Ideas

Beyond Doklam: How India Can Tame The Dragon By Taking A Leaf Out Of Its Own Playbook

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) gestures while talking with China’s President Xi Jingping during the BRICS leaders’ meeting (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • China has drawn lessons from their millennia-old history and developed a manual to defeat America - militarily, economically and culturally - by 2050.

    Here’s how India can tame the dragon by taking a leaf out of its playbook.

Former union minister Arun Shourie in his 2013 book “India’s China Policy” used Guru Teg Bahadur’s two shlokas from the Guru Granth Sahib to illustrate Indian government’s 66 years of foreign policy vis-à-vis its northern Himalayan neighbour.

The book starts with first chapter titled, Bal chhutki-o banDhan paray kachhoo na hot upaa-ay and ends with a chapter titled, Bal ho-aa banDhan chhutay sabh kichh hot upaa-ay.

In plain English: when strength is exhausted, bondages grip you, there is no solution in sight but when strength is restored, bondages break, and there is the solution to everything.

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If the former half of the shloka described our China policy before 2014, the latter aptly describes the current one. End to Doklam standoff is the latest demonstration of this new found strength.

Both sides have decided to revert to status-quo which existed before hostilities began when India challenged China’s intentions of building the road into Bhutanese territory.

Though Chinese media tried to spin the truce by stating that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops would continue to patrol the area whereas India has decided to pull back, the truth is India hadn’t objected to PLA patrolling but its road-building project in the area.

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By forcing China to return to the pre-16 June situation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his national security advisor Ajit Doval have secured a massive diplomatic and psychological victory. Their strategy worked, and they deserve a pat on the back. However, the statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is short on details and mentions only that “expeditious disengagement” of border personnel on both sides has been agreed to.

Only when (and if) the fine print of mutual agreement is made public, a thorough post-mortem can be done. Nonetheless, the Modi-Doval duo deserve two cheers: they managed to show that India stands by its friends irrespective of their size and strength; India emerged as a mature power confident of its position, thanks to its restrained but firm stance amidst China’s cacophonous bullying which revealed the Dragon for what it is: insecure and irresponsible.

The Doklam round goes to India.

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However, as Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat reminded us recently, it’s not the first, nor it will be the last attempt by China to harass India and make it bend the knee to the Asian hegemon.

Lest we forget, power disparity skews heavily in China’s favour and the gap is not closing anytime soon. It is not 1962, but we must realise that the Dragon can still afford to inflict very high costs on India (psychological more than economic) which may take it a decade or more to recover. Remember, we are still fighting to ward off the demons of 1962 in our minds.

That’s why our grand strategy to counter China should move beyond upsetting it in small face-offs like Doklam. This should be spread out over decades with clearly defined outcomes to be achieved at the end of every year. This must also go beyond just ramping up military infrastructure - roads, railways, advance landing grounds, helipads, etc, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

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We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Some tricks from China’s playbook can come in handy. A former political affairs officer in the United Nations Secretary General’s office, Michael Pillsbury, in his book, "The Hundred‑year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America As the Global Superpower", says that since 1949, China is running a hundred-year marathon with a goal to supplant the United States as the world's most powerful nation by 2050 – the hundredth anniversary of Mao’s communist revolution.

Pillsbury, who has closely followed China since 1969 and has helped shape the China policy of the US since the Jimmy Carter administration, writes that the ying pai (hawks) in China have drawn lessons from their millennia-old rich history and developed a manual to defeat America - militarily, economically and culturally.

Given below is China’s multi-pronged strategy, as explained by Pillsbury, that it is employing to overtake the US and how India can use it too against China, of course with appropriate modifications.

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First, induce complacency to avoid alerting your opponent. Deng Xiaoping’s 24-word strategy for China’s leaders was simple yet effective: Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership. China and the US will try to battle it out for at least the next three decades to claim the mantle of world hegemon.

Meanwhile, India should observe calmly instead of claiming to be vishwa guru without the hard power wherewithal to support such grand visions. It should set its internal affairs in order and not run behind rather inconsequential prizes like the UN Security Council permanent seat or entry into groups like the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It must train its focus on reforming the economy to grow at at least eight per cent a year for the next 15 years to bridge the gap with China. Mao, quoting an ancient Chinese proverb in 1969, wrote, "Ally with Wu in the east to oppose Wei in the north." There is no dearth of potential allies both on the east and west of India which we must cultivate to our benefit.

Second, be patient - for decades, or longer - to achieve victory. We should not set unrealistic goals such as “New India by 2022” when dealing with China. It will take us thirty to fifty years to be at par with the Dragon - militarily and economically. There is many a slip between the cup and the lip, but we should prepare for the worst and not indulge in fantasies such as ‘China will implode into many countries like Soviet Russia’ or ‘the US will not let China become world hegemon’. We must remain patient, bide our time while building our strength year after year.

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Third, steal ideas and technology liberally from your opponent. China has perfected this art. But we don’t need to follow it blindly as copy-pasting has consequences. Instead, we must cherish and promote innovation and entrepreneurship. It cannot happen unless we fix our education laws and radically reform the education sphere. The road to world power status can be constructed only if our schools are such that they churn out smart kids and not “social justice warriors”. This can’t happen if laws like the Right To Education keep on destroying quality private school capacity.

