During the time of Ottoman Empire Istanbul was at the height of its glory and it’s bazars were filled with kehwa shops where people would meet and talk. Talks were generally gossip wrapped as insider wisdom. As most of the city dwellers had no access to the Topkapi Palace (the seat of power) they would listen to the nobles and the gentry with rapt attention and accepted it as Gospel Truth. Nothing could have been far from the truth. Most of these so-called nobles had no access to the inner chambers and were either related to the petty officers or worked for the nobles at their homes. Yet they peddled fourth hand information as deep knowledge.
In the 21st century India a similar crop of experts have sprung up. They are called Sinologists. But as India is a diverse country we have a diverse variety of experts. Broadly there are five categories you must be aware of. They are as follows:-
The Naïve: These experts firmly believe in being conned. Even during the time of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru this brigade of experts was of the opinion that Chinese Government honours its words. The events since have proven them wrong whether it was Chou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Ziang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping. Yet like a determined naïve they pursue with their love affair. The incorrigible among them go to the extent of saying that Chinese Government feels lonely and needs some love (when I heard that I felt it was my “Trump Moment”). They keep harping on talks and genuinely believe China will honour their words if we behave in a large-hearted manner.
The Seduced: These are the people who have been dazzled like a doe by the glitter of Chinese material success in the last 30 years. The second variety is ideologically sold to the concept of a single party dictatorship and fancy a time when India too will be under Red Flag with sickle and hammer and then there would be order and proletarian utopia. Their constant lament is, “Look at China, we need to emulate them. There is no other or better way to success”. Or the other variant, “We are no match to China, its done deal we have already lost the game”.
The Military Genius: These armchair strategists have no clue about the war of narrative, information and trade and nor they have any inclination to learn or listen. They are stuck in Galvan today, were stuck in Doklam yesterday and tomorrow they would be stuck somewhere else. None of these strategists has been able to offer a convincing answer as to why China has been making these incursions? Why it never lowers the intense pressure of conflict along the Indian border? They are just gloating about the fact, “we give them a befitting reply”. Killing soldiers or counting who killed more is a zero sum game. You may keep killing more of their soldiers but you may still loose the war, if you don’t get the big picture my friend. Enough said.
The Impressionist: If anyone tells you he interprets Chinese diplomacy by their body language or the choice of words and gestures, just run for your life. These people will tell you Xi Jinping came two steps down to meet Narendra Modi. This is a sign of warmth and the importance he accords to India. Or the Chinese president looked at 15- degree angle, which means he was angry. It’s utter crap.
Data Devils: This is the most dangerous category that uses selective data to create a narrative where China seems invincible. In the garb of “cold data” and “I-am-a-realist” they are actually the merchants of pessimism and morale destruction. They would use economic data like military budget, or the size of the army, air force, and investment in research, trade imbalance, to prove our country is worthless. “Oh how can we fight them? Do you know they have 35000 tanks and we have just 4000.” Or the other variation, “have you seen the size of the their army its 40 percent more than us. You don’t get! It they will bring so many people, you won’t know what happened to you.” These venerable experts forget two things. Himalayan theatre of conflict is like none other. Tanks have little to limited use in this terrain. So China can keep its 35000 tanks and use it in October Parade. Now about manpower, they may have a larger army but to fight in the Himalayas the soldiers need to acclimatize for 21 days. You can’t pick up soldiers from the plains of China and put them at a height of 15000 feet above sea level just like that, they will die of asphyxiation and hypothermia. So we need specialized soldier. If we compare their numbers we are almost the same in Himalayan theatre. Similarly, their air force is bigger but in the Himalayan region we are at par. Last but not the least China will have longer supply lines to protect and maintain then India because Himalayas are just two to four hundred kilometres from our Indo-Gangetic Plains while China will have to move for a couple of thousands of kilometres from the Yangtze and Huang He basin, cross Tibet-Qinghai Plateau to reach us.
Perspective from the School of Hard Knocks: Let’s begin with the war of narrative.
Threat of War is More Powerful Than War: India has been a vocal critic of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China and it did not participate in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) driven by China. This has slowed China’s push towards West Asia, ASEAN and Europe. Secondly, India has been ramping up its infrastructure in the Himalayan region to catch up with China and some of the projects are nearing completion thereby offering India a bit of strength. If we continue like this then in next 3 to 5 years we will have parity in terms of man, material and infrastructure. To derail India’s infra-push and soften India’s virulent opposition of BRI and RECEP Chinese want to keep up the pressure on the Himalayan border, as they know it’s a very sensitive issue with Indian public. Media and experts feed into it and the government then gets hamstrung. If every such engagement results in casualty or loss of land, it means a loss of face for the incumbent government. The shrill pitch raised by the experts and media for days considerably lessens the government’s apatite for the next live engagement. It’s a ploy that erodes Indian government’s political capital. So you may as what to do? Should we silently keep giving them land? No not at all but there is no need to become hyper either. Don’t let the government hide the information of any incursion but don’t obsess about every incursion as a life and death matter.
The Game Theory: See these incursions as part of a larger game to keep India occupied in specific theatre and bog it down. If you are busy defending your positions you won’t have any leverage to stop the aggressor from achieving his larger strategic and economic goals of erecting dams on rivers, signing river water sharing treaties and controlling water sources in the areas under its occupation. Noble Laureate John Nash in his Game Theory says there are two kinds of game, the finite and the infinite. Finite game is one where the end is clear, like the objective of saving the Galwan Valley or Doklam Plateau. The infinite game is to keep repeating these incursions year after year to harass the opponent till the time he or she psychologically gives in and leaves the arena. So we have to prepare for the long haul and instead of reacting every time they make a move, we should also act to turn the tables as we have done with Pakistan. We took the initiative of action from them. Also we should remain cool-headed and treat the border dispute with China as we treat the problem of Kashmir militancy. The fight is going on, some days they’ll inflict a wound some days we’ll extract our pound of flesh and this will keep repeating itself for decades. View this fight with keenness of a person in a derby but with stoic detachment of a Zen monk.
Sun Tzu Redux: Those who say China is a different ball game should learn from the Sikkim conflict. When the Chinese came in big numbers and the conflict started the Indian senior officers brought in artillery and without a second thought pummelled the enemy. Chinese got a sound drubbing. When later the senior officer was asked why artillery was used, his reply was instructive. He said the Chinese thought after our experience in 1962 we would only defend, as we would be fearful of escalation of the conflict. But we played on their assumption and turned it on its head. Out-thought they just caved in.
India has traditionally been too accommodative of the bully. On the cover of the book Self Deception: India’s China Policy (writer by Arun Shourie) the photograph is telling. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is bowing to Hu Jintao as if he’s the master. In the bully’s mind politeness is synonymous with meekness. Meekness is interpreted as weakness and then he’s free to do whatever he or she decides. It’s no wonder that during Mr Singh’s tenure China gobbled up 640 square kilometres of land as per Shyam Sharan (former foreign secretary) report.
So in today’s context with China we have lost so much ground in the Himalayas that now we need to fight to defend our positions. As the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu said, “on desperate grounds fight”. We are at the desperate ground in the Himalayan theatre. But we should now look into the horizon and move ahead with two thoughts in our mind – India alone has the bandwidth in Asia to counter China. If you have the size, the intellectual depth and the ambition, which you have articulated during the last six years, then you must be ready for conflict. You must be prepared to pay the price of your ambition and that is to be always ready to impose cost on the enemy at every forum.