Under Modi, India’s China Strategy Has Gone From Strategic Proactivism to Docility


Rajnath Singh has caught the ‘no war’ bug. He recently said, “India has always been against war. It is our policy… We do not believe in war, but if it is forced upon us, we will fight. We are ensuring that the nation is protected from all threats. Our armed forces are ready….”

As defence minister for Narendra Modi, he has little choice. Modi’s phrasing, cherry-picked by the West for its ends, was suitably highfaluting, “Today’s era not of war.”

Modi was only following the advice of his national security adviser. Ajit Doval had underplayed war as a national security strategy option. To him, war popularly visualised as a clash of arms was unaffordable. War today is subversion of civil society. War was not quite passé as much as waged differently.

A former army chief, General M.M. Naravane, more aware of an energetically fought and ongoing war in Eurasia, the Ukraine War, disagrees, saying, “a conventional war could happen. And, we have to be operationally prepared for it. [Emphasis supplied]”

That he was not styled chief of defence staff – though a front runner – shows up the dissonance within the national security establishment on war: whether it is waged only when thrust on one or helps enlarge options for strategic choice.

Curiously, war continues to be seen as a policy choice in respect of Pakistan. Discerning the dangers, an observer of military affairs calls on Modi to ‘pay heed to his own words’ to Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing, “That mantra applies as much to South Asia as it does to Europe. Indians cannot afford the social, economic and human costs of a war.”

His alarm was prompted by India’s cover-up of its China predicament through diversionary bombast over Pakistan. Rajnath Singh, echoing cabinet colleague Amit Shah, had said, “We have only just begun walking north… (to) the remaining parts (of PoK), Gilgit and Baltistan.”

The Army for its part dutifully said it would oblige its minister when ordered to do so. But that it put two of its top brass in the northern theatre to the task suggests greater rhetorical enthusiasm than warranted.

This shows up war is only a threat to be bandied about cavalierly. The good part is that war itself is not taken cavalierly.

But ruling out war itself – as Rajnath Singh does – is a bit of a stretch, suggestive of appeasement of China assuring it that “we will go this far and no further,” when instead we could well keep it on tenterhooks on what we could militarily do next.

Under Modi, India’s China Strategy Has Gone From Strategic Proactivism to Docility

FILE: Army trucks move towards the LAC in eastern Ladakh, amid the prolonged India-China stand off, September 12, 2020. Photo: PTI

The debate over strategy

Aspirants for the defence and strategic studies paper of the University Grants Commission National Eligibility Test are aware of Walter Lippmann’s famous definition dating back to 1943:

“A nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war and is able if challenged to maintain them by war.”

Territorial integrity once fit the bill as a legitimate interest for going to war over. Even the UN Charter is permissive of this under its exception clause of self-defence.

However, territory has to be gauged in relation to a hierarchy of needs, economic security being one such. If economic interests are jeopardised by war, it is relegated as a policy choice. Other policy choices that efficaciously meet security then come to the foreground.

This appears to be the case with India. Though its territorial integrity stands challenged, the economic consequence of war – albeit a limited one – appears to preclude resorting to it. India’s ambitions for 2047 could suffer a setback in case of war. Therefore, India has taken to other ‘ways and means’ to cope with the challenge posed by China.

The critique has it that though the challenge is manifest territorially, it is wider. A commentator styles it as detracting from India’s credibility as a rising power bidding to take up a pole position in the international order. He tempers his recommendation for a nuanced military counter with advocacy that “India seriously consider negotiating an interim, if not permanent, settlement based on the 1959 Claim Line and the McMahon Line.”

Though an essentially political challenge, the military aspect to it should not be wished away, as peremptorily as Rajnath Singh has. A military arrowless quiver can only accentuate the political challenge. The inability to stand up for territorial integrity has reputational costs for a rising power.

So, stowing away the military card even momentarily as India gets its military act together is at a price. This price has to be weighed against the economic costs, and the costs China pays in militarily taking on – or avoiding – an Indian military backlash. A balanced strategy will then emerge, with the military prong holding its own – which is currently not the case.

A skewed strategy

A local government representative in Ladakh has this to say, “Buffer zones were created out of our land only. China has not lost anything at all.” He lamented, “(A)lmost all our winter grazing areas now fall under newly agreed buffer zones.”

