With all the new attention focused on PLA’s incursion on the LAC, many prominent strategic analysts are suggesting punishing China’s perfidy through military action.
But this is exactly what China wants. There are perhaps lessons from what is called ‘manoeuvre warfare’ that strategic analysts in India need to revisit in a bid to find the right answers to the wrongs committed by China.
The forces deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in a high-altitude mountainous area, represent the strength of both China and India in defence. Any attempt by either side to take on the other in an offensive will come at a heavy price and with no guarantee of outright success. It is, therefore, important for India to instead identify China’s weaknesses, the gaps or chinks in its armour that can be exploited.
Application of manoeuvre warfare
Manoeuvre warfare dictates that a leader must avoid the strengths (surfaces) of an enemy and address their weaknesses (gaps), thus creating a psychological dislocation.
This is premised on the adversary reacting predictably and hitting the very area that is defended in strength. However, a wise opponent should block this area of strength and instead hit at the adversary’s weakness. An area that is the proverbial centre of gravity, thereby making the enemy’s strategy untenable.
China’s biggest concern over the last decade has been the reshaping of the Indo-Pacific idea, the emerging reality of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the real nature of India’s relationship with the US. In the past, India has made it abundantly clear that none of these evolving concepts and relationships were aimed at China. These were inclusive and non-threatening. However, instead of acknowledging this as an intention in good faith, China saw it as India’s strategic constraint. Much like India’s policy of non-alignment, which China continues to mistakenly perceive as an ideological position.
China’s weakness lies in its relative isolation, given its complicated maritime geography and lack of credible allies. When this is coupled with the ambition to emerge at the pole position of the ‘Asian Formula 1’ race with the US, then it becomes imperative to identify the precarious bends in this route. And if needed, apply pressure to unshackle an undesirable stalemate. The sharp bends from China’s perspective include the evolving idea of the Indo-Pacific, opening the Andaman and Nicobar islands for logistics support to friendly countries such as the US on a reciprocal basis, and militarisation of the Quad among others.
For far too long, India has allowed Chinese “concerns” to stay clear of these options. By operationalising these and other steps in an incremental fashion, India can create alternative pressure points. China’s indiscretion presents an opportunity for India to cut loose the self-imposed constraints. These options provide an opportunity to hit China where it hurts the most — its larger strategic ambitions in Asia.
In the process, this can force a rethink along the LAC, without the need for a costly military option.
It can, however, be argued that India has no maritime claims/disputes with China, nor the strength to mess with the Chinese navy. What if China floats near Nicobar, Vizag, but still stays safely and legally in international waters?
The very fact that India does not have a maritime dispute with China, and that the laws of the sea allow free and open passage, is the reason why New Delhi can increase the pressure on Beijing without the action becoming escalatory.
Contrary to conventional wisdom of a large, dominating Chinese Navy, the reality of the situation suggests that for Beijing, the South China Sea is the primary focus and the Indian Ocean secondary. This allows China to employ only a small part of its resources in India’s oceanic neighbourhood. In contrast, India can bring to bear both a numerically and qualitatively superior force against China. The distances involved with the deployment also ensure that China will remain logistically at its extreme to support the vessels in the Indian Ocean Region. This is further aggravated by the near absence of friends who can support logistics during a conflict without worrying about its accompanying blowback.
And finally, the very character of naval forces allows an immediate shift in role from peacetime to active deployment, since they do not have borders to cross. Therefore, peacetime domination can be translated to conflictual advantage in double time. Add to this, the potential of a cooperative arrangement with friendly countries, which decide to operate in close cooperation to create complementary pressure points.
Lessons from history
Incidentally, this would not be the first time India would put into play the principles of manoeuvre warfare against an adversary. The last time it was applied, the success far outweighed the resources used and the costs that the country bore. In 1971, the balance of power was even more precariously aligned against India. Pakistan was at its belligerent best, while also carrying out an inhuman crackdown in the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In addition to this two-front situation, India faced an inimical China along its northern borders. A threatening US was wooing the Chinese through Pakistan in a bid to outdo the erstwhile USSR. Their aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise-led Seventh Fleet, was precariously close, with inherent and incessant military pressure that came in its wake.
India judiciously chose to sign the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation to rebalance the forces arraigned against it. And, instead of making West Pakistan, which had the bulk of Pakistani defence forces deployed in a strong, coordinated posture, India turned its military attention primarily towards East Pakistan. The relative military weakness, challenges of isolation and the inability to get reinforced were exploited to the hilt. As a result, the Pakistani leadership in the East did not suffer as comprehensive a defeat on the battlefield, as it did in the minds of the military leaders, leading to their psychological dislocation. This was a classic case of manoeuvre warfare at its best.
The present circumstances may not be the same. However, there are important lessons that history presents. Iron clad policies do not define a nation. They are instruments that help create a defining moment for it. China’s actions are based on a military and strategic calculus. India has in the past allowed itself to become a captive of limited options, and an even more limited idea of its potential within this artificial calculus. The time and opportunity are ripe to redefine partnerships and opportunities. And this is always best achieved in times of adversity and not as a satisfied status quo power.
Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal.