Indo-China Relations and the Changing Nature of War
Both countries have evolved into stable political systems and important trade partners. Hence a lone incident spiraling into a full blown war is highly improbable
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi
The nature of war is directly related to the technology of the times and the resources available. But how we can fight and how long we might fight increasingly depends on the willingness of the world as a whole to allow it. War between countries and particularly war between major powers will not be without consequences to the ever increasingly inter-dependent world and hence international pressure to terminate conflicts before they expand and/or spiral out of control is only to be expected, especially when the nations in conflict are armed with nuclear weapons. How many nuclear weapons a country has does not matter, as for the world outside even the use of one will not be without huge collateral consequences? Considering this, this may be a good time and place to ponder over the future nature of war and how this would impact India.
The end of the Cold War has made geo-politics much more complex and the definition of national interest is now extremely blurred. China may have a huge trade surplus with the USA, but when Chinese exports to the USA are disassembled it reveals that much of this merchandise trade originate in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the rest of ASEAN, and China is only the final aggregator and assembler of material. This implies that the USA’s main political and military allies in the region are China’s major economic partners, and any reduction of US imports from China will have an adverse effect on its strategic allies. With Europe in decline and languishing, the USA increasing depends on Asia for trade and economic well being. This is now reflected in its substantially increased trade from its western ports. Yet the USA and China are now engaged in acrimony that while being still much less adversarial than its relationship with the former USSR, is tending to become increasingly inimical.
Then take the Japan-China relations. They are strained and often tend to get rancorous. Yet Japan is the largest overseas investor in China and has a huge annual trade surplus with China. It is same with case for Taiwan and South Korea. India’s relationship with China too is a troubled one, yet China is India’s largest trading partner now. China even has a huge trade surplus with India. The new global arrangements have nevertheless worked well for all of us and the global economy has been expanding at a never before pace. This is now a world system without major friendships or enmities, except for the usual local ones such as India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the Arab world.
Take another situation. Suppose push comes to shove and Iran attempts to block the Straits of Hormuz? Will it not be in the interests of the USA, China and even India to co-operate, politically and militarily, to keep that vital international passageway open? Unlike the Iran-Iraq conflict which saw no serious attempt by anybody for mediation, an India-China conflict, particularly if it spills over into the IOR will see active and energetic mediation by all major powers, because such a crisis will threaten world order. An India-China conflict even on the remote land borders will result in an active and even irresistible mediation. Thus, a long drawn war between two major powers, particularly between two nuclear powers is extremely remote. The time window for such a conflict, if there is one, will be very narrow. Thus at best the two countries can fight a very limited war that does not cause irremediable loss of face to either one. It will be very important for both countries to have their nations believe that they have not emerged worse-off in the conflict. Face then becomes everything. The national mood, not territory or space, is what the next conflict will be about. This kind of a conflict requires quick escalation to high kinetic levels before the conflict is forced to a halt by outside powers. Unlike the Iran-Iraq conflict few were bothered about, an India-China conflict, if it is allowed to happen, won’t last long. The illusion of victory has to be created in this very limited space.
In such a world system the chances of any outbreak of general wars are impossibility. Each of the major powers have too much destructive power, and too much of an interest in preserving the global system. Yet the world is fraught with situations that threaten to become violent. India and China too are in such a situation. But how much violence can they afford and how much the world will let them engage in? Both have too many stakes not to let matters spin out of control.
Wars between nuclear powers, if they happen, will be constrained by the need to limit the escalation to short of the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic. Since the war cannot cross this threshold the perception of victory must be created by being dynamic in the use of weapons and tactics. Since time is the other constraint there will be no room for wars of maneuver. Victory will be a matter of perception. There will be no time and place for strategic victories. The sum of tactical victories will be the ultimate perception of victory. We have seen how soon air power came to be deployed over Kargil. The terrain and array of forces on both sides of the India-China border suggests that air power come into play fairly early to score the wins that will influence perceptions.
Kargil was India’s first living room war where controlled electronic feeds lit up emotions in homes nationwide that fostered a groundswell of jingoism. While it would be rather difficult to award points like in a boxing match, India clearly emerged as the winner in terms of perceptions, despite greater losses in men and material. Since modern wars are usually militarily indecisive and inconclusive, perceptions are much more important than costs. Nothing illustrates this better than the reported conversation in April 1975 between an American Colonel, visiting Hanoi to finalize modalities of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and a Vietnamese Colonel. The American said: “Remember we beat you every time we met on the field.” The NVA colonel replied: “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
One need not emphasize the interplay of time, technology and perception in our preparations to defend India. India now has no say in the choice of its neighbors. The die was cast when Pakistan came into being in 1947, and when China was given Xinjiang by the USSR in 1948 and when it occupied Tibet in 1951. Pakistan’s animosity and China’s adversarial attitude is a reality that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Compounding these are troubled conditions within all our neighbors and even within India. Counter insurgency, counter terrorism and combating unconventional warfare are manpower intensive and have potentially debilitating consequences if not acted upon firmly and swiftly. India has been a laboratory for all these forms of warfare and now has well-honed tactics and trained and experienced manpower to deal with them. While we must continue to pay close attention to these threats we must not take our eye off the external challenges that persist in dogging us.
