In squaring up to the China challenge, India has done a great deal. It has re-balanced force levels majorly to the North, increased infantry, mechanised forces, artillery, force multipliers, aerial assets and reserves, giving our military deployment added tactical punch and operational flexibility. A renewed infrastructural push is also underway.
The proposed theatre commands and key organisational restructuring—which includes the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff to head the Department of Military Affairs—will also add value to India’s strategic-military posture. Accompanying diplomatic initiatives have sent clear signals to the Chinese and the Peoples Liberation Army that acts of aggression will not go unanswered, and that there will be costs to pay. However, given the sheer scale and depth of the China challenge, India perhaps needs to do a lot more.
There are five propositions that national security experts need to urgently consider to deal with the still-gathering storm.
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A leader in ideation
One, China’s phenomenal material successes—its economic zoom and military gallop—are often attributed to its authoritarian system’s ability to implement better. What should worry India, however, is that China leads not only in execution but in ideation as well.
Every endeavour, every initiative is deeply thought through, carefully road-mapped, and precisely executed. China is ahead because its thought pipelines are well-conceived for the long term. They are pragmatic, competitive, and delivery-oriented.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, as far back as the 1990s, spoke of the salience of rare earths, not oil. Today, as global militaries make the transition to digital combat, the PLA enjoys a natural advantage on account of its proficiencies in rare earth processing. Noted Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei carried out a detailed analysis of the ‘genetic defects’ of democracies and concluded that their obsession with processes, instead of outcomes, was the Achilles heel that could be exploited. That should also explain the mind-boggling pace of infrastructural execution in the Chinese system.
Political scientist Graham Allison tells us how if the Americans today are able to build a bridge in four years, the Chinese are able to do so in mere 43 hours (less than two days). The Chinese Strategic Support Force is a pioneering initiative that seeks to integrate cyber, space, electronic warfare, and the information domains in an integrated enterprise of great ambition. It has taken much of the military fraternity by surprise. China no longer makes better copies of western models; it creates innovative systems of its own. And the world reacts consequently.
Two, the skill with which China has fused the capacities of its civil and military domains, as encapsulated in the doctrine of military-civil fusion, is notable. The doctrine’s impact in buttressing the nation’s fortunes has indeed been transformative. There are no silos; talent, capacities, and attributes from any quarter—civil or military—have been leveraged to induce a new culture of innovation, energy, and enterprise through the national security system.
The many successful conjoint initiatives and beneficial outcomes are illustrative. The PLA, a key stakeholder in Huawei, drives 5G not only in the mainland but also in Tibet, with natural spinoffs for digital combat capacities in the Western Theatre Command. Chinese academia, business, State-Owned Enterprises, and startups have come together to create a modern defence eco-system, wherein the focus has shifted from technology acquisition to talent acquisition.
The BRI, for all its faults, is an ambitious, integrated venture that has numerous layers—geostrategic, economic, diplomatic, defence, military, and technological—all elements of State power, fused thoughtfully, to lay the foundations of a futuristic, global, Sino-centric world order.
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Relentless capacity building
Three, even as the world spends considerable time speculating on China’s intent—whether it will militarise the artificial islands in the South China Sea or attack Taiwan—it has undertaken a modern blitzkrieg of sheer capacity building. This includes newer platforms, reformed structures, cutting edge technologies, and menacing manoeuvres, all of which have been designed to keep competitors guessing while shifting the onus of escalation on the adversary.
Such capacity building is happening across theatres and the spectrum of conflict, in the western theatre command, the South and East China Seas, as also the Indian Ocean Region, with marine and air assault forces, aerial and drone platforms, helidromes, cyber, electronic warfare, space, unmanned and robotic platforms, and missilery. Their recent foray into the Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS) will significantly alter the nuclear paradigm. The traditional triad will have a new vector from space to contend with.
China’s aggregating power, apart from giving competitors a feeling of being overwhelmed, causes adversaries and competitors to wonder whether a conflict with China will be worth the while and risk, thus enabling China to alter geostrategic realities, often without firing a shot.
Four, in the realm of asymmetric deterrence, there are lessons from the Chinese construct. The budgetary differential between China and the United States is similar to that between India and China. Yet, a $230 billion Chinese defence enterprise is causing severe displacement anxiety in the $750 billion American defence ecosystem. Expressing despondency, the Pentagon software chief Nicolas Chaillan and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lt Gen John Hyten were frustrated over how the Americans now stand little chance in the ensuing strategic-military competition with China.
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China’s civilisational challenge
Five, the China challenge is also worrisome because it is civilisational in nature. In terms of branding, it seeks to posit that it is superior to democratic systems. This is not to suggest that such positioning is either wise or true. What should be of interest to India is how China has welded the best modern defence practices with the civilisational wisdom of philosophers Sun Tzu and Confucius to structure a modern Chinese worldview and framework that is focused on superior deliverance and outcomes.
However, the foregoing should certainly not be a cause for despondency. There is much that is not going right for China. In the economic dimension, there is cause for despair. The severe pushback against big tech will certainly dampen the animal spirits among businesses. The American pivot to the Indo-Pacific, coupled with the substantial nurturing of the multi-domain operations enterprise, all suggest that China may have gone loud and proud prematurely.
Yet, it may be wise to take stock of the nature of the challenge and devise a refurbished playbook to address it—one that recognises the new reality, namely that national security today is a domain of intense competition; it necessitates a culture of innovation, energy, enterprise, and new talent pipelines. The metrics of such a playbook need to be debated at length. There are similarities in how militaries and wider defence frameworks in China, the US, Israel, and the UK, are metamorphosing. India cannot afford to lag.
The China challenge goes beyond mere operational rebalancing and lies in the wider strategic-military landscape. India needs to transform itself with far greater acuity, else, the gathering Chinese storm may take India by surprise.
Raj Shukla retired as an Army Commander at ARTRAC. He can be reached at email@example.com Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)