India’s Strategic Dilemma Posed by Chinese Belligerence
Indian planners and strategists have for some time hoped the country would be left in peace to grow as an economy, consolidate the gains from this growth, and acquire enhanced military capacity as a result. Yet, there was always the predictable danger that its adversaries would strike before this desired scenario emerged. And that is the challenge China is posing to India in Ladakh today though its actual timing also arises from other immediate contingencies. It is true that China has always had an incentive to initiate action to minimise the risk the extant Ladakh status quo poses to its land communications to Xinjiang and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions beyond it. China’s 10,000-kilometre-long NH 219 is one of the highest motorable roads in the world and ranks as some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. Domar township is one of the bleakest and most remote outposts of the People’s Liberation Army at the edge of occupied Aksai Chin plateau that India claims is part of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). India’s accelerating infrastructure programme at the border region and the changing status quo in J&K, accompanied by somewhat pugnacious Indian pronouncements on its historic claims, all played a role in precipitating Chinese action at the present moment as well. But the likelihood of China’s acting aggressively to assert territorial claims was always predictable because its attempted aggrandizement seeks to address an underlying issue of strategic significance to China.
Yet, China has inexplicably chosen to simultaneously affirm several historic claims in the region that would enable it to dominate Asia as hegemon. All the goals China has chosen affect countries much too small in size to resist China alone or even in combination together without US participation. Japan and India are the two possible exceptions, but neither might be prepared to countenance major military and political setback by first engaging in large scale military confrontation, before having to concede Chinese claims anyway. As it happens, the specific disputed issues may or not be important to them but cannot be described as vital core interests to either. The nations of the South China Sea might consider their legal rights of sovereign access to the oceans as critical but are not in a position to enforce their claims. The unavoidable issue that impacts on all these disputes and the possible outcomes of potential actual conflict over them is the attitude of the United States (US).
China needs to elicit from the US an agreement that they are bipolar global hegemons, who preside over a condominium, with China allowed to dominate Asia and surrounded by vassals. By contrast, American strategist John Mearsheimer anticipates that the US will decline to reach any understanding with China to share bi-polar global primacy and that war between them will spell doom for China. At present, China cannot prevail militarily, and its nuclear capabilities are insufficient to force the US to pause and conclude the loss of Asia is less important than endangerment of the US mainland to Chinese nuclear assault. On the other hand, Chinese strategists may conclude that the US may in time buckle owing to its many acute domestic economic and political travails, facilitated further by the departure of the truculent President Donald Trump. They may well imagine an end to the Trump Presidency will bring to power an administration with which it can do business to realise its aspiration of dominating Asia, with appropriate obfuscation to make the situation palatable to the American people. Such calculations may be a big gamble, but they are not inconceivable! Indian military and political planners are aware, as must be others in Asia, of the forbidding calculus of being left holding the baby alone by the US, as they observe the threat posed to them by China. This conundrum will be tested in November 2020 when the US Presidential elections occur, and major geopolitical and practical consequences will flow from it for Asian countries. The phenomenon of vassalage is not uncommon and much as Indians will loath to recollect, India itself was a Persian vassal for 250 years while supposedly sovereign Mughals ruled.
India must plan to defend its interests and restore the status quo ante in Ladakh though without sentiment and with historical perspective. And it must also solemnly hope the US will not disengage from Asia or indeed fail to offer meaningful help to it at a crucial moment. However, it may be emphatically asserted that India needs to avoid war at the present climactic juncture in its history though it may be painted into a corner and have no choice but to fight. The dilemma will be posed if the disengagement fails to occur and there are signs the military threat will persist since China is apparently reinforcing its military presence in the entire area. Nevertheless, after a thousand years the Indian economy is showing signs of achieving its potential, growing in the not-too-distant future to unprecedentedly great heights, abolishing the pitiless poverty that has been the lot of a majority of its citizens for countless generations, and indeed achieving national power. Going to war with China at present, with or without US assistance, implies entering unknown terrain. It will likely jeopardise its economy, inflicting potential catastrophic setback that might not be quickly repaired. The question is what price India is willing to pay in reputation and honour to avoid this long-term damage to itself, losing hard won gains attained after decades of faltering economic performance. The fact that it will surely fight bravely and exact a severe price from China may not be adequate consolation for endangering assets like oil refineries and other major centres of production if all-out war does occur. And China clearly has the capacity to cause major damage to the Indian economy.
The issue of the immediate border conflagration will require some hard decisions to be taken, with potentially serious political implications. If any prime minister is well-placed to weather an opportunistically manufactured domestic political storm because of difficult choices adopted, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. He has better nationalist credentials to ride out the political storm than any recent government in power. But before outlining the nature of the difficult decisions that might have to be contemplated, some collateral issues might be evaluated briefly first. The role of the US in the current Ladakh conflict and beyond remains the paramount issue for India, as it is for all countries in Asia in their disputes with China. Russian views also have a bearing on the Ladakh standoff, not least because it is India’s major arms supplier and source of spares vital to the conduct of any war prosecuted. Russians are unsentimental, but also possess better historical awareness than most countries and do not wish for a Sino-Indian war to occur. And they must surely judge that India has no rationale to initiate one since it is the satisfied status quo power. As a result, the best way for Russia to deter war between the two countries is to arm India and make it a tougher proposition for China, which wishes to alter the status quo. However, the moment a serious Sino-Indian engagement commences, Pakistan will dutifully mobilise to tie down Indian forces in the West. India will have to live with that threat and be prepared to fight on two-fronts, with the intention of undertaking an unsparing pacification, in the tradition of Caesar in Gaul, to disable Pakistan thoroughly in the first phase of any two-front war. But India will have to keep ample resources ready for that objective. The illusion that Nepal is a fraternal neighbour, sharing a common cultural and spiritual heritage, needs to be jettisoned since its ruling elites have become unwaveringly hostile to India. Nepal will have to be viewed instead as a base by India and the US for disrupting Chinse control over Tibet should a broader military engagement occur in the future. However, none of these projected situations address the current impasse at Ladakh and they are only pertinent to a different scenario, in which the US has decided to deal decisively with China’s hegemonic ambitions.
Wars do not always occur and cease in weeks and months. The Peloponnesian War lasted for almost a generation, the one Hundred-Year Anglo-French war began in 1337 AD and continued until 1453 AD and the devastating wars of religion of seventeenth century Europe carried on for thirty years. India and Pakistan have also fought each other intermittently since 1948, though some in Bengal may date the onset to August 1946. The Vietnam War lasted more than two decades, and the Afghan imbroglio continues. India might consider that settling the Ladakh border incursion, minor as it is in the scheme of things, however injurious to national sentiment and reputation, need not occur in the foreseeable immediate future. In any case, its prosecution is inadvisable from a position of relative military and economic disadvantage, with the potential of major national setback if the conflict widens and India ends up standing alone. More to the point, even a limited war that fails to alter the situation on the ground but costs many lives in the attempt to satisfy modest objectives will be unconscionable and foolish. Instead, it may be wise to allow a stalemate to persist for the present and fortify the border region on a prodigious scale. Current positions held by China can be challenged and undermined later, with massive bombardment from the ground and the air to defeat the very purpose of China trying to secure them now. India will eventually also wish to recapture all of occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, to restore direct road links with Afghanistan and assert its legitimate interests and primacy in the region. The Chinese BRI will succumb to the implementation of such a historic strategic goal. It will be a war fought by India from a position of economic and military strength, national unity and purpose. Such a broad stratagem reduces the salience of the relatively innocuous ongoing current predicament over Ladakh and counsels against precipitate action.
(Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science).