The mistaken Chinese calculation | Analysis
Its economy is shrinking; PLA isn’t fully prepared; anti-China sentiment is high; India will be resoluteUpdated: Jul 02, 2020 20:14 IST
China has been uncomfortable with the emergence of another Asian power. Apart from checkmating proposals made by India at the United Nations and other global forums, Beijing has tried to contain New Delhi’s influence in the region. In a bid to throw a cordon sanitaire around India, China has focused on the countries in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. It has established a strategic partnership with Pakistan and deepened diplomatic, economic and military engagements with others. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been leveraged for this purpose. China also employs both inducements and coercion. In the Indo-Pacific region, Africa and some other regions, China has unabashedly interfered in internal matters.
All emerging great powers tend to be aggressive to maximise their influence in the geopolitical arena. However, in the case of China, such behaviour seems premature. While China has made discernible strides in augmenting its comprehensive national power (CNP), there are still several internal and external challenges that continue to give President Xi Jinping sleepless nights. On the domestic front, these pertain to its economy, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s leadership, national morale, and the rising anti-China sentiment in the international domain.
China’s shrinking economy has generated widespread unemployment. The Chinese Communist Party (CPC)-driven policy of empowering State-owned enterprises has impacted the private sector that used to contribute over 65% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and more than 90% of new jobs. Moreover, the relocation of manufacturing, growing debt, and an ageing population that will shrink its workforce, will impinge on China’s economic stability in the long-term.
In 2012, Xi had announced the transformation of PLA into a world-class military, that would facilitate its journey towards the “world’s centre-stage” by 2049. Since then, multifaceted reforms have been undertaken to enhance its combat power and accountability to the CPC. However, Xi, who personally monitors the reforms, is unhappy with the professional standards of PLA leadership as it lacks practical war-fighting experience. Several think-tanks have assessed that at this juncture, PLA is well short of the capabilities required to challenge other militaries.
National morale is a crucial ingredient of CNP. China’s national morale should not be gauged by its captive media’s reportage and the diplomatic activism unleashed by its new brand of “wolf warriors”. Both are involved in countering the western and Indian media, besides marketing the Chinese model of governance and projecting Xi as a global leader. But beneath the surface, there is growing dissent against the CPC owing to the spike in unemployment, choked civil liberties and victimisation of all perceived detractors and minority communities. Xi’s heavy-handed approach in enhancing the CPC’s control is also creating dangerous undercurrents. As per open-source information, he had dismissed and imprisoned over 2.3 million officials between 2013-2018, including several senior PLA officials and bureaucrats.
Given these challenges, PLA’s adventurism in eastern Ladakh appears to be ill-timed and based on flawed assumptions. Perhaps, Beijing never expected a resolute politico-military response from India. India’s military build-up and posturing, along with the measures to hurt its economy and garner international support, will give Beijing the jitters.
India’s short-term strategy should aim at restoring the status quo ante along the Line of Actual Control through a combination of military and diplomatic negotiations. The use of force should be considered only after exhausting all possible non-kinetic options. While implementing a kinetic option, we must cater for the escalation, institute viable measures in the cyber domain, and also remain poised to thwart any adventurism by Pakistan.
India’s long-term strategy should be guided by its national interests, based on pragmatism. To minimise risk in the face of Chinese deception, the ends, ways and means must be aligned. The ends are the objectives that we wish to achieve vis-à-vis China. The means are the political, diplomatic, economic, military and information elements of national power along with other internal and external resources available to the government. The ways are the most efficient and effective options for the application of resources to achieve the objectives. The ways selected should not get influenced by any extraneous or parochial factors.
While garnering international support, India should incrementally exploit the economic pressure points against China and fast-track the initiatives to enhance its combat power and infrastructure development. A re-evaluation of the mountain strike corps to create a deterrent capability is perhaps a strategic imperative. Its application could be in the newly-created battle groups. I am flagging this issue as, during my official visit to China in July 2014, I had sensed PLA leadership’s concerns and anxiety on its raising. Today, India has the military capability to give China a bloody nose. However, the political leadership will also require large tracts of real estate across the border to enable post-conflict negotiations from a position of strength.
Since the development of the necessary combat power will take time, in the interim, it would be prudent to align with like-minded nations to balance the regional military power equations. However, this should be undertaken with due diligence.
To effectively deal with China’s hostile designs, the nation must stand united behind its soldiers, sailors and airmen. This will help sustain the highest levels of military morale, a sine qua non for victory.