Dragon’s fang and strategic underpinnings
By Lt Gen A B Shivane
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The “Dragon” is back to its bellicose dance on the Indo-China border. However this time it’s less for spitting venom and more for strategic messaging, with its newly found geopolitical and economic insecurities. While the globe reels under the COVID Pandemic, the ongoing Chinese aggressive posturing in Eastern Ladakh (Gawan Valley, Pangong Tso and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO)) and North Sikkim (Naku La), along the Line of Actual Control(LAC), is indicative of the strategic underpinning’s and coercive behaviour, beyond just physical posturing.
Indeed while the journey from a single point transgression in Dhoklam 2017, to multiple point aggressive posturing in 2019, has stretched physicality in length and breadth, the caucus belli remains quite different both in intent and message.
Thus, there are several strategic undercurrents, driven by geopolitical realities post the global pandemic upheaval, which unfolds the myths and realities of the present standoff in its true perspective.
Myth and Reality No 1
Myth - It is stated that the Chinese initiated the standoff as an objection to road construction activity on the Indian side between Finger 3 and Finger 4 in Pangong Tso Lake area, and also on an arterial link to Galwan Valley, being built as an offshoot from the 255 km long Darbuk-Shyok and DBO road. This posturing escalated to other areas too. These strategic roads irk the Chinese as they would facilitate the faster buildup of Indian troops and lie in the Chinese strategic discomfort zone near Karakoram pass. It also stretches China to the furthermost point in the Ladakh sector and so strategically dilutes Chinese erstwhile operational buildup advantage in this area. While factually and militarily this is absolutely correct, its myth lies in the caucus belli for the present standoff.
Reality. The post Corona geopolitics has focused on China as the likely villain of the pandemic, both domestically and globally. Internally Chinese citizens are more than outraged and demanding increased accountability after the mysterious death of a coronavirus whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, the shuffle of appointments in the Ministry of Public Security and measures to crack down on activities that endanger the so-called political security of the country.
This has led to internal discontentment and signs of potential domestic unrest. Accordingly, Xi Jinping, unfolded the five-point agenda to stir nationalistic fervour during the Chinese Communist Party meet on May 22, as a build-up to the party’s centenary celebrations in 2021 and elections in 2023.
Closer home, two developments appear to have been the reason that the Chinese have decided to employ military tactics in an attempt to thwart India. On April 19, India revised its foreign investment policy to tighten investment rules for companies sharing a land border with India.
A few days later, reportedly, India announced developing a land pool twice the size of Luxembourg to host companies leaving China. India was perceived as openly setting itself up as a commercial rival and thus China used its aggressive military power to strategically message its western neighbour from making decisions contrary to its economic interests.
India’s soft power preeminence on the global stage post-COVID has also created insecurities in the mind of the Dragon. India’s firm and inclusive handling of the pandemic at a time when the world is focusing on decoupling and mutual exclusivity has gained world respect and enhanced its soft power.
India provided over 55 nations hydroxychloroquine, sought development of an anti-viral system through global cooperation in G-20 and assumed the leadership role in the WHO for the next two years, which became insecurities for the Chinese. Incidentally, WHO-approved resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19, comes at a time when India is in the leadership role.
In additions, India leadership role in the recently proposed “Global Electric Grid” project, based on “One Sun, One World, One Grid” and anticipatory participation in the US-led, “Blue Dot Network”, is perceived as counters to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, albeit in field of renewable energy and infrastructure development respectively.
China cannot also fathom India’s rise at the global stage, with lead roles like Chairperson of BRICS 2021, hosting G20 in 2022 and being nominated non-permanent member of UN Security Council for two years 2021-22. The strategic insecurities threatening its rise triggered the dragon to spit venom by its aggressive overtones, only to counter a firm and resolute Indian response.
The final irritant was abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A. Ladakh became a union territory and as stated by the Indian home minister included Aksai Chin. This was responded by Chinese in last October to resolve through tripartite meeting with Pak-India and China, but rejected by India. Thus China needed to reassert its standing in Ladakh which it did through aggressive posturing.
