The ghosts of Doklam have emerged with vengeance in Ladakh, with updated satellite images providing irrefutable testimony of China’s ongoing military preparations in most of the Doklam plateau that it has occupied. India’s acquiescence to China’s military occupation was a strategic turning point which signified that China understood that the politico-military dynamics on Northern border provided potential pressure points for periodic doses to keep India on the leash. Ladakh was waiting to happen and one can expect many recurrences unless India takes a stand that disabuses China of the notion that India can be coerced.
If such a stand is not taken with regard to Ladakh, China would have succeeded in continuing to establish its psychological ascendancy that would be reflected in greater Indian sensitivity to Chinese concerns, anxieties and bottom lines. Not wishing the Dalai Lama on his birthday this year is therefore a worrying initial signal.
The Military Factor
The political leadership and most of the strategic cognoscenti seem to have bought into the notion that India’s military capabilities on the Northern borders are no match to China and a repeat of 1962 is possible. This is unfortunate and misleading, even if there are a plethora of inadequacies in infrastructure, arms and equipment that call for resolution. On the contrary, India’s military can at any level of conflict weaken the orchestrated build up of China’s image that it has become too strong to confront.
That China has become strong militarily is not in dispute but what certainly can be disputed is whether it can afford to use force against India in a manner that it can get into a ‘big fight’ and gain political advantages that outweigh the disadvantages that will adversely impact, its confrontation with the United States. One can even say that neither is a ‘big fight’ in India’s interest but on this account the balance of interests is in India’s favour, as China has more to lose even if we overlook the nuclear factor. The psychological advantage lies with China only as long as India conveys to China that it will be cagey to escalate militarily. Ladakh has provided India the opportunity, as long as India understands China’s strategic script and fashions one of its own.
India’s strategic script must be written to indicate its willingness to escalate matters. The script must account for a prolonged military tension on the Northern borders which will imply sustaining the partial mobilisation of the military to cater for Chinese moves in other areas especially the North East. The sheer length of the northern border, inhospitable terrain and the agreements in place lend themselves to the occupation of physically unoccupied territory. A patrol can morph quickly into an occupying force because patrols are permitted up to a mutually exclusive but imagined LAC. But this applies to both sides, the only difference is that China sporadically takes advantage of it, while India is politically reticent to do the same and use it as a bargaining chip.
India’s sensitivity to escalation is fed by the notion that its military is not a match for China’s. This is not to say that we should seek war. But we need to draw attention of the rest of the world to the fact that China is demonstrating its military capability for psychological ascendancy through means other than war, like occupation of territory that is unoccupied, while flashing the sword in the background. In Ladakh, China can now decide, how long they wish to keep the threat of the sword alive and also what military and political advantage they want to eventually derive. There are indications that China would like to prolong the pressure. Going forward, one can also expect that the moment China decides that India is straying from the path it wants India to tread, another round of aggressive moves will follow. This is the pattern that India has to break.
This pattern can be broken, by manoeuvres that utilise vulnerabilities on the border that India can exploit and even keep options open in the Indian Ocean. Such options have been the bread and butter of the military for more than a decade. The CDS has the responsibility to assure the leadership of India’s military potential including the potential offered by the extant land, air and naval power and dispel any doubts of a 1962 repeat. Basically, they must be convinced that power is a relational variable and decisions based on absolute power could be relevant for planning but not for crises. China has opened too many fronts, the trajectory of world opinion is against it and in the cold and high altitudes of the Himalayas, fighting spirit will finally prevail over the delusion that technology by itself wins wars – just ask the Americans. India must therefore prepare for the long haul, no matter what the end result of the ongoing moves for de-escalation.
The preparation for the long haul must be to strengthen India’s capacity by pre-positioning of acclimatised troops based on brigade groups as suggested here. It should, as much as possible re-balance from the West where most of India’s military power is postured. Without doubt, it will also require strengthening capabilities in instruments that can be used in operations less than war like information and electronic warfare. Initial pre-positioning will be a major logistic challenge, but one that is not insurmountable, but would require a decision now and not await the denouement of the existing crisis. Costs should not be the deterrent in the light of the geopolitical stakes.
The geopolitical stakes for India are about preferring economic benefits while suffering the dominance of China at the regional and global level in contrast to maximising long term economic growth in a multipolar order. The preference is clear and it will clash with China’s idea of supremacy embodied in Tianxia. Ladakh provides choices that India must make and then work towards its goals. even when they involve short term sacrifices in terms of material comforts that the Indian middle classes will find difficult to give up. The choice is about strategic autonomy and the freedom it entails for decision making or the acceptance of neo-colonisation with Chinese characteristics. The nature of the stakes needs no debate, even as we seek means to protect the basic values that are etched in our Constitution.
To put it mildly, the trust factor in Sino-Indian relations is in a comatose state ever since the Galwan incident. Hopefully, India will now not harbour illusions about China’s intentions and its geopolitical desire to keep India contained within the sub-continent and ameliorate its Malacca dilemma. India therefore has to play simultaneously on two inter-linked tables of the geopolitical and geo-economics types.
India has more leverages on the geopolitical than on the geo-economic table. Those leverages must be used and even maximised. The challenge is to fashion the complicated layers of cooperation with other stakeholders by a complex web of relations that are based on common interests but governed by the principle that the positivities of geopolitics will not be sacrificed at the altar of geo-economics. The temptation for geo-economic goods is the short-term solution that may in the long-term result in having to tolerate decisions made to benefit other nations. The paths of geopolitics should lead to where we stand on geo-economics.