By getting off his seat in Bali to shake hands with the recently re-elected Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have assumed a posture of friendliness, but it is not a gesture reciprocated by China on the ground. Since their unilateral moves across the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh in April 2020, the People’s Liberation Army continues to send unmistakable signals of firmness. This is a position that the Indian Army has long grown accustomed to. The handshake in Bali is, therefore, out of sync with the realities on the ground, and isn’t likely to influence China’s position.
The handshake wasn’t in the script and may well remain the focus of much speculation and commentary. But it is clear that Chinese policy will not be swayed by such gestures. Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande recently made it clear that China should be analysed only from its actions rather than any friendly words it utters, even as he elaborated on China aggressively developing its infrastructure along the LAC. Gen Pande made it clear that there was “no significant reduction” in tensions between the two Asian neighbours. This fits in well with China’s prevailing military postures, east or west.
As an engineer, the COAS is well aware of the long-term ramifications of dramatic infrastructure developments taking place on the Chinese side. Some installations have a message that is not merely operational, or immediate, but for an unending duration. And as a soldier, he would have made an appreciation of the PLA’s deployment and its politico-military objectives. The current postures fit neatly into doctrines that have come to assume greater centrality in the higher echelons of Chinese military thinking. Like most such doctrines adopted by Beijing military planners, it isn’t entirely Chinese, but a clever mix of Eastern and Western thinking.
Yet to understand Chinese game
Deception as a military tactic has long been doing the rounds of Chinese writings over millennia. Given the new technologies available, and the sheer brutality of the Chinese state, it has also been able to step up denial and distortion campaigns. Disinformation of course follows seamlessly into this picture given the proclivity to claim something and mean the entirely opposite.
More than a dozen meetings between the leaders of China and India did not forewarn New Delhi that the annual summer military exercise across the LAC in April 2020 would turn into physical occupation of territory not held by anyone.
On the other hand, Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) was a largely benign concept first enunciated by US thinkers. From search and rescue, and anti-piracy to drug interdiction, MOOTW covered events that made good stories. But now China has taken it into other realms too. The 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, a highly influential publication of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, lists three general strategic means for a military: acts of warfare, acts of deterrence, and military operations other than war. So when coupled with the doctrine of deception, MOOTW can be stretched into realms currently occupied.
A Taiwan Navy vessel had a run-in with a Chinese destroyer recently and the radio telephony exchange between the two made for a rather interesting conversation. The Chinese ship flatly denies the existence of any boundary line in the sea to delineate Taiwanese territory. It was leaked by a commercial vessel in the nearby sea, or it would not have come into circulation. In its larger thrust, the argument adopted by the Chinese vessel isn’t very different from what has been on display over eastern Ladakh. Denial has now become the core of policy, and it is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
When coupled with heightened international pressures, an increasingly paranoid China prepares for all eventualities. A fitting example of preparations, of the mental side and a larger message for its citizens, is the fact that the recent 20th Communist Party of China Congress report had an extraordinary increase in the use of ‘national security’. As an observer wrote, ‘In the 20th Party Congress report, his “comprehensive national security concept” had its own standalone section, and mentions of “national security” were up 60 percent over the last report, in 2017’. Increased political stress on national security, backed by aggressive use of malleable military doctrines makes for a combustible situation.
This is, however, combustion without a fire, possibly, since aims can be achieved through other means. Enough deception has flown down the Galwan River to create a situation where India claims progress when in fact it is further restricted behind its long-held boundaries. Military loss encourages livelihood losses too. This is a clear example of MOOTW backed by deception and disinformation, but the irony is that India has been made to believe otherwise.
Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader, Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert and Chairman, Soldier Welfare Advisory Committee, Rajasthan. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)