For over a month now, Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in an eyeball to eyeball face-off on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. While there has been a lot of fierce rhetoric (almost wholly from the Chinese side, but a couple of remarks on the Indian side as well), credit goes to both countries that not a single shot has been fired so far (except in Pakistani fantasies).
There can be no doubt that we are dealing with a stronger enemy here, one which is fundamentally more capable of exercising all forms of brute force. That makes it imperative for us to use our wits, for which we must understand all the moving levers in this situation.
(1) The dragon has miscalculated India’s reaction : It is fairly clear that China did not expect India to get involved. The precise geographical location of the disputed area being in Bhutan and not on Indian soil, the Chinese probably expected us to do nothing more than note the developments with increasing alarm. What China really wants is for India to get out of the way so it can deal directly with Bhutan : and the tiny kingdom would no doubt be easy meat for the dragon.
(2) The fight for Bhutan’s soil is just as much a fight for our own : For India, this is no expeditionary campaign. Not only would the capture of Doklam plateau give the Chinese a huge strategic advantage against India, there is literally zero chance of the Chinese stopping there. With another bit of buffer state gone, the Chinese will come knocking on India’s borders within days.
The Chinese expansionist strategy is a real thing. It’s a good thing that India has decided to draw the line a few inches from our neck.
(3) The Chinese are testing our resolve : Much more than any military strategy, the Chinese are testing our nerves. This is clear from the way the Chinese have been changing their threat everyday. First they said it’s Doklam plateau. Then, the Chinese media talked about how India is bullying Bhutan and tried to reopen Sikkim as an issue. Then, they danced themselves all the way to Kashmir, then Arunachal and recently Ladakh. Now, some Chinese media are talking of a war “all over the border”, which is as fake a threat as can possibly be.
All these places are literally thousands of kilometers apart.
If the Chinese really had war on their mind, they would stick to one single spot and keep hammering it through. Instead, they are talking all over the place, seeking to intimidate us. This looks more like “sledging” that the Australian cricket team used to do in the old days.
(4) All out war with India is an impossibility : For starters, no two nuclear powers have ever declared war on each other. While we may have apocalyptic visions of hordes of Chinese troops bearing down upon our Northern border, the logistics required for this would be beyond China’s ability. It would require lakhs of soldiers and thousands of tonnes of equipment to be moved across the vastness of Tibet, over and across the Himalayas. This is terrain so bad that it takes special training merely to get acclimatised to the altitude. It’s too much for the poorly trained Chinese infantry.
Don’t believe me? Ask the Chinese government, they just recently decided to cut down their infantry by more than 50% because even they know that vast numbers of poorly trained troops are a liability rather than a value addition.
A much safer way for China to hurt India is to put Pakistan to the dirty and dangerous work. In a very ironic way, Pakistan is sort of a safety valve for India with regards to possible war with China. Instead of getting into direct confrontation with India, the temptation of using Pakistan to bleed India is probably too much for the Chinese to resist.
(5) China’s window of opportunity to humiliate India is closing : There is no doubt that China is a far superior military and economic power. We know that well.
Well, but does it really matter that much? What if we did a quick comparison between China and the United States? The US economy is 60% larger than the Chinese economy. In matters of science, technology, space exploration etc, the American lead is massive. Just for context, the Americans put a man on the moon in 1969! That’s nearly 50 years ago! When it comes to military, the Chinese operate one aircraft carrier. Just one… and they are just going about learning the ropes of that. In contrast, America operates as many as 10 aircraft carriers … all of them “super carriers” of over 70,000 tonnes displacement!
The point is that while China is not nearly as powerful as the United States, but it has achieved a certain military and economic threshold that makes it immune to American aggression. That point arrived somewhere between 2005 and 2010, right around the Beijing Olympics.
The same applies to China and India. Here is the *real* world power table and it shows why China has to hurry if it wants to put India down. It’s the list of the world’s biggest economies (2016) from the IMF.
Time is running out for China as India quickly moves up the ranks. As per the IMF, India will cross France this year (2017) itself and end up just a few billion behind the UK.
This is why time is running out for the Chinese. In 5 years, India will beat out Germany to get into the top 4 economies and in 10 years it will overtake Japan to become the 3rd largest economy in the world. Nobody dares to take on the world’s 3rd largest economy.
If the Chinese cannot humiliate India in the next 10 years and cut it down to size, they might not have another opportunity for 1000 years. This is the real reason why India needs to play for time. Let the sledging from the Chinese side continue.
(6) China is committing economic suicide : This is my last point and it may well be the most controversial. We’ve all heard about China’s $5 trillion One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
Ha! A $5 trillion project spread across 60 countries? The Chinese would be lucky if the bill stays within 5 times that number as it tries to build the Chinese Empire … oops… “big family of harmonious coexistence”.
The greed to build a worldwide empire is always the cause for the fall of nations. The reason America is in such a financial hole today is because it’s spread out too thin, trying to mind everyone else’s concerns. And they were trying to build just 2 countries : Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill came to over a trillion dollars.
The big OBOR bash in Beijing earlier this year was China’s version of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. When China gets into the business of heading a “family” of 60 nations, dozens among them being weak and failing states, the bills will cascade to amounts unheard of in human history. Xi Jinping has signed the warrant for the downfall of China already.
As I said before, India needs to hold tight and play for time. The moment of deliverance is not far away now.
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.