Nations seek to deter their adversaries from undertaking misadventures by displaying their power to retaliate effectively. Comprehensive national power provides requisite deterrence, the exception being nuclear weapon states which can deter stronger adversaries, North Korea and Pakistan being examples. The next option with nations is to attempt to resolve differences through dialogue. It is only when peaceful resolution fails that escalation is considered. Every Indian Prime Minister has sought to mend fences with Pakistan, which has been thwarted.
The Indian response to Pakistan’s terrorist strikes and misadventures, including Kargil, were restricted, due to Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail. This was broken with Balakote. Dialogue is currently in progress with China. Late President Abdul Kalam had stated in his address to cadets passing out of the Indian Military Academy on 9 December 2006, “India is progressing on both fronts (economic growth and developing military capability). There are however forces operating to derail this process. They do not want India to succeed economically and become self-reliant in military capability.”
This is the story of Indo-China relations. India, as a nation, has always sought peace with its neighbours and desired resolution of differences through dialogue. Addressing a seminar on ‘Globalizing Indian Thought’ conducted by IIM Kozhikode in January, PM Modi stated, “in a world seeking to break free from mindless hate, violence, conflict and terrorism, the Indian way of life offers a ray of hope.” He added, “Indian way of conflict avoidance is not by brute force but by the power of dialogue.”
PM Netanyahu of Israel stated in the Raisina Dialogue in January 2018, “The weak don’t survive, the strong survive. You make peace, alliances with the strong. You are able to maintain peace by being strong.” He added, “Defence costs a great deal of money. The money comes from the second source of power, economic power… The third power is political power, which means the ability to make political alliances and relationships with many other countries.”
For ensuring peace and succeeding in conflict resolution, military power is essentially backed by economic and diplomatic power. A nation’s power is relative. As Joseph Nye stated, “proof of power lies not in resources but in the ability to change the behavior of states.” It can be assessed in comparison to those on whom it is applied. History is replete with examples where even with overwhelming qualitative and quantitative power, success has eluded the attacker.
Success in war is largely determined by the purpose and national will of the victim to challenge the aggressor. It is this national will and determination which China is witnessing in Ladakh. Military power has traditionally been linked to securing a nation’s borders. Hence, as compared to police forces, the armed forces are trained to initiate and counter violence. However, with passage of time, the concept of security has changed. It currently includes securing the nation’s institutions, enabling development and enhancing quality of life.
Military power is also a tool for coercion, as current actions by China indicate. However, this power can be offset by alliances, national will and a determined military. NATO and Indo- US strategic alliances are examples. India, in the current standoff, does not desire alliance support within its frontiers to counter the Chinese. The deployment of US carrier groups in the South China Sea have deterred the Chinese navy from moving into the Indian Ocean, limiting possibilities of an all-out conflict, providing India an edge in the case of escalation.
This is the power of alliances. India does not possess requisite national power to deter China from misadventures and hence adopted collaboration, conflict avoidance and resolution. It refrained from joining anti-China alliances as also taking economic and diplomatic decisions which could impact relations. When China undertook the current intrusion, despite collaboration, India discarded its collaborative strategy, and initially sought conflict avoidance by enhancing deployment, followed by conflict resolution through dialogue.
Conflict avoidance is dependent on multiple factors. These include displaying a strong national will to resist, requisite military power which would deny the adversary a free run, placing within him doubts of failure leading to loss of face, diplomatic power which draws in global support and alliances as also an economy which could bear the cost of a conflict. An assessment of Indian reactions to the attempted Chinese intrusion in Ladakh would suggest that Indian actions, though reactionary, were carefully calibrated at every step and coordinated between multiple agencies to ensure that at no stage would India be accountable for any escalation.
Diplomatic power projected India as an aggrieved nation leading to a loss of Chinese credibility. It conveyed that while India seeks conflict resolution, it remains prepared for escalation. The visit by Rajnath Singh and display of military power at Ladakh sent this message. Moving from conflict resolution, dependent on dialogue, to conflict escalation to regain territory is a delicate decision. It should never be hurried. It should be adopted as a final resort when realisation dawns that dialogue would not yield desired results.
Such a scenario in Ladakh is still some distance away. Disengagement between India and China can never flow from a few discussions at the army or diplomatic levels, as it would project that China withdrew due to strong Indian military power. It would take time and hence there is a need for patience, especially for the detractors of the current leadership and those who have begun to believe that India has ceded territory to China.
Many believe that China possesses stronger military power. In 1962, despite shortfalls, the Indian army never permitted the Chinese a free run. Galwan reinforced this concept. China has witnessed first-hand Indian political and military determination. It presently continues to pursue its ongoing coercive strategy, delaying resolution. While India hopes that the current standoff would be resolved through dialogue, it is prepared for conflict escalation to safeguard its territory. For those seeking to push the government to act, there is a need to display patience with and trust in the military and political leadership.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)