The virtual meeting on 15 November between Presidents Joe Biden of the US and Xi Jinping of China could hopefully be the forerunner to a dialogue process that was so far missing in action. The relationship had turned openly hostile, and the drift towards armed conflict due to misjudgement and miscommunication needed repair. Some political and military leaders had been warning of the risk of an accidental war—a possibility that could have driven both leaders to acknowledge the danger.
Violence, hatred, enmity: trinity of war
A mere understanding of the nature of the beast that resides surreptitiously in incidents between adversarial military entities is necessary but insufficient to prevent them. Prevention demands political rationale to prevail over the forces that pull in the direction of escalation. Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of escalation in the form of a ‘trinity’ of forces, which prevails in nations that interact with each other, is probably an explanation that has stood the test of time.
According to the ‘trinity’ theory, the prime escalatory force originates as a result of primordial violence unleashed by hatred and hostility between societies of the belligerents. The second force is of the play of chance and probability resulting in uncertainty and the near impossibility of forecasting action-reaction produced by adversarial military forces in contact. This is also accentuated by misperceptions, miscommunications, and misjudgements and described as the ‘fog of war.’
The main characteristic of this force is that it could acquire a logic of its own, be beyond human control, and may unpredictably act to strengthen escalation. The third force is political rationality that resides in the decision-making of the leadership. This is the force that can contain escalation through decisions that are driven by caution. But the overall danger is that this force could uncontrollably be overwhelmed by both or either of the other two forces.
A danger that was wavered
In India, a terrorist attack—especially on a religious symbol— can lead to primordial violence through the unleashing of the forces of hatred and hostility. The call for revenge would be irresistible for the political leadership. Military forces applied in retaliation would get into an action-reaction scenario, which acquires its own military logic that is unbridled by political rationale. The post-Balakote dog fight that resulted in the play of chance and the loss of aircraft and capture of an Indian pilot could have escalated. But political rationale on both sides prevailed with possibly a little help from the US.
‘Accidental wars’ world over
The terrorist attack scenario described above has deliberate initiation of violence as the detonator. In an accidental war, the detonator is an accident. During the Cold War, technical glitches in the early warning radars that were deployed to watch for missiles could have resulted in nuclear exchanges. Each time, the play of chance and probability saved the day.
The scale and pace of the current unbridled global arms race, which now also includes space and cyberspace, is coupled with deployments of technological products that promise to exploit the vulnerabilities of the adversaries and are supposedly able to triumph in militant engagements. China in particular is engaged in frantic moves at military modernisation that have been driven by Xi Jingping, who never fails to remind his domestic audience of the need for military power to defend its interests.
In Asia, adversarial military forces of China and the US, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are interfacing in the air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Chinese forces are also in close contact with Ladakh and other places on the India-China border. A similar interface is prevailing in Europe between Russia, the US and the European Union. The military buildup and growing tensions in the Donbass region of Ukraine are of particular concern. The interface is mostly aimed to strengthen territorial or maritime claims and is carried out without any mutual understanding of the rules of the road.
The situation is layered with leaders who rely on their ‘strongman’ image and have a greater proclivity to undertake risks. Such risk-taking behaviour could be the detonators for accidental war. During the Biden-Xi virtual dialogue, there was more than a hint that some level of talks on strategic stability would commence. There is some hope that China, the US, and other actors could evolve confidence-building measures that will be directed to prevent accidental wars. An improved geopolitical ambience can realise that possibility. The dangers of inaction are obvious to all. Only the political will of the parties concerned can overcome the obstacles to reach an understanding.
India has measures in place, but obstacles are huge
Unlike the confrontation of China and Russia with the US and other nations, the situations on the India-China and the India-Pakistan borders have confidence-building measures in place that are specifically aimed to prevent military flare-ups. These are also buttressed by channels of communications at several levels between political, military, and diplomatic leaders. With Pakistan, these channels also include Track II talks. Some intelligence sources even give them credit for facilitating the reassertion of the India-Pakistan ceasefire in February 2021.
However, in the arena of global politics, India is still not in any camp but is in many issue-based tents. This was reflected in the stances it took at the United Nations forums on climate change and the Treaty on space. Its membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the RIC (Russia-India-China) Forum, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is also indicative. Can India’s political and diplomatic capital be deployed at the global level to usher in a return to politics that is based on dialogue? Will such an attempt be a non-starter due to the poor state of India-China relations? The obstacles seem huge. That is why India with a self-image of Vishwaguru, or world teacher, should give it a try.
Will leaders prevent a war that nobody wants?
A deadly cocktail of deepened geopolitical competition bordering on confrontation, an unbridled arms race, and greater risk-taking proclivity of leaders can prove to be the catalysts for initiating a war that nobody wants. The hotspots are well known and are begging for political interventions by the parties concerned. Whether Biden, Xi, Putin, and other middle-power leaders like Narendra Modi—who are all entangled in amassing power domestically—can make a difference, only time can tell.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)