India should prepare, believing the war-threat is real even if Chinese build-up is coercive diplomacy

Shekhar Gupta
Sunday, 28 June 2020

What if the Chinese military build-up is just coercive diplomacy? India shouldn’t blink but believe the threat of war is real and be prepared.

Why have the Chinese ratcheted up a war-like situation and piled up their forces with the heavy stuff along Ladakh? What is it that they want from India? How India should respond will depend on our reading of this.

Not surprisingly, this has spawned an industry of Sinologists, geo-strategists and military-planners. Besides, we keep falling back on the odd words of strategic wisdom inherited from Sun Tzu or Kautilya. With Clausewitz and Machiavelli occasionally surfacing like an item number in a Hindi movie. For the ancient duo, you can attribute just about anything to them, as people often do about Confucius or Buddha. Nobody can fact-check you out of it.

If the first presumption that today’s big powers still act on strategic wisdom inherited from more than two millennia ago isn’t dodgy enough, check out the other one. Oh, the Indians are still caught with their chess mindset, while the Chinese play Go.

In chess, you target the opposing king. No such problem with Go. It involves the creation of several knots and blocks to throttle the adversary until he is down on his knees.

Once again, interesting thinking, especially in an era when WhatsApp is the divine fountain that spreads intellect around the world. And when all those who’ve been epidemiologists and virologists lately can become entomologists overnight when the locusts arrive, and psychiatrists when Sushant Singh Rajput dies, have now become grand strategists.

There is a twin peril in letting cultural stereotypes take over your minds. Today’s China and India are systems with new complexities that cannot be explained in such generalisations. That closes our minds.

As long as we remain caught in these cultural and ethnic traps, the fog in our minds will only get thicker (sorry, Clausewitz fans). But if you switch forward to current reality, you might find some plausible answers.

So, what are the Chinese up to in Ladakh? What do they want?

Go back about 20 years and see how India has been dealing with Pakistan. And remember that strategic concept that India invented: Coercive diplomacy.

I can’t say for sure who invented this brilliant two-word formulation, Jaswant Singh or late Brajesh Mishra. One of them did, to explain Op Parakram that India launched in December 2001, after the terror attack on our Parliament. It entailed piling up Indian forces along the borders, heavy stuff, live ammunition and all as if every bit poised for war. Seems familiar when you look across the LAC, eastwards?

Could it be that rather than applying any ancient wisdom, the Chinese have taken a leaf out of our book? That their unprecedented and somewhat-too-visible build-up is their own attempt at coercive diplomacy with India? And if so, what is it that they could be expecting as a quid pro quo?

It can’t be a few morsels of territory in Ladakh. That will be too minimalistic for such a risky move. Nor can it be an acceptance of CPEC, or formal ceding of Aksai Chin or a Tawang-sized capitulation in the east. That is too maximalist. It will never happen. So, what is it that the Chinese want in return for their exertions in the rarefied air at 14,000 feet?

Let’s presume for now that the Chinese are playing the game of coercive diplomacy: You want us off your backs, do this, deliver that, be good boys here. Or maybe a combination of all three. What could these be, how the game might unfold hereon, and the best way for India to respond?

More recent, and recorded references and parallels are much more realistic than any ancient wisdom or mantras. What did India achieve with its coercive diplomacy? What were its objectives? How did the Pakistanis respond?

I appreciate the risks of using that parallel. India is not Pakistan, of course. Never. But we are only wargaming. You can use ‘greenland’, ‘yellow land’ or whatever. India wanted Pakistan to guarantee that it gives up the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

That was achieved within a month of the Parliament attack when Musharraf made exactly those commitments in an address broadcast worldwide. In fact, he went so far as to acknowledge the list of 24 terrorists in Pakistan wanted in India including Dawood Ibrahim and promised to look for them and turn them over “because it is not as if we’ve given them asylum here”.

India wanted something more tangible, and the war-like standoff continued. It nearly got out of hand a couple of times, especially when terrorists attacked the families of Indian soldiers at Kaluchak cantonment near Jammu. But, restraint prevailed, partly because of foreign pressure on Pakistan, but mostly because India had never intended to go to war.

I had then asked all key players on our side, Jaswant Singh, Mishra and Atal Bihari Vajpayee if the risk of an uncontrollable escalation wasn’t always there. The answer Mishra gave me, in a ‘Walk The Talk’ interview on NDTV, was that for coercive diplomacy to work, the threat had to be so real that even we’d start to believe it. It was brinkmanship of the stronger power. Seems familiar, again as you look east of LAC?

India achieved much from that policy. It bought us peace for several years afterwards. Of course, nobody expected Pakistan to keep its word forever. But we have to also underline what each side did right and didn’t.

India began brilliantly to launch a realistic build-up, missed a trick in not knowing when to declare victory. It could have been done the day Musharraf made that speech. Pakistan had erred in blinking so early in the game. If India had declared victory then and called off the build-up, the gain would have been no more or less than what came eventually, but an enormous cost, attrition and uncertainty would’ve been avoided. It would’ve also been a clearer victory of coercive diplomacy. Our expectations were somehow maximalist.

The Pakistanis, on the other hand, recovered in the course of time and decided to stay put in defence, to tire India out. And they succeeded too. After a while, the stand-off became pointless and petered out like a dull draw on day five of a cricket Test.

Here are the lessons India can take forward then, being at the other end of the same equation:

1. Never blink. Stay put. Be reasonable, negotiate behind the scenes with an open mind. But never blink as Musharraf had done so early.

2. Take your time reading what the other side wants. Is it closer to the minimalist or the maximalist end? See what quid pro quo might be suitable. But concede nothing under duress.

3. Be prepared for the long haul. If your reading is that the Chinese are playing coercion, and their expectations are unrealistic, let them sit there while you dig in across the LAC, fully prepared. Wear them out.

4. And finally, remember, no two situations are alike. No two games, in love, sport or war, play out exactly the same way. So be prepared in case push comes to shove. Remember Brajesh Mishra’s words: For coercive diplomacy to work, the threat of war had to be so real even we believed it. Similarly, the way to counter it is also to imagine the threat of war, by the other side, is so real that you start believing it.

(Shekhar Gupta is a senior Indian journalist and author. He is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Print.)

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