The Tawang Clash Is a Precursor to What Lies Ahead – War and Peace on China's Terms

Neither the Indian government nor the military has any comprehension of the worst that will happen – it’s no longer a question of if, but when.

The recent clash in Tawang is a firm message from China that it believes India is deliberately and wilfully ignoring its political and military red lines, delineated very clearly by Beijing in recent times. And that the consequence of this would be war, which is increasingly becoming an inevitability. Yet, India continues to mistake the present grey-zone operations – where no shots are fired – by the PLA in Tawang and armed skirmishes as the worst that could happen. Neither the Indian government nor the military has any comprehension of the worst that will happen. It’s no longer a question of if, but when.

Following the acrimonious visit of US speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2021, China’s ambassador in India, Sun Weidong, asked India to reiterate its ‘one-China’ policy as 160 countries had apparently done  and which, according to him, is the basis of good India-China relations. India, however, took the view that there was “no need to reiterate our consistent policies”. In China’s eyes, this refusal may have been seen as   breaching its political red line.

Earlier, China had equated the Quadrilateral security dialogue or Quad – the grouping of India, Japan, the US and Australia – with AUKUS (the Australia, UK and US military alliance) as cliques to strengthen the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy and threaten China’s Maritime Silk Road (part of its Belt and Road Initiative) which runs along the traditional sea lines of communications. However symbolic, India joined the Quad navies for an advanced Malabar naval exercise in the Sea of Japan in November to ensure status quo in the western Pacific. Besides, in a show of muscle, India, ignoring China’s displeasure, did the ‘Yudh Abhyas 2022’ armies exercise with the US within 100 km of the Line of Actual Control, which China said violated the spirit of the bilateral 1993 and 1996 agreements. There are numerous other instances of the Chinese side objecting to various actions by the Indian government, many of them symbolic and aimed at portraying Narendra Modi as a strong leader.

Meanwhile, having signed the US military’s four foundation agreements, India in April 2022 was ready to do sea (combat) patrols in a joint and coordinated manner with the US and its allies’ navies as part of US defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy against the PLA in the Indo-Pacific region. These are likely to commence soon.

An integrated deterrence strategy has two elements: One, to develop interoperability by commonality of equipment and advanced military exercises. This is underway. And two, to ensure software connectivity for uninhibited data (real-time information) flow within participating nations comprising the allies and their strategic partner, India.

Given the PLA’s impressive cyber and electro-magnetic spectrum (which includes manoeuvre within the spectrum and electronic warfare fires) domain capabilities, the US’s military’s battle networks (comprising sensors, shooters and software medium for automated information flow between them) are no longer impregnable. While cyberattacks destroy data passing through cyberspace, electronic warfare fires are meant to destroy or decapitate software waves which transmit data.

With battle networks no longer fully reliable, the US military is replacing them with cloud (with servers, database, software, virtual storage and networking) which, not totally cyber hardened, is relatively safer. As a part of this, the Pentagon has planned a tactical cloud pilot project called Outside Continental United States (OCONUS) for the western Pacific in 2023. Since the Indian Navy has done an exercise in the Sea of Japan, it will likely be a part of the OCONUS cloud.

What does India get from all this? Piggybacking on the US military, the Modi government hopes to become a primary power in its region, finally de-hyphenating from Pakistan, and able to compete with China in South Asia. This fantastical vision is predicated on the basis that the Indian military is strong enough to not allow a repeat of 1962 in the Himalayas. Modi’s unsaid national security strategy should be understood by his three statements:

1. ‘The era of (state on state) war is over.’ He said this when the Ukraine war is going on. And when the US,  finally giving up on its strategic detour of fighting terrorism for 20 years (2001 to 2021 when US military left Afghanistan), has in its 2022 National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy identified China has its sole geopolitical competitor with intent, will and capabilities to reshape the world order. Disregarding all this, Modi’s exceptional statement is a belief that China will not go to war with an India which is globally respected.

2. Modi’s declaration of June 19, 2020, when he accepted China’s occupation of Indian territory (about 2,000 square kilometres) without firing a shot. Read in conjunction with the earlier point, it implies that China will not go to war with India: a de-facto ally of the US.

3. Modi’s 2014 address to the combined commanders conference, where he said that while the threat was known (Pakistan), the enemy was invisible (terrorists). Thus, while the Indian military continues to hold the LAC indefinitely, its focus should be on counter-terror operations (an approach, incidentally, which plays into providing political support for the ruling party).

Xi’s third term

At the end of the 20th party congress, general secretary Xi Jinping exhorted the PLA to focus, in addition to realistic combat training, on two areas. The first is to have a ‘powerful strategic deterrent system’. The new concept extends to cyber and space warfare besides the traditional nuclear weapons capabilities. Deterrence comprises two elements: military power and political determination. Thus, if deterrence fails, the PLA should be able to fight in cyber, space and nuclear weapons domains. This implies simultaneous combat in the designated battlespace (combat zone) and whole-of-nation (war zone) where cyber and counter space capabilities will bring normal life to standstill.

The recent cyberattacks on AIIMS servers, if indeed executed by hackers in China as many suspect, could be meant for technical reconnaissance to help build necessary software countervalue (strategic civilian) cyber weapons. Since sudden chaos in civilian life will impact on the political leadership the most, it could lead to cognitive defeat of India ending the war on Chinese terms. This will be in sync with Sun Tzu thinking that ‘victorious warriors win first and then go to war’.

The other area highlighted by Xi for the PLA was to ‘win regional wars’. China has two regional wars to fight and win for reunification of its claimed territory, Taiwan and Tibet. China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet and where it has even given Mandarin names to 15 places. In revised timelines for the PLA in 2020, three milestones were laid down by the central party leadership: 2027 (the centenary year of the PLA); 2035 (when the PLA hopes to modernise and compete with the US military across the entire Asia Pacific region); and 2049 (when it hopes to become a world class military power).

I have argued in my recent book The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China, that 2027 is an important timeline for the PLA when it hopes to compete with the US military in the entire western Pacific region. Given the Modi government’s ignorance about new technologies, its arrogance and it being the weakest link in the US’s integrated deterrence, for China, the road to Taiwan goes through Tibet. It would involve defeating India in a swift, decisive war with minimal casualties to its own side.

Sceptical military analysts have said that my talk of PLA using Artificial Intelligence in warfare is futuristic and should not worry Indian military planners. They are wrong. As explained above, the US military is shifting to OCONUS tactical cloud because of PLA’s humongous cyber, electronic warfare and counter space capabilities. Without regular data and information flow, the war with be lost. This is precisely what the PLA will do to the Indian military by fighting to its strength.

In addition to these virtual domain capabilities, the PLA has the largest inventory of missiles in the world. Chinese are good in rocket engines and microelectronics needed for land and air to air missiles which will blow up Indian command centres, air force bases and so on. Without communication, and command and control, war will be over in 72 hours; another shock and awe like the 1991 Gulf War that US fought with Iraq. An added benefit for the PLA will be to have the first-mover advantage in an AI-backed war against the US military.

Given China’s single-minded focus on its objectives, the clash in Tawang should be seen as a precursor to what lies ahead – war and peace on Chinese terms.

Pravin Sawhney is roving editor, Force newsmagazine.