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‘Nonalignment 2.0′: Thinking Asymmetrically about China – A Critique

March 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Analysis

This recent study (pdf here), part bold part debatable, has put many questions in suggesting an asymmetrical strategy to deal with China militarily. The three basic proposals are to embark on an offensive strategy to go “grab for grab” rather than defending every inch of the territory. The second element of the asymmetric strategy proposed by the report is “to accelerate the integration of the frontier regions and its people by speeding up and improving communication infrastructure with the mainland”. It calls for discarding the long-standing framework that treats the border regions of China as a no-man’s land. The third strategy calls for an end to Delhi’s traditional narrow focus on land boundaries and build on its natural advantages in the Indian Ocean.

The catch lies in the study recommending India adopting insurgency mode to thwart major Chinese offensives along the LAC by training and maintaining offensive guerilla forces. A tall order in a thinly populated Tibet which calls for developing and adopting offensive hybrid warfare capabilities. This is recommended to work in tandem with the grab for grab strategy.

NSA Shivshanker Menon described the report as a “timely, positive text which was not a weeping whining catalogue” and felt it had rightly treated non-alignment as a strategy not an ideology. It broadened the definition of national goals, values and interests, defying the increasing tendency to define interests in terms of straight forward selfish goals. “This leads to the question what kind of power India wishes to be?” he said while wishing for more clarity and deeper explanation instead of “tantalising references.”

The report lays out that “Our strategy should be to ‘hold the line’ in the north on the Sino-Indian land frontier, but maintain and, if possible, enlarge India’s current edge in the maritime south. This strategy takes into account both the superiority of current Chinese deployments and posture on the land boundary, and the unlikelihood of the border issue being resolved in the near future”.

The initiative is being called Non Alignment 2.0 and asymmetric. The very term ‘non alignment’ seemed to make all the NSA’s present at the presentation uneasy as they either sought to distance themselves from the document, or actually trashed it as impractical. This is not surprising as in this  interdependent geopolitical world non alignment can only mean isolation and greater despair against an adversary whose hard and  smart power far outweighs India’s. In a situation where the world is no longer bifurcated between two dominant powers, nonalignment today will require managing complicated coalitions and opportunities in an environment that is not structurally settled, the report say. But former NSA Brajesh Mishra, who spoke at the launch, questioned the approach of the report, especially its view that India not take sides in the rivalry between China and the U.S. China’s approach was that of the Middle Kingdom, it wants to be number one, and India’s priority should be to build a closer partnership with Washington. It was therefore not a surprise that the current NSA Shiv Shankar Menon to a lesser extent, and the two former NSA’s M.K.Narayanan and Brajesh Mishra had deep reservations about the document.

The report rightly articulates that India  can’t match  China’s hard power bean for bean but the asymmetric suggestions are attritional and do not fall in the realm of use of smart hybrid power to subdue a numerically and qualitatively superior foe.

Asymmetry would therefore  have to be developed along disruptive strategies in Information, space and cyber domains as an essential component of an anti access area denial strategy which makes it difficult for China to amass troops  in Tibet or the Indian Ocean without complete transparency advantage to India. This would have to be supplemented by long-range vectors  to prevent China from building fire  power and combat forces in the border and maritime regions. The strategy proposed again talks only of matching force with force (grab for grab) which is likely to be counter productive unless suitably augmented by true conventional muscle and asymmetric capabilities.

The second proposal is more dangerous in its current avatar. To discard border regions as “no man’s land” means  India pushing physically to occupy those areas where there are perceptual differences between the two sides. This is an open call to arms, especially when India lacks sufficient forces and infrastructure in these extreme heights to sustain and maintain its forces  while the same is available to China. This suggestion invites belligerence from China and given the hard power disparity may reverse the status quo to India’s disadvantage unless India ramps up adequate infrastructure and builds redundancies  along the entire 4000 odd Kilometers of border with China. This part of the strategy calls for military adventurism shunning smart power strategies and would be counter productive. Plain rhetoric won’t do – long-term investment in infrastructure development and force capabilities would. India today stands dwarfed in both these fields.

When viewed in perspective of China being gifted Gilgit Baltistan on a 50 years lease by Pakistan, it adds a kind of collusivity to the  military domain which would call for smarter and more credible means to defeat China and Pakistan together. As per a recent stratfor report the threat would manifest  if Chinese forces entered Pakistan in large numbers. Something that seems to be taking shape.

Purely from the land warfare strategy perspective the suggestions offered in the study are belligerent and serve no purpose except upping  the ante relegating the so-called strategy  to another eye-catching gimmick in an environment where brute proactivity is being touted as valour. Without suitably augmented true asymmetrical capabilities the strategy would remain asymmetrical only on paper.

The last aspect of the strategy is no different. “India should build a strong navy to outdo China in the Indian Ocean. China in contrast has many physical and political constraints in developing a credible naval presence in the Indian Ocean, even as its economic dependence on the littoral grows. For Delhi, this means devoting more budgetary resources to naval expansion, a purposeful national maritime strategy, and above all a more imaginative strategy towards China”.

That is no strategy but a statement of fact. Here again bean for bean China does better by its large submarine fleet  and missile systems to deter any Indian naval  warfare strategy. China may not have an aircraft carrier and it may be possible to check them in the Indian Ocean but not without India developing a strong nuclear submarine force and an air arm that negates the string of pearls in a future conflict.

In sum, the report warrants deeper scrutiny and does not take  into account realities on ground which would mandate development of suitable asymmetric capabilities against China before embarking on such misadventures where the country repeats Pandit Nehru’s follies.

Sun Tzu, Chanakya, Clausewitz and Zomini, the great military strategists have all argued that military strategies should aim to speak softly while carrying a big stick. If you do not have a big stick and talk loudly you definitely are making the wrong strategic choices.

The best military strategies flow out of sound long-term political and economic strategies. India needs to shore up more of these and without much song and dance.

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