Recent events in Ladakh, have once again brought to the fore, to the very centre stage, the challenging and daunting prospect of a ‘RISEN CHINA.’ China is already the number two economy in the world; ten years from now it will be number one.
A China whose Strategic – Military, Comprehensive Addressal will need a re-imagination of sorts, in our Strategic Outlook and in our National Security Mindspace, if we are to deal with the challenge, with necessary purpose, precision and certitude. This is well nigh possible but is also a huge task.
Business as usual will certainly not do. We will need to think through the challenge; we will need to act long and deep.
There are very useful lessons for statecraft in the careful study of historical narratives. From the year 1to the year 1820 or so, India and China were the world’s two foremost economies; they were also the world’s two most consequential powers.
The two nations have a long history of contact and great connect but as Iqbal Chand Malhotra writes in his remarkable book, `Red Fear – the China Threat’, there has also been considerable antagonism, strategic jostling, contest and confrontation, best exemplified by some examples.
In the early part of the fifteenth century, Emperor Yongle and Admiral Zhang He, designed several naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean, specifically Calicut and Cochin, with a view to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over I0R trade and extend the Yongle Empire’s tributary system to India. Later, in August - Sep 1420, a naval armada commanded by Hou Xian, threatened the King of Jaunpur to dissuade him from moving against the Sultan of Bengal, an example of the Chinese using military coercion to influence heartland politics in India.
In the first Opium War in July 1840, in the town of Dinghai on Chusan Island, an Indian Army Battalion Group defeated the troops of the Chinese Qing Empire.
If these are indeed the characterisations of the broad sweep of Sino - Indian relations in the past, with pronounced strains of influence operations, competition, coercion, contestation and even conflict, what about the other narrative that for centuries India and China have lived in peace; hence 1962 was merely an aberration? Clearly, one of the two is a historical misreading or worse a distortion.
The danger of historical misreading / distorted narratives, therefore, is the first fault line in the strategic – military addressal of China that we have to be wary of. For, if the fundamental premises are not robust, if they are flawed, concomitant errors in strategic policy are bound to follow.
Therefore, if the belief is that 1962 was merely an aberration in centuries of peace, then, the instrument of force will get pushed somewhat to the periphery of our strategic world view, in terms of nursing, leveraging, as an agency in diplomacy and as a tool for securing equilibrium and equipoise.
This is particularly unhelpful when you are contending with a system, wherein the instrument of force is rather central to the strategic project with Premier Chou-en-lai, once describing the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as mere `cultural ambassadors of the PLA’. Far greater osmosis between defence and diplomacy, in the Indian context, is imperative.
NATURE OF CONFLICT / CHARACTER OF WAR
In a somewhat similar vein, the manner in which you read the tea leaves of the evolving nature of conflict or the great flux in the changing character of war also has profound implications on your strategising and operational prowess.
Over the last few decades, we saw these monumental changes in the character of war – space and precision challenging the fundamental tenets of fire and manoeuvre in combat; the changing equations in the text (the squadron/company battles, the nature of the physical fight) and the context (emerging domains / the impact of technology) of combat; the dramatic new strains in the combined arms balance – loiter munitions and lethal autonomous weapon systems displacing the traditional prima donnas - the tanks and the artillery, etc.
Now, the staggering pace of change, in-depth and width, in complexity and nuance, did merit nimble responses, but strangely, some quarters of the strategic community came to the puzzling conclusion that the probability of conflict was receding. In fact, the reality was quite the opposite - military burdens were only growing, demanding newer proficiencies: in kinetic combat, in emerging domains, in precision, intelligence, Military IOTs, algorithmic warfare, multi-domain operations, even as legacy challenges, like unsettled borders and cross border terrorism remained.
The case to be made is this; that we re-visit the larger narratives - those of history, the profound changes in the character of war, the economy - defence interface, the disruptions in technology, to come up with smarter solutions to meet the thrust and parry of our long term security competition with China. That is critical.
India’s tactical responses have always been fairly good (Nathula, Sumondrong Chu, now Ladakh); we, however, need to buttress and energise them in a larger strategic–military frame.
CHINA’S STRATEGIC MAKEOVER
Let us now explore yet another metric in the strategic – military addressal of China - which is our understanding itself of China’s strategic makeover, especially in the Sino - Indian context.
For the first time in history, we have two powers (the world’s number one and number three economies in PPP terms - China and India respectively) in close proximity in the absence of historical buffers: the loss of Tibet and the once formidable Himalayas now reasonably penetrable thanks to the multifarious advances in communications and technologies.
The geo-strategic spaces of the two nations will inevitably intersect due to the unsettled nature of our borders; due to the salience of ‘unification of territories’ in the Chinese worldview and the inexorable logic of balance of power politics - allowing for only one regional hegemon and the need to diminish the closest peer competitor.
