Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar)
Former Military Secretary
My first ever exposure to coercion as a means of psychological warfare was in 1990. Freshly returned from Sri Lanka my unit, brigade, and division were all moved from East India to Punjab awaiting a possible launch into Pakistan across the Sutlej River as part of Operation Rakshak I. We remained camped at all kinds of locations in Punjab. On one occasion the Corps Commander addressed all officers and described our formation as a sharp screw with its every movement being akin to the turn of its threads that conveyed a message to the enemy. The continuous demonstration of a reserve formation’s reinforcing presence projected India’s concern and its willingness to defend its interests and beyond.
Since the beginning of May 2020, we are witnessing something similar on the virtually nonexistent Sino Indian border. It has come to be almost an annual event with a focus in different theatres each year; from Arunachal Pradesh to Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Ladakh. This year the combination of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Ladakh is taking place. Why does this happen so frequently and is there a difference this year? These are two issues which need an answer.
First, why does it happen every other year? As a highly populous nation with tremendous but yet unrealized potential, India is considered a competitor by China. While seeking India’s cooperation in the economic domain and having tremendous scope for trade in its own favor China wishes to pursue a policy by which India’s comprehensive national power and standing as a middle power remain limited to a threshold. One of its biggest fears about India is the geostrategic location which renders its a great advantage in dominating the crucial sea lanes of communication (SLOC) east to west and vice versa, through the Indian Ocean. China’s entire rise and economic strength today is due to its ability to freely navigate the Indian Ocean for its massive energy needs from the Middle East and move of its container traffic to the markets in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. A strong Indian Navy will always be a threat especially since the PLA Navy is yet to come of age. India as a part of any strategic alliance with nations inimical to China’s interests will also be a potential thorn. US, Japan, and Vietnam fit into this mold. China’s strategy against India is therefore essentially threefold. It wishes to maintain a threshold relationship by fully exploiting the economic linkages which give it a major advantage. Coupled with this it aims to keep India away from potential anti-China strategic partnerships by pressurizing it militarily in such a way that India’s potential rise remains limited. In doing that it wants to peg India’s focus on the Himalayan front by limited military coercion from time to time such that India is prevented from realizing the true potential of its maritime front which poses a threat to Chinese interests. It is India’s maritime front which offers China’s detractors all the attraction (the expanded Indo Pacific theatre of the US). When the above concept is applied to the Sino Indian relationship it becomes clear that China considers the unresolved border disputes with India as a domain of great advantage which must remain at the same status instead of being resolved. Despite diplomatic agreements and protocols on consultation, it refuses to take even the first step towards such resolution which is the delineation of a Line of Actual Control (LAC) that can help stabilize the border and assist in further positive negotiations. The dispute and the non-existence of even a LAC provide the scope for coercion through allegations of breaches by India and annual transgressions which lead to long standoffs. These offer further opportunity to carry out large scale propaganda. In all this the availability of Pakistan on the western flank offers further advantage creating the perception of dual fronts in India’s military threat appreciation.
A further appreciation of the strategic picture reveals China’s obsession in overcoming the Malacca dilemma (an inherent fear of Indian capability to block the Malacca Straits in conjunction with other inimical nations – the Quad concept being one of them). Expansion of its foothold in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh by the capture of the Shyok and Nubra Valleys and giving itself greater depth in the Karakoram tract North of the River Indus will provide it a large swathe of territory that would offer it greater scope for the expansion of the fragile China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit Baltistan; in the form of a maze of routes, much like the Old Silk Route. It is an ambition that will need a border war to be fought and won against India, something which offers no certainty. This strategy is obviously not short term and the various annual standoffs over the last few years have been feelers, recce in force, and partial messaging to achieve the overall aim of keeping India coerced, diverted from the maritime theatre, and threatened by the ‘dual front’.
So, is it any different this year when we find the oft-repeated story once again being played out? It is different to the extent that it is not limited to a single front as was in the Doklam standoff. Sikkim, Central Sector, and Ladakh have been simultaneously activated with graded coercion and Nepal has been harnessed on the politico-diplomatic front. Ladakh appears to be the main theatre of China’s choice. The international strategic environment is probably giving China a perception of insecurity. Under pressure with allegations relating to the Coronavirus pandemic, China has set courses to write its own narratives for the post-Covid 19 periods. It needs to be viewed as the same strong dominant nation rather than a cowering giant afraid of the allegations which it perceives dilute its international image. Then there are simultaneous issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in the case of India denial of direct investment.
All the above comes at a time when India’s strategic infrastructural development is maturing. The Darbuka-DBO road floundering in the past has emerged successfully adding to the value of the DBO airfield and Indian capability to develop operations at the Karakoram. China is therefore hedging its bets with coercion, messaging, and calibrating. India has done the right thing by refusing to be bullied and responding with matching troop deployment. It is a game of nerves that remains so until the first shot gets fired. That will change it all, but it is unlikely to happen. China can ill afford a world order in which it is perceived as both the initiator of the pandemic and instigator of the war. None of the deployment of its troops is for warfighting; battles are not fought by establishing camps with vehicles and tents in straight lines. They are fought with tactically deployed troops. We have not seen any of the latter so far.
While maintaining its military deployment India must ensure careful calibration of diplomacy but even more so its communication strategy disallowing loose statements by leadership and media. A crumbling of resolve is what China is seeking and therefore coercion may be of a higher order and could cross the threshold into a calibrated military engagement. Continuous reading of China’s intent, matching it in the limited engagements, and most importantly retaining nerve is the strategy India must employ.