A strategic reset against China is critical to India’s national security. The armed forces are capable of executing a more aggressive strategy to force a status quo favourable to India. National consensus and political direction are the need of the hour.
China has not forgotten its ancient military strategist, Sun Tzu (544 -496 BC), who wrote in his treatise, The Art of War: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” And faithful to his teachings, China, since 2013, has been engaged in ‘Grey Zone Warfare’, coercing India’s conduct in international affairs and undermining it as a competitor.
The military manifestation of this strategy is to exploit the favourable military differential and unsettled borders to trigger incidents below the threshold of war to embarrass India, belittle its military and political reputation, and create impediments in its quest to become a world power. In so doing, it has consolidated its territorial claims and denied India patrolling rights to 1,000 square kilometres of its territory through a preemptive offensive manoeuvre in Eastern Ladakh in April-May 2020. Having secured the 1959 Claim Line, China’s focus has shifted to the Northeast. The attempt to “unilaterally change the status quo” in the Yangtze area of Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector on 9 December 2022 is the latest manifestation of this policy.
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Decoding India’s timid response
India’s military response has been passive and defensive. Except for securing the tactically important Kailash Range on the night of 29/30 August 2020, albeit in its own territory, India has not undertaken any quid pro quo offensive actions. The fear of triggering an escalation has effectively reduced our military to defend our territory with “riot police” actions without use of kinetic energy weapons, which so far, have resulted in 20 soldiers being killed in action and hundreds injured. The lack of a coherent strategy based on misplaced political and diplomatic considerations has yielded no strategic gain, but only placed our soldiers in harm’s way.
Our current military strategy has miserably failed to deter China, and diplomacy has fared no better. It began with an intense engagement from 2014 to 2019, which peaked after the 2017 Doklam crisis in the guise of two informal summits. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times – three times more than all other prime ministers combined. By Chinese design or by default, diplomacy has now been reduced to tactical engagements by the militaries. The irony is hard to miss—soldiers are acting as diplomats, and diplomats are micromanaging military conduct at the tactical level.
Domestic opinion has been blinded by obfuscation, rhetoric and bombast. There has been no debate in Parliament on the border situation. It looks like the intent is to safeguard the Prime Minister’s ‘strong man’ image and his government’s ideological reputation with respect to national security, in turn protecting its electoral prospects. The threat to our national security comes from China, and the government’s focus has been on Pakistan. Neo-nationalism has further compounded the problem. 69.3 per cent of Indians have been made to believe that India will defeat China in a war. The transformation of the armed forces is in disarray due to lack of political ownership and shortage of funds. Instead of giving rational advice, the military has toed the political line to cover its own lapses on the borders so.
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Why is China doing this?
In his seminal paper, A Historical Evaluation of China’s India Policy: Lessons for India-China Relations, former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale writes: “China’s India policy has been shaped by its view of the larger great power strategic triangle of China, the Soviet Union (later Russia), and the United States….As a result, it saw India as a competitor for security and status alike. It did not view India on its own merits or credit it with agency, but as unequal as well as untrustworthy. China’s objective during the Cold War was to keep India as neutral as possible. In the post–Cold War period, the goal evolved to limit through containment and coercion India’s capacity to harm China’s strategic goal of hegemony.”
China’s Comprehensive National Power is 1.8 times that of India. Its economy is five times and defence budget three times that of ours. Before and during the 1962 War, China had secured/captured all territory of strategic importance. It was amenable to a settlement on the basis of status quo, that is, as per its 1959 Claim Line in Ladakh and the McMahon Line in the Northeast. So long as India did not internationally challenge China and did not disturb the status quo on the border, peace prevailed. But as India’s quest for power came to the fore, China, which by now had become the US’ top challenger, once again started using unsettled borders to assert its hegemony.
China wants to reassert its dominance as India builds a perceived nexus with the US, makes aggressive political statements to regain Aksai Chin and other territories, threatens the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and emerges as a pole in international affairs. At the tactical level, it wants to deter India from developing its border infrastructure to prevent future threats.
It is pertinent to emphasise that apart from embarrassing India on the borders, China has no substantial leverage against it. The challenge before India is to deter China from using this advantage.
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China has a declared goal of becoming a preeminent world power by 2049. To challenge it, India must have at least a $10 trillion economy and a transformed military. These should be our long-term goals.
The current state of strategic paralysis with China must end. As an immediate action, India must declare its National Security Strategy (NSS), which must spell out our national interests and resolve to adversaries. The apprehensions of upping the ante with China can be put to rest through the use of nuanced language, as most big powers do. Fear of NSS imposing domestic accountability on the government has no meaning in light of our continuous embarrassment on the Line of Actual Control since April – May 2020. NSS will pave the way for a national defence strategy and a government-owned transformation strategy for the armed forces and provide clarity for a viable military strategy. The political establishment has neither conveyed its intent to adversaries through a formal NSS document nor given proper directions to the armed forces.
Even more urgently, India must lay down its military strategy to manage the border situation. It should unilaterally declare its Red Line on the borders (that is, our perception of the LAC and areas under our control). The use of terms like ‘areas of differing perceptions’ must end. Marked maps must be handed over to China, and we should physically secure all territory. There is no sanctity of the past agreements that China has repeatedly violated. Any aggressive movement across this line must be considered as hostile and dealt with through appropriate military action. Foolproof surveillance and reconnaissance must be ensured.
Below the nuclear threshold, the military differential is irrelevant to secure borders, but political will is necessary. It should be clear to the government that China’s escalation mechanisms are limited, and within the realm of such escalation, our armed forces will prevail—given our experience. But by restraining the military time and again without a clear resolution strategy, and requiring it to fall back on non-military actions, is neither buying India time nor creating circumstances for a dialogue between equals.
The above strategy will necessitate guarding the entire border. Tactically vital areas must be defended by the Army. The rest of the border should be surveilled by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which, in turn, must be placed under the Army’s command. Border economy, development and tourism must be linked to this deployment, as is being done by China since 2017.
We must not take counsel of our fears concerning escalation. Nuclear weapons safeguard us from a decisive defeat and any significant loss of territory. If push comes to shove, our armed forces should be prepared to fight like Ukraine. Given the experience of Russia and our nuclear weapon prowess, China cannot dare to escalate to a limited war. Even if it does, our armed forces are more than a match for it and will force a bloody stalemate, a defeat for China.
Diplomatic engagement at the strategic level must be reopened. National interests have always driven India’s foreign policy, and strategic autonomy has always been its hallmark. This must be conveyed to China in no uncertain terms. We should put China’s fears about India becoming the military ally of other powers to rest, until its actions leave us with no choice. Pragmatism demands that India seriously consider negotiating an interim, if not permanent, settlement based on the 1959 Claim Line and the McMahon Line.
In geopolitical terms, India is facing its biggest challenge ever from China. The government must take the nation—Parliament, opposition, media and the public—into confidence. It is time to call China’s bluff on the borders. Let there be no doubt. It is not about territory; our national will, sovereignty and autonomy are under attack by China. The whole world is taking note and we must not appear to be submissive. There is an urgent need for a strategic reset, failing which we are only emboldening China and the worst will be yet to come.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)