A playbook for India to checkmate China conundrum

File Photo: Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter jet.

(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. The writer is a Defence.Capital reader and a military affairs enthusiast. For his other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)

By Rohit Verma

The ongoing impasse between India and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and especially the violent clashes between the two armies on June 15 in Galwan Valley have irreversibly setback this bilateral relationship.

For India, it cannot be and should not be business as usual with China any longer. While most of the commentaries on this issue (by powers that be and by the media and the experts) are absorbed with ending this current situation on the LAC, this article focuses on what specific actions India can take to realistically checkmate the Chinese for a long time to come.

Before discussing those specific actions, it will be helpful to understand the role that an asymmetrical advantage or disadvantage plays in relations between two adversaries.

• Today, India enjoys no asymmetrical advantage vis-à-vis China. In fact, India has very limited or no advantage against China in geopolitical, economic, diplomatic, and military fields. India claims to have military parity with China on the borders, but having parity is not enough.

A situation of parity actually gives room for either party to attempt to incrementally alter the position to its advantage without the fear of a large adversarial response from the other party. China is attempting exactly that with its strategy of nibbling territories on the LAC.

At present, India cannot realistically prevent the Chinese from making these attempts to slowly grab its land. At best, India can only bring to bear matching counter force in case of a violent escalation, which will only lead to much losses on both sides and a stalemate on the ground that will not prevent such attempts from being made again in the future.

• In contrast, the United States enjoys a number of asymmetric advantages against the Chinese. To name a few:

(a) the Chinese economy’s growth model is heavily dependent on its trade with the US, and
(b) the US military enjoys an overwhelming superiority over its Chinese counterpart.

These asymmetric advantages of the US are the reason that China remains muted in its actual (not verbal) response to US President Donald J. Trump‘s moves against it. For example, the US unleashing trade war on China; forcing the Chinese to renegotiate trade deals in favor of the US; sanctioning Chinese entities; ignoring Chinese claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea; and arming Taiwan.

• Similarly, none of the large and very wealthy Muslim states in West Asia can do anything tangible in response to Israel’s actions of continuously consolidating its position against the Palestinians.

Even though Israel’s economy is order of magnitudes smaller as compared to the combined massive economies of its Arabian rivals, Israel has asymmetric advantages due to its undisputed military superiority in that region and its strategic partnership with the US.

Developing Asymmetric Advantage

For India to develop asymmetric advantages over China to deter the dragon’s predatory instincts and to have a stronger position in future negotiations with the Chinese, India has to initiate the following actions today, so that these efforts can bear fruit in the coming five to 10 years:

  • First, purchase on priority the remaining 90 Dassault Avaition‘s Rafale fighter aircraft (in addition to the 36 already on order).

Addition of these potent 126 front line fighters to the Indian Air Force‘s (IAF’s) arsenal will outclass anything that the Chinese military can field against India in the near future (including their numerical superiority in air, ground, and sea).

In addition to the already underway modernisation of the Indian Army‘s artillery arm and the Indian Navy‘s anti-submarine capabilities, the 126 Rafale fighter jets will transform IAF in a very short time into an unmatched weapon of reprisal giving India an asymmetric advantage against China in the military domain.

This second Rafale deal would cost between $15 billion to $20 billion — a price that is very much affordable for India and is definitely worth for conclusively ensuring the outcome of any future battle in India’s favour.

Come to think of it, this single potent advantage is quite ‘easy’ to achieve — it just needs the political will to execute this deal now and then let the military professionals do their magic with the training and integration of Rafale into India’s overall war-fighting apparatus.

One can be rest assured that the message from this significant military deal will not be lost on the Chinese, since they fully understand that the Rafale fighters in such large numbers have the capability to single handedly dominate any adversary in this region.

  • Second, transform India into a formidable manufacturing hub that is closely interlinked with the components supply chain from South East Asian countries.

However, achieving this is more complicated than just the lip services done so far. The aim must NOT be to completely replace Chinese manufacturing, which is also logically impossible. The aim should be to build capacity and capabilities to ultimately move 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the global manufacturing from China to India.

This target is very much realistic and achieving it will not only weaken China and significantly reduce its global clout, but it will also reduce the current massive gap between the Indian and Chinese economies.

However, given the moderate success of ‘Make in India‘ initiatives thus far, it is important to now realise that the job of transforming India into a global manufacturing powerhouse needs to be entrusted to India’s business professionals, supported by the political leadership and the bureaucracy and not the other way around.

The important perspective that must not be lost sight of is that this initiative is to give India an asymmetric advantage over its adversaries and that is the single biggest reason India cannot afford to fail in this endeavor and must not take it lightly.

This journey will require getting many things right at the same time — building industrial capacities clustered around focus areas (like pharmaceuticals, electronics, precision engineering, machine tools, and heavy engineering), infrastructure development of transport corridors, training, automation, research and development, science parks, favorable laws and regulations, rationalisation of tax structures, bilateral and multilateral treaties with supply-side and demand-side nations.

This list highlights the complex and interdependent multiple work streams, all of which need to be simultaneously executed to stand-up India’s homegrown manufacturing capability as a national security asset, and that is all the more reason why this track must be led by handpicked and patriotic industry professionals having the laser focus to achieve milestones for this mandate.

  • Finally, the most significant asymmetric geopolitical advantage that India can acquire to strengthen its power status in Asia is by merging Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) into the Indian Union.

