Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande recently said that the situation in Eastern Ladakh is “stable but unpredictable.” As the border standoff with China lingers on, there has been no significant reduction in the People’s Liberation Army’s force levels along the Line of Actual Control. He also stated that there is a need to carefully calibrate “our actions on the LAC to be able to safeguard our interests and sensitivities.”
The Army chief’s statement has great depth and needs analysis. It is reassuring that the situation is stable. The unpredictable part is worrisome. However, it is far better than the Russia-Ukraine conflict situation, which has been both unstable and unpredictable. In this context, it is important to understand the interplay between stability and unpredictability.
When the situation is stable and predictable between any two countries, there is generally peace. If the situation is unstable and unpredictable, we are looking at a conflict situation like Ukraine. In January-February this year, the situation in Ukraine was transparent and quite predictable due to the copious intelligence output from the US, but it was highly unstable. The unstable-predictable state points towards impending conflict or war. Lastly, the China-India stability-unpredictability situation, as described by the COAS, can also be described as a ‘no war no peace’ situation.
The unpredictability of the China-India situation is a two-sided affair and affects both countries. But understanding and managing unpredictability will be key. Unpredictability between adversaries could be generated due to a gross mismatch or change in national interests and capabilities as also military capability and intent.
National interests and capability
China and India are two populous civilisational powers with different worldviews and cultures and a history of animosity towards each other.
Their basic differences induce unpredictability in the natural course of events. However, as these systems are undergoing profound changes in their respective national interests and capabilities, the degree of unpredictability has a good chance of increasing with time.
At the recent 20th Party Congress, China sharpened its national interest to achieve the ‘Chinese dream’ through national rejuvenation. China bade goodbye to the mantra of hiding its strength and biding its time during an era of reform and opening. It now perceives that the window of strategic opportunity has closed and that it confronts a severe and complex international situation full of black swans and grey rhinos. It seeks to establish a China-centric world order but sees itself hemmed in from all sides. It has switched into the statist world of Xi Jinping where ideology drives policy and security overrides the economy to be the foundation of national rejuvenation and achievement of the Chinese dream. It is a country governed by the absolutist ‘Xi Jinping thought’, with his loyalist band of yes-men bereft of opposition.
China is declining as it seeks to rise and it faces an uncertain future with no discernible mitigation plan. Its growth rate has been going down since 2012 and is now hastened by a zero-covid policy, increasing unemployment, dwindling private sector and an inefficient public sector. Wolf warriorism, self-isolation and disrupted globalisation dot the landscape in which pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and geostrategic and economic re-alignments are ongoing events. It has lost international trust and is losing investment. Interestingly, the country lacks core technologies like food grain seed, aircraft engines and semiconductors. Its population peaked a decade in advance. The demographic bomb is imploding. Xi Jinping will preside over the biggest demographic decline of mankind and the biggest loss of human capital in his lifetime. China is set to lose in one generation what took it three generations to build.
On the other hand, India has emerged as the fastest-growing economy with a stable democracy with an increasing role in international affairs. It seeks a seat on the high table as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto powers. India has started to use its unique leverages as one of the world’s largest countries and an emerging power that is a friend to both East and West. It is the only global alternative to China in scale and size. It has a commanding presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
India is increasingly combining its soft power with a benign approach, which makes it a trustworthy nation. This is especially significant for smaller countries in Asia and Africa who see India as an alternative to the colonial approach of the West and the debt trap approach of China. But it is also a nation beset with internal contradictions, which are its strengths and weaknesses.
There is no doubt that China is much higher on most metrics of comprehensive national power. However, its power will decline or at best stagnate in the long run. India, on the other hand, will be a rising power for a long time to come. The relative gap between the two is set to close steadily. The national capability bubble of both nations will enlarge. Importantly, the two countries are growing in relatively opposite directions. Hence, a certain amount of unpredictability will kick in many domains. There will also be areas where both will learn that they have to accommodate the other. In most cases, while there will be unpredictability, there will also be a desire not to upset the stability factor unless there is a major advantage to be gained.
