Stand Up Against China

India should not seek a reset with China that is based on our inferiority. We can and must assert ourselves.

Some of India’s chickens of statecraft have come home to roost. India has embarked on a “reset of relations” with China and simultaneously seeks to “redefine ties” with the USA. The simultaneity is structurally imperative when it comes to India’s role in the context of great power tensions.

In the case of China, it is based on its enormous economic and military power. The Indian political leadership seems convinced that China’s coercive power does not call for a confrontation, but instead demands a form of adjustment that would serve to preserve our national development goals. With the USA, a partnership founded on common interests is expected to provide political, strategic and technological support that can further Indian goals. The reset would also involve a tilt away from the USA, to perhaps, a slightly less-than-neutral position.

This article questions the assumption regarding the preponderance of China’s military power, from which the reset draws some of its rationale. The reset is already in motion and has manifested through a shift in our dealings with the Tibetan diaspora, silence on Doklam 2.0, and the last-minute withdrawal of political clearance to host the traditional Asian Security Conference at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) with a theme of Sino-Indian relations. All this with the idea, ‘Let us not annoy China’ and with the expectation that China will change its political and strategic behaviour.

Power is a relational variable and therefore the context in which power is compared is certainly closer to the truth than absolute power calculations. In absolute terms and weighed purely technologically, the power differential in economic and military terms is significant. But China and India have other geographic, economic, security and socio-political concerns that creates the context within which power balances must be analysed.

The geography, size of its landmass and population of China present it with enormous security challenges. Some of its challenges: A potential military confrontation with USA and its allies over Taiwan, North Korea, the blowback of its predations in the South China Sea and China’s attempt to break out of the shackles of geography imposed by the First and Second Island Chain. Other challenges include the need to maintain economic growth to keep social unrest from derailing the power of the party. In absolute terms China’s security challenges are far greater than India’s.

Military power derives its strength from three basic factors: physical, psychological and organisational. ‘Physical’ covers terrain. ‘Psychological’ refers to character and mental disposition of adversaries. ‘Organisation’ spans numerical strength, arms and equipment, doctrines, tactics and leadership.

In relative terms, India’s geostrategic power is its strength. Except for its western borders, which are mostly flat and open, the Himalayas to the North, forested areas in the East and a peninsula that juts out into Indian Ocean have endowed India with substantial defensive potential in the North and East. That is coupled with the prospect for power projection in the Indian Ocean. Any calculation of the relative balance of military power must take into consideration the relative opportunities and threats imposed by geography.

In military calculations, geography is the most enduring factor. In contrast, technological advantage is contestable, and adversaries could adapt to it to nullify advantages. The fact that USA lost Vietnam, and failed to win in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Beirut are glaring examples that technological capability cannot be the key factor in deciding the balance of military power. Eventually the centre of gravity of war is people – for it is their will, combined with innovation, that triumphs.

If the relative balance of military power between China and India is scrutinised through the technological lens, one would conclude that it is an adverse situation for India. However, India’s leadership would be making a big mistake, if it has bought into the dazzle of technological superiority that China projects. China has an impressive array of military capabilities that spans all the domains of possible conflicts–Land, Air, Sea, Space and Cyber. But it cannot afford to mass its entire capabilities against India, as it has many other major challenges with greater strategic priority.

It is not in China’s nor in India’s interest to get into a big fight. Instead China’s interests vis-a-vis India are primarily derived from the global geopolitical flux and the growing tensions with the USA. Russia and China seem to be co-operating to becoming a pole in the global order with the USA and its allies being the other pole. For China, India must be prevented from joining the USA-led pole. Or, it would aim at politically debilitating India to marginalise its role in the Asian and global orders, even diminish India to a tributary state of China. Ideally, a combination of the three would work best for China.

Killing with a borrowed sword has so far been China’s demonstrated style. The growing Sino-Pak nexus and influence in India’s neighbourhood provides leverage to keep India confined to the subcontinent. Using the Himalayan frontier as a pressure point and supporting Pakistan’s terrorism  serve to keep India off-balance, and compel it to expend resources for continental defence. This curbs India’s ability to be a maritime power which is the main form of military power that can challenge China in the Indian Ocean. The USA is inclined to assist India in strengthening its maritime power, but at the price of being perceived as being part of the maritime tent that excludes China and seeks to ensure freedom of movement for trade. Ultimately, the importance and geographic vulnerability of China’s trade routes through the Indian Ocean shapes the ultimate motive for China’s strategic behaviour towards India.

China is not a natural adversary of India, but is instead a prisoner of its ambitions to be the number one global power by 2049, the centenary of its birth as a communist State. China’s strategic disposition is unlikely to change unless it gives up on its ambitions. It will be naïve to expect China to accommodate India’s security concerns. One can expect that the more India gives in, the more will China grab, for that is the nature of a state which has successfully carried out blatant aggression on smaller neighbours. It has come to realise that the rest of the world cannot stop it.

India’s deafening silence on Doklam 2.0 where China has built a road on territory disputed with Bhutan reflects the misplaced belief that reconciliation through a reset can provide relief from the rampages of China’s aspirations. It is tantamount to throwing Bhutan under the Chinese bus. A reset based on inferior self-image can at best provide short-term relief, and one hopes that such estimates are not the prime driver with an eye on forthcoming national elections. In the long run, the Chinese tiger, that today struts the jungle of international order, will grow hungrier, and India will be called upon repeatedly to give in to whet its appetite.

In the discharge of statecraft, India’s political leadership should evaluate the military power balance beyond a technophobic view and, instead, weigh in with the actual sinews of military power that encompass intangibles like leadership, organisation, doctrines, tactics and morale. On the northern borders, China could attempt to embarrass India through limited land grabs. Countering such moves must be the focus of defence planning. Despite the poor road infrastructure and voids in equipment, the Indian Armed Forces should, through innovative tactics grounded on infantry and fire power, leverage the defensive potential of the Himalayas and pay back in kind. Purely as an illustrative analogy, India could raise a bevy of volunteer human bombers that can be tasked to cause attrition in the rear. The basic concept must be to pitch strength against weakness and in the mountains the defender has natural advantages. China’s long lines of communications in Tibet are its greatest vulnerability, and therefore shaping combat capability to exploit it has substantial payoffs.

The Indian military must rebalance assets from the West to the North, which requires mellowing down our ambitions of capturing the maximum territory in Pakistan, which is a questionable proposition considering that seizing and retaining territory in a Jihadised State is inadvisable. Apart from that, the world powers are not going to stand by if we choose to stay put, unlike in the case of Israel’s occupation of Palestine territory.  India’s practice of statecraft should not be based on an erroneous understanding of its military potential.

Political leadership must be informed that militaries across the world are in search of state-of-the-art material resources, and are adept at highlighting shortages. But to assume that the Indian military cannot defend the Himalayas or play a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean can only come from ignorance that is misinformed of the nature of military power and its ability in adapting to challenges. India should not be a supplicant in its dealings with China, in which the present paradigm of reset is apparently anchored. It is a power that can be the spoiler in China’s ambitions, and that, in itself is political power of great significance.

About the author

Lt Gen Prakash Menon

Lt. Gen. (Retd) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution. He was the Major General General Staff of the army’s Northern Command responsible for operations in J&K and the Commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi. After his retirement in 2011, he continued in government as the Military Advisor and Secretary to Government of India and from 2015 as Officer on Special Duty in the National Security Council Secretariat.He has a PhD from Madras University for his thesis “Limited War and Nuclear Deterrence in the Indo-Pak context”. He was appointed by the Union Cabinet as a member of an expert group for the creation of the Indian National Defence University.