Limited wars are more than a bilateral duel.
Short wars in the peripheries are linked to the global political economy. Many scholars of strategy, especially in small and medium countries, tend to ignore the global context in which limited wars in the peripheries are fought. These wars have a larger political purpose, which is determined by the power at the centre of global affairs. Limited understanding of limited wars leads to flawed strategic conclusions.
Based on flawed conclusions drawn from the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a reputed defence journalist in his recent article in the Business Standard has nonchalantly compared the current trajectory in India-China relations to that of Arab-Israel ties in the late 1960s.
He argues that Israel came to the table because it was made to taste the combined military power of the Arabs. He further suggests that India must emulate Egyptian actions in the Yom Kippur war, disregard the existing power asymmetry with China and initiate a surgical strike against it, even if the prospects of defeat are high.
Unlike the Egypt-Israel relations in the early 1970s, the current India-China equation is not beyond redemption. Employing “forward policy” or surgical strikes to solve the cartographic dispute is as undesirable as it was in 1962.
India doesn’t need a war to bring Beijing to the table. The India-China diplomatic channels are wide open. Recently the defence ministers of the two countries met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing border issue.
It is a mistake to imagine that Yom Kippur was the brainchild of Anwar el-Sadat and was carried out in absolute secrecy. There were enough intelligence reports of action by Egypt-Syrian forces but both US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and as well Prime Minister Golda Meir ignored them and decided to play a defensive game.
Israel lost one-fifth of its airforce, yet it emerged victorious. It defeated the Arabs for one more time and increased its territorial holdings in the Golan Heights.
Egypt was mollycoddled and Syria was badly defeated. The latter felt cheated because of the unexpected Egyptian-Israeli ceasefire and the peace accord which followed. More importantly, war splintered the Arab unity and provided a greater sense of security to the Zionist regime.
The war helped Anwar el-Sadat consolidate his political position. After all, the rise of Sadat was a by-product of the Six Day War of 1967, which was as disastrous for Gamal Abdel Nasser as the India-China war of 1962 was for Jawaharlal Nehru. Naseer died in 1970 and Anwar Sadat took-over the reins of Egypt.
Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sadat was also the darling of the United States. He undertook the de-Naseerisation and de-Sovietisation of Egyptian politics and polity. One more benefit that accrued to Egypt was the reopening of the Suez Canal and the associated revenue stream that had been closed for eight-long-years.
The US too extracted its pound of flesh from the war. In the post war scenario, Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” won him plaudits and he was hailed by the Arabs as a “superman” and “mediator of peace”. He used both the war and peace to “rebuild America’s strategic position in a critical part of the world, gently elbowing Russia out of her prewar pre‐eminence in the middle east region”.
The peace plan was also necessitated by the fact that in the 1970s there was an oil crisis in the world and Suez Canal, the main maritime thoroughfare connecting the Mediterranean and the Red seas, was closed.
It was imperative to open it to prevent the global economic crisis from escalating. On June 5, 1967, at the beginning of the Six Day War, Egypt closed the Suez canal, which reopened on June 5, 1975. The disruption of a shipping chokepoint led to a sudden surge in shipping rates, insurance premiums and operating costs rates as oil tankers from Asia to Europe had to take a longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.
However, the supertanker business, boomed in the wake of Suez crisis. There was a sudden upswing in the demand for 200,000 tons and more ships that could not use the Suez Canal but were suitable to ply on the longer route around the African coast.
The supertanker growth was reflected in the Forbes first list of richest Americans published in 1982, the top spot was occupied by Daniel Keith Ludwig, a shipping magnate and the producer of supertankers.
The above narrative informs us that, like the majority of limited wars, the Yom Kippur war too was not an isolated event. It was very much a part of the larger Cold War politics and also dictated by the needs redefining of the postwar economic and financial order by the United States in the 1970s.
Currently, when the US is employing a strategy of pressuring China from all quarters, should Modi act like Sadat and become a part of the American grand strategy in the region? Sadat still had the opening of the Suez Canal to gain, India would gain nothing by occupying a few kilometres of land where not even a “single blade of grass grows”.
The current India-China conundrum has to be solved peacefully and diplomatically. Some surgical strikes against China using the “Two-Two” Tibetan fighters may appease America, and allow our political leadership to indulge in some chest-thumping in the midst of chronic economic crisis. But, in the long run, such a policy will be counter-productive. We will only end up spending more on armament without gaining an inch.
War with China will increase our economic vulnerabilities and make us more dependent on the US both for arms and economic well-being. Let us not forget that one of the outcomes of the 1962 war was the 1966 financial crisis, which eventually led to the devaluation of rupee on June 6, 1966, on the advice and assurances of a loan by the World Bank.
The lesson that India needs to learn from the Six-Day war of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War is not to give the US an opportunity to manipulate the Indian security establishment’s penchant for surgical solutions to achieve Washington’s strategic goals vis-a-vis China.
Atul Bhardwaj is a former naval officer and currently an honorary research fellow at the Department of International Politics, City, University of London.