Earlier analysis on China:-
Pentagon’s report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China is being analysed widely; mostly from an US perspective. The report has significant issues for India. What is the broader Chinese picture and how does this report fit into the Indian environment ? What is the impact on India? What should be our response? Also, in my last article The Chinese, Bunkers and Wars, I had mentioned that Chinese military expenditure is not in sync with its slowing growth and ageing society. I had also stated that Xi Jinping or his replacement will have to fight its myriad wars for a long time. To put it in its perspective, three issues define the Chinese conundrum – Xi Jinping, Military build-up and Economic growth. Understanding these will lead us to a picture from which options will emanate. Also this is not the eureka moment in the Archimedes class, but more of a rearrangement and refocussing of a thought process in a continuum of changing strategic and geopolitical realities.
Mao led the peoples war against oppression. Deng brought prosperity to China. Xi Jinping has portrayed himself as the great helmsman of China’s rise and national strength. He is being projected to the people as the architect of the great ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ which will eventually lead a ‘community of common destiny’ . It means that China will be the undisputed world power which dictates the new international order. All this is not my imagination but contained in the official history of the CCP . One fourth of the official history is devoted to XI Jinping. Sycophancy? Self-aggrandisement? Absolute Communism? Whatever! He seeks to be known as the most significant leader in this end of Chinese history. This is beyond authoritarianism. Xi is in a messianic cult class of his own by scripting his own history. He has shaped a revisionist Chinese thought process which talks peace but means and acts war in every facet of its existence. The issue is that if you read the Pentagon report, it is very clear that China has three military rivalries / threats / objectives – Taiwan (reunification dream), USA (current competitor to be displaced) and India (future power to be kept down). If he beats any one of the three in any significant manner, he is in the pantheon of Chinese greats. Xi Jinping atop the Chinese bunker, is dangerous for India.
China is building a strong world class military with the largest Navy. An enhanced nuclear capability, a potent triad and a hypersonic missile are on the cards. Space militarisation is afoot at great pace. Worryingly , China is indulging in uncertifiable chemical and biological weapon development activities. It is rapidly modernizing and mechanising its weapons and equipment. China’s operational outlook, summarised in my article on Chinese Operational Concepts and Firepower is a ‘system of systems’. It seeks to execute ‘informatized’ and ‘intelligentized’ warfare in a networked environment driven by AI, cyber, space and other disruptive technologies. This process started way back and is unstoppable. Even if it slows down, it is huge capability ‘in situ’. The current focus is also on improving the PLA’s combat readiness through extensive and well publicised training and exercises specially in Tibet. All the numbers are in the Pentagon report and well explained in two Rand Reports of 2018 (System confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare and Peoples Liberation Army Operational Concepts). However the larger issue is that China, with its bunkered mentality, is now preparing to fight a two front war with India and Taiwan simultaneously. It is rapidly building infrastructure and capabilities in Tibet based on its operational experience in Eastern Ladakh. Rarely a day goes by when a new capability against India is not reported. For example, uninhabited villages being constructed along the LAC are clearly firm bases for an offensive in future. India clearly assumes a higher priority than that contained in the last Chinese White Paper of 2019. The base line is that China will not miss a trick, alone or in collusion with Pakistan to take military advantage of any opportunity which India presents unwittingly or otherwise.
The Chinese economy is clearly struggling off late. It is now well established that China will remain energy and food deficient. It will face increasing pollution with time. As China ages and its population declines, the products and requirements for its export market and internal consumption will not match. Hence its dual circulation strategy is at risk. Xi’s common prosperity program , destruction of the tech sector, property debt overhang will eventually cap growth as any command economic system always does. China’s zero case war with the Virus will fatigue the nation to retard its economy even more. Most importantly, the Chinese bunker mentality has pushed it into an international outlier cum isolation mode. Even the BRI , its much touted economic and strategic garnering vehicle is sputtering. The Chinese economy has slowed to the extent that even stagflation is in the air. Most importantly China is now deemed untrustworthy by rich and poor nations almost alike. Its wars to revive itself are on tight time lines with very narrow margins.