Military capability and intent
The military capabilities and intent of both nations are undergoing an upward revision. The motives and scale for this upgradation are vastly different and along different trajectories. However, they represent a substantive change in the China-India context and a major source of unpredictability, which portends instability.
The popular perception is that Xi Jinping and the CCP are investing in the PLA to build it into a modern force as per well-defined timelines—full mechanisation by 2027, a modernised military by 2035 and a world-class military by 2049. It is being prepared to fight a major war and win it.
The PLA is also the chosen instrument to achieve ‘reunification’ and ‘rejuvenation’ to realise the Chinese dream. Effectively, this translates into global domination by replacing the US as the No. 1 military power, annexing Taiwan by force and settling all border issues in its favour, by force if needed. However, one must look beyond this oversimplified paradigm.
China’s military capability development must promote Xi’s concept of comprehensive national security and cater for global, regional, and internal compulsions. Externally, the PLA must have the capability to ward off the elephant in the area— the US, which can interfere in the annexation of Taiwan. The PLA needs to ensure that China’s rise is not contained. Hence it must have the capability to restrict US support to countries in the region, its increasing activity in the Indo-Pacific and its security partners in QUAD (Australia, India, and Japan) and AUKUS (UK and Australia). The PLA’s capabilities also must support Xi Jinping’s vision of global development and global security initiatives to challenge the US-led global order. China must also improve its ‘strategic deterrence’ and protect its overseas assets and its supply lines. The PLA must also develop infrastructure and capabilities along the Himalayas to be able to keep India in check. Finally, the PLA must be enabled to provide security to the regime at home.
Accordingly, Xi has already given his clarion call to speed up and improve China’s military machine, quantitatively and qualitatively. He has instituted an extensive ‘civil-military fusion’ architecture to enable the PLA to develop into the most technologically advanced military in the world.
In order to develop such capabilities, Xi Jinping’s protégés and proven technocrats have been handpicked to fill the Politburo and the Central Military Commission. They have been assigned responsibility to meet the challenges ahead. Xi’s emphasis is to ‘intensify troop training and combat preparedness across the board’. The PLA is therefore being oriented to be effective in the various terrain and operational conditions. Accordingly, it carries out ‘combat realistic’ training and endeavours to cure its chronic ‘peace disease’ and inexperience. There are reports that the PLA troops are also being professionalised through scientific and technological training. It will enable them to handle cutting-edge technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, cyber warfare, advanced unmanned drone systems, big data analysis, networking handling to improve the speed and accuracy of decision-making on the battlefield, hypersonic missiles and so on.
There are also assessments that while China’s leadership seems more assertive, the chances of the PLA launching an offensive could be misplaced. The new set of China’s leaders are loyal to Xi but are also extremely competent and capable. Hence it is doubtful that they will commit PLA to a war that they cannot win as it could also result in a political loss. Moreover, the evidence on record is that Xi Jinping plays it safe. At the first instance of being put on the back foot in Eastern Ladakh, when the Kailash range was occupied by Indian troops, he called for a cessation of hostilities. It is also assessed that Xi’s prioritisation of building up the PLA’s strength at the 20th Party Congress is an admission that China cannot yet defeat its rivals. If there is one thing the Chinese do not want, it is to get into a two-front situation along the LAC and Taiwan while the internal situation is wobbly. PLA strategists are concerned about ‘chain reaction warfare’—the possibility that conflict in one theatre could trigger fighting with other countries that seek to press their territorial claims while Beijing is preoccupied elsewhere.
The China-India border situation has to be assessed against the larger backdrop. The capability and capacity build-up across the LAC are significant and ceaseless. Roads, habitats, bridges, airfields, and much more are being built at a feverish pace. China carries out exercises with troops and firings at high altitudes regularly. There is no indication of any reduction in force levels along the entire LAC. On the contrary, there are indications that the PLA has inducted long-range vectors into Tibet.
