In 2012 we discussed India’s China problem in a triplet of essays commissioned by ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, then at The Indian Express. Therein, we observed:
…anyone with a long view of the history of the India-China relationship should be struck by a pattern of constant Chinese pressure that is resisted for periods by India but ultimately results in Indian concessions. In the 1950s India was negotiating the incorporation of Tibet into China. Today India finds itself (in reality) negotiating the incorporation of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh into India. Thus the line of contestation has moved steadily against India and the default prediction should be that it will move still further. The burden of proof is on those who believe that the growing adverse balance of power will also magically bring this long term drift to an end.
Events over the past couple of months are only the latest chapter in this unfortunate saga and do not require any particular handwringing over what should or should not have been done last year or the year before. The key question for India is what it should do going forward to end this pattern in the face of growing Chinese power.
Our first observation concerns the timing of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) offensive in Ladakh. If Beijing had struck earlier or later, it would have been less likely to suffer the consequences. Instead, the PLA has lashed out at a moment when Chinese actions – over the Covid-19 pandemic, cyber intrusions, the status of Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, and use of physical force on its neighbours – have raised alarm across the East Asian rim, the United States, Europe and, of course, India. Added to this, a growing centralisation of power inside China and a parallel consolidation by President Xi Jinping have brought home to a large fraction of the world that a transition to a China-dominated authoritarian global or even Asian order is likely to prove highly problematic.
Much better for this realisation to have sunk in today while China’s national power has just started to be a serious challenge for a potential containing coalition than, say, a decade from now. By then, it might have been too late to contain this rise and Chinese dominance of the world’s information infrastructure might have created the basis for an entirely new kind of Great Power hegemony. For this early warning, President Xi deserves thanks.
Guarding against coercion
Our second observation is that India is at risk for military, cyber and financial/commercial coercion – all directed towards a Finlandisation at a minimum or an active absorption into an emerging Sinosphere at its maximum. Despite China’s considerable advantage in terms of national power, India can very much guard itself against such coercion.
On the financial/commercial front, it would clearly make sense and will not be very difficult to stay outside the emerging Sinosphere, which, despite great growth, still excludes over three fourths of global GDP. By banning 59 Chinese apps, India has blocked a critical channel of China’s influence and espionage, and simultaneously created space for homegrown competitors, as well as competitors from other law-abiding, freedom-respecting nations. The ban should also feed into a broader concern with cyber security. Fortunately, cyber security can be improved by a relatively small but high quality workforce, which can be put together in short order.
Another very useful step would be to set up a few “charter cities” in India to which some of the manufacturing based in China could be easily moved.
Finally, the military front is also manageable, thanks to recent technological developments that favor defence. Intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) assets — from radars and drones to satellites — can be used to keep watch over PLA forces and combined, if necessary, with strike assets (guided rockets, artillery, mortars, missiles or bombs) to precisely target massed Chinese formations, vulnerable fixed bases, or the relatively sparse transportation and supply lines on which PLA forces near the border depend.
India should rapidly scale up its capacities in this regard. Additionally, India should ensure that the second component of its insurance strategy, the nuclear deterrent, is secured against all aggressors.
While such strategies can protect against the threat of large scale war, they do leave open the kind of salami tactics China has employed in Ladakh. The answer to that is, unfortunately, not to double down on symbolic gestures such as sending a few ships sailing into the South China Sea, but instead to create a small, high quality staff unit within the Army with meaningful autonomy whose full-time job would be to devise ways of keeping the Chinese off guard to head off such surprises. Executing these options may require changes in training, equipment and deployment. With some help from friendly nations, we would expect a meaningful tactical deterrence to be established and maintained.
That brings us to our third point. The shared global concern around China is a major opportunity for India to create the structures needed to benefit from a soft alliance of like-minded countries. The challenges outlined above do not require formal mutual defence pacts. They do, however, require structures that operate continuously without the need for high-level political intervention. Intelligence sharing, cyber defence of civilian infrastructure, knowledge and production sharing on weapons systems, and coordinated policies on financial and commercial matters can and should be ‘automated’ at the appropriate operational level.
The rise of a new major power in the international system has always required its competitors to raise their game. The new power necessarily does many things well and often in new ways. This compels others to reform their own domestic arrangements, and an unexpected challenge from the new power is often the spur needed to “sell” the reform agenda to domestic interest groups.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi should seize the moment to push reforms that can truly change India’s trajectory over the next decade. More narrowly, he might wish to note that at moments when their nations faced unprecedented military challenges, great leaders of democracies such as the United States (Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Israel (David Ben-Gurion) stepped back from day-to-day affairs to teach themselves strategy, and then led their countries down new and ultimately successful military pathways. PM Modi has the opportunity now to do the same for India.
Deal is President and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group, a Washington DC-based defence consultancy. Rosen is Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University and senior counsellor at LTSG. Sondhi is on the faculty at Princeton and directs the India and the World programme at its Centre for International Security Studies. Views are personal.