A new strategy, combining diplomatic and military means, is needed to counter Beijing

What China wants is Indian acceptance of Beijing’s benign superiority, and that is a purely Chinese trait, not to be confused with the known rules of international diplomacy.

Sometime in March-April this year, Beijing started to concentrate troops, armoured vehicles and munitions opposite our posts in Aksai China at Galwan, Finger posts and Depsang. By May-early June, they had mustered close to 40,000 troops and accompanying artillery and armour. Why 40,000? Maybe we will never know. It is a number too small to take Ladakh, and too large to win a border skirmish. Now that four months have passed since what turned out to be two border skirmishes, we can take a breath, pause and reflect on what it was all about. There has been a healthy and vociferous debate among the thinkers in India and many interpretations have been published in the press and even many more offered outside, among the general public.

Slowly but steadily the interpretations of what happened have coalesced into two schools. One of them, or the first, believes that the Chinese exercise was a territorial snatch in Aksai Chin, which they believe is entirely theirs, accompanied by a “lesson” to the Indians on being what they see as obdurate and aggressive Indian behaviour in not conceding Aksai Chin; and continuing to publish Survey of India maps showing the entire Aksai Chin as Indian territory up to the Johnson-Ardagh line, or our border with Tibet.

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This school’s thinking has many obvious flaws. The chief one is that four NSAs have spent something like 20 interrupted years asking their Chinese counterparts the following: One, where does Beijing think the international border lies? Two, what is their version of the LAC in Ladakh? Unfortunately, the contents of the talks by the four NSAs have never been made public, but bits and pieces have emerged sporadically. The first bit of news is that the Chinese want the settlement of the border postponed to “the next generation”. Secondly, they are chary of handing over any map showing the Chinese version of the LAC in the West. Militarily, the recent mobilisation of 40,000 troops, artillery and armour has gained them something like 800 metres at the western LAC. Does this make any strategic sense? They might even have obtained that much, and perhaps more, if they had negotiated a settlement at the NSA-level talks. What they have achieved is to force India to move forward three divisions to the western LAC and go through the trouble of supplying them through the winter. So, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping had thought all this out for a tiny extension of their LAC.

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The second school of thought in India believes that territory has nothing to do with it. They believe that, as China grows into perhaps the most powerful nation on earth, overtaking the actual US GDP by 2030, Beijing will lay down the rules of world governance. But what if India stands in the way of Beijing’s desire to dominate Asia? We contest their entire southern border, refuse to join the Belt and Road initiative, create an anti-China maritime coalition, compete with them for influence in South East Asia and Africa, are unsupportive of their crackdown on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang and move ever closer to the United States. Let us not forget that Chinese political thought has not matured in the crucible of the Enlightenment. They don’t read Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Descartes, Diderot, Locke, Kant and Spinoza, leading to the concept of establishing a democratic secular republic. However faulty the US record has been since 1991 as the world’s hegemon, when China assumes hegemonic power after 2030, we are going to get a nasty surprise.

Secularism, democracy and the rights of man will play no part in Chinese foreign policy. Beijing will overturn every international, financial, trade, diplomatic, arms control and nuclear agreement that the world has put together in seven decades. As long as a nation pays “symbolic” tribute to Beijing, China will follow a hands-off policy — as they do with North Korea.

We in India need to conduct a large and vociferous debate on Chinese intentions. If it is to creep forward on the international border, mustering overwhelming strength at odd places to surprise us in a strategic ambush, then, stringing 3,50,000 troops along the border to “defend” it is adequate. If the Chinese intention is to “teach us a lesson” or “keep us in our place” or make us submissive, need a new national strategy, combining diplomatic and military means.

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That military strategy needs another article but is best executed in the Indian Ocean. However, if our national goal is to concentrate on the creation of wealth and growing GDP, thereby limiting our defence budget and pensions to 2 per cent of GDP, let us proclaim it, tighten our belt, look down and walk softly. Post the Galwan incident, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister has already told S Jaishankar to forget the territorial dispute and concentrate on “the larger picture”. But after Galwan and Pangong Tso we will clearly approach the larger picture from a position of tactical inferiority, unless we develop some punitive capability, which it seems could only be in the Indian ocean. The competition with China will not lead to war. It is a game of perceptions. What China wants is Indian acceptance of Beijing’s benign superiority, and that is a purely Chinese trait, not to be confused with the known rules of international diplomacy. Talking from a position of inferiority will not lead to an equitable solution. But first, a national debate.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 17, 2020 under the title ‘Our larger China picture’. The writer, a former rear admiral in the navy, is author of A Nuclear Strategy for India

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