Europe’s wars of the future, the Spanish general Manuel Fernández Silvestre y Patinga wrote in 1910, “will be concluded in one day’s hard fighting”. He had observed the Japan-Russia war, where armies fighting with new technologies like rapid-fire field guns and repeating small arms had become locked in entrenched, positional warfare. For him, like most contemporaries, the Japanese victory showed élan would overcome the machine: “The officers quit shelter with ringing shouts of Banzai,” wrote an enthused French observer, “wildly echoed by all the rank and file”.
The general, the millions sent to their death in the First World War showed, had learned the wrong lesson: In fact, Russia had been brought to its knees by economic crisis and political revolution. Even at the battle of Mukden, the collapsing Russians inflicted 70,000 casualties while losing 20,000 to the attacking Japanese.
Banker and part-time war theorist Jan Bloch, in an 1898 book, had predicted just this: “The future of war”, he wrote, “is not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organisation”.
This is a good time for strategic communities in India and China, both nuclear-weapons states, to reflect on what Bloch understood and the general didn’t.
Ever since the Doklam crisis began this summer, strategists in India have been hostage to what might be described as a “Little Wars” mindset. For the most part, military debate has centred around the prospects of a limited border war, or a protracted but non-violent stand-off, like the Sumdorong Chu crisis of 1987-88. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has assured Indians this is not 1962; the Ministry of External Affairs has studiously ignored threats emanating from Beijing, as have India’s melodrama-addicted television anchors.
To ignore the abyss yawning ahead of the Doklam plateau is a profound mistake. The stand-off might, indeed, end with a negotiated settlement, but there are grimmer prospects, which neither side has considered with care.
Fear is the key to understanding China’s behaviour: While its neighbours see a fire-breathing dragon, the dragon sees the glint of spears and sabres. China’s aggressive posture on its periphery — the expansion of military bases in the South China seas, the sharpening of territorial disputes with Vietnam and Japan, the enabling of North Korea’s nuclear programme — is not an outcome of the might it harvested during the 1980s. Instead, it is the legacy of Chinese insecurity born of the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, which left the country a strategic orphan — an orphan with nuclear weapons.
Ever since that split, aggression on the peripheries — first delivered against India in 1962 — has been a key tool for China.
From 1965, the Soviet Union began to mount increasing coercive pressure on China — at one stage, even proposing a joint strike with the United States to cripple its nuclear-weapons programme. From 17 divisions in 1965, Soviet forces facing China in the far-east grew to 27 divisions by 1969. The Chinese estimated that Soviet mechanised forces could overwhelm their defences and reach Beijing inside of two weeks.
The threat lead China to engage in the second of its post-split border wars, attacking Soviet border guards on Damansky island on the Ussuri river — the first-ever skirmish between troops of nuclear powers. The Soviet Union suffered 58 dead to well over 200 People’s Liberation Army fatalities.
Yet, the border attack was a strategic success. It persuaded the Soviet Union that ill-equipped as the PLA might be, its sheer numerical force could create havoc. Soviet nuclear could annihilate China, but Beijing’s own rudimentary liquid-fueled nuclear missiles could deliver some devastation too — and victory would yield an ungovernable continent-sized begging-bowl.
Persuaded — wrongly— that Moscow was certain to attack by 1985, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping moved to contain Soviet influence in Asia. From 1975, border clashes with Soviet ally Vietnam began to rise sharply— from 439 incidents in 1975 to 1,100 in 1978. The message wasn’t heard: In December 1978, Vietnam overthrew the China-backed Khmer Rouge dictatorship in Cambodia.
That very month, China’s Central Military Commission drew up plans to punish Vietnam. Fears of counter-attack by Moscow were allayed by intelligence, provided to Deng during a visit to Washington, that two-thirds of the 54 Soviet divisions facing east were undermanned and inadequately equipped.
Beijing proved unable to evict Hanoi from Cambodia, and fighting dragged on intermittently for a decade. But Deng understood the conflict as a strategic victory. By demonstrating that China’s strategic interests were aligned with the United States in Asia, the scholar Xiaoming Zhang has shown, the war helped build an enduring partnership against the Soviets, yielding vast economic benefits.
Faced with a second period of strategic isolation — this time, in the form of the breakdown of the Sino-United States alliance — China is again turning to coercion. Doklam, like other recent stand-offs in Depsang or Demchok, is not about a road: It is is a message about China’s ire at India building alliances with its adversaries in Asia, and with the United States. Beijing seeks, through the threat of force, to instruct India on how countries ought to conduct themselves — but, more powerful than they were in the 1970s, countries like India and Vietnam are unwilling to comply.
No one can know for certain how far China might go to deliver on its warnings, but India needs to be crystal clear about how it might deal with escalation, each step of the way. However, India’s anaemic military modernisation stands in stark contrast with Jaitley’s fighting words.
Even military preparation, though, isn’t enough. Europe, when Bloch was writing his book, looked a lot like Asia now: Riding a great wave of prosperity, its markets better-integrated than ever before. Like Asia today, though, it was also stage for new, rising powers, acquiring military muscle and old powers pushing back against them.
“If there is a general war”, the great Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck prophesied in 1888, “it will be over some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Leaders, convinced that war could be contained, and its fallout calculated, allowed just such a damn fool thing drag their nations to disaster. Ten million soldiers and seven million civilians gave their lives by 1918; millions more in small wars that raged until 1923.
Beijing and New Delhi must make the effort to engage in a creative dialogue about how a changing Asia’s tensions will be managed — aware that the price of a single misstep can be mass death.
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