Why India’s Willingness To Use Force Is Key To Deterring China

“China, as the aggressor, must be made to realise that any further provocation could result in high costs.”

Published
Opinion
4 min read
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The ongoing India-China standoff has quietly entered its tenth month and an early resolution appears very distant. Both sides have built considerable forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) although the winter months preclude any large-scale military moves. This temporary period of calm should have prompted some serious discussions between the political and military leadership about the strategy for the summer of 2021.

While deciding a strategy to deal with the situation along the LAC, we need a clear-eyed perspective of where we are and what is it that we wish to achieve.

Since May 2020, Chinese soldiers have been in occupation of territory that India claims as its own. We could argue that the areas where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has transgressed are considered ‘disputed’, but that does not mean that India has diluted its claims or redrawn its perception of the LAC. That is the reason we are insisting on a restoration of status quo ante.

Real Danger Lies In Chinese Army Moving Selectively Across LAC

There is a Scottish expression: “possession is eleven points in the law, and they say there are but twelve.” The longer the PLA remains in occupation of areas across the LAC or prevents us from patrolling up to our traditional areas (as in Depsang), the more difficult it will be to get them to pull back.

It is not only along the LAC that the PLA has dug in. A September 2020 report by Stratfor, A Military Drive Spells Out China’s Intent Along the Indian Border, noted that there has been extensive activity in Tibet in the last three years to build up military infrastructure. The report stated that “China aims to discourage Indian resistance or military action during future border disputes by ostentatiously demonstrating its ability and intent to engage in military confrontations.”

With this backdrop, we must assess the likely Chinese actions that could confront us as the summer comes around. The Ladakh border has solidified with thousands of soldiers facing each other, and there are little prospects of further PLA intrusions in this area. China is also unlikely to initiate a war that it has no guarantee of winning.

The real danger in the coming months lies in the PLA moving selectively across the LAC, particularly into other disputed areas in the Central and Eastern sectors.

This would be a part of their ‘salami tactics’ that remain below the threshold of triggering a large-scale conflict. The Indian approach must be to deter the PLA from such actions.

Strategy of Deterrence & What India Needs To Do For China to Back Off

A strategy of deterrence has three main components, known commonly as the 3 Cs – Capability, Communication, and Credibility. Employed in a coherent manner, the 3 Cs can stop a stronger adversary from pursuing a particular course of action. The idea is to influence the opponent’s behaviour by making him think that the risks of his action outweigh the advantages that he could gain.

India has the military capability to ensure a strong response to the PLA’s actions. This has been clearly demonstrated by the massive Indian Army mobilisation in Ladakh and the August counteraction in occupying some key heights on the Kailash Range. The Indian Air Force also enjoys an advantage due to the limitations of the PLA Air Force in operating from high-altitude airfields in Tibet. China does enjoy superiority in the fields of cyber, space, missile, and electronic warfare, but these instruments would be employed as a part of a larger conventional conflict that China would be keen to avoid.

It is on the other two Cs that we must focus. Our communication strategy has been disjointed and focused more on the domestic constituency than the adversary.

It is only the Foreign Minister who has clearly stated how the Chinese actions have ‘profoundly disturbed’ the bilateral relations that are under ‘extreme stress’. All others have tiptoed around the issue by initially claiming that there were no transgressions, and thereafter by statements that the Indian Army had foiled China’s attempts at transgression and given a fitting response.

How India Should Tailor Its Next Military Moves

India’s redlines must be clearly communicated to China’s leadership, and these should include the risks of any further transgressions along the LAC. Maybe this is already being done in the meetings that are taking place, and if that is the case, the message should not be diluted by either obfuscation or chest-thumping in the media.

Finally, we come to the issue of credibility, which is perhaps the hardest to achieve. It is primarily a commitment to clearly stated redlines and a demonstrated resolve to carry it through. Capability and communication are of little use if there if the opponent perceives a lack of resolve by the defender in making good his threats.

Over the next few months, India’s military moves must be tailored towards sending out a strong message of its willingness to use force if the PLA attempts to further transgress across the LAC.

This would imply a strengthening of its military posture to respond to PLA actions and an acceptance to raise the stakes, if required.

All this is not to suggest that there is only a punitive component to deterrence. Thomas C Schelling, who pioneered the study of conflict behaviour in his classic The Strategy of Conflict, has described conflict situations as “essentially bargaining situations” in which, apart from differences between the two sides, there is also “a powerful common interest in reaching an outcome that is not enormously destructive”. This common interest also serves as a deterrent to risky behaviour.

It would be the best scenario if India and China can find common interest in peacefully resolving the current standoff at the LAC. However, for this to happen, China, as the aggressor, must be made to realise that any further provocation could result in high costs. India’s communications must be clear and actions credible.

[(Retd) Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM & Bar, ADC is the former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army's Northern Command. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.]

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