While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it is in 1967 when Indian and Chinese troops last clashed with each other at Nathu La. Nathu La at 14200 feet is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa Trade Route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 17 March 1890, the Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate with the deployment of the Indian Army at that time. During the 1965 War between India and Pakistan, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. On October 1, 1967 this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the PLA and similarly not found wanting. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the Peoples Liberation Army stand eye-ball to eye-ball, but the atmosphere now is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.
Now we come to the question that still bothers many Indians. Will China provoke a conflict with India or even vice versa? On the face of it, it does not seem so. Both countries are now well settled on the actual positions held. In Ladkah, China is pretty much close to what it desired pre-1962, which is along the old Ardagh Line, which British India hastily abandoned after being spooked by reports of Soviet Russian presence in Xinjiang. This line, long favored by Whitehall, was dispensed with and in 1942 British India reverted back to the more forward Johnson Line that encompassed the Aksai Chin as Indian territory. In the eastern sector, India pretty much holds on to the alignment along the McMahon Line. Thrice in the past the Chinese offered to settle this vexatious issue on this as is where is basis, but India baulked because the dynamics of its domestic politics did not allow it, as they still do. In his last conversation on this with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Chairman Deng suggested freezing it as it is and leaving it to history to resolve. Good and sagacious advice, if the dynamics between the two countries did not change.
In the mid 1980’s when the two leaders, Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiao Peng met, China and India’s per capita incomes were about the same, as were the GDP’s. Since then China has grown to become more than three times as large as India. Its rapid economic ascent has now more or less conferred on it the role of the world’s other superpower, the USSR having demised in 1991. China today is also a technology powerhouse and has built a modern military industrial complex, far bigger and superior to India’s. India’s ascent is a more recent story and there are still some decades to go before it can aspire to be once again on par with China.
Conflicts are generally the result of a serious military asymmetry or by misjudging intentions or by local conflicts spiraling out of control or when domestic failures require a diversion of attention or when domestic dynamics make rational discourse impossible. In 1962 we saw the last two at play. Fifty years later India still hurts with the rankling memory of those dark days never allowing the wound to quite heal. Neither India nor China is now ruled by imperious emperors, like Nehru and Mao were. In their place we have timid bureaucrat politicians, vested with just a little more power than the others in the ruling collegiums. Collegiums are cautious to the point of being bland and extremely chary of taking risks.
As for serious asymmetry, it does not occur now. India’s arms buildup and preparations make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean. It will be logical for India to extend a Himalayan war to the Indian Ocean, particularly the Arabian Sea, as India’s geographical location puts it astride the sea-lanes that carry two thirds of China’s oil imports. To pay for this oil, 41% of China’s exports are now to the MENA region. Like India, China too is a major remittance nation. In 2012 India received almost $70 billion as remittances, China was not far behind with $66 billion. Over half these remittances are from the MENA region. While China may hold reserves for several months, it still cannot easily afford any likely disruption caused by the Indian Navy’s exertions.
The Chinese media has frequently mentioned the demonstrated range of the IAF’s SU30MKI fighter, the mainstay of the IAF and how its long-range missiles give it a standoff capability to reach several large industrial centers in the Han heartland. Likewise, the PLA is aware of the strategic advantage India enjoys in the IOR. The IOR has been the world’s oldest trading region, and is now fast emerging as the world’s most important trading region. India has been careful about not semaphoring its capability too overtly, but it is sometimes useful to subtly convey this. There is an old Chinese saying that to scare the monkeys you sometimes have to skin a cat.
In 2013 both countries have sufficient arsenals of nuclear weapons and standoff weapons to deter each other. But above all, both countries have evolved into stable political systems, far less naïve and inclined to be far more cautious in their dealings with each other. This leaves a local conflict rapidly spiraling out of control, or another Gavrilo Princip incident where a single shot at the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, plunged the western world into WW1, highly improbable. After 45 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being at the same contested space at the same time, local commanders have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behavior and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics. Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace and tranquility of the frontier.
While China has ratcheted up its show of assertiveness in the recent years, India has been quietly preparing for a parity to prevent war. Often parity does not have to be equality in numbers. The fear of pain disproportionate to the possible gains, and the ability of the smaller in numbers side to do so in itself confer parity. There is certain equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs that make recourse to force extremely improbable. Both modern states are inheritors of age-old traditions and the wisdom of the ages. Both now read their semaphores well and know how much of the sword must be unsheathed to send a message. This ability will ensure the swords remain recessed and for the plowshares to be out at work.