Dictionary defines war as an armed conflict between two or more countries or groups.  The strategic grandmaster Carl Von Clausewitz visualized war from a far more expanded horizon when he proclaimed that war is a mere continuation of policy “with other means”. This conception considers war as just another tool for continuation of its policy by a country; in today’s context the ‘non war tools’ would encapsulate almost everything, from proxy war to domains such as diplomatic, economic, informational, cyber, big data, social media and even genetic data base. The list is endless. Terrorism by non-state actors has grown from an occasional irritant to the biggest threat to national security of even the most powerful countries. Social media, in the meanwhile, has ‘empowered’ individuals and at the same time created a distinct domain of grey and black media with great reach and impact, with added advantages of anonymity and deniability.  Grey and black media warriors are at work 24/7, creating perceptions and fault lines. Vulnerability of today’s mainstream media, electronic as well as print, is even more startling. Together, the mainstream and social media can be more destructive than the most powerful weapons. Some of these tools are copy book examples of the infinite games in the game theory, often employing carefully chosen citizens of the target nation as frontline warriors. Democracies are distinctly vulnerable to some of these non war tools, because of the unintended protection provided by the freedom and democratic legal rights guaranteed by their constitutions, even to such front-line warriors of an adversary.

The Guardian, in an article on 7 December 2018, titled ‘Inside Chinas Audacious Global Propaganda Machine’, wrote “For western journalists, demoralized by endless budget cuts, China Global Television Network presents an enticing prospect, offering competitive salaries to work for China Global Television Network”. “In practice, telling China’s story well looks a lot like serving the ideological aims of the state. While within China the press is increasingly tightly controlled, abroad Beijing has sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the free press to its advantage”. Guardian goes on to say “Meanwhile, in the US, lobbyists paid by Chinese-backed institutions are cultivating vocal supporters known as ‘third party spokespeople’ to deliver Beijing’s message, and working to sway popular perceptions. China is also wooing journalists from around the world with all expenses-paid tours and offering even more, to tell China’s story well”. It is obvious that with such deep grey media ‘sleeper assets’ in place, polarizing the population, engineering widespread agitations, creating counter narratives etc, especially in democratic countries, are attractive ‘non war tools’. The Guardian report also provides a realistic glimpse of the potential, for creating upheavals and ultimately weakening democracies like India. Considered in this backdrop, one cannot be blamed for being skeptical about the scant international coverage that the plight of Uyghur Muslims of China attracts or closer home, for suspecting some of the Chinese sounding opinions about the ongoing border standoff.

Despite the phenomenal increase in application of extreme ‘non war’ means, by China in particular, this dimension has not been paid adequate attention by India. Unlike ‘wars’ which create immense turmoil even for the initiator or the winner, ‘non war tools’ carry near zero risk, can be employed against an adversary by operating below the surface, on a continuous basis, without weapons. It costs a miniscule compared to armed conflicts and can be propagated through a wide spectrum of activities such as diplomacy, trade, economy, social media, academia, cyber platform and even through activities of NGO’s, world bodies such as UN, WTO etc. These activities remain within internationally accepted ‘non war’ threshold, even when their effects are severe and visible. Such tools are very lucrative low risk – high return investment and can be structured in support of or against nations. They can even be made self sustaining and can be effectively rolled out in a standalone mode or in conjunction with armed conflicts.

Prior to the dawn of globalization, great premium was placed on self reliance. Globalization shattered national borders, trade barriers and introduced the complex dynamics of trade, industrial and economic ‘interdependency’.  Even sworn adversaries joined hands for mutual economic benefits, creating a web of interdependencies in almost everything from food items to automobiles to mobile phones to medicines to even fighter jets!  The level of interdependency has reached such extreme levels that even hi-tech advanced war equipment of countries sometimes incorporates critical inputs and components manufactured in an adversary country.  A U.S. Congressional Research Service Report of 2013 states that each F 35 Lightning II fighter aircraft of U.S., considered amongst the most sophisticated stealth fighters in the world, requires approximately 920 pounds of Rare Earth materials, sourced from China. While the colonialism of fifteenth to eighteenth centuries subjugated a geographical area and its people through military power for deriving economic gains, the economic colonialism of today works exactly the other way around.

The world remained mute spectators in September 2010, when China arm twisted Japan in retaliation to the Senkaku Island fishing trawl incident, by stopping critical raw material supply, which forced Japan to fall in line. Chinese approach has been no different in South China Sea or with U.S. and Australia in trade conflicts. Closer home, construction of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka by China in the garb of economic and infrastructure assistance and the dubious manner in which the Chinese firm, ‘China Merchant Port Holdings’ subsequently took over Hambantota port on a 99-year lease is a glaring example. The sinking Pakistani economy has been kept afloat on ‘Red Stilts’ with the prospect of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) dropping the ‘P’ and becoming just CEC before long. It is not difficult to see the unseen hand that is nudging Nepal to take an antagonistic stance against India. China, being the common factor in all the above examples is not a mere coincidence.  Further, the unprecedented level of India-China border standoff with heavy causalities on both sides is perfectly timed with the Wuhan virus peaking in India and an economic slowdown.  But, from a diplomatic perspective not a single bullet has been fired and all that has happened, even when seen together, is not war. What do we call it? If we believe that war is “the continuation of policy with other means”, it brings clarity to what the Chinese are doing. Till the border standoff, it was continuation of the Chinese policy through tools other than war. By engineering the border standoff, China has added the dimension of war to the ‘tools other than war’ which she was already playing out. It is evident that China is playing a full spectrum game and, therefore, to deal with her effectively, we need to grasp the entire spectrum of ‘means’ which are being employed to further her policies.

Coming to the India-China border imbroglio, a solution is unlikely unless China gives up its outrageous territorial claims and thereafter, both sides venture to explore revolutionary conflict resolution ideas; mutual acceptance of some of the disputed areas such as Aksai Chin as a common territory with equal and joint ownership may be one such possibility. However, at the moment, such a possibility appears hallucinatory.

China wants to be seen as being unrelenting in pursuing all means, including war, in pursuit of her policy of seeking global domination. The ongoing border standoff is a part of this. However, having decided to demonstrate the intent of employing the tool of war against India, she seems to have run into a dilemma. It is possible that China underestimated the Indian resolve and reaction. Unlike in 1962, she has to contend with a seasoned, battle hardened opponent. The unique dynamics of fighting in the treacherous mountains and the dimensions brought in by the Indian Navy and the Air Force cannot be wished away. China has not fought a three-dimension armed conflict so far. She has activated too many fronts. Considered in this backdrop, there seems to be an equilibrium prevailing, and to go beyond aggressive posturing now, China may have to tread on slippery ground. However, the unpredictable Dragon cannot be trusted and may well show up at Lipulekh pass tomorrow.  For India, there is no option dilemma. The only option is to be vigilant and stand firm.

In many ways, the standoff has come as a blessing for India. It has reiterated the inescapable and urgent need to maintain adequate military capability against China at all times. There’s also a clear lesson for policy makers and opinion makers regarding the highest priority that the country’s armed forces merit.  It has again demonstrated the need for a thorough introspection, a complete relook at the functioning and control of ITBP, realistic threat assessment, joint planning and execution, prioritization of the modernization needs within the armed forces, and giving a big boost to domestic defence industry. Going beyond, the other issue staring down at us on the face is India’s vulnerability to ‘non war’ means and the urgent need for India to also invest in specific China centric ‘non war tools’.


Source: This article first appeared in Strategic Perspectives, April-June 2020 of the United Services Institution of India.