Go in for caliberated responses
The real challenge is to understand the Chinese psyche and decode the thinking of its leadership. This demands the building up of a strategic culture through collective wisdom and formulation of a long term policy.
Maj Gen G.G. Dwivedi (Retd)
MANY people seem to know China, but very few understand it, according to eminent scholar Derek Bodde. Those who deal with China often feel frustrated and bewildered, when actions of the Chinese leadership send mixed signals, making clear interpretations extremely difficult. This is primarily due to the lack of insight into Chinese psyche, its strategic culture and functioning of the Communist system.
In his book, Understanding China, Henry Kissinger states, “China sees itself a returning power and does not view the prospect of a strong China exercising influence as unnatural.” Lee Kuan Yew opines that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is wise not to repeat the mistakes of Germany and Japan to challenge the existing order during the course of its resurgence. Although, China projects its rise as a peaceful one, yet it stands alone, without any trusted allies.
The unsettled border coupled with rapid pace of China’s defence modernisation, is a matter of deep concern for India. Despite the debacle in 1962 and numerous incidences on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India has failed to formulate a pragmatic China Policy. The tendency to underplay the Chinese threat and a passive attitude has only emboldened the PRC. Recent transgressions by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh are case in point.
Lately, India seems to have woken up to the reality of China’s growing military might. However, the Dragon’s assertiveness can only be checkmated by building up the requisite capability. To this end, it is prudent to decipher Chinese strategic thinking and undertake an introspection of its war fighting doctrine.
Chinese troops parade in Beijing. China has consistently refined its military doctrine in consonance with threat perception and accretion in its military capability.
Chinese Strategic Calculus
China’s grand strategy aims to achieve its clearly defined national objectives — defending sovereignty and territorial integrity, maintaining internal stability and sustaining economic growth — essential prerequisites to attaining great power status. Any threat to the rule of the Communist Party is unacceptable.
The PRC remains hyper sensitive to its periphery as peace around it is essential to maintain the pace of progress. Safeguarding its core national interests, which include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, is paramount, where it is even inclined to use force. As per China’s threat assessment, the US and Japan are perceived to be the prime security concerns. India is seen as a potential threat.
China’s thinking since ancient times professed that best way to respond to threat was to eliminate it. Its classics stressed the value of violent solutions to conflicts and offensive over defensive strategies. When confronted with a more powerful opponent the strategy is flexible; employing non-coercive means, but only as an interim expedient.
In his book, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, Alastair Johnson has observed that there is no pacifist bias in Chinese strategic tradition but only realpolitik, sometime cloaked in Confucian-Mencian rationalisation. From 1950 to 1985, the PRC opted to use force eight times. Despite periodic leadership changes, the Chinese aggressive and expansionist policies have remained consistent, the only exception being when it is perceived that the adversary has both the will and power for confrontation. The current Fifth Generation Leadership has signaled no change from the past. One significant message that the Chinese President Xi Jinping sent out during the California dialogue with the American President, Barrak Obama, last June was that China would deal with the US as an equal and not from being the number two.
Comprehensive National Power (CNP) and Strategic Configuration of Power (shi) are the key elements of China’s current strategic thinking. While the CNP index evaluates the pecking order of a nation, shi decides the alignment of forces. With accretion in its CNP, China has stretched its strategic reach, skillfully employing shrewd diplomacy and economic levers.
Surprise and deception are integral to the Chinese stratagem. Every move is thought through on the checker board. Unpredictability and patience to engage in long drawn negotiation process are proven tactics to force a favourable deal.
PLA’s Military Doctrine
The PRC has consistently refined its military doctrine in consonance with threat perception and accretion in its military capability. As Marshal Zhu De had aptly stated, “What kind of war to fight depends on what kind of arms we have, stands replaced by — what kind of arms to produce depends upon what kind of war to fight”. The People’s War Doctrine of the 1950s, which implied an all out war to be fought in the hinterland, was replaced by the Limited War Doctrine in the late 1980s. In 2005, the PLA has adopted the Doctrine of Limited War under Modern Informationised Conditions, which marks a tangible shift from the erstwhile attritional mindset. The crux of this “24 Character” doctrine is active defence, asymmetric warfare, war zone campaign (WGC), joint operations’ and integrated logistics. Proactive in nature, the Chinese believe that through Informationisation, the ability to adopt information technologies in command and intelligence systems, it can defeat a superior force. WGC relates to a theater command system, facilitating speedy and integrated employment of all the war waging assets, in an offensive manner.
The PLA modernisation is doctrine driven, implemented through the process of transformation, with mechanisation providing the foundation and informationisation the propulsion. Rapid Reaction Units (RRUs) are the cutting edge of the newly designated Combined Corps (erstwhile Group Armies), fully geared to execute swift surgical operations. The basic operational philosophy is to strike first and gain initiative. The flat higher defence structure with the Central Military Commission (CMC) as the apex military body, headed by the president with all the four services heads and key principal staff officers as members, ensures balanced and swift decision making at the strategic level. At the operational level, the PLA enjoys immense advantage by way of inter-service synergy with the Chief of General Staff, who exercises control over the army, navy, air force, strategic forces and the state armed police, and theatre command structures in place.
