Written by Admiral Arun Prakash (Rtd).
Accustomed as we are to the often shrill hyperbole in India’s public discourse, the description of the tense Himalayan face-off as the “incident at Doklam” and its denouement as an “expeditious disengagement of border personnel” by the Ministry of External Affairs came across as a refreshing example of phlegmatic understatement. The diplomatic finesse shown by India stood in stark contrast to the Chinese spokesperson’s gauche declaration that India had “pulled back all the trespassing personnel and equipment”.
Close followers of the game of chess or “shatranj”, Indians think in terms of striking blows, decisive battles and finally checkmating or claiming total victory over the opponent. The Chinese counterpart of shatranj is the game of “wei-qui”, based on “surrounding pieces” and “strategic encirclement”. Opponents seek empty spaces and building up of strength, surrounding and capturing opposing pieces.
Political pundits and diplomatic analysts are likely to spend days deciphering the hidden meanings underlying the Chinese conduct and dialectic, seen and heard during the past six weeks. The common man has, understandably, heaved a sigh of relief at the (short-term) resolution of a potentially dire crisis; an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between two major military powers and nuclear-armed states.
The Chinese however tend not to risk the outcome of a conflict on a single clash; they plan elaborate multifacted strategies based on the patient accumulation of small gains. Doklam was, by no means, India’s last confrontation with China and there is, thus, no cause whatsoever for our soldiers, diplomats and political leadership to become complacent — for four reasons.
Firstly, our 1962 military defeat was due to the egregious misreading of China’s intent by India’s political leadership. Fifty-five years on, clarity and resolve are still lacking vis-a-vis our strategic stance and policies towards an increasingly bellicose and assertive China.
This seeming diffidence is partly rooted in a fear of the unknown, our profound ignorance about this huge neighbour. We have neither created a substantive pool of Mandarin speakers, nor fostered many organisations dedicated to researching China’s history, culture, economy, industry and strategic thought. With bizarre perversity, we have been spurning the huge window, into China, that a willing and cooperative Taiwan has been offering to us, for years. We need to stop groping in the dark and create strategies to counter China’s long-term intentions.
Secondly, China, translating its enormous economic gains into coercive military power, expects neighboring nations to voluntarily submit to Chinese hegemony. This is a clear echo of the distant past. In 416 BCE, when the mighty Athenian state overpowered the tiny island of Melos, it had delivered an ultimatum, using a similar chilling phraseology: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Servile personalities like Philippine President Duterte have given China false illusions of grandeur and power by having its near abroad come kowtowing to Beijing for economic gains. These illusions have been reinforced by America’s aborted “pivot to Asia” and ineffectual “freedom of navigation” operations by the US Navy. The artificial South China Sea islands are here to stay and China knows that possession is nine-points of law.
People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 book, “China Dream”, provides many pointers. It defines China’s national goal as to become “number one” in the world, but rejecting the “peaceful rise” thesis, it advocates a “military rise” along with its “economic rise”. A part of the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” is the establishment of a “unified global system”, or empire, termed tianxia in Mandarin. Order, in this system, is maintained under the aegis of a hegemonic state, which dominates by virtue of its acknowledged superiority.
According to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of realpolitik and follow a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the rest of the world. Close followers of the game of chess or “shatranj”, Indians think in terms of striking blows, decisive battles and finally checkmating or claiming total victory over the opponent.
The Chinese counterpart of shatranj is the game of “wei-qui”, based on “surrounding pieces” and “strategic encirclement”. Opponents seek empty spaces and building up of strength, surrounding and capturing opposing pieces. While chess encourages single-mindedness, wei-qui generates strategic flexibility. Let us learn to play wei-qui.
Thirdly, while patting ourselves on the back for deft diplomacy, let us not forget that we have had a close call. While our gallant armed forces could certainly have given a “bloody nose” (so eagerly sought by militant TV anchors) to the PLA on many fronts, a general war or even a limited clash over Doklam would have been equally damaging to both nations and their economies.
Let us, also, remind ourselves that the PLA is undergirded by a military-industrial complex, established in the 1950s, which is a prolific producer of missiles, tanks, fighters, warships, submarines and ordnance. While the world has an inkling that the “Make in India” project is awaiting take-off, the feckless office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India saw it fit to choose this juncture to reveal every single shortcoming in India’s half-full arsenal.
Avoiding knee-jerk responses, let us undertake long-term measures to ensure that our armed forces are always equipped and ready to fight a 30-day “intense war”. also find ways to prevent statutory bodies like the CAG from endangering national security.
Finally, while the vision of China’s grandiose, “One-Belt One Road” (OBOR) may be impressive as well as intimidating, the project relies on ports, seaborne commerce and sea lanes. India’s non-participation in the project is already causing concern in Beijing. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s famous reference to the “Malacca dilemma”, which acknowledged the vulnerability of China’s seaborne trade and energy, was, no doubt, rooted in India’s dominant oceanic location and the possibility of trade warfare being waged by the Indian Navy. India must do everything to keep Hu Jintao’s nightmare alive.
Admiral Arun Prakash served as the Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, from July 31, 2004, to October 31, 2006. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr.