Challenge from China: Stiffening the Spine

Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma
Sun, 01 Nov 2020
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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:

  • First is the rising Chinese nationalism. China’s nationalism in recent times has become increasingly bellicose, assertive and aggressive. Assertive it is in China’s efforts to establish its influence and status on the global stage. It is aggressive in the country’s militaristic and rhetorical escalation towards the neighbours, and for bellicosity, Global Times is enough! This rising nationalism creates a narrative of “newly assertive China” that does not hesitate in utilising coercion, undertake focussed informational offensive and challenge the liberal international order. The repeated mention of the newly discovered wolf warrior diplomacy has found favourable domestic resonance too. It is increasingly apparent that these Chinese diplomats are not only speaking to a foreign audience but catering to a domestic one. This is a part of growing nationalism. President Xi Jinping’s facade of “China Dream” that included the establishment of socio-cultural ties and respectful relations with the neighbouring states, has been set aside in favour of growing nationalism in China. The rising nationalism is an important element of the emerging narrative of a revisionist China.
  • Second is about the territorial ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). An irredentist China carries a historic chip on its shoulder. It is been driven home that some parts of China were removed in the course of history, like Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, the South and East China Seas. The legacy of “unequal treaties” that ceded land to foreign powers in the nineteenth century has been firmly put behind. As part of the Chinese dream, it would like to reassert territorial sovereignty.  Behaviour in territorial disputes is a fundamental and clear indicator that China is pursuing expansionist foreign policies.  The territorial issues with India would fall part of this wholesome narrative being created.
  • Third, is the BRI in South Asia. In July 2020, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi had a virtual meeting with his counterparts of Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan, to continue work on projects under the BRI. China is interested in Gilgit-Baltistan’s (GB) large mineral deposits – metallic, non-metallic, energy, minerals, precious stones, rocks and rare metals of differing industrial value. Mining in GB is already dominated by corporations mainly from China or ghost companies operating on behalf of the Pakistan Army. The Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and GB is inundated with Chinese managers, supervisors and workers (many of them ex-PLA).  China is simultaneously developing the China-Nepal Economic Corridor (CNEC) with major infrastructural projects under the Nepal China Trans Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. Under the September 2018 Protocol of Transit Transport Agreement China has allowed Nepal to use four open seaports and three dry ports for trading with third countries.  Simultaneously, the China Myanmar Economic Corridor will also come through that envisages a “Y-shaped” corridor connecting China’s Kunming to Mandalay and then extending east and west respectively to Yangon and Kyaukpyu. The geographic barrier of the Himalayan Mountains between Nepal and China, China and Pakistan are being changed by infrastructure – railways, roads and tunnels. In the battle between geography and technology, the Chinese will push its technology and deep pockets to ensure that this infrastructure will come through. Aksai Chin and Tibet in this context hence obtain increased importance.
  • Why does China suddenly consider that it is opportune to stop hiding its strength and biding time? The nature and manifestations of Chinese power are evident. China has the second-largest nominal GDP and largest in PPP terms. Even in nominal GDP terms, it is projected to surpass the US in a decade or so. China has the world’s largest military though listed third in Global Firepower Nations ranking in 2020. There is also a burgeoning Military-Industrial Complex. It has attempted to modernise PLA with new weapons, equipment, and technologies and massive structural and doctrinal orientation. China also allocates the second-largest defence budget in the world.  In rocket forces/ missiles of all kinds, cyber, electronics, space warfare and Naval Forces, PLA has seen creditable enhancement. China considers that it has ‘arrived’ to exhibit assertiveness.

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!

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Rakesh Sharma

Nov 02, 2020
The comments above are valid, in the technological advancements by China and its assiduous planning to tie down nearly one third of the world's nations to its coattails through BRI. However Chinese expansionist agenda is undeniable - Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, the reference to Pamir Knot and Tajik border recently, the encroachments in Nepal, the Sakteng sanctuary in Bhutan , mention of Siberia and Vladivostok! The nine-dash line in South China Sea has no historical validity, the attitude on the International Court of Arbitration judgement in favour of Philippines, Senkaku Islands, and of course the Line of Actual Control. To say the least, India tried and is still doing so, to bring a rapprochement in relations with China through trade economic interaction and continual discussions - Wuhan Spirit and Chennai connect too. Obviously geopolitical considerations by China overtake the economic trade - as it is Indian trade with China is only 2% of its total. Even Vietnam has more trade than India. It all indicates that as China grows further in its comprehensive power, the gap with India might widen further. The author disagrees with the formulation that "...Indian politicians need to acknowledge Chinese animosity and establish a relation with China, with this as the backdrop." That is exactly what we have been doing over the last six decades - which in sum was only uni-directional! Like the article said, "...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.'' We cannot predict China of next 30 years, only way to ward off or deter China is to plan for it - by acquiring hard power and sunrise capabilities. With that, the Chinese attitude will change too!


Nov 01, 2020
China, through its “ Made in China 2025 “ pgme, is seeking to replace US and West as the leading technology innovator. Its already miles ahead in AI, robotics , 5G,EVs etc. It will and has already started exporting it to technology impoverished nations on its BRI and advanced ones . Its rates are State subsidised with which US or western companies cannot compete. Leading innovator and exporter will make Chinese Renminbi to replace US Dollar as the main currency of the World. US and West cannot afford to let this happen. Therefore the current ongoing US led condemnation and sanctions on China. . India too is onboard here due to repeated Chinese aggression on India including the current LAC intrusion. China’s strategic support to Pakistan since 1964 also hurts India the most, threatening its Security.This despite India and China sharing a $ 90 billion trade. But elsewhere, does China has territorial greed ? I doubt this as historically they have never invaded, unless threatened. In 19 th Century, two Opium Wars, Boxer’s Rebellion, Japanese invasion and again in 1930s the savage Japanese invasion has made China very wary of its Eastern Seaboard. To give depth to it, they claim the “nine dash line“ in South China Sea and have created military assets on this line. China’s Eastern Seaboard is its “lifeline “.All its exports are from here and exports amount to nearly 19% of its GDP. It will be foolish on its part to up the ante to invite an Opium War 3 by West on its Eastern coast . Chinese value business over everything. Chinese economy grew at 4.9% last quarter. It’s growth has improved economy of Japan, S Korea & Vietnam due to their increase in exports to China. Pompeo’s call for a strict action by QUAD in FM’s meeting last month, met with muted response from India, Australia, S Korea and Japan for this reason . Amongst other Chinese exports, basic chemical and drugs manufactured in China form 80% of many nations ( including US & India) Pharma imports for their Drug industry. Despite COVID 19 and Sanctions against it, China has not curtailed these exports. India must charter its own course against China. China is our No 1 enemy. It helped Pakistan go nuclear and changed the balance of power between India and Pakistan forever. By not settling the International boundary issue with India and its frequent incursions are all pressure Indian a, to tow its line. It has made Sri Lanka and Nepal inimical to India and is trying to usurp Bangladesh and Myanmar. Indian politicians need to acknowledge Chinese animosity and establish a relation with China, with this as the backdrop..

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