Bottomline | On the precipice

Military conflict with China is no longer a question of if, but when

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The recent clash in Tawang is a firm message from China that its patience is wearing out. From Beijing’s perspective, India is deliberately and wilfully ignoring China’s political and military red lines, delineated very clearly by the latter. The consequence of this would be war, which is increasingly becoming an inevitability. Yet, India continues to mistake the present grey-zone operations (where no shots are fired) by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Tawang and armed skirmishes as the worst that could happen. Neither the Indian government nor the military has any comprehension of the worst that will happen—it’s no longer a question of if, but when.

Following the acrimonious visit of US speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2021, China’s ambassador in India, Sun Weidong, asked India to iterate the one-China policy, which according to him is the basis of India-China relations. By not doing this, India breached China’s political red-line.

Earlier, China had equated the Quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad, (a grouping of India, Japan, US and Australia) with AUKUS (Australia, the UK and US alliance) as cliques to strengthen US’ Indo-Pacific strategy meant to threaten China’s Maritime Silk Road (part of its Belt and Road Initiative) which runs along the traditional sea lanes of communications. However symbolic, India joined the Quad navies for advanced Malabar naval exercise in the Sea of Japan in November to ensure status quo in western Pacific. Besides, in a show of muscle, India, ignoring China’s displeasure, did the Yudh Abhyas 2022 army exercise with the US within 100 km of the line of actual control (LAC), which China said was prohibited under the bilateral 1993 and 1996 agreements. There are numerous other instances of the Modi government unnecessarily provoking China to show Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a strong leader.

Meanwhile, having signed the US military’s four foundation agreements, India in April 2022 was ready to do sea (combat) patrols in a joint and coordinated manner with the US and its allies’ navies as part of US defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s “integrated deterrence” strategy against the PLA in the Indo-Pacific region. These are likely to commence soon.

Integrated deterrence strategy has two elements: One, to develop interoperability by commonality of equipment and advanced military exercises. This is under way. And two, to ensure software connectivity for uninhibited data (real time information) flow within participating nations comprising allies and strategic partner, India. Given the PLA’s impressive cyber and electro-magnetic spectrum (including manoeuvre within the spectrum and electric warfare fires) domain capabilities, the US’ militaries battle networks (comprising sensors, shooters and software medium for automated information flow between them) are no longer impregnable. While cyberattacks destroy data passing through cyberspace, electric warfare fires are meant to destroy or decapitate software waves which transmit data.

With battle networks no longer reliable, the US military is replacing it with cloud (with servers, database, software, virtual storage and networking) which, not totally cyber hardened, is relatively safe. As a part of this, the Pentagon has planned a tactical cloud pilot project called Outside Continental United States (OCONUS) for the western Pacific in 2023. Since the Indian Navy has done exercises in the Sea of Japan, it will likely be a part of the OCONUS cloud.

What does India get from all this? Piggybacking on the US military, the Modi government hopes to become a primary power in its region, finally de-hyphenating from Pakistan, and able to compete with China in South Asia. This fantastical vision is predicated on the basis that the Indian military is strong enough to not let a repeat of 1962 in the Himalayas. Modi’s unsaid national security strategy should be understood by his three statements:

  • “The era of (state on state) war is over.” This when the Ukraine war is going on. And the US finally giving up on its strategic detour of fighting terrorism for 20 years (2001 to 2021 when the US military left Afghanistan) has in its 2022 National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy identified China has its sole geopolitical competitor with intent, will and capabilities to reshape the world order. Disregarding all this, Modi’s exceptional statement is a belief that China will not go to war with India, which is globally respected.
  • Modi’s declaration of June 19, 2020, when he accepted China’s occupation of Indian territory (about 2,000 square kilometres) without firing a shot. Read in conjunction with the earlier point, it implies that China will not go to war with India: a de-facto ally of the US.
  • Modi’s 2014 address to the combined commander’s conference, where he said while the threat is known (Pakistan), the enemy was invisible (terrorists). Thus, while the Indian military continues to hold the LAC indefinitely, its focus should be on counter terror operations in support of the ruling party.


Xi’s Third Term

At the end of the 20th party Congress, general secretary Xi Jinping exhorted the PLA to focus, in addition to realistic combat training, on two areas. The first is to have a “powerful strategic deterrent system.” The new concept extends to cyber and space warfare besides the traditional nuclear weapons capabilities. Deterrence comprises two elements: military power and political determination. Thus, if deterrence fails, the PLA should be able to fight in cyber, space, and nuclear weapons domains. This implies simultaneous combat in the designated battlespace (combat zone) and whole-of-nation (war zone) where cyber and counter space capabilities will bring normal life to a standstill. The recent cyberattacks on the AIIMS servers were meant for technical reconnaissance to help build necessary software countervalue (strategic civilian) cyber weapons. Since sudden chaos in civilian life will impact on the political leadership the most, it could lead to a cognitive defeat of India ending the war on Chinese terms. This will be in sync with Sun Tzu thinking that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war.”

India-US joint exercise at Auli
India-US joint exercise at Auli

The other area highlighted by Xi for the PLA was to “win regional wars.” China has two regional wars to fight and win for reunification of its claimed territory, Taiwan and Tibet. China claims Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls south Tibet and where it has even given Mandarin names to 15 places. In revised timelines for the PLA in 2020, three milestones were laid down by the central party leadership: 2027 (the centenary year of the PLA); 2035 (when the PLA hopes to modernise and compete with the US military across the entire Asia Pacific region); and 2049 (when it hopes to become a world class military power).

I have argued in my recent book The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China that 2027 is an important timeline for the PLA when it hopes to compete with the US military in the entire western Pacific region. Given the Modi government’s ignorance about new technologies, its arrogance, and it being the weakest link in US’ integrated deterrence, for China the road to Taiwan goes through Tibet. It will involve defeating India in a swift, decisive war with minimal casualties to its own side. Sceptical military analysts have said my talk of the PLA using artificial intelligence in warfare is futuristic and should not worry Indian military planners.

They are wrong. As explained above, the US military is shifting to OCONUS tactical cloud because of the PLA’s humongous cyber, electronic warfare and counter space capabilities. Without regular data and information flow, the war with be lost. This is precisely what the PLA will do to the Indian military by fighting to its strength. In addition to these virtual domain capabilities, the PLA has the largest inventory of missiles in the world. The Chinese are good in rocket engines and microelectronics needed for land and air to air missiles, which will blow up Indian command centres, air force bases and so on. Without communication and command and control the war will be over in 72 hours; another shock and awe like the 1991 Gulf War that the US fought with Iraq. An added benefit for the PLA will be to have the first-mover advantage in AI-backed war against the US military.

Given China’s single-minded focus on its objectives, the clash in Tawang should be seen as a precursor to what lies ahead—war and peace on Chinese terms.



Call us