Monthly Archives: August 2017

Doklam, China’s Strategic Calculus and India’s Policy Options

Published by IDSA on August 11, 2017

It is almost two months since Indian and Chinese soldiers became locked in a standoff at Doklam in the Sikkim Sector. The faceoff was triggered when a team of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was prevented by Indian troops from extending a class-5 track in the Doklam Plateau area which is part of Bhutanese territory. The Indian Army acted in response to a request from the Royal Bhutan Army under the terms of the 2007 Bilateral Friendship Treaty. Moreover, the PLA’s track building is in contravention of the 2012 Agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China, whereby the status quo was required to be maintained in the said area until the resolution of the trijunction in consultation with Bhutan.

Post 1962, there have been numerous border incidences between the Indian and Chinese militaries; Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdrong Chu two decades later. In the recent past too, the Depsang Plateau and the Chumar-Demchok area witnessed face-offs in April 2013 and September 2014, respectively, with the latter intriguingly coinciding with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. Incidentally, the current Chinese incursion in Bhutan happened around the time of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States.

Given the opaque Chinese system, deciphering the intent of its Communist leadership poses a real challenge. According to the eminent scholar Derek Bodde, those who deal with China are often bewildered when the actions of its leadership send mixed signals, making clear interpretation extremely difficult. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) draws from its ancient thinkers. Its actions are always deliberate, like the moves on a checker board. It is imperative to gain an insight into the Chinese psyche and decode China’s strategic calculus in order to effectively cope with its grand designs.

Decoding the Chinese Strategic Calculus

The PRC’s assertiveness around its periphery is attributable to its age old belief of a ‘subdued neighbourhood’ being an essential prerequisite for stability. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger has brought out that the PRC perceives itself to be a returning power and does not view exercising influence as unnatural. Alastair Johnson, an expert on Chinese strategic culture, has stated that there is no pacifist bias in the Chinese strategic tradition but only realpolitik. Nations are either friendly or hostile. This is why servile countries such as Pakistan and North Korea are generously rewarded, while those like India or Vietnam which counter China’s aggressive behaviour invite its wrath.

Chinese thinking since ancient times advocates mitigating a threat by eliminating it. Thus, during the period 1950-85, the PRC opted to use force eight times. When confronted with a stronger adversary, non-coercive means may be adopted as an interim expedient.

China’s grand strategy encompasses three concise objectives: safeguarding sovereignty, maintaining stability, and sustaining economic progress. Any danger to the Communist Party is perceived as an ‘existential threat’. Sovereignty implies, besides external non-interference, safeguarding core interests, control of the South China Sea, unification of Taiwan, and integration of claimed territories with the mainland including South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh). In the pursuit of these vital national interests, the use of force remains an option.

President Xi has emerged as an all-powerful leader. Designated as a ‘Core’ leader and addressed as ‘Chairman’ (Zhuxi), he is poised to join the league of Mao and Deng. During the forthcoming 19th Party Congress in November, Xi is set to consolidate his grip further. The earlier policy enunciated by Deng that China should “bide time, hide capability and not to claim leadership” has undergone a visible shift under Xi. Xi’s ‘China Dream’ envisions a ‘prosperous and powerful’ China restored to its past greatness.

In the Chinese concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), hard power is the key component. China’s military culture lays immense emphasis on the ‘strategic configuration of power’, creating a favourable disposition of forces to obviate actual fighting. By exploiting its asymmetric edge to coerce smaller nations, China has effectively pursued the surreptitious strategy of ‘fighting and talking concurrently’ in order to extend its control over the South China Sea. China’s military doctrine of “Local Wars under Informationalised Conditions” envisages short-swift engagements to achieve political objectives. Under President Xi, the PLA is in the process of path breaking transformation to emerge as a modern military in the coming decades.

Internationally, PRC remains a lonely power. It has used diplomacy effectively to exploit differences among the adversaries to its advantage. China’s threat assessment perceives the US and Japan to be the prime security concerns, while India is seen as a potential threat. As US and Western countries yield space, China under Xi has pronounced itself as a champion of globalization and sustainable growth to fill the void. Major initiatives like the ‘Belt-Road’ and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ have been launched in a quest to shape a Sino-Centric global order.

