This is the fourth part of a series of articles titled ‘A Savage Turn in India – China Relations’ on the India-China stand-off on the Line of Actual Control at Galwan valley by Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko, Sena Medal (Retired).
The LAC is militarised like never before. “Will there be a war?” is the question that troubles everybody. There could be many possible outcomes to the current standoff. The most obvious ones are peaceful co-existence, war, status quo ante, a newly negotiated mutually accepted border, stalemate, or pursuance of other means to escalate or deescalate the confrontation.
How would the situation progress? Attempts to predict outcomes, especially of such complex situations, must be done armed with the knowledge of basic characteristics of the two adversaries.
China’s creeping borders
Historically China has had territorial disputes with all its neighbours. It still continues to have boundary issues. But it seems to have settled land border issues with all except India and Bhutan. Countries, which think they have negotiated and settled territorial disputes with China through agreements, live in make-believe worlds. It doesn’t take much time for China to come up with some ludicrous proof to support its fresh claim on a piece of neighbour’s land, never disputed before. Bilateral agreements, for China, are instruments merely to bind the other party with no obligations from their side. The five border management agreements between India and China are classic examples.
Nepal, now a beneficiary of China’s largesse, claiming Indian territory, allegedly instigated by China, seems to forget China’s claims on Mount Everest. If reports are to be believed, the Nepali village Rui Gun has already been annexed by China as part of Tibet Autonomous region (TAR). The Nepalese Government has denied any such intrusions. Learning Mandarin is now compulsory in Nepal. It wouldn’t be long before Nepal loses its geographical and cultural identity as well as its autonomy. China’s policies are expansionist and any country sharing land, sea or air border with China can expect territorial claims at any time. China has perfected the art of ‘innocuous nibble’ to grab land. China’s borders tend to ever creep forward.
India’s position hasn’t changed ever since Parliament’s unanimous resolution on November 14,1962. On the other hand, China has not yet given a final map of what it perceives, is the border with India. It keeps raising claims at will, even on well-settled and undisputed areas. With India’s resolve to safeguard its territorial integrity firmly stated and its commitment to do whatever required to preserve its sovereignty, the future course of action depends on how China responds to India’s overtures. There is a strategic motive behind their silence, vacillating statements, propaganda and military movements.
Cooperation or confrontation?
India is a lucrative market for China, but it is also a competitor for the mantle of ‘regional power’. Therefore, it is imperative for China to keep India in check, militarily and economically, to ensure that in geopolitical considerations, India remains second to China. This is naturally unacceptable to India.
In the race of being the undisputed regional power, cooperation with India runs contrary to China’s interests. Therefore, it has to find appropriate, potent and effective means to subjugate India. Inciting other neighbours to initiate various confrontations, territorial, economic and political, with India, can compound India’s troubles and China’s gains. Remaining embroiled and confined to local and regional issues would prevent India from gaining ascendancy in geopolitical environment. Prominence, regional and on the world stage, over India is what China aims at. Border confrontation is the best weapon.
Peaceful coexistence as an option
If peaceful coexistence was an instrument of state policy, China would not have precipitated the current situation in the first place. Opting for peaceful settlement of the border issue would be a huge setback and climb down for China. Peace talks would be a departure from the muscular diplomacy that China considers effective and successful. The ruling dispensation may believe that peace overtures if any made, could be interpreted by the domestic and international audience as a loss of face against a tough adversary. It could also prompt other adversaries to align and cooperate with India against China. This would be unacceptable to China. Quite characteristic of China, they will talk of peace and tranquillity only to plot other intrusions. The Dragon doesn’t believe in peaceful coexistence, at least not with the elephant.
Comparative military might
It is believed that PLA has more than 20 lakh soldiers against India’s 13 lakh defence service personnel. China is also ahead of India, both in conventional and non-conventional armoury. China also has some ultra-modern means of war and the economic muscles to fund it. Information available suggests that China spends far more on defence than India. At the combat front, truth is a lot different.
Victory in war depends not only on high tech gadgets, military spending and numerical superiority but how effectively adversaries converge warfighting assets at the point of conflict and how long it can sustain the cutting edge. The quality of soldiering is a compelling factor that influences the outcome. Contrary to common belief accentuated by aggressive Chinese psychological operations, India fares a lot better.
A research paper authored by Dr. Frank O’Donnell and Dr. Alexander K Bollfrass, published by the Belfer Centre for Science and International affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, seems to suggest that India can outnumber the Chinese at the LAC. That’s why china has now pulled its resources from other places and concentrated it at the LAC. India has been building up even more.
