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Hybrid war, Quad or sitting it out? The 5 options for India against China

China is readying to dig in for the winter at the LAC. And India has a luxury of options to deal with it.

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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.

Also read: Why has India’s China policy been such a failure? Question New Delhi’s assumptions first

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.

Also read: Jaishankar’s bland speech at Quad said nothing. But look at the naval ties India is forging

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’.

Also read: India’s answer to China’s Claim Line also lies in 1959

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.

Also read: India’s electronic warfare units are archaic, but camouflage, concealment can blunt PLA

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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  1. Obvious military option left off the table but most likely to succeed is to attack. Hit the G219 and cut the supply lines to ĹAC. Liberate Gilgit Baltistan and foil CPEC dreams of Xi. History is made by the victors…meek inhert a moth eaten map of the idea that is India.

  2. None of the above options is good for India, a country that has remained impoverished during the entrie period of its independence, chronically suffers from massive unemployment problem and currently uncontrollably going through a plummeting economy. Given this condition, India’s approach to China has to be fundamentally different than the course that the Babus have charted and elected politicians have dutifully endorsed. There is no way India can face up to China, QUAD or no QUAD, or US or no US. For all practical purposes, China, a super power already, also happens to be a wounded tiger, with countries big and small, conspiring to deny her the full exercise of her sovereignty by helping the renegade province of Taiwan to remain separate from the mainland. But India and another QUAD aspirant Japan must look at themselves first. While Japan is seeking the return of the Kuril islands that it had lost to Russia in the world war perpetrated by itself. India too had annexed Portuguese colony of Goa by force and an independent kingdom, Sikkim by treachery. But, potentially, at the heart of it, China represents a major force for growth, particularly for the countries immediately surrounding it including India. Such an approach is only hurting India. For instance, India spent a vast sum of its precious resources recently to buy a big squadron of Rafales each of which cost Rs. 1600 crores. Converted into US$ it comes to some $21 million that could have created millions and millions of jobs in rural India in particular. This is simply crazy and suicidal. So India’s policy towards China must be one of befriending it and benefit from its close association with it, not alienating it by pretending to join QUAD or Indo-Pacific Strategy that are essentially aimed at containing it. . A QUAD can never deter determined China that is simply growing in strength exponentially. The solution lies in helping Taiwan unite with China honorably and welcoming the latter as a major power in the comity of nations. For America’s part, it knows that it is a declining and retreating power, trying to withdraw from all theaters including NATO and Middle East

  3. The practical option is to continue build up of infrastructure on the border, get required equipment to match the Chinese, get Army and Air Force to act in sync and et your Navy to be ready. And wait for the Chinese to act and cross the bridge when time comes, no matter what is the cost !! Meanwhile, pin prick China with Quad, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc. along with reducing trade imbalance massively in next year or two.

    Let us worrying about China any more; Modi and the Armed Forces have sorted it.

  4. A really tough call in wake of the economic crisis. However, I would chose 3 of the above options for simultaneous activation and the fourth to be activated if and when circumstances permit.

    The other major shortcoming we have to address is on Information based digital war where China is far ahead.

    As of now we should try to keep China engaged on the SCS by threat of Quad+ as a SEA NATO while we go ahead with building up our capabilities.

    So I would immediately:
    (1) Initiate operations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Get in touch with Inner Mongolia for some covert assistance. The Stand and even Russia could be called for limited support.
    (2) Sit out in Ladakh but get additional equipments from US, Israel and other allies for an active Information based hot border without allowing it to become kinetic.
    (3) Sign up with Quad + without any further delay for making South China and Taiwan an active front imposing serious costs on China by creating a clear impression that of opening of one front- SCS or any land border Thank you and wishing you the same immediately activate the second thus building up commitment with Taiwan, Vietnam and other countries in the region of response at other fronts.
    (4) Preparing for full scale Ladakh border war to push Chinese to pre April 20 position and even further.

  5. LOL

    Another sophisticated way of saying that we should just accept Chinese suzerainty over Asia to avoid confrontation.

    Belt and Road project is bad for Asia and will end up enslaving many Asian countries by China. First go and study the fine print of the project before commenting on it.

    Stop hating US and West all the time. China is proving to have worse imperial mindset than US and Europe.

  6. Alok Sharma (^) is a Chinese guy 🙂

    They were hand in glove with Pakistan before they even approached India.

  7. Indians never thought of war with China and so did not invest in military hardwares. Congress always wanted weak military and never thought of catching up china militarily. To hold Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh India needs border road network and dedicated high altitude mountain division army units. From 2004 to 2014 under UPA and Manmohan Singh govt indian army was neglected and no new aircrafts and upgradation of army was done. It is only now so much is being done to match Chinese. Wait for full rafale planes and Russian missile shield to come in order to teach cunning chinese a lesson.

  8. India is paying for Modi misadventures ……………..What did India get from Modi Aug 5 Kashmir madness ??…………….invasion by China & a looming two front war…………..India now needs someone sensible to take out of this geopolitical quagmire !!!

  9. The United States is the only saving grace for India right now, keeping the Chinese at the LAC, without great America, Ladakh , Arunachal Pradesh first and then next the NorthEast, gone , annexed. So value your friendship with America and quickly build up defenses. Not an inch of India will and should be lost, however what exactly is the border that needs to be determined and India has to be mighty in this regard. I hope this ends well for us all.

  10. China has India’s land which it occupies. Why Modi does not initiate a war against China and try to get back its lost land?

    All I know is, that this Modi’s deployment is a show because of Bihar election. Imagine he does not even call China by its name.

    This is pitiful from him to fool his own folks.