The PRC’s action at Doklam is in consonance with its policy of intimidating smaller neighbours. Apparently, China did not anticipate India to step in. The Communist leadership is infuriated with India for abstaining from its signature projects. New Delhi’s growing proximity to Washington and Tokyo has also irked Beijing. Given its focus on the Western Pacific, the mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, economic imperatives and internal stability concerns in the run-up to the forthcoming Party Congress, China will avoid an armed confrontation with India, despite its rhetoric. However, it will keep up the pressure militarily and pursue aggressive diplomacy to deal with the issue.

The PRC has pursued the policy of delinking complex political issues from economic ones. It enjoys strong trade linkages with the US, Japan and Taiwan, despite serious political differences. Beijing will continue with its policy of marginalising New Delhi politically in international forums, while seeking to avoid a negative economic fallout.

India’s Policy Options

In its efforts to engage China, India has followed a policy of appeasement. And its responses to PRC’s misadventures have been in the form of crisis management. To effectively cope with the PRC’s hostile attitude, India needs to evolve a pragmatic China policy centred on core national interests. Some essential facets which merit serious consideration are summarised below.

Firstly, given the PRC’s policy of asymmetric coercion, India has no option but to narrow the existing CNP gap between the two countries. Developing strategic partnerships, initiatives like ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’, ‘Act East Policy’ and counter balancing strategies are steps in the right direction.

Secondly, national security policy needs clear articulation, based on a realistic threat assessment. Apex organizational structures require streamlining to telescope the decision making process. The current format of military modernization demands a holistic review.

Thirdly, in an era of ‘limited wars’, a ‘joint military doctrine’ is a sine qua non and ‘tri service theatre commands’ are prerequisites for synergised application of the war waging potential. In the prevailing scenario, facing the PLA’s Western Theatre Command are India’s seven Army and Air Force commands, which is a serious lacuna. In short engagements, the timely application of requisite combat power at the point of decision is critical. This calls for creating essential infrastructure on highest priority.

Lastly, the border management mechanism needs to be revamped. A single nodal agency is required to coordinate the functions of the various organs. Operational control astride the Line of Actual Control ought to rest with the Army. A well calibrated response mechanism must be put in place, with disputed vulnerable areas effectively dominated and troops fully prepared to meet any eventuality. Paramilitary Forces deployed for manning the borders require urgent upgrade to match the PLA’s Border Regiments.

While many seem to know China, few understand it. In the desperation to engage the PRC, there is a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture. Given the conflicting interests coupled with unresolved issues, relations between India and China are bound to be marked by contradictions, leading to frequent confrontations. However, through deft diplomacy, differences can be managed. While solutions to vexed problems may not be on the horizon, disputes turning into conflict can be avoided in the larger interest of both nations.

The Chinese are shrewd negotiators with tremendous stamina and penchant to sit across the table, but with equals. India must, therefore, firmly stand its ground and forthrightly safeguard its strategic interests. To deal with China on a level footing, the Indian leadership needs to make pragmatic assessments, possess the courage to accept home truths and display audacity for bold decisions.

The writer has served as Defence Attaché in China, North Korea and Mongolia; commanded a Division in the Eastern Sector; and currently is Professor of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

The People’s Liberation Army at Ninety – Poised for a ‘Great Leap’




Published by IDSA on August 07, 2017

On 31 July 1997, the Central Hall of the China World Hotel in Beijing was all decked up to host a banquet dinner to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Military Attaché Corps was present in strength as President Jiang Zemin was to grace the occasion, being the Chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body. It was a gala affair with a resounding undertone – that the military must continue to serve the Party in the finest traditions of the PLA.

The PLA traces its roots to the ‘Nanchang Uprising’ of 1 August 1927. It was on that day that the Communists led by stalwarts like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De revolted against the Nationalist Forces. In December 1929, the Communist Party of China (CPC) convened its ninth meeting for building the Party and the Army. The venue was Gutian, a town in the South West of Fujian Province. During the Conference, Mao addressed the men of the Fourth Army and clarified the role of the military as being “to chiefly serve the political ends”. From there on, the absolute control of the CPC over the Red Army became entrenched; the PLA was to be the military of the Communist Party, not of China.

The symbiotic relationship between the two most powerful organs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Party and PLA, is unique. The PLA played a key role during the revolution and its top commanders, Mao and Deng, emerged as iconic First and Second Generation leaders. It has been well represented in the Politburo and Central Committee, the apex political policy making bodies. The PLA top brass are also members of the CMC.

