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China — India Conflict: How to Counter the Dragon

It is very unfortunate that when the gloomy clouds of the Covid-19 Pandemic are still hovering over the South Asian terrain China’s PLA is behaving like a ruthless predatory force by unleashing military tension with provocative actions at Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh. However, it is not the question of jumping on the bandwagon of battle cry right now or either to turn cynical to our preparedness to resist such unsavoury design of the Chinese side but still, given the sensitivity of time, it is alarming the way the border clash with its infectious smell of gunpowder and gory stain might stoke the flames of greater unrest and agitation to make it more formidable by throwing the gauntlet to test our mindset when we are going through continuous caution, restraint and urgency to come back to normalcy through Unlock 1.0. Thus what happened on June 15th clearly exhibited China’s unilateral aggressiveness which again makes us suspicious because without a well-hatched plan of surprise assault taken at the highest level of the CPC they would not have succeeded in giving us such a severe injury and jolt. This postulate confirms a conspiracy theory since the way they acted treacherously first by intercepting the Indian army’s patrolling team and then subjecting them with “savage combat”. It is also noticeable to see how the situation is getting aggravated because earlier we have seen mild scuffling and stone-pelting but certainly it was beyond the threshold of our imagination that all of a sudden the Chinese side would mount such brutal slaughter of our jawans under the pretext that perhaps Indian troops by virtue of developing infrastructure in the region had the motive to occupy contested territories. The question is can such premonition is enough to justify China’s blatant violation of the ceasefire. The question begs explanation, particularly because while the troops were being withdrawn from the Galwan valley of Ladakh by the Indian army, the Chinese army abruptly attacked the Indian army. Bloody clashes that followed at the LOC near East Ladakh took the lives of quite a number of bold Indian soldiers, including a daredevil Colonel who fought until death. Casualties on the Chinese side were also reported though they were much cooler than India’s vocal resentfulness. The military said in a statement that recently tensions were running high in the Galwan valley and the process had been started to mitigate the tension between India and China. But in the meanwhile, this happened. The issue of some sort of cold war with China over the border came up time and again. This time it is not a nerve war, but a direct conflict. Such information was released by the Indian Army. India and China also clashed on last Monday night. Thereafter a high-level meeting was organized. Discussions were underway on how to control this unpleasant situation. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, the Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and the Chief of the Army Staff Bipin Rawat were present in the meeting. In fact, the cold war has been raging on the Ladakh border since last April, 2020. Both India and China two parties have been deploying troops at the border in several phases and the patrolling continues along the border by both of them.

If a full-fledged conventional war breaks out between India and China (however it cannot reach the tipping point due to nuclear deterrence), then obviously both the countries are certain to suffer the serious brunt of its repercussion although we should not lose sight of the twin factors, one being India’s defence capability which remains much lower than China’s. According to Jayakrishnan Nair, a senior fellow (Defence and Analysis Wing) at the Centre for Public Policy Research, the defence budget of India has seen a hike of 6% from 3.18 lakh crore from 2019 to Rs 3.37 lakh crore in 2020. But in comparison to China, India’s main adversary in defence preparedness, India’s defence outlay is not at all enough to catch up with it since China spends more than triple the amount spent by India. Beijing’s defence budget was as high as $ 249.9 bn in 2019.

But that does not mean India would budge, rather now India’s robust defence acquisition (according to a recent report of Stockholm based International Peace Research Institute SIPRI, India was the second-largest arms importer in the world over the past five years, i.e. from 2015-19—The Week dated 10th March 2020) and her joint drills with different major powers and even its exemplary skills already demonstrated at high altitude warfare like Kargil (1999) made it not only adept in different dimensions of warfront exercises but also contributed substantially to upgrade her capability to handle risky military missions even much beyond the shores to tear off China’s ‘String of Pearls’. This apart, given the Indian army’s increasingly enriching experience of pragmatic cooperation with foreign military brigades, it cannot be naively said that it was the Indian army’s missteps or mishandling of the situation that actually caused a flare-up at the Ladakh-Leh border. The 73 days prolong stand-off at Doklam in 2017 is a case in point. Our army is also equipped with contingency plans and they are capable of mounting counterattack with troubleshooting teams immediately rushing to the spot. So, today’s India is not comparable to that of 1962 but our strategic forces command always maintains operational readiness with intelligence, surveillance and analysis for appropriate action. Nevertheless, there are many points, actually loopholes in our thinking that we should seriously ponder over for course correction like the contention that India’s new land warfare doctrine 2018 was not a credible deterrent to either China or Pakistan (Refer to Pravin Sawhney’s take in the Wire dated 29th December 2018). According to Sawhney, the drafters of India’s 2018 LWD reflect that ideas were lifted American writings, instead of drawing on China’s 2015 military reforms.

In another article in the Force magazine (April 2019) Sawhney goes highly critical of the current government’s less emphasis on addressing the “the need for urgent military reforms”. He raises several cogent points, one is the identification of a desirable threat. And this threat is perceptibly terrorism (and surprisingly not China or Pakistan) which has global appeal. To quote Sawhney, “Once terrorism became the primary threat, the need for urgent military reforms to make India militarily strong became unnecessary. Fighting terror is a low-level tactical job.”

Secondly, according to Sawhney, “there is another added problem. In war-fighting, the offence is the best defence. This means that all fences that the army has built on the border since 2003 ceasefire would have to be dismantled…Unfortunately, the political leadership does not understand war dynamics between nuclear adversaries …”.