  11. India should wait and watch for the 1. Jo biden treaty towards India 2.S-400air defence system supply from Russia 3. Rest of rafale supply from France 4.Some growth of GDP since China GDP is almost unbroken during pandemic 5.Stretegic partnership among Quad

  12. There is a sixth and the bestoption: Accept the reality on the ground as it is today, make up with China, and get it to define the LAC. India can’t afford enmity with a superpower like China with which it shares thousands of miles border. 1. Forget even a limited war. A modern war would be very expensive, and may not give desired results. 2. Even Sitting out wouldn’t change anything, but would be very expensive. 3. Rev up the Quad: No country wants a war. Priorities of the US would be to revive its broken economy, and not China or war. Trump pulled out American troops from Afghanistan after spending there billions of dollars in two decades,. It also pulled out its troops from Germany, a NATO ally. It wouldn’t now commit its troops against China with which it has no land dispute, and with which its trade is at its peak. The US govt is under pressure from its industries and businesses to ease up with China. The US aircraft carrier battle groups on China’s doorstep don’t mean anything. They have been visiting South China Sea for years now. The new Biden administration is going to be far gentler to China. Australia is also trying hard to pull out of a recession with the help of Chinese imports. It wouldn’t strain its relations with China. Japan also has lot of investments in China. 3. Interfering with shipments to and from China in the strait of Malacca is just not possible. Even the US wouldn’t;’t dare to do that, because such an action would be considered by China “an act of war”! all this is wishful thinking. 4. Launching a hybrid war also wouldn’t result in anything desirable.

  13. Bad options presented here.

    The only viable option when China is knocking at India’s northern door and Pakistan always on the go in the west, is to prevent China and Pakistan combining up their resources. That can be prevented if QUAD takes the responsibility of preventing both China and Pakistan to Combine. Hence QUAD is the only viable option. Pakistan can be prevented in its nefarious choice if US fleet keeps visiting the Arabian Sea and letting Pakistan know that any bad design together with China will be suitably answered. It will also open door for greater military and technological co-operation between India and US. The latter is a permanent solution to China and Pakistan combining their resources to attack India.

    • Hindus need to stop day dreaming. The other members of Quad may hold some naval exercises, but they do not have borders with China and Pak.. They Americans and others are not going to come and die for India. And if a war broke between India and China, they are not going to cut business with China for India. Earlier, Hindus used to think Israel will help them. Well, Israelis will sell weapons – to both sides.

      Hindus need to ask why they cannot get on with Pak, and China and all the neighbours. In fact, they cannot get on with other Indians.

      • Forget about other Indians. Hindus cannot get along within themselves. Upper caste hindu girls falls for a lower caste hindu boy and they will not let the couple marry, even today.Especially the upper caste , they live in some kind of fake caste pride and will never let it go. In fact , upper caste Hindu will let marry a Muslim boy but not lower caste Hindu. This was one of the reason for conversion to Islam . There is no unity amongst Hindus. Hindus are united at a very superficial level because of Islam.Thanks to Islam otherwise there discriminatory mindset towards lower caste will never go. In case Islam is gone this caste discrimination will again reach its peak.

      • Forget about other Indians. Hindus cannot get along within themselves. Upper caste hindu girls falls for a lower caste hindu boy and they will not let the couple marry, even today.Especially the upper caste , they live in some kind of fake caste pride and will never let it go. In fact , upper caste Hindu will let marry a Muslim boy but not lower caste Hindu. This was one of the reason for conversion to Islam . There is no unity amongst Hindus. Hindus are united at a very superficial level because of Islam.Thanks to Islam otherwise there discriminatory mindset towards lower caste will never go. In case Islam is gone this caste discrimination will again reach its peak.

  14. India is a more chaotic country with much more ongoing separatist violence. There are more pressure points for China to repay India in the same coin if India tries to incite secession in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The author also claims that the “systems are there” but does not go into details. This is likely because India doesn’t have any assets in any of these places.

    China has three easy to implement options for retaliating against India.
    1. Provide diplomatic support and funding to Khalistan groups abroad.
    2. Ship guns to Northeast insurgent groups.
    3. Encourage Northeast insurgent groups to sell some of the guns to Naxalites.

  15. While India is wary of the connectivity of the small neighbors with China, it speeds up building up the connectivity with China under the name of “face off” in the border. Once the border issues are solved…imagine…I see promising future for that area.

  16. Even sitting out is no option. The best option is partnering with China and equip India meanwhile.

    Had India been positive towards the Belt and Road initiative, Pakistan wouldn’t have had this upper hand and cozy relationship with China. When Chinese are heavily invested in India they wouldn’t want a confrontation either.

    Instead of using the opportunity we went scared, sceptical and defensive. Even when USA is inciting an Indo China war, they are cleverly using the manufacturing hub of China.

    By the way, if there’s a war it won’t be a “limited war”. For Xi and Modi it’ll definitely be a prestigious issue to come out of it as a decisive winner, which won’t end in a limited war!

    Think long term

    • Awww So you are using her ‘hybrid warfare’ against India. Pakistani maggots posting under any name would be picked in no time. BRI would eventually lead to China replacing the US and that is detrimental to India’s future. China’s ultimate decimation should be our only long term goal. As long as there is a Communist China, it will be a threat to India.

    • Another option is to launch a hot war and send all the Bharat Mata Nationalists like RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal etc. to the front line. We have too many of them, and so far they have shown their prowess fighting against minorities inside India. So why not deploy such brave Hindu fighters where it matters ?

      • Rasgolla, your hate comments against Indians and Hindus is particular have gone too far.
        Perhaps an elaborate full body circumcision is the need of the hour for you.

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