The PLA jumped into the Korean War in 1950, barely a year after the Communist revolution, to take on the US-led UN Forces. It fought the adversary to a stalemate, suffering over half a million casualties in the process. In 1962, it defeated the Indian Army in a limited conflict. However, the PLA performed poorly in 1979 during its bid to teach Vietnam a lesson. Thereafter, it went through sustained restructuring and modernization programmes as Defence was one of the’ Four Modernizations’ enunciated by Deng to transform China. However, until recently, the process lacked strategic direction.

Military reforms have been high on President Xi’s agenda since he assumed power four years back. The sense of urgency could be attributed to geopolitical considerations like the US policy of rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific Region. The reform process commenced in 2013 with the establishment of the National Security Commission (NSC), with the President as its Chairman. The rationale behind the reforms is twofold; prepare the military for China’s expanding global role, and establish the Party’s firm control over the armed forces. Interestingly, on 30 October 2014, Xi Jinping visited Gutian to address a ‘Military Political Work Conference’. In his speech, he reiterated that “PLA still remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”; exactly what Mao had asserted 85 years earlier.

Thrust of Current Military Reforms

The Chinese military strategic culture believes in exploiting the ‘strategic configuration of power’ to achieve the given objectives. The aim is not annihilation of the adversary but the deployment of resources to gain a position of advantage so that fighting becomes unnecessary. China’s present military doctrine of ‘Local Wars under Informationalised Conditions’ envisages short, swift, military engagements by leveraging technology to achieve political objectives. Joint operations and integrated logistics are essential components of the new doctrine. The current military reforms are doctrine driven and oriented towards capability building and force projection. President Xi has stressed upon the importance of the military adapting to an era of Information based wars.

The theme of China’s ‘Ninth White Paper on National Defence’ published in May 2015 was “Active Defence” with the focus on winning ‘local wars in conditions of modern technology’. It also heralded a major shift in naval strategy from ‘off shore waters defence’ to a combined strategy of ‘offshore waters defence with open sea protection’.

Overall, the main thrust of military reforms is on revamping the systems and structures across the board, i.e., political, strategic and operational levels. At the macro level, the focus is on civil-military integration, jointness and optimisation. The composition of the CMC has been balanced out to remove the previous bias towards the ground forces. The CMC is now responsible for policy formulation, controlling all military assets and higher direction of war. The PLA’s erstwhile four key departments have been replaced by 15 offices/departments, fully integrated into the enlarged CMC, thus ensuring centralised control at the highest level. In the new command structure, the President as the Commander-in-Chief exercises direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operations Center’. Three additional Headquarters, namely Ground Forces, Rocket Force and Strategic Force, have been created.

At the operational level, the erstwhile 17-odd army, air force and naval commands have been reorganized into five ‘theatre commands’ with all the war fighting resources in each command placed under one commander. This will ensure seamless synergy in deploying land, air, naval and strategic assets in a given theatre. In all, 84 corps level organizations have been created including 13 operational corps as well as training and logistics installations. To make the PLA nimbler, the reduction of 300,000 rank and file, mostly from non-combat positions, has been ordered. This will downsize the military to around 1.8 million.

President Xi reviewed an impressive parade at Zhurihe, a newly created training base in Inner Mongolia on 30 July 2017 to mark the PLA’s 90th Anniversary. He exhorted the troops to- “unwaveringly uphold the principle of absolute party leadership of the military, always obey and follow the Party”. The Supreme Commander also spelt out three core tenets for a strong military; confidence, competence and commitment. The mega event served multiple objectives. For the domestic audience, it vindicated the dictum ‘party rules the gun’, projected President Xi as the ‘core’ and ‘Chairman’ (Zhuxi)- in the same league as Mao and Deng, and assured the public of the PLA’s capacity to defeat any threat to national sovereignty. For the international community, it was a demonstration of power projection capability.


The ongoing reforms in the Chinese Armed Forces are perhaps the biggest military shake up in a generation. Envisaged to be in place before President Xi’s term ends in 2022, the accretion in the war waging potential of the Chinese military will have serious ramifications at both the regional and global levels. While the Communist leadership asserts that the PRC’s rise is peaceful, this is being viewed by neighbouring countries with scepticism because of the former’s assertive conduct in pursuit of national objectives and territorial claims.

