Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China and legendary war planner, wrote during the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation in the 1930s that “deliberately creating misconceptions for the enemy and then springing surprise attacks upon him are two ways — indeed two important means — of achieving superiority and seizing the initiative. Without preparedness superiority is not real superiority and there can be no initiative either.”
Amid the standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in June, China responded to India’s charges of what is euphemistically called ‘changing the status quo’ with denials and counter-accusations. But satellite images taken a week after the 15 June brutal clash in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, that aggravated the weeks-old tension between the two countries among various friction points along the de facto border, clearly demonstrated barefaced Chinese aggression. This was the prelude to the untenable claim that the whole area belongs to China.
The menacing dimensions of China’s rise as a global power were on full display during the border stand-off. While China continues pays lip-service to “jointly work for de-escalation” to bring “peace and tranquility” along the border, the actual de-escalation on the ground has, it is widely believed, resulted in India losing territory in the Galwan Valley as well as elsewhere in Pangong Lake and Depsang Plains, close to India’s strategically-important Daulat Beg Oldie post near Karakoram Pass, in the region, giving the Chinese People’s Liberation Army a position of huge military and tactical advantage.
Indeed, the Chinese, after deliberately creating misconceptions and then springing surprise attacks on its perceived enemy, India, then took the corollary step of landgrab at multiple locations. This is how China changes the facts on the ground, as India has alleged. The world has been witnessing such deception after the Xi Jinping era began in 2012, as China set about pressing land and maritime boundary claims using a skewed sense of history and sovereignty.
India realised the magnitude of danger the Chinese territorial aggrandisement posed during the 2017 Doklam standoff between the two nations and began executing military infrastructure upgrades along the border to mirror China’s own buildup and aggression, much to Beijing’s resentment and animosity. The latest tension along the LAC occurred as China repeated its skullduggery of the past two years — pushing territorial claims and refusing to vacate the occupied land.
The latest escalation and the de-escalation process are a dire portent for India. But by cementing its occupation along LAC as it has done, China is signaling India not only to refrain from buttressing its military capabilities along the border but also that its incursions will continue. It is a signal meant to warn that China will assert its claims by intimidating and bullying India as it does other neighbours, even as it attempts to build a network of client states in South Asia selling its Belt and Road Initiative, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will pass through areas claimed by India is a key project.
The summitry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi appears to have done little to moderate China’s belligerent behaviour. The chaos and confusion has shaken the Modi government because it did not expect personal diplomacy with great powers, in which it has invested heavily, to fail spectacularly in the case of China. The government knows that military confrontation with China would be unlike the one with Pakistan, where cross-border terrorism makes a retaliation enjoy greater domestic popularity and international legitimacy. The poorly demarcated and often undefined nature of the LAC might bring India to pull punches or risk an undesirable escalation with China, given the economic, military and diplomatic asymmetry between the two.
It is unlikely that the Chinese will ease their pressure along the disputed border, as it gives Beijing a military, diplomatic and political lever over India when New Delhi crosses a line in economic and foreign policy decision-making. Standing up to Chinese threat calls for deft diplomacy and recalibration of ties with Beijing on India’s part while remaining on its guard. However, if China is intent on annexing more territory in the Ladakh manner in future using brute force and trickery, it could spark more clashes, risking a limited or even full-blown war.
If a limited or even full-blown war comes to pass, India might have to reckon with a grim reality where it has been thrust into fighting a two-front war: on its northern (China) and western (Pakistan) borders. It is a clear and present danger it confronts.
Though Pakistan did not threaten India during the months-long Doklam standoff in 2017, the Indian Army had acknowledged since then that a two-front war is a likely scenario. In 2018, the then Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat, now the Chief of Defence Staff, has observed that a two-front war is a real scenario and India’s military is very much prepared for such an eventuality. In January this year, Army chief Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane reiterated that position, saying “we have to balance out our requirements and deployment to cater to threats from both the West and the North. Earlier the focus was only on western front. We feel now that both western and northern front is equally important and that is why we are re-balancing.”
Indeed, it is foolish to expect the impetuous army generals in Pakistan who indirectly control the country to remain indolent when India, which they consider their arch enemy, is in peril. China may even instigate Pakistan, the so-called all-weather friend but for all intents and purposes, its puppet. Both have found a common cause on India’s scrapping of special constitutional status to Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcation of the state. Pakistani generals pride themselves as shrewd and clever, having successfully executed, for decades, their double-dealing in Afghanistan while also keeping the unrest alive in Kashmir using jihadi terrorist groups. Yet, they also know the historical fact that a war with India is unwinnable. Profiting from a Sino-India conflict would be the easy way for them to torment and humiliate India with a double smackdown and to obtain maximum territorial advantage in Kashmir. As one expert has observed, even the parlous economic situation the country continually faced would not deter it. Therefore, Pakistan might be tempted to turn its covert war of thousand cuts to overt, or at least a Kargil-style one.
However, in spite of the official posture about India’s ability to fight a two-front war, it is likely India would find odds stacked heavily against it, more so as both adversaries are nuclear-armed. Questions are being raised about the viability and efficacy of the effort, as in the case of the crucial 17 Mountain Strike Corps. We have to bear in mind that a war with each country — with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in the Kargil confrontation in 1999 — had shattered many comforting myths our military top brass and political leadership believed in as viable strategy and plan until then. Complete intelligence failure, poor operational preparedness, lack of coordination, faulty or outdated weaponry, weak military infrastructure, political indecision, the list is long.
Following Mao’s dictum, keeping the two-front war option open could be the next Chinese gambit to deliberately create misconceptions about its intentions and then spring surprise attacks to make territorial gains over India. Therefore, it is crucial that India devotes substantial strategic thinking to prepare a verifiable blueprint to successfully wage and survive a two-front war.
Rajiv Jayaram is a New Delhi based researcher and journalist. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.
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