Based on varying statements in the media made by India’s current political leadership and by retired officials, it should be assumed that this plan is currently in the works. However, so far, retaking POK has been mostly looked at from the lens of keeping Pakistan in check. But, the largest ramification of India recapturing POK will be for China, especially in the following major ways:

(a) POK’s integration with India will remove the contiguous geographical boundary between China and Pakistan. Direct link between China and Pakistan will become history. India will effectively have a veto on China’s back-up plan to reach the waters of the Arabian Sea and onwards to the Suez Canal and to the Gulf region using the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

It is not to say that after taking control of POK, India should deny China the road access to Pakistan, but the sovereign control of POK will strengthen India’s hand in negotiations and will incentivise China to play fair in its relations with India, which will eventually result in increased and a more balanced bilateral trade between the two countries.

(b) India already has leverage in the Indian Ocean to disrupt maritime traffic to China. With POK in its possession, India will have the option to blockade this backup supply route to China (coming via Pakistan), thereby giving India an asymmetric advantage in any potential conflict with China.

(c) Additionally, integrating POK with India will give India passage via Afghanistan to Central Asia, Russia, and the large European markets. This market access will put Indian goods on level playing field with the Chinese goods that are currently flooding those regions.

(d) Finally, China’s strategic options and belligerence in the South China Sea will get greatly curtailed since free access to supplies via Pakistan will no longer be available. This is an important point of convergence in the Indian and the US strategic interests when dealing with the Chinese and therefore any game plan to retake POK should include an interdependent deal with the US to ensure its success.

So, while India’s immediate efforts must be to de-escalate the current crisis in Ladakh (and at the same time, also be ready to escalate the matter economically and militarily, if needed), its longer term stability and improvement in relations with China will come from achieving an asymmetrical advantage against this aggressive neighbor.

This requires a shift in the thought process from ‘giving a tit for tat‘ (‘eent ka jawan patthar se‘) to ‘establishing an undeniable asymmetrical advantage’ with regard to China.

Achieving this monumental change in India’s relationship with China will need to start now with a change in mindset that strives to achieve and maintain asymmetric gaps against the adversary. In the words of Dhirubhai Ambani, “agar soch badloge toh kismat badlegi” (“change in mindset can change destiny“).

(The writer is a technology entrepreneur based in the United States with extensive work experience in India, China, and the US)

3 replies »

  1. China know for its coercive tactics will lead or be led. So a balanced relationship on the economics may not be feasible in the near future until the PoK is taken over. China is not going to allow that smoothly and the involvement of the US and Israel can smoothen the process. Post take over china would have little to do with pakistan. The economic balance might be at a level playing field with a give and take balance for the passage through the indian region. One thought much appriciated in the work in several areas that india needs to catch up as an alternative to the chinese supplies to the world.

  2. Very amateurish.In the post Covid world India has a significant diplomatic edge over China.Geographically India’s location gives it a great maritime advantage vis a vis China.A combat hardened professional force n high quality equipment has always had an edge on a conscription based Army with no combat experience n Chinese type equipment.Author should spend some time studying Military history from the times of Alexander to WW1 WW2 to Sino Vietnam war,US Vietnam war n USSR adventure in Afghanistan.With limited production France will take a very long time to deliver Rafale even if ordered n they r not full stealth fighters as well.I. An go on n on but I am not writing an article here.

    • I will refrain from propaganda in this reply to this comment. And instead, will focus on hard facts here:

      Fact # 1. India has no diplomatic advantage against China. Apparently, all the diplomacy did not prevent the current violent skirmish, it has not prevented China from supporting Pak, it has not incentivized China to open its market on reciprocal basis for a more balanced trade, and it has not been able to bring China to settle the boundary issue. Without a permanent seat on Security Council, our options are limited. Plus, diplomatic strength flows from economic and military strength, not the other way around. None of the lip service by any other country in favour of India has been able to prevent China’s continued hostility and belligerence.

      Fact # 2. Indian military has limited or no military advantage against China to deter its repeated aggressive behavior. Almost every senior Indian military officer in their writings about India – China have raised the red flag about India’s fast eroding military capabilities against China. After all decades of huge spending gap between the two militaries cannot be wished away by propaganda.

      Fact # 3. “Combat experience”. India has not fought a major war since 1971. Kargil was a localized battle against a weaker military and even there, India failed to deliver punitive costs on the aggressor. For all the hype about the Sundarji doctrine of the 1980 and 1990’s, the massive Indian Strike corps took over 4 weeks to mobilize during Op Parakram in 2002, blunting the edge and giving ample time for the adversary to build-up counter force and defences. Any professional soldier respects his enemies and so, it will be foolhardy to not appreciate the enemy’s strength and history. It was the same ‘rag tag and conscript’ Chinese army that gave the superior US military a bloody nose in Korea in the early 1950’s even though China had suffered humiliation from Japan during WW II not long ago in the 1940’s. At best, India can claim military parity with China on the border, and unfortunately, that parity is not preventing China from attempting to nibble away Indian territories.

      Fact # 4. Industrial productions ramp up and down based on the orders at hand and in pipeline. It is simple business driven by demand-supply economics. It does not make sense for France to ramp-up production capacities for just 36 aircrafts. Read about US’s industrial production rate in WW II. They were producing battle ships at a rate faster than the feared German U-boats could sink them in the Atlantic.

      Finally, The focus of this article is to highlight that a “tit for tat” strategy against China will only lead to a stalemate, will not ensure military victory, and will not prevent China from continuing its aggressive posture. Unless India changes the game by gaining an asymmetric advantage against China (and experts can debate on the tools to get there beyond the 3 points mentioned in this article), India will not have the leverage over China to change its behavior.

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