China appears determined to seek conflict with its two challengers — India at the regional level and the US at the global level. And it has been alternating between the two for the past few months.
China recently fired a number of medium-range ballistic missiles into the South China Sea, close to the Spratlys disputed islands, to challenge the United States’ supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. At the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, tensions with India prevail and both sides continue to engage in politico-military talks, which are not making any significant progress. If the confrontation continues, a military option cannot be ruled out as is evident from Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat’s recent statement.
And what’s driving China is its president Xi Jinping’s personal ambitions.
Xi is hoping to become another Mao. There were rumours recently of attempts to replace Xi. So, he appears to be a man in a hurry. There are reports that he may be reviving the old post of Mao, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If this comes through, then he will formally don the fourth hat, that of Chairman CCP – portraying himself as the modern day Mao in the eyes of his people. It will help him in rooting out any opposition to his rule.
But to do so, XI Jinping must also be able to project himself as the undisputed global leader in the eyes of his people. To achieve that, Xi has embarked on a strategy to challenge the strongest global player (the US) and the strongest regional adversary (India).
Alternating between US and India
Instead of focusing on China’s falling economy and the well-being of its people as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Xi diverted his attention towards the Western theatre to extend his expansionist designs over India. Another reason could have been the lack of support to China by India in the row over the origin of the novel coronavirus and the unilateral action of abrogating Articles 370 and 35A that gave some autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. It undertook multiple encroachments in Eastern Ladakh in finger areas along the Pangong Tso, Hot Springs and Galwan by surreptitiously amassing troops in the garb of military exercise.
In April–May, following a row over the origin of the Covid-19 virus with the Trump administration, Xi Jinping had started fishing into the troubled waters of the South China Sea by undertaking a series of military actions.
First, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted a 36-hour endurance exercise off the coast of Taiwan in April. The exercise was followed by PLA Navy’s aircraft carrier Liaoning and a convoy of five warships passing through the Miyako Strait. Taiwan responded by scrambling jets and warships to thwart the Chinese manoeuvers. During March 2020, there were reports of the PLAAF’s first-ever night mission.
Second, according to US defence secretary Mark Esper, China threatened a Philippine Navy ship, sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidated other nations in the region from fishing and engaging in offshore oil and gas development. The US responded with two back-to-back freedom of navigation operations (FNOPS) in the South China Sea to boost the confidence of countries in the region. Another reason for Xi to undertake these operations was probably to divert the attention of the international community from the Hong Kong agitations against the Chinese imposition of national security law over Hong Kong.
Both US and India responded in kind
As has been the customary response, face-offs took place between Indian and Chinese troops but this time the Chinese violated standing border management agreements between the two countries. China launched an unprovoked attack on Indian troops at Galwan Valley in Ladakh, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in action. According to the Indian government, the Chinese suffered “more than double” the number of Indian casualties.
By firing into the South China Sea DF 21 D and DF 26, the two medium-range ballistic missiles capable of destroying large aircraft carriers, Beijing is trying to convey a strategic message to the US to lay off from China’s competing claims over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan.
On 31 August, the 3rd Fleet of the Indo-Pacific Command concluded its biannual military exercises. Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Scott D. Conn has said that the US will not be deterred by Chinese actions because it has 38 ships on sail in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the South China Sea. In a show of further resolve to deter Xi, the US administration has also banned 24 Chinese companies from doing business in the US on the grounds that they had contributed to China’s controversial island development in the South China Sea.
A united front is needed
At the global level, China is the undisputed number two power and seems to be testing the resolve of the US. It wishes to extend its claim up to the nine-dash line and thereby diminish American influence and subdue regional players such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia as also assimilate Taiwan, which it considers as its own territory. Similarly, if it subdues India, it unequivocally conveys to the countries in the region to tow the Chinese line.
Who and what can play the spoilsport for Xi? The axis powers led by China and supported by North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia (?) and a few smaller countries in the African continent have to be confronted with a united global alliance of like-minded countries with common international interest preferably led by the US and supported by Japan, Australia, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, France, the UK, Malaysia, Philippines and Malaysia. Militarisation of a QUAD-like organisation will become a necessity if the current behaviour of the Chinese continues.
A swing factor in the above calculus is Russia. As of now, it appears heavily leaning towards the Chinese side. It needs to be either won over by India to safeguard its interests or at least requested to remain neutral. Suffice it to say that Russia needs to be managed delicately.
What needs to be done
India needs a powerful maritime force. In order to be a significant player in this new international formulation, the Indian armed forces must be able to respond from Malacca Strait to the Horn of Africa. But to do so, our maritime capability has to be enhanced and upgraded at the earliest. Two aircraft carriers with strong strategic triad in place would be essential. This will require resources and time, both of which are at premium as far as India is concerned, indicating the need for strategic partners with active intervention commitment.
There is also a need for an anti-China global economic cooperation. Economically, too, various countries in the blocs opposed to China must cooperate to offset the over-dependence on China. It is easier said than done but not impossible. Certain resources such as rare earths are only found in abundance in China. We need to do a detailed economic study to make this alternate alignment possible under a reorganised global grouping. The United Nations may need to be reorganised and revamped.
India’s strategic autonomy is unlikely to be compromised. The steps suggested here may, at some level, appear to weaken our diplomatic policy of strategic autonomy but if articulated carefully, we may be able to manoeuvre through it without compromising our sovereignty. Also, these steps must be taken contingent to Chinese actions, which lack accommodation of other countries’ national interests and disregard rule-based international order. A big question mark in the suggested approach is the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. Hence, we need to see through the results of the US election to firm in on any future national security strategy.
Lt Gen Dushyant Singh, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) is former Commandant Army War College, former GOC 11 Corps, former Chief of Staff Eastern Command (Kolkata), and former IG (Ops) National Security Guard. Views are personal.