Books | Asian Hegemon

Why India’s strategy of stalling China may not ensure permanent peace. An extract

Rajiv Dogra

WAR TIME: THE WORLD IN DANGERIt is China’s record of deception that keeps Taiwan on edge. But why should Taiwan be on guard? After all, the economic relations between China and Taiwan have steadily increased. In 2018, more than 100,000 Taiwanese businesses were operating in the mainland, and nearly 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports went to China.

This is sizeable, yet the volume of trade and investments is by itself not enough to propitiate China. It wants the fulfilment of its one-China ambition. There are two possible ways in which it might pursue that objective. It could launch a sudden invasion, taking the US and much of the world by surprise. In its present procrastinative state, the US policy of strategic ambiguity leaves unanswered what it might do in the event of an invasion by China on Taiwan. Let us assume that after mulling endlessly over the issue, it eventually rouses itself to action.

By the time it does so, China would have got the first mover advantage. Despite losses of men and material, its forces would have taken control of some part of the island. This would mean that by then an American intervention will be in the form of an invading force against the Chinese army already ensconced in Taiwan. In the frantic battle that follows, American forces will be faced with an onslaught of Chinese weapons.

As the war escalates, the US might respond with stealth fighters and stealthy submarines. Since both sides will battle for air and sea superiority, they might simultaneously try to blind one another with cyber operations, electronic warfare and space attacks. Eventually, and that is if the US prevails in this high-tech battle, the US army would have to put boots on ground in great numbers. This is the trickier part because the logistics of maintaining a supply chain going at short notice, and from far away, could be a major issue. There is no guarantee that the US will be able to quickly overwhelm the Chinese army, and the Americans do not relish counting body bags.

But it might happen differently because China may not want to start a war over Taiwan, at least not immediately. It is conscious that invading Taiwan may not mean easy victory. On the contrary, its forces might face severe and prolonged resistance. China will also be conscious of the fact that a war over Taiwan is likely to draw in the US, Japan and Australia. That will be a formidable challenge for China because despite its recently acquired military swagger it known that they are no pushovers.

Therefore, however much Xi is urged by the PLA to sort out early the Taiwan problem, he knows that an invasion would immediately trigger an all-out Taiwanese response. More than half of any Chinese invasion fleet could be sunk by concentrations of shore-based Harpoon cruise missiles supported by a host of Taiwanese air-and sea-launched land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. China will suffer huge losses in war and sped years trying to pacify Taiwan, militarily and politically, clearly then, the forcible seizure of Taiwan would impede, not advance China’s goal of regional hegemony.

Taiwan, therefore, is not the key that unlocks China’s regional ambitions as the hegemon in Asia. Instead, an invasion of Taiwan could hamper and delay it. Rather than suffer a bloody nose, and the consequent loss of reputation, China is unlikely to start a war over Taiwan unless it is sure it can win. It would then want this war to be a swift operation, leaving America with the least possible time to react. Otherwise, and if the US and other countries get involved, the war will have far more serious dimensions than China may have catered for. Given the uncertainties involved, it is unlikely to launch a Taiwan operation immediately. America’s Indo-Pacific Command optimistically gives a six-year timeline for such an attack: “The Taiwanese assess perhaps a three-year time frame before an attack, while US Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu considers a military assault in six years to be possible.

So, even as Taiwan remains the prize it covets, China might first opt for a swift victory elsewhere. It need not look far for such a war, one that firmly establishes it as the Asian hegemon. And unlike its multiple contacts with Taiwan, China and India can best be described as distant neighbors. It is a pity that as two great contiguous civilizations, they should know so little about each other. Their contacts, in the previous centuries, were infrequent and speckled mainly with some spiritual and limited commercial exchanges. In modern times, when China came to know more about India, it was not impressed. China’s appraisal of post-independent India remains ungenerous, even adversarial for reasons like these:

  • India is a ‘soft state’, unlike China’s muscular identity.
  • Its presumed role as a counterbalance to China is exaggerated.
  • India’s growth capabilities lack sustained vigour.
  • Its recent diplomacy has made it even less compatible with Chinese interests.
  • China-India relations will need to be so managed that India’s ambitions do not pose a threat to Chinese objectives.

To add to these negatives, India’s military relations with China remain delicately poised. The border issue has defied solution for the last 70 years. Their competing ambitions have periodically introduced a sore point. Both aspire for the peak position on a mountain called Asia, but China is in no mood to share that space with India. Rather, China loses no opportunity to pull India down, irritating it further.

On its part, if ever India had a strategy of dealing with China, it was one of stalling for time and hoping for the best. China played along but on its terms. India was aware of this steady accretion at its cost, but it preferred to squeeze shut its eyes, expecting thereby that no one in or outside India would discover the loss. The introduction of satellites with immensely effective cameras capable of recording every little change on ground punctured that glum assumption.

India still blustered and denied any loss of territory, but photographic evidence suggested otherwise, Meanwhile, an increasingly confident China kept preparing for a decisive blow. Its aim is twofold-to settle the boundary issue once and for all, on its terms, and second, to deliver a massive military humiliation of the type it delivered in 1962 so that the message of Chinese strength echoes across the world.

According to most experts, there is a serious and growing asymmetrical relationship between China and India. If effective diplomacy is the art of optimizing resources to one’s benefit, then India has miles to go before it can come anywhere close to what China has achieved already. It leads India in all respects-from military to economic; from efficacy of governance to social discipline; from assertive self-confidence to amoral pursuit of goals. India faces negative asymmetries on all these issues.

Ideally speaking, both China and India will benefit from cooperation rather than a confrontational relationship. Just one example illustrates the point. It is the expectation of some economists that the middle-class markets in China and India, in 2030, will account for annual expenditures of $14.1 trillion and $12.3 trillion, respectively. The free flow of a part of this large trade between them will benefit not just their people but the wider Asian region as well. However, that seems unlikely as long as their troops remain locked in confrontation at the LAC.

Till then, China would like to undermine India, relegate it to a regional identity, keep it economically underslung and, most of all, keep it engaged by all other means short of war. But it will also be prepared for the next war.


Rajiv Dogra
Rupa Publications, Pg 286, Rs 695

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