With reports now indicating that China is rotating its troops on the banks of Pangong Tso, and creating, for the first time, permanent barracks in Ngari in Tibet, it seems that Beijing is readying to dig in for the winter, never mind the several rounds of talks that have been taking place. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of about 60,000 troops opposite India, which further emphasises the fact that this is a crisis of no small proportion. Indian military planners will be working on all contingencies, while other ministries will see to oil reserves, buying defence equipment, and reaching out to the international community.
India and the Narendra Modi government’s choices in such a situation should ideally be dealt with in a tome of several thousand words. But that’s for academics. For decision-makers, and the informed public alike, the final product has to be no more than a few pages, resting on available facts and figures. I have attempted that here in a precis –taking all options, and then settling for the most favourable.
A limited war
First, the most talked-about option is that of a limited war between India and China, which is generally seen as an engagement in which scale, time, weapons used and objectives are all within certain boundaries, in what Lawrence Freedman calls a “presumption of deliberate restraint”. Those boundaries are decided by the political objectives of each side. In this case, the stated objectives are that India demands a return to pre-April status quo and China demands a recognition of the 1959 Claim Line.
In physical terms, the contestation between the two sides are narrow strips of territory, which could give China the capacity to threaten Sub-Sector north and the link to the Siachen glacier. China suspects India of designs on Aksai Chin, with its most recent statement refusing to recognise the “illegally established” Union Territory of Ladakh. Less obvious are the political objectives, especially in China’s case. This could easily be about putting India in its place, strengthening President Xi Jinping, or just bad policy on several fronts. In India’s case, a democratic leader just can’t afford to lose and survive in politics. That’s not exactly a ‘limited’ objective, but possible costs of war could impose severe limitations.
Accurate data for Kargil, a classic limited war, are scarce, but a 1990 study by Shekhar Gupta and Ravi Rikhye, using the 1971 war as a base, estimated that a 1,000-hour war with Pakistan would be in the region of Rs 27,000 crore; a figure that amounted to the entire budget of some six ministries, and would have set us back by a decade. It’s true that from being among the laggards of the world, the Indian economy is now among the top three in terms of PPP. That’s fine vis-a-vis Pakistan. But China has also climbed to become the largest economy in the world. A war, even a limited one, could hit the position of both countries. Possibly Beijing – who last fought a war with Vietnam in 1979 – has not yet realised this. This is the worst option for both.
Sit it out
Second, is the possibility that the troops on both sides just wait and sit it out for years – thus creating a ‘new’ Line of Actual Control (LAC). Remember that the Sumdorong Chu face off of 1986 was resolved a decade later in 1995. The Indian Army is sitting on Siachen glacier – a contested area since 1984. Apparently, we’re good at simply waiting it out.
But here’s the rub. For one, access to the contested areas is far easier for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) than the Indian forces, given the terrain and the easier connectivity. For India, it’s a struggle. Then there’s the fact that China can pressure India any time with a sudden surge of troops, which will be conveniently leaked to the media. That would be timed to ensure that New Delhi does not go adventuring into the arms of foreign partners. Witness that at the recent Quad meeting in Tokyo, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar did not even mention China. This is a low-cost, high-returns option for Beijing, and quite the reverse for India.
Rev up the Quad
Third, and linked to the above, India has the option to rev up the Quad, assuming for the moment that the other members – Australia, post-Shinzo Abe Japan, and a post-election US – would be willing, into pushing China into a ‘two front’ threat with Quad partners deploying in the South China sea, anchoring in Vietnamese ports, or even providing significant assistance to Taiwan. The recent presence of no less than three US aircraft carrier battle groups on China’s doorstep, indicates it can be done and impose costs on Beijing.
As a pressure tactic, it is a definite ‘advantage India’. But as a solution to an actual crisis, Quad members would have to significantly escalate tensions enough to get China to move its military weight to its east. It’s possible, though not probable, without iron-clad security guarantees in a NATO-like arrangement. Indian decision-makers will fight shy of that, for reasons that include a historical distrust of the ‘West’ and no files on ‘precedence’.
Move the Navy
Fourth, analysts advocate a larger move of the Indian Navy beyond the Malacca Strait, to send “calibrated signals” to the Chinese. But signalling is not enough in a crisis situation. If push comes to shove, New Delhi has to operate with at least a mild superiority. That’s not the reality. Then there is that hoary chestnut of interdicting Chinese shipping at the Malacca Strait.
Even assuming that India can ignore the valid objections of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, naval experts warn that “degrading an enemy’s shipping” takes a long time to ‘bite’, much like the economic sanctions on Iran. China’s strategic reserves are reportedly aimed at 83 days of oil demand, and the Indian economy can’t take a ‘hot war’ for even a quarter of that period. Technically, however, it’s possible during prolonged tensions, given quiet intel sharing on ‘white shipping’ and satellite data.
Launch a hybrid war
Fifth, there is hybrid warfare, which in India is part of loud television debates, addresses by senior army leaders, and little else. That’s not the fault of the Army. Simply put, ‘hybrid’ refers to underground activities such as subversion, psywar, deception and cyberwar, all used towards defeating an enemy without fighting. This requires an almost ‘all of government’ approach, which has always been impossible given the turf wars of bureaucracy.
China took this concept further in 2013 with its “Three Warfares Strategy” (TWS). This includes operations influencing public opinion both within and outside, psychological warfare to convince the enemy in multiple ways of its inability to fight a ‘superior’ enemy, and legal warfare to assert the legitimacy of Chinese claims, be in the South China Sea or Ladakh. When an Indian paper carries a one-page eulogy about China, that’s TWS. A retired general prophesying defeat for India is a TWS victim. So is a political leadership that begins to wonder if the whole issue can be swept under the carpet. China actually has far more pressure points – Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Taiwan – for India to use in its own TWS strategy. All it requires is deciding the focus, using the right tools, and then holding the reins tightly to guide the effort in the right direction and in the right intensity. The systems are there. Now use them.
Put simply, China uses the Ladakh situation to play us, fine-tuning this with its psychological operations. ‘Talking’ in such a situation will only buy us time, and not much else. But that time can be used for a fluid strategy that includes the favourable options we have listed. Forget the jargon and the PowerPoint presentations. It’s time for shrewdly playing China’s game back at them, with the luxury of so many widely different points of attack.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
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