It has historically been a difficult topic to address — the 1962 Indo-China War, India’s dubious record in terms of the origins of the conflict, and its disastrous performance during the war itself (the bravery of our unsupported, ill-equipped jawans notwithstanding). Addressed it must be, if only to prevent a similarly ostrich-in-the-sand mentality from taking over India’s perspective on the China question in the 21st century, more than 50 years since the two sides came to blows in the Himalayas.
China’s modern innings begins only with the end of the Chinese Civil War, which followed World War II and ended in 1949. Mao’s communists eventually drove Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists onto the island of Taiwan (where their descendants thrive awkwardly today). In 1966, Mao commenced his “Cultural Revolution”, which is a polite way of describing a barbaric and seemingly mindless defenestration of the flower of Chinese society. It was a genocide of intellectuals, artists, authors and anyone with the mildest of political opinions. I admit to being rather mystified by this back when I first studied it. It seemed like such an own-goal, such a totally disastrous and counterproductive period in Chinese history that it barely survived logical examination. I think differently today but more on that later.
Let us consider the true rise of China starting in the post-Cold War world of the 1990s, during which decade incidentally both India and China “liberalised” their economies and societies and joined a global system underwritten by America and the West. China’s approach — in hindsight — seems to consist of a purely tactical, instrumental use of global systems of finance, trade, politics and law to further its short to medium term goals of rapid economic, industrial and technological development. The Chinese relationship with global institutions, values and norms was purely one of convenience, transaction, relative power and pragmatic calculation. The Chinese are entirely unaffected, and unfettered, by the underlying “norms, values and ethics” that Western societies, and West-authored global institutions are supposed to be based upon and are expressing.
C. Raja Mohan writes: Growing power differential is what lies behind China’s assertion in Ladakh
Using what Indians would call Chanakya-buddhi — but what the Chinese understand through Confucianism and Sun Tzu’s Art of War — the People’s Republic has operated along clear, long-term, sustained strategic objectives. Everything from China’s domestic economy to its international trade and financing, from its strategic alliances to its global network of infrastructure, from when it decides to “pick fights” and when it decides to “play by the rules” is planned and designed to help China move ever closer to its overarching strategic national goals.
It is in this sense that India and the West have performed arguably less admirably. Perhaps due only to what many liberal commentators call the health and raucousness of our democratic systems, there has been nothing like this level of coordination at a national level in the last three decades, from the end of the Cold War onwards. Instead, domestic politics, issues of ethics (sexuality, gender, race) have distracted from and eroded the ability of the West and India (which tries to modify and emulate the West in some sense) to compete with China. So how or why does China seem to have this advantage of being able to follow a concerted national strategy on which the entire apparatus of government and the energy of the people is focused?
It is not merely that China is authoritarian or that dissent is quickly suppressed. It is also the product of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 during which Mao whitewashed China’s rich, varied and natural cultural heterogeneity and brutally replaced it with a largely one-party, one-perspective cultural homogeneity. The fact that China already enjoyed significant ethno-racial homogeneity historically would have simply been a further fact in favour of Mao’s eventual project. In many ways, the Cultural Revolution is what has protected China from chaos, revolution and infighting for the last few decades. This is in no way a justification of what happened in that decade — simply a stark, realistic and rather frightening logical, psychological and anthropological conclusion.
The result, both in material and tactical terms, has been that China fights where, when and how their adversaries are either weakest or absent entirely. The rest of the world and especially China’s close neighbours have been reacting to pro-active Chinese strategic moves. Whether it is the Philippines and Japan that have had to face constant pressure from mid-ocean base-building on artificial islands by the Chinese, or India which has had to absorb a low-level of pressure on its disputed border with China.
Between Doklam, a few years ago, and the current volatility at the LAC with China, it is important to understand these situations as part of a broader picture about global politics, the reality of China’s capacities and broad spectrum tactical options, and India’s own strategic goals and capabilities and options.
The military-technological balance between India and China is vast and rapidly growing. China outproduces, out-innovates and out-strategises India on a daily basis. Consider the state of China’s preparedness on the Tibetan Plateau, and the lateness of India’s establishment of a Mountain Strike Corps. Consider the “pearl of threats” that China has tried to place around India’s neck through relationship building everywhere from Bangladesh (extensive financing) to Sri Lanka (100 year lease of a naval base) to Pakistan ($60 billion sovereignty transfer) and even the Maldives. Consider the size and sophistication of China’s nuclear arsenal and its missile defence technologies.
India, by comparison, must trust in the battle-hardened nature of its armed forces — tested against Pakistan and by insurgents near-constantly since Independence, we should have an advantage in terms of military experience and strategic thinking. The latter of those two has proven to be a bridge too far. It is also the aspect that India can intellectualise its way to solving, independent of its material or technological limits.
What this means for India is the following: India must first and foremost develop a long-term, coherent national strategy which is realistically achievable within the country’s material and technological constraints. Once such a strategy is in place, India must move boldly and dynamically to secure a network of global alliances — economic, technical and military-strategic, which work for mutual defence.
Further, India must focus on maximising its ability to partner with ideologically similar nations like the United States, Western Europe and the ANZAC countries on technology transfer and the development of Indian innovation infrastructure. Lastly, India must decisively and comprehensively plan and build its local and global supply chains in such a way that when push comes to shove, and it inevitably will, India may not enjoy sushi and Ferraris, but we won’t go hungry, our troops will have guns and bullets, and our aircrafts, the fuel to fly.
The writer is an alumnus of the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard, and lives and works in Mumbai
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