The interaction could well be peaceful and productive -but the time for negotiating such a modus vivendi is now when China is still the number two power in the world. In the next ten years or so, when China becomes the numero uno italies, such negotiation will become even more difficult.
China’s comprehensive strategic makeover has many shades and layers. A few facets are noteworthy.
It is time we realise that we have a superpower on our Northern Borders - one whose economic zoom and military gallop - have indeed been spectacular - in ambition, pace, scale and success.
China’s military modernisation has been both -perspicacious, and deep. There has been a complete overhaul of the PME system in the PLA with a view to emulate the best global models and practices. President Xi, himself, has led the initiative: he has visited almost all institutions of import - the Academy of Military Sciences, the National Defence University, the Aviation Academy, et al., and orchestrated the overhaul of the training pedagogy in the PLA by according to it a more modern and a significantly joint tone and tenor.
The PLA’s signature projects - the Rocket Force and particularly the Strategic Support Force signify its successful transition from industrial era warfighting to digital era sophistication and capacities.
The PLA is working diligently to configure a Military IOT, which in a few years from now will enable the autonomous operation of weapon platforms/machines without human intervention, catapulting the PLA into a different technological league altogether.
CIVIL - MILITARY FUSION
In China, the civil and military domains have fused completely to complement each other’s growth. There are simply no silos. The PLA led Huawei’s push towards 5G, is a prominent example. PLA teams have been embedded in Mega AI projects in major Chinese cities. (Facial Recognition, Autonomous Cars). The experiences so gained translate naturally into military applications in PLA combat outfits.
The PLA has launched a Global Hunt / made huge Investments to integrate the finest global minds into the building of military capacities. The Chinese Academy of Military Engineering and Physics - recruited 57 overseas scientists in 2019 to include scientists from the US Los Alamos National Laboratory to give a fillip to military projects.
Some years ago, the Chinese PLA identified and sponsored the education of a talented Chinese scientist, Jian Wei Pan, in Austria’s Heidelburg University, under the mentorship of Professor Anton Zellinger an acknowledged expert in Quantum Science. In natural consequence, Jain Wei Pan on his return designed China’s and the world’s first Quantum Satellite and is now working on the Quantum Radar.
In the not too distant future, India may be faced with the real prospect of `A Strategic Squeeze’. The PLA Navy is already our maritime neighbour in the IOR, with a potent Eastern Maritime Flank, as also, a fast-developing Western Maritime Flank (Gwadar and Djibouti). We shall see a substantive Chinese naval presence in the IOR in the years to come. India could well be faced with a geo-strategic squeeze; from the LAC and the IOR, concurrently. We need to brace up and act now.
The successful asymmetric deterrence of China is very much a doable proposition if we address some of the issues that have been discussed in preceding paragraphs. The embrace of three additional metrics will be useful. We need to develop a stronger and cold-blooded ‘Strategic Response’ embellished in far greater discipline.
It is not that we are not acting: There is a lot of work being done on PME, Disruptive Technologies, Better Talent Management, massive outreach to academia and startups; the CDS / DMA - is a game-changer. We see a greater connect between our foreign and defence policies. We do need, however, to enhance the rapidity and scale of our responses, exponentially.
In our long term strategising, we will also need to answer some critical questions. Will strategic autonomy, for example, suffice to balance China or do we need to build greater military heft into various partnerships / countervailing coalitions? What should be the right balance between maritimity and continentality in our force structuring?
We also need to usher in unfettered Civil-Military Fusion. To enable cross-pollination of the best talents, we need the finest Indian minds by moving beyond government spaces and the traditional areas of recruitment, by creating an agile bureaucracy and a defence ecosystem of innovation and enterprise.
In the stated context, it may be instructive to read the writings of Zhang Weiwei – the English interpreter and advisor to Deng Xiao Peng on the `genetic defects of democracies’, for some interesting insights. Amongst others, he highlights their (democracies) obsession with ‘prohibitive procedures and practices’, a propensity which gives the Chinese system a clear advantage in any competition. Graham Allison illustrates the point further when he recounts, that if the Americans today, renovate a bridge in four years, the Chinese renovate a similar bridge in a mere forty-three hours. The staggering difference in infrastructural times frames may also explain the steadily narrowing gap in the Sino –American contest. The need for agile, innovative, bureaucratic practices in the Indian contest is therefore stark if we are to bridge the growing strategic – military differential with China in any significant manner.
And lastly, the overarching frame of our response will have to be far greater ‘strategic cunning’. China is a crafty competitor; we too need to embrace our very own Kautilyan concepts of wit, cunning and guile. A return to the inherent wisdom of our strategic writings - sam, dam danda, bheda, for example – national interest by means fair or foul, maybe a good place to begin with.
If we do so - thoughtfully and meaningfully, we will heighten the prospects for peace and lower the incentives for war - that after all, is the acme of sound statecraft.