In 2017, China was flying high. Economy firing on cylinders. Booming growth. CPEC and BRI taking off. Grand military parades in Tiananmen. Impending superpower. USA put on notice. Your time is up. Doklam crisis. The shrillness of Global Times. India will be taught a lesson. India, fall in line or pay the consequences. Sikkim merger will be revisited. Those were the days my friend we thought would never end. It was joy, it was fun, it was seasons in the Chinese sun… Circa 2019. The season changed. Cooling economy. Failing CPEC. Rusted Iron Brother. Debilitating trade war. Hong Kong protests. Superpower status timelines being revisited.
In all this, one thread is constant. China’s adversarial actions against India—initiating Doklam crisis, blocking India’s entry into NSG, blocking Masood Azhar from being declared an international terrorist, support for Pakistan in UNSC, threatening consequences if we block Huawei. Despite growing bilateral trade, cooperation on wide ranging issues and apparent peace, China is our main adversary. More importantly, with the abrogation of Article 370, Pakistan will not give up its Kashmir agenda. As a natural corollary, China will give it full collusive support unless we keep it at bay. However, our tack with the Chinese should be broader-based. Recent events have also shown that there are limits to Chinese ability. We need to identify those limits and play them to our advantage in the overall Sino-Indian context. That is what strategy is all about, isn’t it?
Surprise. Surprise And Surprise
History has shown that surprise is a winning factor in any strategy. On the other hand, those who get surprised always play catch up. China was surprised in Doklam and almost lost face. It saw the trade war coming but could not adapt its line of response and has been exposed. Abrogation of Article 370 surprised them and they do not seem to have a strategy to counter it. Most importantly, they are going to leave Pakistan in the lurch. That will be a bad example for each present or future ally. China has clearly indicated a tendency to get surprised. It also indicates a certain amount of rigidity in thought and inability to read the situation. Lot of scope in this line of action.
Limits to Chinese Ability
Rand Corporation carried out a comparative study on 10 parameters in the Sino-U.S. context in two scenarios. A Taiwan scenario near the mainland and a Spratly Island scenario away from the mainland. They came out with the deduction that the Chinese ability to project power at distant locations becomes weak as distances increase. It will remain so, even if China’s military capabilities keep increasing. The new White Paper released by China indicates that Taiwan, Homeland Security and Security of Overseas Interests are core concerns of the Chinese. Resources will have to be earmarked to secure these core areas/issues. It is only with the balance available resources that China can undertake any power projection farther or get into a conflict with India. When appreciated from first principles, a realistic threat emerges from China to India. It has far lower thresholds than we normally imagine. The question to ask ourselves is—are we ready in the Himalayas for this realistic threat? All said and done, the Chinese are not 10 feet tall as they make themselves to be or as we sometimes imagine.
Transformation and Inexperience
The PLA is transforming from a land-based force to an expeditionary force. The flux of change imposes restrictions on its ability. All the emphasis on new technologies is great. However, many of these technologies are nascent and untested operationally. Hence, their efficacy is suspect. Ultimately, one must put boots on ground, take bullets and shed blood. China itself has acknowledged its operational inexperience. As warfare gets complex and unless China bloodies its hands somewhere, it will remain a paper tiger. Superpowers, past and present like UK, USSR and USA, have become superpowers only because they gained operational experience in global conflicts and their people sacrificed and shed blood. The last Chinese operation was the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979. Study it and one can see a ham-handed approach to fighting. Also, the Vietnamese lost all battles and suffered huge losses. However, they won the war. This is a very major drawback in the Chinese firmament.
The Chinese are paranoid about ‘separatist forces’ in Taiwan, East Turkistan and Tibet. This is also evident in their new White Paper. One could add Hong Kong to this list very soon. From what one can surmise from Hong Kong, the Chinese bandwidth to resolve political challenges is limited. Consider internment of Uighur Muslims in re-education internment camps. Worried about spread of Islam or radical Islam? Also analyse reports that China will recognise the next Dalai Lama only if appointed by them. The atheist Chinese Communists taking over Buddhism? Religion, democracy, free society et al are very potent weapons against China. They challenge the people’s party monolith. All these are also fertile grounds to entangle China in a hybrid conflict, within its borders, over extended areas for a long time. If China can use Pakistan as its catspaw to keep us occupied (and it has), it is time they are returned some favours. China will stop thinking of world domination as soon as internal issues pop up. Chinese history also suggests so. The Great Wall of China is testimony to it.
Trade and Economy
Cooling down of the Chinese economy is a fact now but was predicted long back irrespective of all other things. The BRI and CPEC are failing fast. The BRI, which was a loose belt and a bumpy road a few months ago is even more now. The Tanzanian President has joined leaders decrying BRI. He says that it is ‘exploitative and awkward’ and that Chinese set ‘tough conditions that can be accepted by mad people’. An internal view from Pakistan is that CPEC is dead. It is very clear that eventually ROI on BRI and CPEC investments will be negative economically, politically and strategically. China will not be the engine to drive the world. Along comes Mr Trump and starts a trade war with China. That is not only debilitating, but as per reports, China could run out of retaliatory actions. Add the roadblocks in the Made in China 2025 plan. When all this is compounded, China will have to get off the high horse. If China continues to pump funds into its military the way it is doing now; there will be a blow back somewhere else economically. This zero-sum game opens huge opportunities for many lines of action to keep China at bay. Trade and economic leverages must be applied in a focused and unambiguous manner.
China does not inspire trust in countries which matter. Its closest allies are Pakistan and North Korea. Russia is a seasonal ally which operates strictly on a cash-and-carry basis with China. The rest who can be counted as allies are dependent on it and are detractors of its strength. Building alliances with developed nations which enhance our overall national interests and promote progress will contribute highly to keeping China at bay. That is a policy which successive governments have put into effect and should continue.
In all these postulations, one factor that will keep China at bay is a strong military force. Nothing beats hard power in dissuasion and deterrence. To that extent, strengthening of armed forces through modernisation, reorganisation and rebalancing should be ongoing and mandatory. For that to happen, India must put its buck on the table if it wants a bang.
Keeping China at bay will be a constant for India considering that both nations are growing powers more in competition than in cooperation. Abrogation of Article 370 might have raised Pakistan’s hackles. However, we found that China was also bristling about it. In their opinion, we have changed the status quo about Ladakh and they will bide their time. They will get back at us at a place, event and time of their choosing. Let us anticipate and prepare for it. We should not be surprised as they were.
(The author has served four decades in the Indian Army in multiple operational areas and is currently a professor at the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. Views expressed in this article are personal.)