A Two Front War Was Never On the Cards

We don't know what China's Central Military Commission is thinking, but we know the Chinese language media is generally making less noise than the Indian media about the clash in Ladakh.

During the recent few weeks, as the Chinese military appeared to be escalating their aggressiveness beyond Galwan to Pangong Tso, some writers have been apprehensive that continued escalation could reach a state of general war on two fronts. That while India is being pressed by China, Pakistan would seize the opportunity to attack Kashmir. There are, however, a huge number of reasons why this escalating two front scenario is logically untenable.

Once again, the ‘two front’ theorists have fallen into the trap of pure Clausewitzian thinking, while the Chinese are wedded to their own Sun Tzu. Between these two master strategists, there is a wide, unbridgeable gap, so large, that the list of books, theses and scholarly articles devoted to the difference runs into several pages. Clausewitz was a German who grew up watching and participating in the Napoleonic wars, which military analysts know represented a new form of warfare for Europe in the early 19th century. Napoleon for the first time mobilised the entire state and its industry for war and recruited huge citizen armies, fired by revolutionary zeal.

Clausewitz  naturally wrote about what the winning side opted to do (in this case, Napoleon) and prescribed the method for a massive application of force. Simultaneously, Clausewitz was the contemporary of two brilliant aristocrat-diplomats in Talleyrand and Metternich, who led the diplomatic negotiation from which evolved the political objectives of fighting. Clausewitz wrote only about the method of fighting, and his theories, amplified by Jomini and Liddel Hart forms the basis of teaching military strategy in Indian war colleges. Hence, war was supposed to happen only after the diplomats finished.

There is no military strategic thinking as far removed from Clauzewitz  as what the PLA practices, inspired by Sun Tzu. The PLA follows Sun Tzu’s most famous dictum, which is – the finest victories are achieved without fighting. There are a number of other dictums that the PLA take seriously. War, for the PLA is a long competition in which military pressure is a prelude to negotiation. Those negotiations are conducted by the military commanders with no role for the diplomats. Escalation doesn’t take place, because the twin Chinese precursors of fighting and talking breaks the enemy’s morale and the will to fight. Thereby, the enemy gives up and the war is won without Clausewitz’s massive application of force. Such is the Chinese military thinking.

The Indian armed forces have learnt from the PLA and taken to negotiation at army commander, division and brigade levels. The ministry of external affairs, which has been sidelined – just as the Beijing foreign office has been – is still stuck trying to play Grand Strategy. But the Indian Foreign Service does not anchor its diplomatic strategy on any known icon. Having had non-alignment thrust upon it by the overwhelming personality of Jawaharlal Nehru, the service has not brainstormed its path to any new concept. Many military officers have queried their diplomatic colleagues, particularly at the National Defence College, about who their inspirational figures were. The answers were truly disappointing.

In the last two decades, only one public document on diplomacy has emerged from deliberations of which National Security Council officials were a part – Non-alignment 2.0. Recently, the redoubtable external affairs minister has published a book on foreign policy, seeking inspiration from the Mahabharata. It is a valiant attempt, but unconvincing. In the absence of any mid-career training for diplomats at any government institution, there is no location for the foreign service to think out doctrine or strategy – not even to make an assessment of Sun Tzu who so dominates Chinese military thinking.

So, while warning notes are being sounded in India of the dangers of stumbling into a two front war with China and Pakistan, what are the Chinese saying? We might never know what their Central Military Commission is thinking, but we know what the Chinese language media is summarising. The Chinese media is generally making less noise than the Indian media about the clash in Ladakh. Some authors have commented to say that since Beijing has occupied ‘most’ of Aksai Chin, there is no advantage to be gained by pressing India in the ‘West’. Yet others have advised against pushing India into the arms of a waiting US, which after all is the main competitor. There have even been suggestions that it is unwise to open a front in the ‘west’ when China is engaged in the east.

In fact, this is the mirror image of a two front war for both China and India. A few have actually stated that an India-US alliance could be a threat to China’s oil imports, presumably in the Indian Ocean. So it would seem that if the opinion of the CMC is reflected in Chinese public debate, both countries are wary of an escalation to a two front war.

Lastly, the likelihood of Pakistan attacking India – even an India engaged in the Northern border – is very remote. In war games with Pakistan with Pakistani participants, Islamabad has seemed more concerned with the nuclear threshold in a defensive war with India, and the quandary of dealing with India’s superior Navy and Air Force. But in summary, the strongest argument against Chinese escalation is Beijing’s own military doctrine inspired by Sun Tzu, who has another dictum – a protracted war benefits neither side.

Admiral Raja Menon was a career officer and a submarine specialist in the Indian Navy. He commanded seven ships and submarines before retiring in 1994 as assistant chief of naval staff (operations).