Myth and Reality No 2
Myth - It is often debated that post-COVID, the rise of China is an inevitability, as the post-COVID economic catastrophe, as a byproduct of globalization in China’s favour, would send greater shocks to the US and other competing world powers. Thus this presents an opportunity for China to emerge more powerful and the next superpower in the world stage.
Reality - Handling of the COVID pandemic by nations has seen varying shades of leaderships. These range from China’s firm and aggressive handling, with insecurity and belligerent overtones, USA’s lackadaisical and lacklustre leadership from ignorance to casualness, Europe’s decoupling exclusivity approach with inept crisis handling, and India’s firm and focused leadership, with an inclusive global orientation.
However, China’s culpability of the origin and spread of this pandemic and subsequent aggressive overtone have resulted in economic distancing and global backlash. Many countries are offering relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. Even India’s new legislation requires prior government approval of any investment from China. Certainly, the crisis has made the world aware of the threats of China’s grip on global economies and supply chain, and the need to loosen that control.
Further, the incremental expansionist policy and unlawful claims in the South China Sea, China’s policing the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands as also having established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, besides sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, are all under the world scanner.
China also stepped up its incursions and other activities along the LAC, with aggressive posturing against India for strategic messaging of its coercive power. China has also indulged in the pushing to enact a national security law in Hong Kong that broadens its authority in the territory.
President Trump in response has indicated pulling back special trade and financial privileges which would impact both Hong Kong and China, as Hong Kong serves as a bridge between the Chinese economy and the rest of the world. In addition to display dissent and economic reprisal against Australia, for initiating the idea of an international corona virus inquiry, the Chinese government cut off key imports and exports to Australia.
Such aggressive behaviour is not indicative of a mature global power and is bound to diminish its image and impede the rise of China on the global stage. Chinese leadership views the current global crisis as an opportunity to grip power through spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and hostile diplomacy.
Their manifestation lies in the three warfare strategy of China, based on information, psychological and legal warfare. However, the reality is China has a daunting task of economic revival, managing domestic upheaval and addressing world resentment. Further, the Chinese GDP growth is likely to nose dive and with the debt to GDP ratio soaring high, the economic holocaust is real.
China thus faces the economic challenges, global isolation, internal turmoil, damaging its image and illusive ambitions of becoming the next superpower. Indeed a pandemic that originated in China and its hostile behaviour post its spread, may well have a backlash, weakening the nation and stymieing its prospects.
Myth and Reality No 3
Myth - The present Indo-China military muscle-flexing, with multi-point aggressive posturing along the LAC, threatening a possible confrontation, is a one-time offshoot. It is an outcome of the present geopolitical fall outs on China and its coercive behaviour towards countries perceived as tarnishing its image and stymieing its growth.
Reality - China’s aggressive behaviour is a manifestation of its strategic culture. Chinese strategic culture and history have several distinctive characters and varied narratives ranging from “Middle Kingdom” mentality, the weight of the past narrative of “Century of Humiliation” and Confucianism. As a state it reflects inward-looking cloaked defensive behaviour focused on nationalism, externally it professes the revisionist doctrine of foreign policy, militarily it focuses on power for strategic coercion, economically it professes neo-imperialistic policies with global supply chain dependencies and strategically it aims at being the next Super Power.
Thus, contemporary China’s reflects defensive, revisionist and aggressive expansionist designs all at the same time while professing peaceful rise. China’s aggressive behaviour thus reflects its ancient strategic culture and multiple historic narratives, affecting its foreign policy and outlook today. In short, it reflects coercion as a strategic tool against those who violate China’s authority and hierarchical order in the region.
This also explains the Chinese outlook to Sino-Indian border disputes, besides the incremental expansion in the Indo-Pacific. China intentionally not settling the boundary dispute with India, holding it as domicile’s sword, leaves no doubt that undercurrent of its aggressive culture remains deeply embedded.
China sees a rising India as not only a regional competitor but a major geostrategic player in the Indo-Pacific and a global anchor meant to contain its rise. Thus, dealing with China will remain one of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges, with growing need to address the asymmetries in economic, informational and military capabilities, between the two Asian giants.
