General Manoj Pande, the newly appointed Chief of the Army Staff, articulating his strategic perceptions a few days ago happened to observe that China has no intention to find an early resolution to the overall boundary dispute. It is a truism that must inform India’s strategic planning process. The perception is rooted in the geopolitical logic that gives credence to the theory that China’s strategic intentions are about utilising the northern border as a military pressure point in an instrumental move to draw India’s national resources away from strengthening its maritime power. It is part of a broader geopolitical approach of containing India within the subcontinent. Such containment is itself part of a larger global power play between US-led Western powers and allies with China.
While the global power play is enacted in several geopolitical realms, military, economic and technological aspects play the part of significant levers in this strategic contestation. While its economic and technological aspects provide some flexibility to India to preserve and strengthen its developmental goals, the military aspects are the most challenging as they call for shaping the military instrument that can defend our territorial integrity on the western and northern borders while enhancing our maritime capabilities.
India’s role in the global game for power
India as a strong maritime power has potential to play a significant role in the larger global power game. Geographically, the role is anchored in the Indian Ocean region, which is also where China’s strategic vulnerabilities lie as it hosts the trade routes required to sustain China’s economic growth. To the Chinese Communist Party, disruption in maritime trade routes in the Indo-Pacific could pose a deadly blow to its socio-economic stability and create internal instability that can threaten the Chinese State itself. However, it is also the case that the disruption will, to varying degrees, adversely impact many other nations/groups including US, EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, ASEAN, India, African Union and West Asian countries. Of course, the expansive collateral damage can be wrought only by an armed conflict between two or more of the powers concerned.
With the enmeshed economies, the political rationale should be about keeping the Indo-Pacific trade routes open and inclusive. Such an opinion was expressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018. But with China’s aggression in Ladakh in 2020, India’s stance has shifted and is being progressively indicated by the growth of strategic cooperation with the West that extends to the Indo-Pacific and is manifested in the military, economic, technological, diplomatic and intelligence domains. Strategically, India’s capacity to develop its maritime power could be weakened but politically, India has moved away from China. However, it is now experiencing the tides of deepened relations with the West in the context of the larger global power struggle.
The tides have become rougher due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent strategic churn in Europe. But India’s refusal to take sides on the Ukraine War, in what it considers as essentially a European conflict rooted in the history of the Cold War, has not yet politically dampened its relations with the West. At least not significantly. We would need to hold it there.
United Western front affecting China
India-Russia relations have endured with economic sanctions of the West exerting pressure. The West’s control of the international financial system has been utilised to squeeze Russia financially. India and most countries having ties with Russia have been suffering collateral damage. There is also an ongoing global struggle for control of the international financial system. Fundamentally, it is between the Dollar and the Yuan. The sanctions impose restrictions on the flow of the Dollar. China on the other hand seeks greater use of the Yuan in international transactions. As of now, China is clearly the underdog in this struggle.
China is also adversely affected in its global struggle because of the unity being displayed by Americans and Europeans after the Ukraine war broke out. Their unity does not serve China’s interests in the global struggle. China’s aggression in 2020 has ignited the Indian military front in the Himalayan region. Now, the Russian experience in Ukraine must be psychologically impacting the designs of the Chinese leadership. An invasion of Taiwan or even a major thrust across the Himalayas has costs that would not be worth the exercise of military force.
With the strengthening of the alliance system of the West, India’s current posture of issue-based cooperation should find more space for manoeuvres. The space is created by the realisation that without people support, military force can capture territory but retention can prove costly in the face of resistance by the local population. If China wants to be in the super power league it has to have the willing/forced support of large segments of the international populace. But China’s popularity in the international community has been shrinking. Now, with the pandemic and the Ukraine war and the losing shine of its global project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is very likely to suffer setbacks. The project was also aimed at increasing China’s control over people from different countries. It is noteworthy that China has not rushed to gain influence in Sri Lanka by exploiting its current economic crisis. This is possibly indicative of hitches in wielding its economic influence in the Subcontinent.
The above holdbacks might also be suggestive of economic headwinds being faced by China due to its slowed-down economic growth. Learning from the historical limitations of the utility of deploying troops in foreign lands as reiterated by Ukraine war, China could be re-evaluating its plans. More importantly, it might be happening in its tussle with India too. A tactical arrangement that seeks the retention of military pressure on the northern border, through an uneasy peace may suit China better in the contemporary global circumstances than engaging in direct military conflicts.
Such a tactical arrangement would be related to restoration of status quo on the northern border. However, for India, the arrangement’s strategic weight would depend on inclusions that preserve agreements and understandings reached earlier. India’s moves in this regard will have to take into consideration China’s broader objectives in keeping India contained and the growing possibility of China facing forces that are arresting the momentum of its growing influence in the international system.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)