Till recently China’s military growth and economy were in sync. That is no more the case. The economic juggernaut has changed course. However, the autarky, inertia and momentum already generated will continue to make its military grow despite a slowing economy. A strong military and a receding economy are a dangerous combination in the hands of a leader like Xi Jinping. He is more likely to use military methods geopolitically to revive the flagging economy and cement his place in history. If Taiwan is an island too far, then grabbing a piece of Indian territory in a controllable local war will put him on a pedestal. That was the attempted play book in Eastern Ladakh. The new border law just enables that. India is on the cusp of another round in the Himalayas. It will be local and geopolitically defining. Till it happens both countries will bristle at each other. This condition will last well into the future. The stability – instability equation could degenerate into a instability -instability condition given China’s penchant for coercion and its nuclear capability ramp-up. India should be cognisant that a 360 degree full spectrum military threat from China remains potent irrespective of its flagging economy. In fact it increases as the Chinese economy declines.
The fundamental fact is that China’s military is assuming large enough proportions to challenge US military superiority. It has them worried. Mutatis mutandis, China’s military capability and stamina in all domains is not only far greater but the gap will widen steadily with respect to India. China’s official military expenditure is thrice that of India’s already. It is actually more if the hidden budgets are accounted for. The disadvantage is obvious. The military edge which India currently enjoys is combat experience and geographical advantage of the Himalayas and Indian Ocean. Slowly this edge will cease to matter. If India is to stem the Chinese tide in future, it must narrow the military capability gap to deter Xi Jinping’s military adventurism for his deification agenda. India cannot narrow the gap if its defence procurement remains pedantic and conceptual thinking stagnates in a ‘firepower is a support system’ zone. The battle must be taken across through non-contact military deterrence – conventional or hybrid. That implies a change in the politico-military approach. Assuming and hoping that the politico- military establishment are on one page and are prepared to think differently, the question is what are the options? To mind, India has two options. Hybridise conflict or resort to civil-military fusion to achieve credible conventional deterrence.
Recently we saw a full spectrum power like USA being given a disgraceful political and military send-off by a canny Taliban. Hybrid battle fields offer tremendous advantages to those who are willing to bell the cat. If we can put China in a situation where it cannot bring to bear its huge conventional capability, the matter is stalled. Make Xi Jinping keep looking within his bunker. Hybridisation is the simpler and easily understood option. It is less costly and we have the tools for it. To this end we have multiple options. The direct option is to play the Tibet card. The indirect options lie in Xinjiang and Gilgit Baltistan. A combination of all is also feasible. The rules of the game have been taught to us by Pakistan ever since 1947. China must be presented with its ‘Afghanistan’. USA will be more than willing to lend a helping hand. If China’s wooing of Taliban is any indication, the chances of success are pretty high even with a low level hybridisation. The major advantage is that this option can be put into effect almost immediately. However, the politico- military leadership should have the vision, gumption and outlook to take that leap.
With the current level of import dependency, stand-alone ineffective defence R&D, inadequate budgets and a deadweight bureaucracy, we will not have the capability to deter China conventionally within a few years. Despite all the effort being put in to ramp up our defence preparedness, our rule bound , linear procurement processes will continue to strangle us. The requirement is to build a profitable and highly effective conventional military capability through indigenously harnessed technology to deter China from any misadventure. Such transformation is feasible only through civil military fusion. Major nations have become great military powers only through civil military fusion process. USA did it in the last century. China has done it in this century. The need of the hour is to fuse national capacities in economy, industry, security, R&D, science, and infrastructural development into a seamless sphere where ‘dual use’ is the name of the game. The fusion is between defence and civilian industrial bases, harmonising science and R&D for common goals especially in disruptive technologies, retention and seamless utilisation of talent, development of dual use infrastructure, leveraging common logistics and mainstreaming resources for mobilisation. In some measure this is already inherent in a diffused manner. However a focused incremental approach will bear results with time. The key is to initially identify those areas where successful fusion is feasible. Thereafter the evolved structure can underpin future expansion and emulation. It needs a national vision and strategy. It is time India started thinking accordingly in a mission mode. The current model will keep us at the dead end we usually find ourselves in.
One could have analysed the US report in a factual manner to define the problem better. It would have made China look larger than it is with out any solutions to our predicament. It is with this in view , I have outlined some options. We need to adopt solutions as it suits our environment to keep China at bay. Last but not the least, all the capabilities which China is developing are not against India alone. Much of its global capabilities will remain useless in an Sino Indian context. The trick is not to match Chinese capabilities across the board but outmatch them where it matters. Not by brawn but by brain.
These cartoons tell you a story….
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