The official perhaps could do with some comforting words from the director ‘general’ (DG) of ‘the country’s foremost think tank’ reporting to Rajnath Singh. The DG lets on that India has earlier folded up repeatedly in face of Chinese salami slicing.

He cites the pulling back of two posts in 1995 by India at the Hathungla-Lungrola ridgeline and inaction by the then government at Chinese encroachment of Longju in Upper Subansiri in 1959 as precedence for Indian vacation of buffer zones in Ladakh. He takes umbrage at exception being taken now of the newly created buffer zones.

He thus concedes that India has traded a vital national interest, but maintains that the ‘political will’ of Narendra Modi and the Indian Army’s ‘determination to block Chinese patrols’ shows that this was not war avoidance but part of a holistic strategy. Apparently, “Prime Minister Modi’s endeavour to engage China has been in keeping with India’s broader world vision of good neighbourly and peaceful ties, and inclusive growth.”

In other words, territorial integrity as a national interest is placed lower in order of precedence and is to be secured by means other than war: inducing good neighbourly relations in China through model practice of the same by India.

Even so, the DG is sceptical, concluding with a caution that China has a contrary aim, “to build a China-centric hierarchy with scant regard for notions of equality and multipolarity.”

If the “Modi government has failed to move them (Chinese) militarily or diplomatically,” then India’s national security is compromised.

Not only are we avoiding war to defend a national interest in territorial integrity, but our choice of strategy to do so – fighting Chinese patrols with sticks and stones while bringing China around by being a goody neighbour – is unlikely to work.

The contest is in China’s pressure that we subordinate to its vision of a hierarchical global order, with Chinese pre-eminence in Asia and our concern with the lack of Chinese empathy with our sense of agency.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters/Files

Unfolding the strategy

We have registered Chinese concerns. All we wish is its acknowledgement of our constituting a pole in the world order, one that does not seek to upset the Chinese apple cart by aligning with its bugbear, the West.

The timely outbreak of the Ukraine War helped sidling in with China. Our voting record in the Security Council over the last year was to convey to China the plausibility of multipolarity with India as a constituent pole in its own right.

We abstained on questions on the most egregious Charter violations, even at the cost of our moral authority to claim a permanent Security Council seat (similar lack in the veto holders notwithstanding).

Mindful of the Chinese frowning, India has sabotaged the Indo-Pacific construct by keeping away from its military dimension originally sought to be built into it. India has reiterated the strategic autonomy mantra and pushes for multipolarity, most recently in the UN as the final act of its Security Council presidential tenure as a T10.

Further, ‘Vishwaguru’ India has a mind to imprint its cultural legacy on the West-designed international order, once upgraded post-Ukraine War. Not only the largest but the oldest (if discontinuous) democracy, India won’t be dictated to.

Decolonisation is not only from colonised mindspace, but also from post-colonial imprint of the West over the current-day world order. China, monitoring such discourse, cannot have cause to worry since India is now in the same authoritarian boat with it.

Ill-effects of Modi’s demonetisation decision (recently pronounced as legally valid, though a gutsy dissenter doubted its legitimacy) compelled not only war profiteering from the Ukraine War – understandably denied by Modi’s lead diplomat – but also continuing record-breaking levels of trade with China.

Concern over the trade imbalance was pragmatically wished away by an economist that we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face by getting into a trade war with China. Though deriding Nehru at every opportunity, we evidently buy the logic of ‘not a blade of grass’ by belittling territorial integrity in comparison to economic stability.

Information management – with even the legislature subject to it – has been used liberally by the executive ostensibly to prevent arousing nationalism and curtailing pragmatic policy choices. A lesson is learnt from Nehru’s ‘throw out the Chinese’ order, taken under political pressure from a nationalist pushback in case India appeared accommodative back then.

After the Yangtse incident, we put out a video of the previous autumn in which Sikh soldiers were seen getting the better of the Chinese, who it seems returned a year later to repay their pitai. Nationalism is well controlled by those who ride it.

The public perception is also being silently conditioned by a series of books that question the unilateral defining of Indian borders by Nehru. Once defined, there was nothing to concede when China came up with a trade-off proposal, east for west.

Such books and advocacy are not all by those from the Hindutva stable. Nehru’s legacy and colonial legacy are both in the sights of Hindutva. Thus, scope is built in for ‘give and take’, though – the time is not ripe – this has not been publicly acceded to as yet.

