Indian governments have traditionally been risk-averse; the Narendra Modi government is only slightly less so, at least when it comes to externally directed action.
Which is why it was surprising when on Monday, a highly-placed Indian government source was quoted as saying that considering China’s unrelenting stance on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, India was willing to consider a military pushback. India will not worry about consequences because, according to the official, “if you start thinking of consequences, you will not be able to move forward”.
This appeared to be clearly foolish, as actions do have consequences which need to be considered before implementing. This is particularly true of military action against China. Such action could escalate to a full-scale war that can lead to not only immediate and obvious military consequences, but also long-term political, economic and diplomatic effects.
It is unlikely that the Modi government is not worrying about the consequence of a potential military pushback.
India’s diplomatic history
There are consequences to both action and inaction. When considering consequences, inaction and indecision may (possibly) have the short-term benefit of helping tide over a problem. But it also carries with it the potential for negative longer-term consequences that also have to be calculated. Indeed, inaction and indecision have repeatedly hurt India’s foreign policy and security interests.
Examples from India’s diplomatic history should illustrate this. Not conducting a nuclear test in the 1960s ensured that India was left out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that continues to have negative consequences, five decades later. India was repeatedly subject to technology sanctions, and is still struggling to get into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), all because it is not a member of the NPT. It is unclear if India could have conducted a successful nuclear test in the 1960s, but we don’t know for sure because India did not even attempt to do so. So opposed was Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to a nuclear bomb, that he asked Britain for cost estimates expressly to counter Homi Bhabha’s public claims that a nuclear programme was inexpensive. The British provided it, while keeping secret an internal report that said India could develop a bomb “with little technical difficulty and very little additional cost”. The exaggerated cost estimate helped tide over an immediate problem, but India is still dealing with its long-term negative consequences.
Throughout the next three decades, even after India tested a “device” in 1974, Indian governments worried about immediate consequences of becoming a nuclear power — sanctions, cost — before finally taking the plunge in 1998. Sanctions followed, but they were easily weathered, while the long-term consequences still haunt India.
Another example is how India repeatedly held back from militarily responding to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. It feared military escalation and possibly international intervention or pressure, and expected benefits for ‘good behavior’. Neither materialised. When India did retaliate with the surgical strike and the Balakot attack, the fear of escalation and international pressure turned out to be unfounded.
India’s capture of Siachen in 1984 provides a rare counterexample. Despite the continuing cost in terms of human life, the strategic costs, if India had not launched Operation Meghdoot, can be easily imagined, especially in the current context. Simply put, in estimating costs and benefits, India needs to look at not just the immediate effects of action and non-action, but also the long term effects.
Thus, while taking military action at the LAC will likely be costly, any judgement needs to be weighed against the cost of inaction. In general, it is not advisable to consider war against a stronger foe. But three qualifiers need to be considered too. First, while China is much more powerful overall, this imbalance may not yet be as significant at the LAC where the forces are at least matched. Second, India’s relative weakness has an advantage: anything other than an unambiguous victory will be perceived as a loss for China.
Finally, avoiding war may prove to be expensive in the longer term if it signals irresoluteness. China will be emboldened. Left unchallenged, there is a good chance it will push India again. China’s behavior does not suggest that this will be its last nibble. So, the question may be as much about deterrence, as it is about war. If it was only a question of war for immediate objectives, the answer is simple — the stakes may not be worth the cost. But if it is the former, there could be long term consequences because deterrence requires demonstrating resolve. There will be consequences further afield too, on India’s potential partners in the region, and ultimately on whether any coalition is possible to maintain a non-hegemonised Asia.
Talk of military pushback also assumes adequate military preparation. Both Indian military history and the Modi government’s previous actions should sound a cautionary note. Moreover, the Indian military has traditionally been oriented and prepared for defensive military action at the LAC, not offensive. Finally, public signaling such as this also raises a commitment problem: if China does not back down, New Delhi risks additional damage to its credibility, if it does not follow through with its threat.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.
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