THE HIMALAYAN CONFRONTATION QUAGMIRE
Our deterrence has been repeatedly put to test in the recent past. Unfortunately, it has also led to the exposure of strategic and operational voids, vulnerabilities and response strategies.India needs to combine its resources into a successful strategy through the intelligent integration and networking of 3 D -- “Defence, Diplomacy, Development” along with other tools of hard and soft power.
India’s national security canvas, if not perilous, is fragile and susceptible to confrontation leading to conflict. Both on the western and northern front we face adversaries who have a revisionist and expansionist strategic culture and a history of backstabbing. The pendulum of war and peace at our turbulent disputed borders will thus continue to have its dynamics in terms of competition for strategic space. While the threat of a conventional war may be low, but limited war remains a possibility. Thus standoffs leading to confrontation and escalating into limited conflict remains a reality facing us today.
As long as we have turbulent and disputed borders and regional rivalry, China constitutes the primary and more dangerous threat to Indian national security, knocking on our door today. The unprecedented incursions in Ladakh and refusal to withdraw to erstwhile positions are indicative of a newfound Chinese aggressive overtone. The present LAC territorial dynamics and “salami slicing” by a belligerent China, could thus manifest into escalatory dynamics of a conflict situation. What would constitute victory or conversely defeat in these confrontations is increasingly complex, subjective and often open-ended. It thus becomes a contest of narratives as much as violence and shaping of perceptions both for the domestic and global audience, which will define the outcome.
We have witnessed the same in recent times both at Doklam and Balakot. The key issue remains that when two nations with strong political heads, based on ideals of hyper-nationalism and majoritarianism, confront each other, it complicates the conflict resolution as loss of face is not an option. While the eventual outcome will have to be sought through political commitment and agile diplomacy, the key fact remains that the quality of leverage will be provided by the military advantage.
India’s conventional deterrence against China is based on dissuasive deterrence edging towards credible deterrence, with a buildup of adequate infrastructure and military response capability opposite it. This essentially is a defensive and limited offensive strategy based on a quid pro quo option in preselected areas. The strategic construct of this strategy ‘to raise the cost of military intervention’ is more political than military. The notion of a military victory against China thereby rests on ensuring the status quo by denying China its military objectives and political objectives. While the strategy must aim at a credible deterrence, the acme of skill would lie in winning without fighting. While China certainly has a technological military edge, it warfighting experience in high altitude remains a shortcoming as witnessed against the indomitable spirit and courage of Indian soldier at Galwan.
India definitely has an edge in battle-hardened leadership, motivated soldiers and excellent high altitude training, which are battle-winning intangibles. Even Huang Guozhi, a senior editor in China, recognizes India as the world’s largest and experienced country with plateau and mountain troops. Thus, the present reality is that neither nations can achieve their politico-military aims through conflict. So the Dragon must take cognizance of what their revered Sun Tzu said in the historic Art of War - “He who wishes to fight must first count the cost”.
India strategically must make any such misadventure cost-prohibitive for China, while permitting it a face-saving exit option. In tune with Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘Smart Power’, India needs to combine its resources into a successful strategy through the intelligent integration and networking of 3 D - “Defence, Diplomacy, Development” along with other tools of hard and soft power. India must also endeavour to strengthen its regional and global linkages based on multilateral and bilateral cooperative arrangements foundational on regional and global commons. It can ill afford to lose its dwindling ‘Strategic Space’ in the neighbourhood. India also needs to leverage China’s fault lines to its advantage in a measured manner for strategic messaging. These include debt diplomacy, atrocities in Xinjiang province, human rights violations, socio-economic disparity, economic decoupling, playing Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan card, CPEC vulnerabilities, South China Sea dynamics and the Wuhan virus. The message must be clear that in Chinese long term interest, China needs India more than India needs China.
As regards the military leverage, it is a critical factor of the present conflict resolution. The present crisis advantage rests with China and thus its extension brings greater leverage to them. Conflict escalation is not an option for any of the sides, though a spark in present standoff could ignite a fire. The objective of conflict resolution from the Indian perspective lies in both sides withdrawing to their respective positions before Apr 2020. A de facto status quo and a face-saving option for India. The Chinese, on the other hand, will bargain well to derive a concession for its strategic messaging. While for India, China remains the primary threat, for China the primary threat is not India. Thus it follows a policy of coercion against India to prevent it from stymieing its regional and global dominance. This is a strategic messaging and concession that it intends to derive. Thus the present crisis is here to stay for a much longer time and the imperative of both sides pulling back to positions as held on Apr 2020 a challenge.
As the Doklam crisis showed, such build-ups take a long time to be resolved and the final resolution too may be in shades of grey. Both sides have strengthened their defensive capabilities and with enhanced force build any further gains or losses are unlikely. The winters and the harsh weather that makes long deployments hard to sustain are also some time away. Thus it is now the test of political, diplomatic and military acumen.
Our deterrence has been repeatedly put to test in the recent past. Unfortunately, it has also led to the exposure of strategic and operational voids, vulnerabilities and response strategies. Ironically, not only capability voids like a light tank and ISR were not addressed but with the pushing of the Mountain Strike Corps under the carpet and the dwindling defence budget, the stage was set for exposing our vulnerabilities on the Northern front. Our modernisation outlook lacked a time-sensitive and outcome-oriented value, vulnerability and risk analysis. We also focused on the wrong front for too long. These are attributable to lack of strategic culture reflected in the absence of a national security doctrine, operational philosophy void, decision paralysis due to status quo mindsets, lack on an institutional approach to capability building and procurement red tape-ism cum lack of professional foresight. Thus, the Chinaman chose the time, place and force in Eastern Ladakh, to its operational advantage for a larger strategic aim in the Himalayas.
It is unlikely that the Chinese will relent easily without perceived operational and strategic gains. There is this Chinese noun equivalent of face ( aka 面子 or miànzi) loss of which is simply not acceptable. Unfortunately during the midst of the Chinese incursions, India lost a “Quid Pro Quo” opportunity at a place of our choosing. This would have given vital military leverage. However notwithstanding the lost opportunity, in the present circumstances, India must convey its military resolve backed by agile diplomacy and committed polity for uncompromising territorial integrity and if required taking the war into the enemy territory. In the meantime, the soldier on the ground will need to be ever more vigilant, better equipped and our forces operationally ready for the worst-case scenario.