Psychological victory means much more to the Chinese than military gains
The Chumar-Demchok military stand-off in Ladakh has ended to China’s advantage. There are two reasons for this. At the strategic level, China gives far more importance to psychological victory than to military gains. The postponement of army chief General Dalbir Singh’s Bhutan visit was indicative of the stress within the Indian establishment; the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) certainly did not assess the stand-off as a tactical show of strength.
Hypothetically speaking, if the Chinese were to show signs of reinforcing their capability in the entire Ladakh (which given its infrastructure is no big deal), even Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have been hard-pressed to reconsider his US visit.
At the operational level, the Chinese would have been amused at Indian generals and television experts who proclaim Indian Army’s capability to take-on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might. For example, Lt Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain wrote in Indian Express (September 24): ‘Beijing would do well to realistically analyse India’s military potential, which may appear weak but, in effect, is sufficient to dent China’s image should there be a localised showdown’.
Really? Why will the PLA join a ‘localised’ conflict when, for example, it can destroy India’s communication satellites with its proven Anti-Satellite capabilities, jam its cyber communications and test-fire a salvo of its ballistic missiles with conventional warheads from Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as part of military coercion. In any case, given the shabby state of the Indian Army in terms of its capabilities, capacities, training and mind-set, does Gen. Hasnain’s claims do India any good by his pretensions? The PLA, which always fights in so-called ‘self-defence’, will use this hollow bravado to its advantage. The problem with generals like these is that they mix up China with Pakistan (two adversaries as apart as day and night) and tactics with operational art of war where the PLA has mind-boggling advantages over the Indian military. Fighting a war with China is not an option for India; balancing China with a mix of politico-military means is.
Specific to Chumar-Demchok when President Xi Jinping was visiting India, experts should know two fundamental things about China: it can pursue aggression and talks simultaneously as the premium is on psychological victory rather than military (tactical) advantage. And, negotiations are never about instant gains and losses, but are a part of protracted confabulations meant to tire and frustrate the opponent so that he starts seeing advantage in the Chinese’s viewpoint.
To reflect on these truisms, I recommend two books as a beginning: Qian Qichen’s Ten Episodes In China’s Diplomacy, and Henry Kissinger’s, On China. Qichen was Chinese foreign minister (vice minister for foreign affairs) and vice-Premier from 1988 to 2003. He was witness to two momentous events: Tiananmen Square and the demise of the Soviet Union. The well-known Kissinger, probably the best western observer on China, has personally interacted with four generations of Chinese leadership before the 2012 arrival of President Xi Jinping.
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the world came down heavily on China. Starting 5 June 1989, the US, Japan, the European community, and the G7 Economic Summit announced, one after another, that they would stop all bilateral high level visits, stop exporting arms for military and commercial purposes, and defer new loans to China provided by international financial institutions. Amidst all this, US President George Bush (senior), who did not want to sever all ties with China, sent his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft on a secret mission to Beijing to assess how the damage could be minimised. What did China do?
According to Qichen, Deng Xiaoping told Prime Minister Li Peng, ‘We will talk only about principles today. We don’t care about the sanctions. We are not scared by them.’ Then, he reminded his team a Chinese saying, ‘It is up to the person who tied the knot to untie it.’ The saying, according to Qichen is ‘not an ordinary argument about the meaning of words. It is the crux of bilateral relations.’ In another context, the prescient Qichen in a lecture told Chinese student in 2002 that, ‘I believe, as long as our overall strength (political, economic and military) continues to grow, Sino-American relations will change in our favour.’
In his book, Kissinger explains the difference between western and Chinese strategies. ‘Western strategists reflect on the means to assemble superior power at the decisive point, Chinese address the means of building a dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome of a conflict becomes a foregone conclusion. Western strategists test their maxims of victories in battles; Chinese test by victories where battles have become unnecessary.’
He further writes that, ‘They (Chinese) do not think that personal relations can affect their judgments, though they may invoke personal ties to facilitate their efforts. They have no emotional difficulty with deadlocks; they consider them the inevitable mechanism of diplomacy. They prize gestures of goodwill only if they serve a definable objective or tactic. And they patiently take the long view against impatient interlocutors, making time their ally’.
So what is the PLA up to? As a continuation of what it did in Depsang plains (Daulet Beg Oldie) in April-May 2013, the PLA is doing the following: At the tactical level, it is seeking to position itself advantageously in Chumar-Demchok area. At the operational level, it is pushing the military Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh westwards to reach its 1959-1960 claim line. And, at the strategic level, it is putting psychological pressure through coercive diplomacy to remind India of its Achilles Heel.