China is also busy building dams across the Brahmaputra and diverting waters to its hinterland. In particular, the road parallel to the LAC and the bridge across Pangong Tso are seen as infrastructure that indicate offensive intent. All this is further reinforced by constant attempts to coerce Nepal and Bhutan to part with territories that are sensitive to India and gives them significant operational and strategic advantages. The PLA’s salami-slicing tactics executed through grey zone operations like aggressive patrolling, nibbling territory and building villages along the LAC must also be seen in conjunction with Chinese efforts to establish naval bases and a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean Region. However, all its preparations while being perceived as offensive could also be to have a viable defensive posture in case India resorts to an offensive.
One thing that needs to be factored into all our assessments is that as China’s economy stagnates, the PLA might have to face resource constraints. It is nice to induct shiny new equipment but it takes a lot to maintain modern weapon systems. Moreover, the Himalayas impose severe restrictions on the utility of technology beyond a point. Hence one should not get dazzled by Chinese propaganda and influence operations to psychologically convince us that they are better equipped. The Himalayas are a great equaliser in more than one way.
Ever since the standoffs in Eastern Ladakh, capability enhancement and infrastructure build-up along the LAC has been India’s national priority. Simultaneously, there has been an intense national effort at achieving Atmanirbharta while modernising the Armed Forces. There has also been a constant effort at reorganisation and operational reorientation to enhance combat efficiency by all three Services, significant induction of weapon systems and firepower and upgrades in strategic support systems like space and nuclear technology. All this is backed by battle-hardened and experienced armed forces that have been operating in extremely high altitudes for the past four decades. This capability is not only in frontline operations but also in logistics and sustainment operations. In addition to these internal developments, India has built strategic partnerships and carried out military exercises with friendly armed forces. India has a terrific record in disaster management. It is doubtful that the Chinese do not know this or take India and its Armed Forces lightly.
In any comparison, the PLA is a much larger force with greater stamina, but it is also a ghost in the wind in many respects. Its expansion is focussed in the maritime domain and remains a work in progress. Any advantage in numbers, wherewithal, and equipment, which the PLA has over the Indian Army, is negated to a large extent by the Himalayan terrain and the experience of the latter. At no stage can PLA think of a walkover anywhere. The ongoing war in Ukraine will weigh in on the situation. It will make the PLA cautious.
One issue is, however, noteworthy. While the PLA is focused on taking on the US Armed Forces and priming itself for a global role, the Indian Armed Forces are focussed on PLA. This differential in focus creates its own dynamics of uncertainty. In any analysis, the chances of an outright China-India conflict are less likely. However, the chances of a small event occurring and then spiralling into a widespread conflict are more likely. Even in this eventuality, an effort will be made by both nuclear nations to contain the conflict below acceptable thresholds. Herein lies the rub. In case of a limited skirmish or faceoff, there will be intense jockeying for military, diplomatic and political advantage. This compounds the unpredictability surrounding the China-India situation.
The unpredictability factor in the India-China situation eventually filters down to the LAC. Both countries realise that stability is a vital factor in their growth, and so there will be an effort on each other’s part to reduce the unpredictability through a systemic approach.
Indians must also realise that it is in China’s nature to be assertive in advancing their interests and engage in acts of coercion. Military, diplomatic and economic incursions will be attempted deliberately. Friction points will flare up from time to time. It is in India’s interest to systematically monitor Chinese actions closely, not only along the LAC but in other domains as well. Co-relationship in multiple domains, through which China is expected to assert itself, needs to be carried out. This must be beyond India and its borders, but with a wider regional and global perspective.
Further, one needs to benchmark Chinese actions across the spectrum and identify thresholds, which, if crossed, must be responded to in a chosen domain and in an appropriate manner. The Chinese understand the theory of indirect warfare well. They also respect strength. India needs to prepare its game plan well.
COAS General Pande has flagged an important issue, which demands a national response. It is for those in the thick of China-India affairs to put their heads together and ensure that India responds like the third pole it aspires to be. The alternative is to head for a pole vault. We do not want that, do we?
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar (retd) is former DG Artillery and presently professor at the Aerospace department, IIT Madras. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)