These apart, if we look at China’s strong points as posited below we can probably realise where precisely lies our relative weakness and inadequacy.    

1. China’s GDP is almost 5 times larger than India. If the war continues for a long time then China will have the monetary resources to fund this conflict. In comparison, India will face a tremendous economic crisis if the war stretches for a long time.

2. China manufactures most of its weapons. Compared to that, India is the largest weapon importer. In case if there is a breakdown of critical weaponry then the turnaround time of the Chinese will be lesser because they are the creator of their weapons. Compared to that, India might have to depend on other countries to respond in case of any breakdown of imported weapons 

3. It is a well-known fact that China is investing heavily in Pakistan – the arch-enemy of India. China has also acquired the Hambantota port of Sri-Lanka for 99 years which can be used by Chinese forces as an airbase in case of emergency. Nowadays India is also feeling more estranged from Nepal, which experts claim is due to the clandestine Chinese provocation. China can use the neighbours of India against her as done usually in proxy warfares. India, however, does not have such gripping control over the enemies of China. India’s allies are not very closely located to her geographically.

4. The landmass of China is huge and the major cities of China have concentrated far away on the extreme eastern side. So they can be attacked only by the Agni series Intercontinental Ballistic missiles of India. However, it should be noted that China also has its own ICBM and they have developed it keeping the USA in their mind – not India. These missiles are known as Dongfeng series ICBM. Considering how dense the Indian population is, a major missile attack can kill thousands of people.

5. China also has more nuclear warheads than that of India. China claimed that they have more than 250 warheads. However, experts claim that it is complete hogwash as China never publishes their true military figures to the world.

6. China is extremely capable of cyber warfare and they have army units for cyberwar. It is believed that these army units have been doing espionage and stealing intellectual property from western countries for quite a lot of time. A cyber attack can be crucial given the shoddy abysmal state of cyber-infrastructures in India. A coordinated cyberattack is very difficult to trace and it is hugely devastating if done properly on critical infrastructures like oil and natural gas industries, banking sector and power plants. 

     It is in this context Sriparna Pathak, a young scholar has noted the concern that as India inches towards 5G trials, the question of how to assess security threats from China’s Huawei looms large. A point to be noted here is that Huawei was founded in China in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. Also, there is a risk the vendors such as Huawei are obliged to share information with the Chinese government in accordance with China’s national intelligence law passed in 2017. It obligates these organisations to “support, cooperate with and collaborate” in national intelligence work. So, to quote Pathak, “Chinese authorities can use the information collected to facilitate espionage or cyber-attacks over Huawei communication technology and consumer tech devices like phones”. This is why it is imperative on the part of the government of India to “carry out strict security reviews of Huawei’s equipment.”

How to counter China?

Now keeping all the jingoism and nationalist chest-thumping aside, without a shadow of a doubt – China is far ahead than India in terms of economy, military and technology. Hence the best way to counter China is by diplomacy:

1. After the Coronavirus, many countries of the world are quite dubious about the role of China in handling this health emergency. Sometimes it is initiating draconian measures and sometimes hiding information lest it hurt the credibility of the Chinese government. In the circumstances, India should team up with countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Australia and UK who have been vehemently criticizing China regarding this Covid19. India should make sure that China has to eat a humble pie regarding this matter on international platforms.

2. China’s shift of focus from Arunachal Pradesh (i.e. South Tibet) to Ladakh reveals a deep-seated concoction to signal Pakistan so that the latter now becomes hyperactive regarding Kashmir issue. It is also believed that China-funded KLO and Kamtapuri separatists in North-eastern India. Similarly, India should work with Baloch leaders because Balochistan has been claiming independence from Pakistan for a long time. India should reconsider their position about Hong-Kong which is clearly disgruntled with Chinese rule as well as increase their ties with Taiwan. India should also look at allies in Central Asia. Recently Mongolia has been a very close ally of India since they are also becoming frustrated by Chinese hegemony in that region.

3. Many people believe that boycotting Chinese products will be an effective measure but it is unlikely due to the socio-economic condition of India. However, the Indian government is already put on alert so that Chinese investment cannot capture high-tech start-up companies and also take guard against Chinese commercial intrusion in telecommunication. It may be mentioned here that China produces cheap and affordable products which are mainly consumed by the vast lower and middle-class sections of Indian society. To effectively boycott Chinese products, India has to scale up its production as well as create a highly skilled workforce which is currently not available. But India’s vibrant democracy, the spill-over impact of its Right to Education Act and its sprawling market with new economic reforms, an admixture of welfare economics with moves toward privatization are three fundamental pillars which might prove instrumental to boost up peoples’ trust in the system and thus to gradually build up resilience. The intended connotation of the system here does not rigidly mean going back to the stage of autarchy or de-globalization but it also does not mean mindless import of Chinese goods. From this perspective, we cannot but appreciate India’s concerns and her decision to withdraw from the RCEP. Yet at the same time, we believe India should keep her options open because the key to her future commercial success lies in recalibrating her Look East policy. Only then it will help to channelize India’s competition with China along a healthy course because the post-COVID world might augment difficulties to which cooperative and productive engagements could only offer some veritable panacea. So, an all-out war between the two Asian giants is simply incredible.

Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Author is Professor of Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, W.B & Coordinator of the Atish Dipankar Srij'nan Centre for South Asian Studies, S-K-B University, W.B, India.
Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhay
Dr. Manas Mukul Bandyopadhay
Author is Associate Professor at PG Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, W.B, India.

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