For India, the complexity of its relations with China, coupled with an unsettled border, is leading to a pattern of frequent face offs between the two militaries. The PLA’s rapidly increasing capability as well as offensive design are a reality which cannot be wished away. Currently, the structure of India’s higher defence organization is service specific, lacking integration and jointness. The country is yet to formulate a comprehensive ‘limited war’ doctrine. Due to bureaucratic gridlock, the decision making loop is tenuous. In operational terms, seven odd army and air force commands face China’s Western Theatre Command. This configuration will pose enormous coordination challenges in the event of a conflict. While the probability of a major conflict between the two countries remains low, local skirmishes cannot be ruled out, especially in the event of incursions by the PLA in the disputed areas. As limited engagements demand speedy deployment and a flatter logistics chain, inadequate infrastructure in the border areas stands out as a major constraint for India. These shortcomings need to be addressed on priority.

Since 1979, China has not engaged in any major military confrontation. However, it has cleverly pursued the strategy of “nibbling and negotiating” (yi bian tan yi bian da – talking and fighting concurrently). This low cost model in the form of stand-offs like at Doklam or confrontation in the South China Sea are likely to be the new normal. For the realisation of Xi’s ‘China Dream’, Beijing does not have the luxury of indulging in a major conflict.

Coincidently, at present, China faces no external threats unless it creates one. Its main security concerns are more internal; namely economic slowdown, corruption, environmental degradation and the diminishing clout of the CPC. To ensure the CPC’s unchallenged hold, the PLA’s identity as the military of the Party needs to remain sacrosanct. The envisaged process of PLA transformation will be a long drawn out one. It will take some time before the Chinese Armed Forces can claim to be a modern military, at par with Western armies, capable of undertaking extended global missions. No doubt, the PLA is poised for a “Giant Leap”, and that is bound to dramatically change the existing ‘balance of power’ dynamics.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

China won’t go for an all out war, says ex-Army officer


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Published in Tribune, Jalandhar on July 27

Having served with the Army at the Indo-China border for seven years and remained India’s Defence attache in China for three years, Major General (retd) GG Dwivedi is of the strong view that China is just trying to browbeat India and that it will not go for an all out war. Being the co-author of a book on Indo-China war and knowing the Chinese psyche and political scenario well, Maj Gen Dwivedi cites five reasons, “The stability of China depends on economy. Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power on an assurance of providing a prosperous and powerful environment which he has to maintain. A war can destabilise the Chinese government and if the communists he represents go out of power, the changeover will be violent and Xi might even be jailed. China is only a bully. It won’t act as the Communist Party has even announced its annual congress in October. Also, the main issue as of now is over constructing 4 to 5 km of road. Hell won’t break loose if this road is not completed. So, even the stakes are not high for a war to be waged.” Interacting at KMV College campus here (he is the husband of college principal Dr Atima Sharma Dwivedi), Maj Gen Dwivedi holds a view contrary to various organisations seeking a ban on Chinese products. “Our country’s traders want the cheapest products for a good sale. We must understand that economic interests are different from the political ones. Being a professor at Aligarh University, I know how the Chinese locks have thrown the local locks of Aligarh out of market. Their special economic zones (SEZ) are as big as the whole of Jalandhar. We must also realise that the private sector is not under the government. Even if the government intends to ban China-made items, these would be smuggled to India. Even if we increase the duty on Chinese products to discourage their import, there will be a way. These items will start flowing in through Dubai. For the same reason, our Indo-China sports events are continuing to take place. We must realise that 4Cs – cooperation, competition, confrontation and conflict – go on simultaneously.” Giving a clear perception on various issues, he said, “Our President is only for giving a salute. The Chinese President is an operation commander. They do not have the MoD and their Defence Minister is a serving General. So, there is no dichotomy between the political aims and the military strategy, which remains an issue with India.” Discussing the reason over the sharp rhetoric coming from the Chinese side, the Army officer, who retired in 2009, said, “Unlike our media which is free, the Chinese media is controlled by the government. They use various people including the university authorities as their mouthpiece. That is why, they seem to be more assertive.” Comparing China with India, the Armyman-turned-professor says, “They are geographically at least three times bigger than us. We have a 2.2 trillion economy while theirs is 11 trillion. With a trade of 4 trillion, they are well ahead of us. They also have a 2.2 million strong military but that does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. We can turn the tables if we align with the US and Japan, with whom we have good relations. Our relations with Bhutan is also strategically very important for us.” The retired Army officer has served at the Chinese border in his capacity as a Division Commander for two years, as Battalion Commander for three years and as a young officer for two years. Besides, he has done his double MPhil on China and the Asia-Pacific. He has also co-authored a book, “1962 war: A view from the other side”.