How To Tackle China Using Its Own Playbook Against Itself
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 more than six decades 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.
If the former half of the shloka described our China policy before 2014, the latter aptly describes the current one. China blinking on Doklam in 2017 was exhibit A. The Ladakh face off is exhibit B.
India is clearly punching above its weight because the power disparity skews heavily in China’s favour and the gap is not closing anytime soon. It is not 1962, but the difference in military strengths of the two armies cannot be brushed aside.
That’s why our grand strategy to counter China should move beyond upsetting it in localised conflicts like Doklam or Ladakh. This must also go beyond just ramping up military infrastructure - roads, railways, advance landing grounds, helipads, etc, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India can take some pages out of China’s own playbook. 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.
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 so that it doesn’t have to worry about fighting two and a half front wars as opposed to a two-front one.
It must train its focus on reforming the economy so that high growth can bridge the gap with China in coming decades. 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. (What better time than now to entertain Taiwan in big way?)
Second, be patient - for decades, or longer - to achieve victory. Thanks to our past mistakes, it may 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.
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 radically reform our education system. 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”.
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 down by the Ubers and Amazons of the world. Though it can still ban Chinese companies in strategic sectors and it must do so, starting with Huawei, followed by raising tariffs across the board to make it clear that China will have to bear costs for its bad behaviour.
India should focus on freeing its people and 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.
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.
India must invest in finding out China’s Achilles heel and work on developing ways to target its weak points, especially in times of conflicts.
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 Ladakh conflict at a time when the World is gunning for China for inflicting the Covid-19 pandemic on it? There is no better way to handle it than how we did it last time - stand firm without engaging in bluster or needless bravado.
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. Thus India needs to do what strategic thinkers like Bharat Karnad have been recommending for years: replace Pakistan with China as the number one enemy and back it with actions starting with moving considerable amount of forces as well as weapons currently pointed towards Pakistan and deploy those on the China border.
In the short run, India must stand up to the bully. At present, shi is not in China’s favour. It will try to avoid fighting with India as the stakes are simply too high for it. We must leverage the current global situation to our own benefit.
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.
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. So is propping up small countries like Pakistan (and now Nepal) against India.
India doesn’t have the luxury of non-alignment and it must side with countries like the US, Japan, Vietnam, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia wherever necessary but do so on its own terms. The US
We must think beyond Doklams and Ladakhs and start working on a thirty to fifty-year strategy to defeat China. It can’t be allowed to run amok in Asia let alone the entire world. Only two nations today are capable of standing up to it on their own: America and India. The good news is that the US is finally coming to its senses and realising that the real threat to their nation comes from the Dragon and not a spent force like Russia.
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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