Strategy examined

A hold-up is the Chinese reopening of the Tawang tract issue, which appeared settled in the 2005 agreement on political parameters that spared settled communities from instability brought about by a pending final settlement.

It is apparent that this government has dropped the ball on this, though it had inherited – according to the recent book on India-China relations – a credible package of agreements to take forward from former special representative and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, a China expert.

The Chinese, rather than being problem-solving minded, would keep up the pressure, if only to keep India off balance indefinitely or, at least, until the issue of the succession of Dalai Lama is out of the way.

China is wary of India’s propensity towards the Western camp, brought about by external balancing efforts. It sees Indian military exercises with the US, such as one recently in the vicinity of disputed Barahoti, as an example. Such leaning began in the Manmohan Singh years and is what seemingly prompted China to renege on the preceding agreements in the first place.

China’s strategy to getting to be a superpower would involve reducing a two-front containment. It would like to defuse India fulfilling a purpose for competitor US like Ukraine did – and does – for it in tying Russia down.

A preventive war could have been ruled in but the way the Ukraine war has unfolded for Russia, China knows the US would grab the opportunity to use India to tie down and tire out China. When it has proxy Pakistan for doing its bidding if and when required to cut India to size, China may not itself exert in this direction.

In any case, India is not Ukraine. Recently, it air-launched a Brahmos missile, reputedly a nuclear-capable missile. Its nuclear-powered submarine conducted a nuclear ballistic missile launch test from underwater. The Agni V, with a range targeting the Chinese seaboard, had a second night-launch test by the user, the Strategic Forces Command.

China is unlikely to force – or be able to force – India to comply with a China-centric world order. It can at best remind India not to lend its strategic location as a rentier state for use against China.

It has gently tapped India in allegedly targeting the electrical grid in Mumbai and hacking the server of India’s leading medical facility in the national capital. Not having upped the ante in the North East, it appears to want to keep India restricted to ‘sticks and stones’, tiring out India’s army in border guarding duty.

AIIMS. Credit: PTI

Representative image of AIIMS, which was hit by a cyber attack that may have originated in China. Photo: PTI

Strategy judged

India is willing to play along. Strategically, India has broadcast an unwillingness to countenance war, unless thrust on it, even though saying so dilutes military deterrence.

It has already tied up its own army in knots, snipping the defence budget over the years. Election-minded, it is acting on ‘One Rank One Pension’, depleting defence monies. The dire economic situation is best captured in the atmanirbharta policy, which precludes purchases necessary to take on China. Not making up for the gap in quick time is a signal that India is not about to take up cudgels.

At the operational level is the bogey of theaterisation, sans any direction on how to go about and get to it, absent national security and defence strategies. At the tactical level, the army has been set to get on with integrated battle groups.

At the organisational level, Agniveers have been foisted on it, ensuring that it is capable only of defensive tasks. The performance of both the Russian and Ukrainian forces suggests that offensive tasks may be ruled out for an Agniveer predominant army.

As the army gets to be 50% Agniveer by early next decade, the debate of a century ago in Europe between the wars, captured by Elizabeth Kier’s work on military doctrine, will recur in the Indian context.

The French and German military arrived at different conclusions on the soldierly credibility of a conscript army. While the Germans went in for an offensive doctrine, the French settled for a defensive one. The French shifted from their touted Attaque à outrance doctrine of the Great War to a defensive one when the period of conscription was cut from two to one year.

The Agniveer imposition is already on the army. Currently, army subcultures are in a clash within on how to make the best of a bad bargain. That Agniveers inter-alia serve a purpose by broadcasting to China (and Pakistan) India’s quiescent intent must be included in the debate hereon.

Strategy next steps

India’s China policy thus makes sense. Its aim is to bring China round to accepting India as an independent pole, even if it is a China-influenced world order. It has deployed military, economic and diplomatic instruments towards this end.

Militarily, it has been prickly on the tactical level, while honing the strategic deterrent. It has signalled a lack of offensive intent at the operational level, to keep China from upping the ante.

It has been placatory towards China-proxy, Pakistan, forging and continuing a ceasefire. Through intelligence means it has assured Pakistan of being fair to the Kashmiris, by reverting to statehood and demographic protections in due course.

