A strategy short on rhetoric and long on capability is the only way to cope with an increasingly assertive China

Recent demonstrations in China over Japanese claims on the Senkaku Islands indicate a new belligerence and nationalism among the Chinese populace that does not augur very well for India-China relations. While Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and other contested spaces in China’s immediate neighbourhood occupy “pole” position when it comes to the dominant nationalistic discourse, a stronger India has started figuring actively in the academic discourse.

From being seen as a mere irritant on the periphery that can be tackled anytime, India is now being seen as a competitor and a “spoiler” in China’s quest for total dominance in Asia. Current geopolitical realities offer some space for India to navigate and manoeuvre in the South East Asian landscape and convince China that it stands to benefit from a reconciliatory, rather than a confrontationist approach towards India. On that count, India has been nimble to diplomatically and militarily engage with a host of countries like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar in its Look East strategy; not with any aggressive intent, but with a hedging posture that seeks to revive memories of the Bandung initiative of 1954 that attempted to build capacities and propagate peaceful coexistence in the region.

Unfortunately, India has the habit of an either/or strategy vis-à-vis China that tends to ignore concurrent development of deterrent and coercive capabilities when some success is perceived to have accrued in the diplomatic space. This is fraught with danger and this time around there cannot be any let-up in building up military capability on our northern and eastern frontiers with China while concurrently seeking diplomatic gains from our “hedging strategy” in S.E. Asia. Deterrence for Peace could be a posture that merits wide articulation, both within the domestic constituency and the international community.

Then and now

The military lessons of the 1962 India-China conflict have been widely debated and need very little amplification beyond reiterating some important ones that would allow us to introspect. At the strategic level, notwithstanding the success of the Indian military in the 1947-48 conflict, the post-independence politico-bureaucratic establishment looked at the military as a wasteful remnant of India’s colonial past whose need was only grudgingly acknowledged. Even the opposition was guilty of pressuring Nehru in the late 1950s to reduce the defence budget even when there was overwhelming evidence that despite economic woes, China was maintaining a defence budget in excess of five per cent of GDP. There was no attempt to understand “war as an extension of politics” — hence the ill-fated forward policy that overlooked imperatives of mountain warfare like clothing, shelter, suitable weapons, logistics support and air support plans for casualty evacuation and resupply. Given the strong WW II pedigree and battle experience of a number of senior army and air force officers, particularly in the Burma campaign, it is perplexing that the senior military leadership failed to actively participate in a national defence strategy to counter China.

In fact, one of the concerns of Mao was the core fighting ability of the Indian Army, which is why he interestingly put together an attacking force with a ratio of 5:1 against existing norms of 3:1, which were considered essential for success in the mountains. Inadequate firepower and the complete absence of air power meant that India was lacking in two vital ingredients of modern warfare that have the potential to cause physical degradation and psychological shock in what was primarily an attrition battle in the mountains. The total absence of aerial reconnaissance by the Indian Air Force meant that field commanders had no real time idea of the strength of forces that Mao was amassing for his attack.

The Indian Armed Forces have come a long way since 1962 and are in a consolidation phase in the current Five Year Plan (2012-2017). There has been a slow shift in our politico-military strategy from a primarily Pak-centric orientation, to one that seeks to balance two adversaries on multiple fronts; much more needs to be done to ensure that this strategy is backed with intent and speedy capability build-up. There is a perception that alarmist signals regarding the imminence of a China-India confrontation in the next five years have been precipitated by vested western interests that seek Indian military build-up as part of a “hedging” strategy to deflect Chinese attention from the Pacific and South China Sea.

While there may be some merit and an element of “realpolitik” in this, there is overwhelming evidence of military and infrastructure build-up in Tibet including increased fighter aircraft activity that points at a methodical and typically Chinese “chess-like” build-up towards supporting and sustaining a modern high altitude campaign against a strong adversary. While there is no way in which India can currently match the Chinese infrastructure in Tibet, what is the way out in the short and medium term? A high survivability-high visibility-high attrition deterrent strategy that revolves around preserving own forces in the face of a ferocious initial assault and inflicting unsustainable losses to integrated application of firepower, whilst continuing to see what the enemy is doing with near 24x7 recce and surveillance, seems to be the surest way of combating the Chinese threat. India has no territorial ambitions and hence can ill-afford to work on manoeuvre strategies that look at capturing ground as part of any trade-off strategy. Lessons from the China-Vietnam war of 1979 and the subsequent lack of battle-experience of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) makes it vulnerable to attrition warfare, both in the air and on ground.

Whether the Chinese have the stomach to take high casualties in pursuit of a nationalistic objective on its extreme peripheries that has few tangible benefits is highly debatable. The maritime domain too is a space that can be exploited and contested by India. With both India and China heading for a two-carrier fleet and blue water capability, strategic analysts predict that a future China-India conflict may not be restricted to only a localised high altitude conflict over desolate terrain. It may well spillover to vital sea lines of communication that run through the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

Final analysis

A militarily strong India that seeks to defend its sovereignty with strength and dignity is not an aggressive or belligerent India. It is an India that seeks peace in the region on respectable terms. China has to be respected as a strong adversary with an emerging penchant for regional hegemony, something that has to be contested by India, should it threaten its national interests. A China strategy, which is short on rhetoric and long on capability, is the only way to cope with an increasingly assertive China. While Mao did pronounce that power flows from the barrel of a gun, India can well twist it to say that peace too can flow from the barrel of two matching guns.

(Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice-Marshal in the Indian Air Force. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the IAF or the Indian government.)

More In: Comment | Opinion