The second part of Sun Tzu’s epigram is “know thy enemy”. It is a bloodcurdling thought for India and the smaller countries of Asia.
The enemy is a sinister and wily foe, the like of which there is none in the modern world. An autocracy armed with nuclear weapons, and accountable to none. Dealing with such an enemy for an open democracy under the rule of law, with a Parliament where the Government is accountable, is a cruel “handicap.”
India is in a very unenviable position, scrupulously observing rules of international law, subscribing to the UN Human Rights regime and having no extra-territorial ambitions. History hardly offers any guide. Europe did face an equally autocratic Soviet Communist regime in the last century.
But contemporaneous democracies in Western Europe could do business with it under a ‘balance of power’. Besides, and which is most relevant, the democracies led by the US had forged a credible military alliance ~ NATO.
It maintained peace in Europe for half a century after World War II till the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. Moreover, the Soviet Communists were not so devious in their dealings with other powers as they, by and large abided by the rules of the game, once they realized that the Western democracies would stand together and safeguard themselves under their mutually binding military pacts. In sharp contrast, the Chinese communists have virtually sanctified a State policy of ‘fair is foul and foul is fair.’
The latest report of the US Justice Department as given out by the Attorney General, William Barr makes for a stunning read.
“The Communist State (China) practises theft, currency manipulation, torture, counterfeiting, officially organized trade secret thefts and extortion.” Any foreign organization that portrays the actual state of affairs behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ is subjected to subtle arm-twisting, to tow the official propaganda line, including such corporate giants as Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, Apple, Google, Cisco, Microsoft etc. behaving like obedient pygmies.
The ‘Bamboo Curtain’ is thicker than the Iron Curtain of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Arguably, the most sinister aspect of the Chinese communist Government is the existence of a law ~ the National Intelligence Law under which any Chinese citizen travelling abroad can be ‘legally’ required to spy on behalf of the State, wherever he may be.
Businessmen, tourists, contract labour, even scholars and ‘students’ going to Western universities for higher studies! Imagine potential 1.4 billion Chinese ‘spies’ who may be coerced to double up as intelligence operatives abroad, on the pain of punishment under Chinese law and confiscation of their passports. It is an incredibly sinister “law”, even by the standards of a modern police state or the erstwhile Soviet Communist totalitarian regime.
Can India survive an adversary that observes the rules of the game by breaching these? A nuclear power that has sanctified the art of deception as State policy.
A country that takes advantage of its small and weak neighbours to continually push its borders outwards, to grab resource rich regions to feed its ever-growing population and expand its economic clout in the entire continent of Asia and to lay ‘debt traps’ for struggling economies.
To sneak in and occupy piecemeal uninhabited islands in international waters and establish their military bases. In context, the recent public statement by our External Affairs minister that India has never joined any military alliance nor will it ever do so, was entirely avoidable.
As Winston Churchill put it, in relations between states, there can be no ‘absolutes’. Of course, QUAD comprising India, USA, Australia and Japan is a bold step in the right direction.
But just the first step.
The foursome is somewhat of a loose arrangement for “collective security”. So far, there is no military alliance and no formal treaty. In the event of a bigger Chinese thrust, we may have plenty of sympathizers but no military support, as happened in 1962. The foursome needs to become fearsome. Kissinger hit the nail on the head.
“The concepts of collective security and of alliances are diametrically opposed. Traditional alliances were directed against specific threats and defined precise obligations for specific groups of countries linked by shared national interests. The purpose of an alliance is to produce an obligation more predictable and precise than an analysis of national interest. Collective security works in the exact opposite way. It leaves the application of its principles to the interpretation of particular circumstances.”
Western democracies successfully rolled back the nuclear armed Soviet Communist regime without firing a shot, so to say. The first common policy step was to ensure collective security through formal military treaties such as NATO and ANZUS. European democracies were under no delusion that any of them could, individually take on the mighty Soviet Communist regime without the formal military leadership of the US.
The West European militaries were placed under the overall command of the US military. Even the nuclear weapons were so placed, except that two nuclear powers ~ UK and France ~reserved nuclear weapons under national command for use as a last resort in ‘supreme national interest.’
Secondly, the Western democracies publicly declared that the military alliance was purely defensive but committed to fight together in the event of attack on any of them. They were categorical that though they viewed the Soviet Union as an “evil Empire”, in the words of then US President Reagan, they ruled out first use of nuclear weapons for fighting a war.
“A nuclear war can never be won, and hence must never be fought”, in the memorable words of Reagan again. At the same time, they demonstrated their unequivocal resolve in keeping the powder dry. The US deterred any Communist adventurism by adopting the concept of Star Wars. Another strategy employed by the Western powers to roll back the “evil Empire” and to espouse their resolute commitment against the ills of a communist threat to democracies was to expose the true nature of the Soviet regime. Reagan openly labelled the Communist regime as an “outlaw empire prepared to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat in order to achieve its goals.”
The challenge before our diplomats now is to draw appropriate lessons from history and to gear up to roll back an even more “evil Empire”. India should take the lead in organizing the First Asian Security Conference of all the democracies of Asia currently facing growing Chinese economic dominance, and which cannot by themselves face up to the Communist regime ever hungry for natural resources, and now even food. Believe it or not, it is importing its staple food from even its main adversary ~ India.
The agenda should be the same as it was before the European Security Conference in 1975 ~ linking trade with security. Specifically, respect for historical borders and guarantee of navigation rights in open seas.
An obligation on the part of all signatories not to change borders by force. Secondly, a commitment to respect certain basic Human Rights of their citizens.
Incidentally, it was the latter provision which saw the successful rise of a Lech Walesa in Poland and a Vaclav Havell in Czechoslovakia.
Thirdly, trade and commerce would be free and fair among all signatory nations to the Declarations of the Conference. Within two decades of the signing of the Final Declaration of the Security Conference, the Soviet Communist regime was history.
The “evil Empire” was vanquished without firing a shot. Before India, there are two possibilities for this strategy to succeed. One, that the Chinese may not take part. That would provide a chance to India to assume leadership of smaller countries in Asia which are similarly threatened by Chinese adventurism and economic domination ~ Vietnam, Singapore, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand etc, and even bigger countries which may look up to Indian leadership ~ Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea etc. The other possibility is that the Chinese may join such a Conference. In this case, India can work together with these countries to forge a ‘balance of power’ in Asia with China, to checkmate further Chinese adventurism ~ a bipolar Asia.
The chances of India in a leadership role of these countries are good because most of these Asian countries are democracies and realize that by themselves, they are no match for the growing Chinese economic might. Nor is there any possibility of a democratic India laying a ‘debt trap’ for them, which is standard Chinese peacetime stratagem especially against smaller Asian countries.
In sum, India is now strong militarily but continues to be on the defensive diplomatically.
The military option is ruled out against an autocracy with an undeclared military policy where, in battle, ‘body count does not count for much’. (Concluded)
The writer is a retired IAS officer.