Beijing is aware that New Delhi is continental in security approach while the actual Indian advantage lies in the maritime domain
by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Following up on my article a fortnight ago that reviewed the military situation in Ladakh, there is a need to analyse the geopolitical issues that brought about the standoff that began last year and those that spun off from it. The standoff continues today, albeit with partial disengagement but very little de-escalation. Ladakh may be proximate to the roof of the world but turbulence there has geopolitical impact far into the oceans and lands more than halfway across the world. Its presence right there in the mountain ranges almost contiguous to Tibet and Xinjiang (China’s soft underbelly) and providing the most optimal overland connectivity to the Indian Ocean (far more stable than what Gilgit-Baltistan does) gives it this strategic importance. China perceives that India’s northern mountain tracts are isolated; within it Ladakh is even more so. It views this as the ideal pressure point for coercion. However, the northern mountains have an intrinsic connect with the Indian Ocean. India may be threatened up north but it can make China extremely uncomfortable down south in the waters through which flow the latter’s energy shipping lanes as also the container traffic taking finished manufactured goods to various markets—the lifeline of China’s grandstanding economic status. Beijing is aware that New Delhi is continental in security approach while the actual Indian advantage lies in the maritime domain.
It is not easy to alter mindsets as India’s confidence in its maritime strength and quid pro quo capability in the oceans at a fundamentally different level of engagement are understandably low. It is not the Indian Navy that lacks confidence but the nation’s strategic community as a whole. It is this mindset that needs to be overcome as the world moves into geopolitical reset and the centre of gravity of US strategic concerns shifts to the Indo-Pacific.
In the ongoing transition of the reset involving shift of focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, nations such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia already have various shades of security treaties with the US for mutual advantage. India is only a major defence partner of the US. Even while being incorporated into the Indo-Pacific security matrix, India retains its strategic autonomy but remains at risk while it seeks, negotiates and processes its entry into what could emerge as the NATO of the East, the Quad. This hypothesis points to the fact that as long as the Middle East and Afghanistan remained in focus, China did not perceive a threat from India. In recent years, it has observed the speed with which Indo-US relations have progressed well beyond the socio-economic domain into the strategic one. As long as India remained in self-doubt about moving into a strategic relationship with the US and harped on its multilateral approach to international relationships, including strong ties with Moscow and Beijing, the Chinese were quite satisfied. China’s worst fears were an Indo-US-Japan equation translating into a security understanding, especially one that focused on the maritime domain. The Quad earlier hadn’t shown much progress and China was hopeful that the Australia connection would not materialise. Doklam 2017 was a case of ambiguity for China; it was not sure how to handle its strategic fallout but it sensed India’s progressively growing self-confidence.
In choosing to message the world about its larger intent of fast-tracking its superpower status, China was pragmatic. It chose to adopt ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ against the Pacific nations but limited military coercion against India. That is because military coercion against these nations would bring it into direct conflict with the US while pressuring India would draw the US only indirectly. China finds India isolated at the high Himalayas and in collusion with Pakistan, it finds that the risk of a larger conflagration is comparatively minimal as no other power is likely to get involved as a balancing force. The Quad and potential Quad nations all have maritime interests far from India’s conflict in the Himalayas.
Without yet perceiving the pandemic as a strategic malafide intent of China, its series of actions in East and Southeast Asia, and against Australia, in 2020 showed a pattern of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’—the latter being defined as the use of confrontational rhetoric as well as increased willingness to rebuff criticism of China and court controversy in interviews and on social media and in the diplomatic realm. It was unnerving for some nations including Taiwan and was a form of limited military brinkmanship with diplomatic coercion. China knew it could not press home anything militarily in view of the various arrangements for security that exist all over the region. Xi Jinping has now spoken against wolf warrior diplomacy and urged that a more positive strategic perception of China be created. That is probably the new strategy in the Pacific region; it is left to be seen what is going to be China’s strategy related to the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific.
India joining the Indo-Pacific matrix of security would mean far greater maritime cooperation and thus an impingement on China’s Achilles’ heel. Dissuading India from joining this by keeping the sword of Damocles hanging in the form of a progressive escalatory response at the northern borders in conjunction with Pakistan would remain the basic concept of China’s strategy to prevent itself from being hemmed in from different directions in the maritime domain. It will also work on the maritime neighbourhood of India; Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar all assume greater importance than just a string of pearls. For India, ramping up maritime offensive and defensive capabilities appears to be the best bet if it wishes to be an effective contributory partner in the Quad.
However, it should also be prepared for bouts of coercion at the continental borders, the nature of which may remain unpredictable. The danger that will inevitably remain will be the conversion of China’s politico-strategic intent into military aims. I concluded in my last piece that China went wrong in this in April 2020. The chance of getting this wrong again remains very high. Therein lies India’s challenge—to remain an important and contributing member of the Quad or any other such arrangement and yet deter China from undertaking any misconceived military adventurism at the border. Perhaps at some stage this could come to a head, and that is the situation we have to be prepared for, because militarily we will be alone against a collusive effort.