Why India needs to be prepared for a tactical winter offensive by China

In order to exert its regional hegemony by humiliating India while sending a message to the West, China will not withdraw from its currently occupied positions in Pangong Tso and Depsang.

 |  6-minute read |   30-07-2020
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A famous Latin saying — Si vis pacem, para bellum — by Publius Flavius Vegetius translates to: If you want peace, prepare for war.

Nothing could be closer to the truth for India, given the continued military occupation by Chinese forces in Depsang and Pangong Tso and the failure of diplomacy as a tool to resolve the border standoff. While we as a nation prepare for the ‘long haul’ by which we mean a prolonged winter standoff as well as an all-out protracted war with China, we are ignoring the distinct possibility that China may go in for a swift border offensive with an aim to humiliate India to assert its regional dominance, followed by a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal as was the case in 1962.

In order to decode the Chinese intent, we need to understand them ‘inside out’ instead of ‘outside in’ by taking cues from their culture and value systems. Firstly, the Chinese respect strength or Qiángdù and despise Ruòdiǎn or weakness. This is the reason why the period from 1839 to 1949 is officially termed as the “century of humiliation” when China was weak and consequently humiliated by the Western powers and Japan. The humiliation ended with the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 under Mao, post which China saw itself as one of the four big victors.

Second, for the Chinese, loss of face or miànzi is sacrilegious. Causing a loss of face publicly could result in lifelong enmity in Chinese society. Third, the concept of Děngjí zhì or hierarchy pervades their daily life and their worldview. If we put all these cultural concepts together, then a picture begins to emerge wherein China feels that it is now in a position to reshape the global order much like the United States did post World War II.

main_modi-xi-jinoing_072920055700.jpgTo exert its regional hegemony by humiliating India, China will not withdraw from its currently occupied positions. (Photo: Reuters)

The reshaping begins in their own backyard, which is India and the South China Sea, wherein China expects India and other countries to toe its line as the natural hierarchy of things. As per an NBR report, the People’s Republic of China seeks to reshape the international system in a way that reflects both its values and interests, aligning institutions and norms according to its own worldview and to serve its own purposes. There is a yearning for partial hegemony, loosely exercised over large portions of the “global South”— a space that would be free from Western influence and purged of liberal ideals. The contours of this new system would not be traced along precise geographic or ideological lines but be defined by the degree of deference that those within China’s sphere of influence are willing to offer Beijing.

While most neighbours in the South China Sea have been bullied into some semblance of acquiescence towards China, India continues to be defiant. This is where the current occupations begin to make sense, wherein an assertive India — which stood up to China during Doklam and is also partnering with the Western powers to challenge China in the Indian Ocean region — is a red herring to Chinese ambitions.

The Indian policy of appeasement towards China since Independence is interpreted as a sign of weakness by the Chinese. Our defeat in 1962 further consolidated the impression of weakness in the Chinese minds and the fact that our current government tried to downplay the transgression in the early days, followed by aggressive posturing, may have given the impression to the Chinese that behind the posturing, the Indian leadership was loath to take on the Chinese in open conflict. History would prove them right as the same sequence of the initial denial, followed by aggressive posturing without adequate provisions coupled with a belief that if we occupy our standoff positions then the Chinese would not attack, led to our defeat in 1962.

We also need to realise that a simple withdrawal — even if it is mutual — is a loss of face for the Chinese, which after Doklam will send out a message to the world that India is a power that has the gumption to stand up to China. This could become the rallying point for an anti-China coalition of Western countries as well as South and South-East Asian countries which are threatened by China’s militant rise.

Considering the arguments above, the current occupation begins to make a lot of sense and provides us with a window into what might be in store for the future. In order to exert its regional hegemony by humiliating India while sending a message to the West, China will not withdraw from its currently occupied positions in Pangong Tso and Depsang. Instead, it may go in for a limited early winter offensive in the October-November timeframe across Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, with the objective of making quick deep thrusts into Indian territory (also claimed by China) and culminating with a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal to pre-conflict positions while retaining a few strategic objectives like DBO, Rezang La, Pangong Tso, etc. This will deny us the opportunity to either counterattack or escalate. PLA has a penchant for early winter offensives — be it during the Sinkiang Occupation, or the Occupation of Tibet, or the 1962 war with India. In all three cases, PLA made the move in the month of October and consolidated their gains before winter set in. The tactical reason is that in mountain warfare, logistics is key and supplying far-flung posts becomes increasingly difficult as winter sets in. This gives a distinct advantage to the Chinese with their superior border infrastructure as compared to its adversaries, including India.

Another pattern to note is that before committing its troops into action, the PLA prepares systematically through troop build-up, stockpiling supplies and occupation of tactical positions. The same was the case in 1962 when the Chinese build-up and occupation of tactically strategic features started as early as 1959, while the CPC continued to lay out a political smokescreen in order to lull us into complacency. There are many parallels with the current scenario. The Chinese build-up has been ongoing for a long time in the depth areas coupled with occupation of critical ridgelines supported by infrastructure work aimed at strengthening their supply lines. While the façade of de-escalation plays out, the build-up in-depth areas continue unabated. The Galwan valley incident appears to have been unintended as that jolted the world’s attention towards Chinese aggression — hence the need for partial de-escalation as a damage-control measure and a smokescreen to divert world attention and allow the Indian dispensation to claim success, thus allowing PLA to continue with its strategic build-up.

We as a nation need to see the writing on the wall. India has unwittingly become a frontline state in the battle between competing world visions of a rule-based world order, propagated by the West on the one hand, and a loosely hierarchical-hegemonic world order as envisioned by China on the other. We need to be prepared as the first battle between these competing world visions may be fought in our backyard, and the first shots might be fired sooner than we expect.

Also Read: Why China cannot limit the Indo-US bonhomie

Writer

Shashank Shekhar Shukla

The writer is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and is pursuing his PhD. Economics from IIM Lucknow.

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