In the Limited War Doctrine, the objectives are more political in nature than military — victory defined in political terms. The short and decisive engagements aim to target the adversary’s will. The strategic and tactical dimensions overlap, where tactical actions have strategic ramifications. Fighting and talking go on concurrently (yi bian dan, yi bian da), meaning combination of suave diplomacy and strong military action.
Implications and Response
Keeping India marginalised serves Beijing’s strategic interests. Resolution of the border problem is unlikely any time soon as it is linked with the Tibet issue and provides China with political leverage. The recent cases of transgressions are well calculated moves, to legitimise the claim lines through coercion tactics. Spurt in the PLA activities in Ladakh is indicative of the larger design of China-Pakistan collusion. The Kashgarh-Gilgit highway project, where PLA soldiers are actively engaged, part of the Xinjiang-Gwadar Corridor, has serious strategic ramifications.
The rapid pace of military modernisation and elaborate infrastructural development in Tibet has given China, can muster up to six combined corps in three to four weeks, the capability to launch a major offensive against India or initiate limited tactical actions at a short notice. Given China’s grand objectives, priorities and political intent, a major show down is unlikely in the near future but local stand offs remain a distinct probability.
India’s politico-diplomatic approach towards China has been the one of appeasement. The response to the Chinese misadventures has been more as crisis management, primarily due poor understanding of the adversary’s intention and capability. This needs to change as the Chinese respect strength and despise the weak. Given the current state of asymmetry, it is only through unorthodox and out of the box thinking that India can hope to cope with the Dragon’s challenge. Then what is the way forward?
First, there is the urgent need to formulate a pragmatic China policy, centered on India’s core interests, aligning both the long and short term perspectives. While China may appear to be externally formidable, it is still fragile internally. Its vulnerabilities should be factored. At the strategic level, the need is to build credible capability which must aim to make any misadventure by the adversary cost prohibitive. Besides hard power, due attention must be paid to the development of soft power, including strategic partnerships.
Secondly, the apex security structures must be streamlined to cut down the decision making loop. This will entail eliminating bureaucratic grid locks and abolishing the silo culture among the three services. The current format of military modernisation has failed to deliver and is not sustainable. Special provisions are required be instituted to fast track defence preparedness.
Thirdly, our own Doctrine of Limited War should be formalised on priority. Existing service specific theater commands need to be reorganized and integrated into tri-service structures to bring synergy in the optimal application of the war waging assets. In fact, the entire China front should be treated as one integrated theater. The raising of two mountain divisions and mountain strike corps would certainly narrow the current adverse numerical ratio and give India limited offensive options across the LAC in the east. However, the deployment in Ladakh Sector merits a holistic review.
Fourthly, infrastructure development must be accorded highest priority. It is not the numbers per se. More critical will be the timely application of the combat potential. This can be only achieved by creating adequate strategic and tactical lift capability along with improving connectivity and accessibility. It is equally important to focus on capacity building in the northeast and Ladakh to cut down on the logistics tail. The scope should include both natural resources and human capital. The Chinese model of making Tibet as the grain-vegetable basket could be adopted.
Fifthly, border management needs a holistic review. The recent actions of the PLA amply highlight the limitations of the current mechanism of border management. One nodal agency is required to coordinate the functioning of multiple agencies. The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) proposal needs to be progressed with due deliberations. The Chinese attempt to gain an edge by thrusting pre-conditions should be effectively stalled. The para military forces responsible for safeguarding the LAC require gross up gradation, both in terms of equipment and training, to match the potential of the People’s Armed Police Force. Overall operational control along the LAC must rest with the Army. Local militia forces can play valuable role in effective border management.
Sixthly, at the tactical level, well calibrated responses must be put in place forth with. The disputed areas should be effectively dominated. While we may not be looking across the LAC through the aiming sight of weapons, yet we should be fully prepared for any face off.
Understand Chinese psyche
Given PRC’s global aspirations and conflicting interests with India, it is unrealistic to expect the Dragon to behave as a panda. The relations between India and China will perforce remain complex, marked by competition, cooperation and confrontation. In our anxiety to engage China, we have a tendency to gloss over the larger picture, generally missing the woods for trees.
The real challenge is to understand the Chinese psyche and decode the thinking of its leadership. This demands building of a strategic culture through collective wisdom and formulation of a long term policy. It is only then we can hope to build credible capability to cope with the Chinese challenge on even footing. Above all, we need people at the helm who have the audacity to make realistic assessments; and bold leadership which has the courage to digest and act on home truths.
The writer has commanded a division in the northeast and also served as the defence attaché in China