The conflict of 1967, various other face-offs with China over the decades and continuing war against terror have convincingly proved that Indian soldiers are the most war-hardened and the best professional soldiers in the world. The heroic response of the few men against a well-prepared enemy group with stockpiles of weapons of their choice would have given China adequate knowledge of how formidable Indian forces are. History has not been just, fair and kind to Indian soldiers of 1962. Contrary to what many Indians believe, 1962 war proved, that man-to-man, India inflicted more casualties on China.
In terms of converging quality and numbers at the point of conflict, India stands better compared to China in the current face-off. Indisputably, India is a formidable adversary to China and it knows that well. Yet, will China opt for war?
Is conventional war an option?
Conventional war is likely to affect China more adversely than India. In the case of a conventional war, China will have to commit a large part of its assets to sustain the conflict with India. They will have to pull troops out of their current operational deployment. This will adversely blunt the instrument of domestic authoritarianism, loosen grip over Hong Kong and dilute military presence in the South China Sea. Others could take advantage of this situation. Opening up a new front is wise only if it does not expose vulnerabilities. Militarily engaging with India now will be detrimental to China’s overall interests. With the level of resentment existing within, a nuclear or conventional response from India can destroy the establishment’s vice-like hold on Chinese people. Any military loss suffered, even if localised, will deflate China’s power and erode Xi’s authority.
Is nuclear war an option?
Would China, with its larger nuclear arsenal, be prompted to resort to nuclear strikes? It could threaten to. But, even threatening nuclear aggression could cost China economically very dear. Even if it threatens a nuclear attack, it’s very unlikely to use nuclear force because India has the capability to survive the first attack and punitively strike back. Destruction on both sides will be colossal. The nuclear exchange could even spill beyond the two adversaries. When the two adversaries are nuclear powers, the possibility of a war and its fallout becomes reason for anxiety across the world. All other nations will collectively interfere to prevent a nuclear conflict. In the present geopolitical situation, a full-blown war, conventional or nuclear seems unlikely.
Would a limited offensive be a possibility? Rooted to the philosophy of peaceful co-existence, India may not initiate any offensive against China though history speaks otherwise. Will China launch a limited offensive?
People in China are fed up with authoritarianism, slowing economy and growing disenchantment. A limited offensive provides the perfect means of diverting public attention. Even for a limited offensive, with its inherent probability of it turning into a full-fledged combat, China would have to pull out troops from other places thereby creating the same set of disadvantages associated with conventional war.
The aim of a limited offensive would be to capture as much land as possible within the shortest possible time and then use it to negotiate for favourable outcomes. Likelihood of it expanding into a full-scale war, notwithstanding, either side could attempt a limited offensive hoping that the international community will intervene and bring about a quick ceasefire. Outcome could turn out to be the ultimate political make or break for establishments on either side.
The world sees China as an aggressor and there is a growing resentment against its strong-arm tactics. Though China doesn’t care much about world opinion, agreements and international code of conduct, economic penalties can hit China hard especially in the midst of Covidian uncertainties. Eventuality of a military action could certainly precipitate severe economic sanctions from across the world that could further deteriorate China’s economy which in turn could have serious domestic ramifications. This is another reason why China may not opt for a military conflict. A limited offensive, though not entirely ruled out, doesn’t offer China returns worth the risk. But given the propensity of both sides to grandstand, anything is possible.
Why the military build-up?
Why is there a military build-up at the LAC by both sides? Both sides have released visuals of military assets moving closer to the LAC. Posturing is a natural necessity under the current circumstances. If not adequately done, it could be interpreted as capitulation, both by citizens and the adversary. The build-up is likely to continue for some time along with high optics. It’s an integral part of psychological operations and also a deterrent. Yet, it is unlikely that the situation may sediment war. Hectic backroom manoeuvring and parleys are already in progress. Face saving means required for both sides could, in all probability, be in the pipe line.
If options cheaper, more effective and means less attributable than war are available, China will prefer that to war. For India, after the much-acclaimed high level, highly publicised visuals of Modi – Xi informal meetings at various places over various colourful settings, there is a sense of betrayal, even worse than 1962. The sense of having achieved, something that nobody ever could, has conclusively been proved a mirage. India urgently needs a face-saving measure. So does China.
Can India pull off a diplomatic coup and restore status quo ante?
Would it end up in a stalemate?
Do we expect it to unfold into something new?
To be continued