It must not be forgotten that as part of its deeply engrained strategic culture, China presents a multifaceted recurrent primary threat to India which is here to stay with increased trans-LAC aggressive transgressions, both in periodicity and intensity. However, India is no walkover today, politically, diplomatically, economically or militarily, with its military might at number four in the world just after China who is number three in the GFP 2020 (Global Firepower Index). Thus, the present reality is that neither nations can achieve their politico-military aims through confrontation.
This volatile rivalry also bears the shadow of major world powers, their interests and personal agendas, which adds complexities for both to allow this confrontation to flare up. The notion of a military victory against China thereby rests on ensuring the status quo by denying China its military, psychological and political objectives, which is well within the realms of present capabilities.
At the same time, China only respects strength, and so India’s political, economic and military messaging must be resolute and deterring. The Indo-China pendulum will have to be managed from competition to cooperation without a flare-up to confrontation. China’s periodic forays in peacetime by way of transgression will thus continue in the future too but will have to be denied any psychological gains with credible military deterrence, agile diplomacy and astute political decisiveness to preserve its core national interests.
This would be an important aspect of strategic messaging and desired end state in itself for India. This requires strengthening the collaborative military, economic, informational, diplomatic and political levers to deter China’s revisionist culture. In tune with Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘Smart Power’, India needs to combine its resources into a successful strategy through the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defence, development and other tools of hard and soft power. Chinese aggressive culture and forays will thus need to be defused by smart capacity building in these domains to such levels that “Kautaliya’s Chanakiyaniti” will subdue the “Chinese Checker”’, in Sun Tsu’s classical dictum of “winning without fighting’.
Myth and Reality No 4
Myth - India’s present firm and resolute handling of COVID, its soft power projection and existing hard power responses, would be adequate to keep the Dragon at bay.
Reality - There are many concepts and functional aspects of deterrence, but generally deterrence involves three essential components. Firstly, capability – implying possessing sufficient military forces able to carry out plausible military retaliatory threats. The amount and type of force depend on the adversary and what interests are being threatened.
Secondly, credibility – defined by the declared political intent, decisive capability and demonstrative resolve to protect interests. The deterrer should be committed to using force beyond any doubt, but more importantly, the aggressor must believe beyond any doubt that deterrent threats will be carried out.
Thirdly, communication – clearly relaying to a potential aggressor the capability and intent to carry out deterrent threats. Communication should include adversary actions considered unacceptable, the response to any of those unacceptable actions, and the will to carry out the deterrent threat.
While dealing with China has always remained one of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges, credible deterrence based on these three pillars needs to be strengthened considerably. Accordingly, the asymmetric gaps in economic and military capabilities between the two Asian giants need to be shrunk. The challenge is greater in the non-contact, non-kinetic, informational, digital allied domains of smart power.
China’s military-focused infrastructure development in Tibet, modernising of its armed forces and investment in futuristic battlefield systems, merit expeditious matching combat capabilities on the Northern front. China has also developed an all-weather relationship with Pakistan, which it employs as a proxy against India. This collusive support remains a reality and challenge for any future conflict for India, be it a one or two front conflict.
China’s periodic forays in peacetime by way of transgression will have to be denied any psychological gains with due resolute military deterrence and astute political decisiveness to preserve its core national interests. This would be an important aspect of strategic messaging.
Thus managing China both in peace and war requires collaborative military, economic, informational, diplomatic and political levers to deter its revisionist designs. While China will continue to ignite sparks, India will need to do more in these domains to build up higher levels of deterrence capacities and capabilities. Nevertheless, China is fully aware of India of the 21st century and its hard and soft power capabilities, which can stall the Dragon’s nefarious designs, yet it uses incremental sparks to test them on the ground.
Nevertheless, while China may be managed politically and diplomatically, with adequate space for the growth of both the Asian Giants, history must never be forgotten. Intentions change overnight but capability building takes a long time. The elephant’s response cannot be sluggish nor wanting.
The author retired as DG Mechanised Forces, Indian Army and is presently appointed as Consultant MoD/OFB. The views expressed here are personal.