infrastructure development in the border areas has been one of the reasons mentioned for China’s incursion in Ladakh The completed strategically important roads in the border areas along the China-India border include: Sumna-Rimkhim, Gastoli-Rattakona, Malari-Girthidobla in Uttrakhand; Tato-Manigong-Tadagade in Arunachal Pradesh; Poari-Pooh in Himachal Pradesh; and Mahe-Chusul in Ladakh. Other vital connectivity projects include the Lungro GG-Yangtse Road, located in the remote high-altitude area of Arunachal Pradesh. This road was operationalized in October 2020. According to the report, the Border Roads Organzation (BRO) has also restored connectivity in many places including by building an alternate bridge for traffic on Munsiyari-Milam road in Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand State in June 2020; and by readying a main bridge over Sikam Sibu stream on the Aalo-Menchuka road in Shi-Yomi District of Arunachal Pradesh State in June 2020. The original bridge was washed away due to heavy landslides in June, cutting off any road connection with the rest of the state.
A total of 44 bridges were completed and opened for traffic in 2020. The report notes that the work on Sela tunnel, connecting the road to Tawang, is in full speed and is expected to be completed by November 2022. The Brahmaputra tunnel is a new project being undertaken by the BRO and this is meant to bring in connectivity between the north and south bank of the Brahmaputra river.
While there is significant attention on the land border with China, the review also highlights the major activities undertaken on the naval front. Indian Navy ships have been continuously deployed in the Gulf of Oman/Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden/Red Sea, South and Central Indian Ocean Region (IOR), off Sunda Strait, the Andaman Sea approaches to the Malacca Strait, and Northern Bay of Bengal. The review notes how effective these have been in enhancing India’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), enabling quick humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) efforts to IOR littoral countries, and a range of naval engagements that are sought to be useful in the context of capability development and capacity building.
Among the naval engagements that the Indian Navy participated in 2020 were PASSEX with a number of friendly navies. Indian Navy’s PASSEX for 2020 included those conducted with France (May), Japan (June), the U.S. (July), and Australia (twice, in January and September). Even though the Quad was not mentioned in the review or with reference to PASSEX, it is important to note that the Indian Navy has carried out PASSEX with all of the Quad partners, plus France, another important strategic partner for India.
2020 was an eventful year for the Indian defense forces, and it is unlikely that the coming year will be any less. We can expect continued focus on responding to China and building partnerships.