India can’t operate like China in many spheres, especially on the economic front. It can’t protect its Olas and Flipkarts from getting mowed over by the Ubers and Amazons of the world. The choice before us is clear: free people and free markets. There are fundamental differences in the Chinese and Indian cultures and societies. Destiny has always pulled India towards decentralisation, in complete contrast to China, where the pull has always been towards more centralisation. We must play to our strengths and not blindly ape our communist neighbour.

Fourth, military might is not the critical factor to defeat your opponent. In sheer military strength, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was no less compared to the US but that couldn’t stop it from imploding. It is easier to see similarities between China and the USSR - too big a nation with a complex amalgam of different cultures held together by the iron hand of the communist party, but we shouldn’t let this blind us to its strengths.

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In 2015, China spent four times less than the US on the military. It is still not getting into the arms race with the US. Rather it has decided to chart a cheaper path: exploit your opponent’s weaknesses and develop capabilities to hit where it hurts the most. China has found many chinks in US’ armour such as its over-reliance on high-tech information systems, space satellites, which play a critical role in navigation of its military from one part of the world to another, developing black boxes capable of transmitting thousands of signals which can make it impossible for the US to differentiate the real incoming missile from the fake ones and so on.

Why can’t India do the same? Why not invest in finding out China’s Achilles heel and research on ways to target its weak points? Nathu La and Cho La clashes of 1967 are a reminder of how much serious damage India could do to Chinese in Himalayan warfare. We should convert the natural mountain barrier to our advantage - by shoring up military presence, infrastructure, raising mountain corps, training pilots for Himalayan warfare - so much so that China thinks ten times before doing any adventure.

China is taking on the American military might in its backyard. Its immediate goal is to dominate the South China Sea completely, and it is largely succeeding. Meanwhile, we must translate our words into action and turn the Indian Ocean into our own backyard before its too late. It goes without saying, this would demand heavy investments in boosting naval power and converting the Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands into military and surveillance fortresses.

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Fifth, recognise that the hegemon, in our case China, will take extreme, even reckless action, to retain its dominant position. What fine example to explain this than the current Doklam clash? There is no better way to handle it than how we have done this time - stand firm but without engaging in bluster or needless bravado. Bide your time and build your strength and avoid confrontation as much as we can but don’t ever be a pushover.

Sixth, never lose sight of shi ,which Pillsbury explains as the "alignment of forces", or to "assess the overall strategic political situation". It mustn’t lose sight of the real enemy, and all its foreign policy actions must be executed with the only goal of defeating it in the long run. India read shi correctly in Doklam. China backed off because it chose the wrong place and wrong timing. In future, the odds may not favour India and it might have to make compromises. It shouldn’t shy away from doing so if it’s sure status-quo would do it more harm than good in the long term.

Seventh, establish and employ metrics for measuring your status relative to other potential challengers. Regular assessments or audits of one’s strengths vis-à-vis opponents are very important. These audits should be quantitative as well as qualitative. And as noted above, military strength shouldn’t be the sole criteria for measuring strength. In fact, China gives only ten per cent weightage to military might in its comparisons with the US. At what rate will we need to grow to overtake China? How many years will it take to achieve this if we grow at x, y or z rate? How much air, naval or land firepower is sufficient to thwart China’s designs? If not, how do we get there? If we don’t know where we are going, we will end up going nowhere.

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Eighth, always be vigilant to avoid being encircled or deceived by others. This is more important as far as India is concerned because China is paranoid that its opponents are trying to encircle it. No surprise then that it tries to do the same to its opponents. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and development of the Sri Lankan port are classic examples from its playbook. Other corridors in the OBOR (one belt, one road, or belt and road initiative, as it has been renamed) are also aimed at encircling other opponents. Such strategies should be effectively dealt with in collaboration with countries like the US, Japan, Vietnam, Israel, South Korea and Australia wherever necessary because India alone cannot match China’s economic might. The Asia-African corridor in partnership with Japan is one such initiative. Chabahar port is another. But as the snail’s pace of progress on the latter shows, we have a long way to go before we can bridge the gap between commitment and action. Can a country aspiring to be world power afford to be so lethargic?

Doklam is over. Instead of gloating over it, we should start working on a thirty to fifty-year strategy to defeat China at its own game. It can’t be allowed to run amok in Asia let alone the entire world. As China grows stronger, liberty contracts. Only two nations today are capable of standing up to it on their own: America and India. But the former has decided to roll back its role in the world. Its strategists revel in naivety, imagining that the real threat to their nation comes from a spent force like Russia and not the Dragon. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

In any case, we must be strong enough to fend for ourselves. If the history of world wars is any indication, the US, the world’s superpower, like cops in Bollywood movies, comes in only at the very last minute, if at all. Time is a luxury we don’t enjoy. We must be ready to fight on the seas and Himalayas when the time comes. And the time to start preparation is yesterday.

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