Diplomatically, it has played both sides of the emerging divide in the world order, so that China does not get paranoid.

Economically, it has kept up trade relations, covered up by its foreign minister repeatedly referring to enhanced ‘tensions’ precluding normalcy. He has kept secret what better indicator of normalcy he has in mind.

It is easy to understand the supersession of territorial integrity as a national security priority by economic security. Even by Lippmann’s logic, economic security compromised, losing territorial integrity is merely a matter of time.

War can constitute a setback that can take a generation to recover. War thus is not an option at the higher end of intensity. Strangely, that’s the level at which deterrent signalling is most apparent. Even low-intensity war cannot be countenanced easily in light of an escalatory impulse predicated on ‘face saving’ – a factor looming large in case of a ‘great power’.

The tactically timed release of visuals by the two sides of derring-do of respective side (eg. Sikh soldiers beating off a higher number of Chinese) shows apprehensions in both sides on this factor getting the better of good sense.

Non-kinetic methods lend themselves better to venting pressures. Even so, these are best avoided, not merely from the optics of two great powers reverting to the stone age.

The route ahead is to resolve matters relating to the border. India will not do so from a position of weakness. However, the search for a position of strength or advantage is endless.

What India has demonstrated so far militarily should be enough to put it on the track for substantive dialogue. Its army’s tactical showing, operational manoeuvre and logistics feat at high altitude enable Indian diplomacy to get on with its core task of problem-solving with a significant neighbour.

It shouldn’t take a localised, border war for that – the logical next step if the problem is left untended. Since not enough is known of the Yangtse fisticuffs, a bloody nose is not ruled out if the problem is not now kicked upstairs to the level at which it ought to be tackled.

India must initiate border discussions, and the alibi that the Chinese are liable to stretch these to keep India in the South Asian sandbox sounds increasingly like an alibi for diplomatic incapability or incomprehension.

Keeping an obedient army yoked through three winters in high altitude is easy. Political leadership demands more. Modi has begun well by walking up to Xi Jinping at dinner and shaking him by the hand at Bali.

Whereas NSA Ajit Doval is the special representative, he has squandered the gains handed down by his predecessor and therefore can be stood down from the high table.

A special envoy could take on the issue, reporting jointly to Jaishankar and Doval. Many China hands, both intelligence and diplomatic, have put out books lately, indicating India has a surfeit of talent that can be put to good use.

National security advisor Ajit Doval speaks during the inaugural India-Central Asia meeting of national security advisors and secretaries of security councils, in New Delhi, December 6, 2022. Photo: PTI

Looking for strategic impetus  

It is a fallacy in international relations that external predicates determine a nation’s foreign policy. Often as not, internal political factors are more significant. In India’s case, the internal constellation is favourable over the coming year.

India can make the most of its rotating chair of the G20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It has already called for a non-G20 summit, staking claim to being the voice of the Global South.

Modi will not waste this opportunity in his perpetual election-mode merry-go-round. He goes into national elections the following year on the back of the inauguration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.

Unless home minister Amit Shah fouls up or plays foul, Kashmir’s reversion to statehood after elections there could keep things dormant for now.

Meantime, the famed troll brigade of the ruling party can mould public perception to stepping back from Nehru’s folly on the border with China. With an almost-certain election victory in 2024 to buoy him (Bharat Jodo Yatra notwithstanding) and the ground prepared prior, Modi can afford to invest politically in mending fences with both China and Pakistan.

This is also in keeping with the Hindutva game plan for ‘New India’. India’s China strategy is best explained using the elephant in the room, Hindutva. Geopolitics and military balances are tools analysts use to avoid using the ‘H’ word.

Strategic proactivism in Modi’s first term was to set the regime apart from the preceding era. Strategic proactivism was rudely exposed on both fronts as short on substance but fetched the desired electoral dividend.

It enables another strategic shift from a position of strength, this time to strategic docility. This term better defines Modi’s showing in his second term but is missed in the war of narratives.

Hindutva in the consolidation stage needs a period of stability. Peaceable relations with neighbours help with that. Strategic docility moderates the security dilemma induced in neighbours. They then do not need to instigate a like dilemma in India, thus allowing India to get on with the flagship internal project, Hindutva.

Ali Ahmed is a strategic analyst.

This article was originally published on the author’s Substack.



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