The standoff at Doklam in 2017 is followed by another and bigger standoff in Eastern Ladakh in 2020 with defence analysts, diplomats and strategic experts predicting the frequency to be almost annual due to the ostensible Chinese annoyance at the rapid rate of development of infrastructure along the LAC by India which neutralises the asymmetry created by the former till now. While on one hand China was actively trying to build a new image of a responsible global power by its increasing participation in Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) like peacekeeping, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance etc., on the other it has not shed its belligerent attitude on border with India due to the potential threat it perceives from India in its quest to become a superpower. It continues to encircle India through its “Strings of Pearl” and Belt Road Initiative Doctrine. Despite, the desire expressed by Xi Jinping in his early years of presidency to speedily resolve the border dispute with India, China appears to be in no hurry to resolve the boundary dispute and on the contrary is becoming increasingly aggressive to reach areas as claimed by it and marked in our maps as “Claim Line.”
China’s national goal is to achieve unification and build a moderately prosperous society by 2050, which would coincide with the centenary year of 100 year of Communist rule. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has directed its army the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to ensure that no internal or external forces should be able to sabotage China’s economic engine or embarrass its national honour. The current standoff is result of this mandate to PLA because it feels threatened in Aksai Chin, a safe bet for PLA till now. Both Aksai Chin and Karakoram Pass are China’s jugular veins.
In response to the offer of President Trump for a mediation to resolve the stand-off which as per the American assessment is ‘very serious’ Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has informed his American counterpart that, “It has been India’s efforts to ensure that the tension does not escalate. It should be resolved through talks at military and diplomatic levels. We have already developed a mechanism for the same. Negotiations are ongoing between the two countries at the military and diplomatic level.” Going by the statements of the spokesperson of Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Ambassador to India, China also wants to resolve the issue mutually. China before ordering the standoff would have war gamed the Indian responses and worked out an exit strategy to match each Indian response. India’s response though firm and clear has been traditional and nothing “out of the box.” Hence as in the past if China is keen to resolve the issue it would buy time, coerce India through psychological operations, deception and threat of a conflict to seek a withdrawal at its terms. But India this time is adamant to not to succumb to any type of pressure keeping in mind the prevailing geo-political environment loaded heavily in its favour. In that case China may agree to find a face-saving settlement for the time being but the dragon is known for its vengeance and non-forgiving behaviour. The threat from the dragon may only be deferred for the next campaigning season but not eliminated. Can the present standoff be China’s revenge of Doklam with a new recalibrated response and so on? Status Quo, therefore, is advantage China.
In the mind of our security policy makers China is not a threat but a challenge. The threat/challenge posed by an adversary is assessed by the policy makers based on their capabilities and intent. The major difference lies in assessing the intent of the adversary. If an adversary has hostile intentions as well as a matching military capability to pursue those intentions it is categorised as a “threat”. In the assessment of our policy makers though China possesses a strong military capability, it does not harbour “hostile” intentions hence categorised as a “challenge.” Rightly so, because of the stated national goal as mentioned above. But it does not take time for a militarily strong nation to change its intentions, particularly when the country is known for expansionist and extra-territorial ambitions. Such a policy is good to justify ongoing debate of Gun versus Butter in a developing economy and a nation burdened with yawning gap between the rich and poor. Fortunately India falls quite low in China’s current threat assessment and “worst case scenarios.” But can India remain happy with status quo or must plan alternatives to meet growing Chinese aggressiveness and assertiveness. “India can end Chinese transgression if the conflict is taken to Beijing’s worry spot(s),” according to Ram Madhav, National General Secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party and a member of think tank.
Besieged by a geo-political situation which led to a global assault against it, the Dragon has decided to be pro-active rather than succumb to the global pressure led by America. It decided to convey a subtle message to America’s potential allies through posturing and aggression in what is referred to as “Signalling” in strategic terminology. In doing so, it made a cardinal mistake of opening too many fronts simultaneously. South China Sea, Taiwan, Hongkong and the Sino-Indian border. Even Australia, a friend of China, joined the global onslaught against it. Japan was also becoming aggressive. China felt that it had been cornered and its move against India may prove costly.
China knows that in the current standoff militarily the Chinese and Indian Army are equally strong with India enjoying shorter lines of communication as compared to China. In case of a conflict India would be at advantage and will be able to concentrate more forces than China could deploy. No doubt China would bank on collusion with Pak Army to tie down Indian troops but even then it could best lead to a stalemate. A stalemate would definitely hit China’s image globally and in other areas of conflict and would be a definite loss of face.
China has the knack of springing surprises. He may well begin with a non- contact battle; Information Warfare (IW), Electronic Warfare (EW), Cyber-attacks, precision munitions followed by a surgical strike. Will we be able to match the Chinese capabilities in the conflict zone? At the end if China does not vacate the Indian Territory, India should have other options to exercise. In such a scenario India should have the option to signal the Chinese obliquely (through media, strategic community, diplomatic means etc) that the conflict may not remain localised in the trans-Himalayan region but may spread to the high seas.
If the Indian policy makers consider Indo-Pacific as a soft underbelly of China, have they done enough to encash this advantage through capacity and capability build up? The zone of peace and tranquillity along the LAC espoused between the two nations in the beginning of this century has slowly been turned into a line of asymmetry through rapid development of infrastructure on its own side by China thus providing it a capability of rapid deployment. India is fast trying to catch up but lags behind due to many domestic factors. There was also an attempt to maintain peace through a series of border management and Confidence Building Measures including the mechanism to resolve the boundary dispute. But China more often than not has been violating these because of it better capability to man the LAC viz a viz India. Any effort by Indian Army to improve infrastructure on its side is objected to and resisted by the Chinese.
China believes in buying time and wearing out the opponent while building its own strengths. It has been able to achieve the asymmetry on the LAC as well as reorganise and modernise its army. In the process it has begun to be more assertive on its “Claim Line” by not just patrolling but by camping and digging in those areas. Of late, even in those areas where his claim line and LAC coincide he has begun to transgress in order to provide grazing grounds to the locals and testing India’s response so that it can enhance its claim line in those areas as well. In nutshell, PLA has become very strong in the mountainous sector through which the LAC runs. Our response has been to meet the Chinese threat through enhanced deployment and effort to improve the infrastructure. In other words we have been trying to pit our strength against the enemy’s strength. China is happy with status quo and is not keen to resolve the border issues. It feels confident of “managing” of conflicts along LAC. India will always be subjected to pin pricks at will by the dragon. Is this the way we want to tame the dragon and let him become a “threat” from a “challenge.” The answer obviously is NO.
Strength begets respect and instils fear in potential adversaries. China also respects strength. India’s strength does not lie in the lofty trans-Himalayas but in the high seas. “The lion cannot protect himself from traps and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognise traps and a lion to frighten wolves,” said Machiavelli, famous Italian philosopher and writer. In relation to China India needs to develop both the qualities.
If our strength is on the high seas then why even today we like the Moghuls are still obsessed with our frontiers? India must take advantage of its geo-strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region and develop the maritime strength to tame the dragon. While doing all this we need to maintain our strategic autonomy.