Many analysts were hoping that with intimate enmeshing in globalisation, the export orientation of the economy and with the fruits of capitalist development reaching the masses, China will gradually transform into a typology of democracy. Even many of the Mandarin-speaking/understanding people failed to comprehend the nuances of the language and the doublespeak that the Chinese resorted to. The writing on the wall became evident with the increased hold that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ensured within the nation and with the disdain that China showed towards a rules-based order or even well negotiated and signed treaties with other nations. Cases in point are the militarisation of South China Sea after having committed not to do so, the disregard of the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in favour of Philippines on Scarborough Shoal and brushing aside of the status quo commitment on Hong Kong, by pushing the National Security Law.
The year 2020 also brought distinct clarity about CCP and PLA attitude on India. It is apparent that CCP is fundamentally cold, calculating, hostile and expansionist by nature; and that it does not respond to relationship stimuli like burgeoning trade and economic interaction. Many an analyst in India too, with near $100 billion trade, had been opining that there will not be a war with China, which was the salient reason that larger Armed Forces capital expenditure was focussed towards the Western adversary. Hence, India followed a concretised default setting, of not antagonising PRC, of appeasement and restraints, for the fear of unknown consequences.
Much has been written and spoken on this subject over the last six months, and it does not require repetition. The central theme of the paper is that India had seriously attempted ensuring good relations with China over the last three decades and more. But in one stroke of 2020, 32 years of intensive negotiations, since PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, Agreements, CBMs and protocols stand discarded and thrown away by China. The multiple transgressions together in 2020 were a first, so were the additional forces that were brought in. The refusal to status quo ante is a first, the Galwan incident was a first, as were the bullets fired on heights of Spanggur heights. It is premeditated and well planned, and hence we ought to take this eventology seriously as trends for times to come and prepare for the same. It is essential to make four broad points about China:
All is indeed not hunky-dory! Despite the economies of scale, China is overwhelmed by its geography with grave limitations of the First Island Chain. The serious global economic downturn and the COVID19 pandemic will cause a rethink in BRI partner nations on re-prioritisation. Local communities are also exhibiting anxiety of a larger workforce being Chinese, having limited effect on the employment avenues locally. The Chinese, despite deep pockets and apparent infrastructure growth, have yet to create soft power or warmth of relationships and influence. China’s authoritarian system, exemplified in its handling of Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet, negates it. China has retained a more unpalatable, intrusive one-party, top-down approach that militates against popular global culture. Even terms like ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ are an antithesis to soft power!
The PLA, despite being its fastest modernising military, yet seems to experiment. A large number of military exercises held since 2014, bilaterally and trilaterally, cannot compensate for realistic experience in actual combat. There are significant shortcomings in warfighting, and even in command in PLA. Nearly 13000 officers including 100 Generals (some as high as Vice Chairmen of CMC and Chief of PLA) have been thrown out on grounds of corruption in last five years. Corruption is endemic in the PLA, right up to bribes for promotions, but such retrenchment is bound to affect the morale and impose caution. Inevitably as these will cast a shadow on PLA’s ability to take on a modern peer competitor, and hence the reliance upon clandestine operations short of war. Despite the technological advances and growing military might, “… PLA is accused of being infected by the peace disease (Hépíng bìng), peacetime habits (Hépíng jixí) and peace problems (Hépíng jibì), as it has not participated in any war since 1979.” Hence, in hindsight of the strong response of Indian Army units in Eastern Ladakh, the CCP/ PLA leadership will have to undertake doctrinal and training experimentation, lest in the next round PLA faces serious reversals.
It is apparent that the 1959 Line is China’s maximalist position on the border, and the transgressions were attempting to reach that Line. PLA may have reached it too in North Bank of Pangong Tso. However, areas in Sub Sector North (Daulat Beg Oldie Sector), heights occupied by us as preemptive astride the Spanggur Gap (Chushul Sector), Demchok and Chumar in Eastern Ladakh are held strongly by Indian Army units, though China claims these as part of the 1959 Line. Since PLA is not to the end-state of its claim, the aggression must not be deemed as having finished. With the Indian Army units readied on the LAC, furtive short of war operations is well nigh impossible. PLA then will perforce have to undertake warfighting with high-technologies to prove any point. In the next engagement, China may prefer precision guided munitions, hypersonic weaponry, drone swarms, autonomous systems and stealth operational capabilities. The wars prosecuted may also be wholly non-kinetic, given the modern warfare domains of information warfare, space, cyber and electronic spectrum. The Chinese army maybe not capable enough of waging modern warfare on the borders, and officers would lack command skills for modern warfare.
Never underestimate the adversary that Indian Armed Forces diligently follow. India has already built on her strengths. It has been well understood that the salience and preparations for modern conventional kinetic war cannot be put on back-burner. Offensive-defensive capabilities, duly acclimatised and trained, must be available for achieving credible success, based upon extensive experience in super high altitude warfighting. However, India has to prepare for technological war, and also create redundancies, against the adversaries’ technological capabilities. Indian Armed Forces need to focus on the acquisition of modern kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities and have offensive capabilities for credible end-state. That is, Indian Armed Forces need to create a robust, capable, and adaptable operational system of its own, to fight a modern war. And the polity has to accept increased bellicosity from China, and the looming likelihood of war – kinetic, non-kinetic, contact or non-contact. The war may come sooner or later or even may not, yet India has to stiffen the spine and plan assiduously for it. There is but no easy way ahead but acquiring modern hard power!